torch, flambeau@strangeplaces.net
March 2014 - April 2015

Disclaimer: I really, truly meant for this to be a PWP. Things got away from me a bit. Do not archive without permission.

one thing after another (and time for all the works and days of hands)

Varel shifted against the sheets, then shifted again. He punched the pillow and moved up, and grimaced when he did. His arm throbbed. Which was only to be expected, of course, since there'd been a crossbow bolt through it not all that many hours before. He was too much of an old campaigner to be surprised by the pain -- not the immediate punch that was almost too sharp and sudden to be understood, and not this lingering ache, low and persistent.

That didn't mean he had to like it, though.

At least he was in his own bed, not a cot in the infirmary. The Vigil's infirmary was quite a pleasant place these days, clean-scrubbed and with white-washed walls, well lit by large windows, but it also contained a very talkative mage who was happy to share his opinions on everything while cutting up elfroot in a rather lackadaisical manner.

Anders had been particularly eager to share his opinions on the warden-commander. "And it seems someone told him it was important to keep the roads safe," he'd said, waving his knife in the air. "So of course he thinks that means that he personally has to keep the roads safe. Every single one of them."

Varel's faint interjection, "But we have patrols," might as well have remained unspoken.

"Honestly, I've been up and down every miserable little byway in the entire arling, and do you want to know something, seneschal?" Anders attacked the elfroot with renewed vigor. "They all have bandits on them! Or darkspawn. Or wolves. Or angry dwarves. We never did find out what the dwarves were so angry about, they just attacked out of nowhere, grar. Is that normal? I thought dwarves were friendlier." He sniffed. "Maybe I can ask Sigrun about it. Or Oghren, but I bet he'll just fart at me."

Of course, Varel knew that if anyone could take care of himself, it was the warden-commander. He might be an elf, and a mage, and an Orlesian, of all things, and he looked to be barely out of his teens, but he was undoubtedly very competent. Was, in fact, the most overwhelmingly powerful primal mage Varel had ever seen, or heard tell of. All the same, when Anders started to say something about small but vicious dragonlings jumping them out of the blue, Varel might have been a little alarmed, but just then Nathaniel Howe had come to call Anders away, and as soon as the infirmary was empty, Varel left.

And here he was, comfortable in his own bed, or he would have been, if his arm had let him be comfortable anywhere. He had a small glass of brandy on the bedside table, and there was a soothing lack of blond mages with knives.

He couldn't stop thinking about the commander out on the roads of Amaranthine, being attacked by dragonlings. Because the commander, as Anders hadn't said but Varel was well aware, had the habit of going out on his own whenever he felt like it. Varel had always figured it was just a way to get away from talkative mages and surly Howes and drunken dwarves for a while, Maker knew a man might need that, but now he had a vision of a slim and unassuming figure in plain robes walking along, actively looking for trouble, and then there'd be a dragon...

Or at least a dragonling. Amaranthine had been home to dragons in times past; there were many stories about that. The idea that the dragons might be coming back was unwelcome, to say the least. The people of Amaranthine had enough other trouble to deal with, since the darkspawn were still ravaging the land even though the Blight was ended. The commander ought to give all his attention to the darkspawn menace, not go about looking for dragonlings to fight.

It sounded like reckless behavior, and Varel's impression of the commander was not an impression of a particularly reckless person. On the contrary, the commander appeared to be quiet, reserved, efficient, and pragmatic.

Then again, Varel was the first to admit that he didn't know the commander all that well. He would have been happy to say that it was because the commander hadn't been at the Vigil very long, which was true enough, but he suspected that it had more to do with the commander's personality. The commander wasn't the kind of person who showed his feelings easily, or shared anything about himself that wasn't obvious and public knowledge. Elf, mage, Orlesian: everyone knew that.

But Varel was the man's seneschal, and theoretically his right hand. He should know more. Looking down at his bandages, he thought he wasn't much of a right hand at the moment, not with his entire arm wrapped up in linen. Anders might have been a little too enthusiastic, there.

When he looked at the place of his injury, he thought he could see, still, the crossbow quarrel embedded in his flesh. He knew this impression would fade with time. The first time he'd taken a wound in battle, he'd spent weeks afterwards touching his shoulder, just to feel that he didn't actually have a sword stuck there. The pain had faded long before he could break himself of the gesture.

A knock on the door brought him back to the here and now. Varel frowned. No one would be coming to see him in his quarters at this hour, certainly not anyone who would knock. The servants knew he preferred his privacy once the door was closed, and he hadn't asked for anything to be brought to him. Garevel wouldn't knock, and would probably have started talking about something important-to-him at the other end of the hallway, so he'd be in mid-sentence when he stormed in. Woolsey wouldn't knock, either; the time she'd come in to find him undressed had been quite embarrassing for him, but not for her. She'd simply turned her back and announced her errand to the wall in a crisp voice, while he'd struggled with his shirt laces.

"Come," Varel called reluctantly, thinking if this was Anders about to scold him for leaving the infirmary, he'd get up just so he could throw the mage out.

But it wasn't. The door opened the merest crack, and the warden-commander slipped inside. Varel blinked at the unexpected sight. The commander was in his very plainest robes, and against the grey and tan, his copper hair fell loose about his shoulders and gleamed in the candlelight. He crossed the room with light steps and sat down on the side of Varel's bed, rather than in the chair a little distance away. Elyon Andras, Commander of the Grey in Ferelden and arl of all Amaranthine, knew how to make his presence felt, but a lot of the time, he kept that presence muted. Right then, he was just a straight-backed young elven man in a simple outfit, but Varel couldn't forget his titles or his authority.

"Thank you," the commander said. "You took a crossbow bolt meant for me. I am grateful."

"You said that before," Varel said, and then grimaced, because that was not a gracious way to respond to one's commander's honest gratitude. He was bewildered, though. "I mean, that's my job. To protect you. So I'm glad I could do it."

He was, too, despite the pain. Enough dark things had been done by Amaranthine soldiers in Rendon Howe's name; maybe a bit of untainted loyalty to this unlikely new arl would at least begin to make up for it.

A smile passed over the commander's face, as fast as the crossbow bolt had been. Most of the time he looked very serious; Varel could count on one hand the number of smiles he'd had from the man. He wished this one could have been for something he'd actually meant to be amusing.

"I am grateful," the commander said. "But I wish you would remember that I can take care of myself." He had the faintest possible accent, more like an undertone in his voice than anything else, but when he spoke more emphatically about something, that undertone was more pronounced.

So to speak. Varel wondered if his wandering mind had just made a pun. Between the pain and the brandy, he had to admit he wasn't at his sharpest right then. That was probably the only explanation for why he went on to say, "Yes, commander, but you don't look it."

The commander grew a little more still, then moved again. When he tilted his head to the side, the point of one ear stuck out through his hair. "Surely a man your age must have worked with elves before," he said, his voice just a shade too even to sound entirely natural.

"That's not--" Varel tried to marshal his thoughts. "Commander, you don't wear armor, you're about half my size, and probably about half my age, too." Or less. Not that that had anything to do with, well, with anything. Really. "And you're my commanding officer. Of course I'll try to protect you."

That got him a considering gaze out of long, slightly tilted grey eyes. "The empress didn't send a child here, seneschal."

"No! No, that's not what I meant to imply." Varel figured he had just somehow managed to insult both his Orlesian commander and the empress of Orlais. His arm throbbed, as if to underscore the tactlessness. At least the empress wasn't here, but his commander was sitting on the edge of his bed looking a little tight-lipped. "I'm sorry, commander. I didn't mean to offend you. I'm an old campaigner, not a diplomat."

"And you're in pain," the commander said calmly. "Didn't Anders give you something for that?"

"Oh, he did," Varel said. "The healing itself did plenty. And he gave me some herbal drink to take later on if I felt any pain."

The commander looked at the bedside table, which held a candle and a jar of armor polish and the glass of brandy. "An invisible herbal drink, it would appear."

"Er." Varel shrugged, then flinched, because the shrug moved his arm a lot more than he'd planned, then tried to suppress a sound of pain at the flinch. He could probably have used the herbal drink right then. "To tell you the truth, commander," he got out between his teeth, "I don't like stuff that makes my head fuzzy."

The commander looked at the glass of brandy again, at Varel's face, and said nothing in a fairly pointed way. At least, Varel thought it was pointed. He wished the commander's face weren't so blighted hard to read. Maybe that was how people were trained to act in Orlais, at least in the empress's court. He remembered vividly the masks worn by Orlesian military commanders and nobility during their conquest of Ferelden; he knew masks were still the fashion in Orlais. Maybe making your face into just another mask was necessary to survive court politics. The commander's face was a very pretty mask, but that didn't make it any easier to interpret.

"Hold still, please," the commander said. A ball of warm green light danced in his upturned palm. Varel watched, fascinated, as the commander turned his hand and put it on Varel's aching arm, and that green light sank into him and spread out. At first it burned a little, like dipping his arm in too-hot water; then the heat became a soothing warmth, curling into the throbbing wrongness in his arm and taking it away.

"Thank you," he said hoarsely. He kept forgetting that the commander knew a bit of healing as well, and was just as powerful using that as he was using his more destructive magics.

"Anders did all the difficult work," the commander said absently, staring at Varel's arm with a tiny frown between his thin, straight brows, apparently seeing straight through the bandages. "But I thought I would speed things up a little for you."

A second wave of the same shade of green followed, not quite as sharp as the first. Its comforting warmth seemed to spread all through Varel's body, like an unexpected caress, and just as unexpectedly, he found himself responding in a way that really wasn't seemly, given their respective positions.

Varel squirmed a little and used his uninjured arm to adjust the bedding a bit, so that the blanket draped more loosely, and with any luck less revealingly, about his groin. This was an entirely new problem for him; he'd never grown hard from healing before, not even when he was younger and more easily stirred. He was very glad that he hadn't reacted like this to Anders's touch. Anders most definitely wasn't his type.

But the warden-commander, well. He shouldn't be Varel's type. Elyon Andras was very young, and very beautiful, and very much Varel's commander, and not a person he should have lustful thoughts about for a number of reasons, and most definitely a person he found extremely attractive. He tried to think about something else. "That's very kind of you, commander," he said, keeping his voice gruff, "but you really shouldn't squander your abilities on me. I'll be fine in a day or two, I promise you."

"I'll spend my power how I like," the commander said, sounding a bit more firm than usual, though still quite calm. "Healing is one of the very few things I can do with my magic that actually helps people. I enjoy doing it."

"I see," Varel said. He didn't see, though, not really. This skill at healing was useful, of course it was, but not the main reason why people would rather stand behind the commander than behind a stone wall in case the darkspawn attacked again. "But commander, all the other things you can do... You help people. Protect them."

Varel had known that since the first time he saw the new commander, slim form almost overshadowed by Anders's height and brash manner, poor Mhairi's armored strength, the sweep of Oghren's huge blade. Overshadowed until he smote the darkspawn with ice and lightning, seemingly blasting the sky wide open with the power leaping from his hands, and saved Varel's life.

"That's not a common view," the commander said. "People are more likely to fear what a mage can do, even if he should happen to be on their side." His eyes met Varel's, still unreadable. "Aren't you afraid I'll bring the roof down on our heads, or use blood magic to make you obey my every command?"

Varel chuckled. "If you brought the roof down on our heads, that would hurt you as much as me," he pointed out. "Master Voldrik would be furious, too. And you're my arl and commanding officer. I already do obey you."

"When it suits you," the commander said, but not in a tone of voice that made it a criticism. "I have to admit I'd as soon keep the roof where it belongs. Voldrik's finally a little happier with me after I found him some granite, and I'd prefer to keep it that way." He tugged down the sleeves of the robe about his wrists, and Varel watched the unnecessary gesture in some fascination. The commander never fidgeted. Then he looked up, and now his eyes were sharper than before, intent. "But if you have no fear of magic, why did my healing make you uncomfortable?"

"Oh, that!" Varel tried to laugh, but the sound stuck in his throat. "That was nothing, commander. Please don't concern yourself with it." The commander's eyes didn't release him. "I was just a little stiff from lying so still for too long." Then he wished he hadn't used the word stiff.

"So it had nothing to do with the magic, or a concern that I might lose control of it."

"No!" Varel said at once, but he could hear the falseness in his own voice. It had a lot to do with the magic, after all, although it wasn't the commander who he felt might lose control of anything.

Evidently the commander could hear it, too. Everything about him shut down, and Varel wondered how he could have thought the commander remote and expressionless before. Now he had an ice statue sitting on the edge of the bed. "I see." The commander gathered himself to rise. "I won't bother you again, seneschal."

"Wait," Varel said, putting a hand on the commander's arm and wincing, because apparently too-quick movements still hurt a bit, but he really didn't care. He'd made the commander look like that, and that was wrong. "I think you misunderstood me. Or, well, I lied to you. The thing is..."

The commander's eyes were still icy and distant, but he'd stopped moving. "Yes?" he said, barely inflecting the word enough to make it a question and tell Varel to continue.

And this was definitely embarrassing, but he couldn't let the commander walk out of here thinking that everyone in the arling was afraid of his magic. Maybe everyone else was, though Varel didn't think so -- Woolsey, for one, didn't appear to be afraid of anything whatsoever -- but the idea that Varel was could at least be exposed as a misunderstanding.

"I wasn't scared of your magic, commander," he said. "I just... reacted a bit strongly to it, you might say." Varel tried to keep a bluff, no-nonsense tone to his voice, the way he'd have spoken to another soldier, implying that his reaction wasn't that unusual. "Seems your healing is strong enough to encourage my body into thinking it's younger than it is. Especially some parts."

Now the commander's eyes on him were more thoughtful than anything else. "You're hardly ancient and decrepit," he said unexpectedly. "Not any part of you, I should think."

"Er," Varel said. He had no intention of discussing intimate matters, and their relationship to a man's age, with his commander. None at all. "Well, you know how it is when a man gets on a bit in years." He looked at the commander's beautiful young face. "Or I suppose you don't know."

"No," the commander agreed, "but I believe I'd like to know." Varel blinked. The commander put a hand on his arm again, a strong, slim hand with uncommonly well-kept nails. "Unless you object."

"I'm not certain I know what we're talking about, commander," Varel admitted. "Do you really want to make a study of how healing affects older men? No offense intended, but you have more important things to concern yourself with."

"Not older men in general, no." Cool grey eyes met his, and that hand stayed on his arm. "Just this man in particular."

This couldn't be what it sounded like, Varel thought. It just couldn't. The commander was entirely too young and beautiful and unapproachable. He also had a habit of being obscure and elliptical in his speech, leaving everything he said open to interpretation. Varel thought that was probably an Orlesian courtier thing, too. Another kind of mask. It must be important to them not to give too much away.

"You'll have to forgive me, commander," he said. "I'm a plain soldier and I like plain speech. What do you want of me?"

"To bring you a bit of relief," the commander said, "if you'll allow me." Another warm pulse of healing energy spread from his hand on Varel's arm out through Varel's entire body, making him feel younger and stronger than he had in years, truth be told. Harder, too. He probably needed another blanket now if he were to have any chance to hide his reaction. Several blankets. "How does that make you feel?"

"Like I need a bit of time alone," Varel gritted out. There was definitely no relief in having the commander so close. And now the commander took his hand away from Varel's arm again.

"Would you prefer that?" he asked, voice as flat and neutral as it could be. "I understand that some humans do, in fact, find elves unattractive. And many Fereldans find Orlesians loathsome."

"Are you." Varel cleared his throat. If one of them was going to speak plainly, it would clearly have to be him. It was probably useless to expect the commander to give up the habit of Orlesian obscurity. "Are you asking me if I find you attractive, commander?" No, he couldn't stop there, either. "Because I do. Very much so."

That made the commander's eyes meet his again, and this time Varel thought he was starting to learn how to read those tiny non-expressions. Surprise, that was it. Hard to believe that the commander would be surprised that anyone would find him attractive -- Varel would be more surprised, personally, if someone didn't -- but maybe the surprise was for the idea that it would be said bluntly and out loud.

Orlesians, Varel thought, exasperated and at the same time oddly fond. No doubt they'd have talked in circles around the matter for a few hours more.

"I'm pleased to hear that," the commander said. "You won't object, then, if I relieve your discomfort."

"Er, no?" Varel said, still not completely, entirely sure what this was leading up to, because it seemed so unlikely that--

The commander pulled the blanket and sheet away, leaving Varel exposed down to mid-thigh. His smallclothes did nothing to hide the state he was in. Varel had always been a big man, in every sense of the word. He was fully erect now, with all that green energy still tingling through him. Before he could think of anything else to say, the commander's hand was on him in a warm and steady grip, squeezing gently, as if to get the measure of him.

Varel groaned. So that really was what they'd been talking about, then. The commander's other hand deftly undid a side tie and pulled the smallclothes away, which meant the touch between them was skin on skin now, warm and intimate. The commander's hand was quite smooth, certainly free of the sword calluses that hardened Varel's own palms.

"Since you value plain speaking," the commander said, "I'll tell you there's something I've wanted to do for some time now. But you must let me know if you don't like it." With those words, he bent forward and licked a hot, wet swipe across the head of Varel's cock, then took it in his mouth. All Varel could see, lying very nearly flat as he was, was the back of the commander's head and its shining fall of copper hair, but he most definitely felt those sweet lips stretch around his girth, felt the tongue swirling, teasing and tasting, and he groaned again. Let the commander know if he didn't like it, would he? In a hundred years or so, perhaps.

"Maker, that's," he said incoherently. "Yes." The soft suction around the head was delicious, and the commander's hand kept on squeezing and stroking the shaft. Varel just wished he could see it. He dropped his head back against the pillow, closed his eyes, and pictured it in his mind instead: the commander's mouth open wide, lips and tongue working hard. "Oh, yes."

Then the commander, damn him, stopped. Varel looked down to see clear grey eyes, though his gaze was irresistibly drawn to the spit-shiny lips instead. "I'm sorry," the commander said, "did you mean yes, you're letting me know you don't like it?"

The commander was teasing him. Varel hadn't thought the commander was capable of such a thing. Then again, he'd never thought the commander would suck his cock, either. "No," he said. "No, that's not what I meant. I like it." He tried to look stern rather than pleasure-dazed and craving more. "You must know I like it."

"I just wanted to be certain," the commander said calmly, and then moved up onto the bed, kneeling astride Varel's legs without getting his robes either tangled up or bunched, which had to be a magic all its own. His hand had maintained the same firm grip, and now he lifted Varel's cock to stand straight up, and bent to take it in his mouth again.

And now, Varel could definitely see. He could see how the commander had to work to take him in, a trickle of saliva escaping to run hot down the shaft and meet the commander's pumping hand. He could see, when the commander pulled back a little, how the commander's tongue slicked the head in long swipes, licking up every early drop that spilled from his eager body. And he could see, when the commander pushed down again and tilted his head a little, how the head of his cock pushed against the commander's cheek from the inside. That sight in particular sent a jolt down his spine.

Varel was resigned to teeth, always had been, because there was no way anyone could suck him and keep their teeth completely out of the way, not if they had teeth. Which he certainly preferred his lovers to have. The occasional gentle graze, he thought, could be quite pleasurable.

The commander most assuredly had teeth; Varel had seen them, white and sharp and even. He could feel them, too, but not in a bad way. The steady suction of the commander's mouth was soft and wet and wonderful, taking Varel in deeper and deeper, until his cock pressed against the back of the commander's throat and the commander made a low choking sound. He didn't stop, though, just moved his head back a tiny bit and then did it again, pressing down and choking.

"Don't," Varel said, his voice a bit rusty, "I mean, you can't, and that angle, don't hurt yourself."

The commander pulled back. "I like it," he said, in that matter-of-fact way of his, and then went back to sucking. He didn't gag when Varel's cock hit the back of his throat again, just made that same little choking sound. Varel really didn't want to choke his partner, let alone choke his commander, but he wasn't the one doing it; the commander was in control, sucking steadily and taking Varel as deep into his mouth as possible, again and again.

It felt so good. It felt incredibly good. Varel couldn't take his eyes off the sight of his own cock steadied by the commander's long-fingered hand and disappearing into the commander's mouth, the way the commander's cheeks were hollowed out by the suction and his cheekbones stood out more markedly in contrast. The commander's own eyes were closed as he sucked, dark copper lashes trembling, and for some reason Varel found that sight almost unbearably enticing.

If he'd been a younger man, Varel knew, he'd have gone off already. At his age, though, the pleasure built more slowly and lasted longer. He could feel it gathering heavily in his hips, at the base of his spine, in his balls. Then the commander brought his free hand up to caress Varel's balls, rolling them against his smooth palm, and Varel groaned. He was resolved to keep still, to let everything happen at the commander's pace, but the tension that grew in his body had its own demands.

When the commander's tongue fluttered just right against the underside of his cock, Varel couldn't keep his eyes open any more, and his hips jerked up. He heard the commander choke again, but the grip on his shaft remained steady, the wonderful suction never let up, and release tore through him like the bursting of a dam. Varel spent himself in jerky, heavy pulses, while the commander swallowed and swallowed and swallowed.

The aftermath of that staggering pleasure left him weak and dazed, and Varel lay unmoving, feeling the commander's hands and mouth slow and gentle, and then finally release him. One last swift, warm touch -- did the commander really press his lips against the head of Varel's cock in the lightest of kisses? That seemed even more unbelievable, somehow, than what had just passed between them. Varel struggled to open his eyes again, but it wasn't until the commander's weight moved away and the blankets were pulled up and tucked around him that he managed it. There the commander was, standing at his bedside, hair and robes perfectly ordered, as always. But the commander's mouth... the lips were reddened, a little swollen, and as Varel watched, the commander's tongue darted out quickly, as if licking away a lingering taste.

"You should sleep now," the commander said, calm and colorless, as if he hadn't had Varel's cock in his mouth just moments ago. "Give the healing a chance to work."

"Yes, but commander," Varel said. This one-sided encounter didn't sit right with him. "I should, I mean, for you..."

The commander shook his head. "Sleep," he said again, and while his voice wasn't precisely cold, it was very firm. He went to the door. "You'll feel better tomorrow. Thank you again for what you did for me, seneschal."

Then he was gone, door closing behind him, and Varel blew out the deep breath he'd drawn to say something. If the commander had just sucked him to say thank you for saving his life, that was wrong. Even if it had felt spectacular. That didn't seem quite right, though, as an explanation. Nothing about the commander's cool, measured manner had ever suggested flirtation or the bartering of favors. Maybe they did these things differently in Orlais, but Varel couldn't believe it was that different.

He wanted to think more about the question, but he did feel fuzzy-headed and sleepy now, in a much more pleasant way than what either the brandy or any elfroot-heavy herbal drink could have done for him. Instead of the dull throb of pain from before, his body hummed with a low note of relaxation. Varel chuckled to himself in quiet disbelief. A beautiful young man had come into his room and sucked him off. That seemed more like an idle fantasy than anything else. The beautiful young man had been his undemonstrative and impassive commander: with that, the fantasy went from idle to implausible.

Yet it had happened. Implausible, but clearly not impossible. Varel knew, now, what the commander's lips and tongue felt like on his cock. He stretched out his uninjured arm and pinched out the candle. Quite how he'd look the commander in the face tomorrow, he had no idea, but for now, he'd better do as the man had told him, and sleep. And he wasn't going to dream about that sound the commander made with his mouth full of cock, either.

As it turned out, Varel didn't see the commander the next day. He woke up a couple of hours later than he usually would, feeling nothing more than a mild twinge, as if his wound had been days in the healing rather than just overnight, so of course he got up, and managed to get through most of his morning routine undisturbed. It wasn't until he was on his way to get breakfast that Anders caught him just outside the kitchens. "You were supposed to be resting quietly in the infirmary," the mage said accusingly. "This is not resting quietly. Or the infirmary, come to that."

"Don't like infirmaries much," Varel said. "I just came down here to get something to eat." He tried to edge around Anders. The mage was one of the few men in the keep who could nearly match Varel for height, but he was thin as a fence-rail, and really shouldn't need to take up as much space as he apparently did.

"Me too," Anders said cheerfully. "Something for me and something for Ser Pounce-a-Lot. I think the cook likes him better than me." He held the kitchen door open for Varel, and Varel stepped inside with Anders on his heels.

"Oh, it's you again, is it," Mistress Hansa the cook said. Varel was confused by her words at first, but she was looking at Anders, not at him, as sternly as she could manage. "Come to cadge more food? A bottomless pit, that's what you are."

"A Grey Warden, that's what I am," Anders said with an attempt at dignity. "I'll have you know it takes a lot more than just a crust of bread in the morning to fight darkspawn."

The cook snorted. "That was my best freshly-baked loaf!"

"A crust of delicious bread," Anders amended. "Really, it was excellent bread! You're the Amaranthine queen of bread-making! I'm just hungry again, I guess. All this wardening really takes it out of you."

"Tell that to the commander," the cook said. "He don't eat enough to keep a cat alive, and he's a Grey Warden, same as you."

Varel frowned, because that had been explained to him several times over: wardens needed a lot of food to fuel their bodies and keep the taint in check. It was worst right after the Joining, when new wardens seemed able to eat their own weight at every meal, but a warden kept a healthy appetite for the rest of his life. If the commander wasn't eating properly, something would have to be done about that.

"On the subject of keeping cats alive," Anders said, cocking his head to one side with a bright, ingratiating smile, "do you happen to have a tasty morsel or two laid aside for my adorable little kitty?"

"I might," the cook said. "And I'm not letting you have it. He knows to come down here for his food, same as you." She jabbed her ladle in their direction. "Now sit down, the pair of you, and I'll have the porridge ready for you in a minute."

"Porridge," Anders said, with a certain lack of enthusiasm. "Yum." He looked at Varel. "Well, things could be a lot worse. At the Pearl, they fed me the stale canapes that the customers didn't want the night before... Let me get a look at that arm of yours while we wait." He ruthlessly pushed Varel down on a chair and began to roll up the sleeve of his shirt. "At least you didn't put your armor on today."

"I hope I won't need it here with Mistress Hansa," Varel said. "She's unlikely to take a kitchen knife to me."

No matter how much better he felt, struggling with the heavy weight of the plate and mail on his own had seemed inadvisable, and he hadn't been able to think of anyone who would help him with no questions asked, rather than running to the infirmary and tattling to Anders instead. Everyone on the Vigil's staff was prone to at least consider their orders before obeying them, and most of the time, Varel thought that was just as well; he wanted people serving the wardens who could think for themselves, because anything could happen here, and likely they'd need to, at some point.

That was because of Rendon Howe, Varel knew that. Questioning Rendon Howe's orders had been a bad idea, but obeying them had turned out to be an even worse one, and everyone at the Vigil carried that knowledge with them. The new people were all just brightly confident that they would never have done those things, that they would never come to do any such things; the old people, the people who had been Howe's staff and soldiers, knew how easy it was, and had a different kind of resolve, grimmer but even more bone-deep certain.

Anders, having gotten the sleeve out of the way and the bandages off, stared in disbelief at Varel's arm. "You're not secretly a mage, are you? Because this looks as though you've been healing yourself all night."

"The commander stopped by last night," Varel said. "He did some healing." That certainly wasn't all the commander had done, not by a long shot, but he wasn't going to go into that now, not to Anders, and definitely not with Hansa listening.

"I'll say he did." Anders poked at Varel's arm with an elfroot-stained finger. "Well, I can't improve on this. Looks like you'll barely have a scar to boast of later. And this is where I saved the commander's life," he said in a gruff voice that was presumably an imitation of Varel, though it sounded a lot like his Oghren-voice, "only you can't see it because he fixed it to keep me from talking about it. But I did!"

"I was happy to be able to do it," Varel said. "I don't need a scar to show for it." He had enough of those, anyway.

Anders wrinkled his nose. "You really mean that, don't you. You're all loyal and devoted and earnest about it, too. I wish I understood what makes people--"

He was interrupted by the cook slapping down two porridge bowls in front of them. Varel's had a pat of butter on top. "Eat it while it's hot," she said.

"Hey!" Anders gestured to his own bowl. "How come I don't rate any butter?"

Mistress Hansa crossed her arms and sniffed. "The commander's a nice boy," she said, "even if he happens to be an Orlesian." She looked at Varel. "And the old arl never liked elves about the place, least not where he could see them, but I don't have nothing against them. You did a good thing yesterday, for him and for us all. Now eat up, both of you."

Varel knew better than to argue with that tone of voice, so he picked up his spoon and set to it. Anders muttered under his breath that he'd been there yesterday, too, and he didn't have anything against the commander, and he definitely didn't have a problem with the commander being either an elf or an Orlesian, and he didn't like butter on his porridge anyway. Then he started eating, too. At the other end of the table, Hansa started to cut up some of the early apples for pies, her wickedly sharp little knife flashing as fast as any rogue's.

Maybe it was the food, or maybe it was the morning that made him more clear-headed, but Varel found himself starting to think about yesterday's attack as he sat there. He wasn't entirely surprised that Bann Esmerelle had gathered discontented nobles to her cause, or even that she'd hired assassins, that they'd all made an attempt on the commander's life. Elf, mage, Orlesian. The commander wasn't likely to be popular with people who thought any one of those three was a good reason not to make someone arl of Amaranthine. And then there was the warden thing, too.

But what Varel hadn't given any real thought to before was what Bann Esmerelle had expected to be the result of a successful attack. Had she seen herself as the new arl? What would she have told King Alistair about the commander's death, to get him to confirm her in that position? It wasn't as though the arling would have been left leaderless. The king had made the arling over to the Grey Wardens. Even if the commander were killed, there'd still be a few wardens left at the Vigil.

One of them, Varel realized, Rendon Howe's son.

When Varel was scraping the last of the porridge from the bottom of his bowl, Garevel came into the kitchen with his hands full of papers. "There you are!" he said to Varel. "Look, I think there's something wrong with these recruitment records. Some people have the wrong dates listed, and some turn up in two places." He put the papers down on the kitchen table; from the thump, Varel guessed there was a ledger at the bottom. "And some of the keep staff is in my muster roll, as if they were soldiers."

"That doesn't sound good," Varel said. He pushed his empty porridge bowl aside."I suppose it means the payroll is in a bit of a state, too."

Garevel nodded. "We need to compare our records and get this straightened out as fast as possible," he threw a quick glance at the kitchen door, "before Woolsey hears about it."

"Aaaand I think this is my cue to leave," Anders said, filching a few apple slices and melting away.

"This can't be right," Varel said, frowning down at the list in front of him. "It says Danella joined up in Harvestmere last year. She's been here since--"

"I know!" Garevel said. "And look at this!" He scrabbled at another piece of paper. "There's a discrepancy for the soldiers who came here from the garrison at West Hill. We only got two men transferring in, and here it says--"

The kitchen door opened again. "Gentlemen." Woolsey looked at the pair of them. Garevel visibly slumped. "I understand there's a problem with the payroll for the Vigil's soldiers. You'll need my help sorting it out." She came forward with briskly measured steps.

"Not at my kitchen table!" Hansa said. "You've got offices. Now that you've finished your breakfast, seneschal, be off with you! And take all those nasty, dirty papers with you."

"My office, then," Varel said, stealing an apple slice just as Anders had. The cook glared at him but said nothing. "We can compare records there." He stole one more apple slice. "Mistress Hansa, I know I don't need to tell you not to mention this to anyone."

"As if I would," she huffed. "But if it says somewhere that I'm a soldier, let me know so I can get a good laugh."

Varel spent the rest of the day in his office, where the three of them went over every scrap of paper that seemed to have anything to do with employment records. There were a surprising number of them; the Orlesian wardens, when they took over, had started fresh with their own Orlesian system, but it hadn't taken them long to put everything back in Varel's hands again, and he had gone back to the way he favored, but of course he'd been working off their records and the records of Howe's last seneschal, which had been based on Varel's own old records from before he was demoted.

There were too many gaps, where information could either vanish or be inserted. And it seemed both those things had happened.

"There's a bit of money missing here," Woolsey said. "Did the previous seneschal take it for himself, do you think?"

"He's dead, so you can't ask him," Varel said. "More likely to have gone to cover some hushed-up doing of Howe's, though."

She lifted a brow at him. "Surely the arl would have no need to hide what he did with his own money. It could just be written down as a personal expense."

Varel chuckled, but with no humor in it. "The old arl did a lot of questionable things that you're not likely to find any written record of. He had good reason to hide some matters from the crown, I daresay, as well as from his own family."

"But it's not that well hidden." Woolsey shook her head, apparently disapproving of this badly-done duplicity. "Any competent treasurer could have discovered this malfeasance."

"Yes," Varel said, refraining from pointing out that neither one of them would know about this had Garevel not come forward with his records. "But there's nothing to say where the missing money went, and that's probably what was important to Rendon. He liked to keep his secrets to himself as much as he could."

The missing money Woolsey spoke of was a relatively trifling sum, and didn't bother Varel as much as the missing people: those who vanished between one set of records and the next, without any note that they'd ended their employment, or any sign that someone else had been hired in their place. He recognized a few of those names, too. Outspoken people, men and women who'd disapproved of the way Rendon Howe made increasingly disturbing choices. People whose absence Varel should have noticed before now.

Varel knew the commander had found several prisoners locked away deep in the Vigil's cellars, in prison cells Varel hadn't even known about, to his shock and shame. Only a few had been rescued, still living and sane, and none of those had been familiar, but Varel hadn't been able to bring himself to check the faces of those who had died from torture, starvation, and the taint, though he knew he should have. Now he wondered if he would have known some of them.

He also realized how lucky he'd been, himself. Imprisoned, yes, sentenced to execution, yes. But he hadn't been executed, and he'd been imprisoned in the regular dungeon, where everyone knew about him and he'd been swiftly released once Rendon Howe was dead. The hidden prisoners were a different matter -- Varel didn't know how they'd survived for as long as they had, what arrangements Howe had made for feeding them. No one had come forward to admit knowledge of them, either after Howe's death or after the commander had found and freed them.

The corpses had been collected and burned, though, and there had to be some kind of written record of that, at least. Maybe the soldiers doing the work had recognized them, or even if they hadn't, been thoughtful enough to write down some kind of identifying information.

"I don't like this," Varel said. "There shouldn't be people missing."

"There shouldn't be people added," Woolsey said. "And I intend to find out why there are."

Mistress Hansa sent up a maid with a pot of tea, and then another pot of tea, and eventually a platter of bread stuffed with spiced pork and onion, and half a fresh apple pie, which was a treat. They kept working all the long afternoon, and Garevel was starting to look a little tired, though Woolsey was apparently ready to keep going into the night. That's when Anders came in, though, clapping his hands briskly together. "I don't suppose you thought about opening a window in here?" he said. "Honestly, it's stuffier in this room than in the tower library. So terribly sorry to disturb you, but that man is still my patient," he pointed at Varel, "and I'm pretty sure he's worked enough for today."

"You said yourself I was doing much better than you expected," Varel said.

"Oh, absolutely!" Anders leaned back against the doorframe. "And I suppose if you want to work yourself into a relapse instead, there's nothing I can do about it. I'm sure if you end up dead face down in a ledger, the commander will just appoint another seneschal."

"Varel's tough as an old boot," Garevel said bracingly. "It takes more than a little thing like this to wear him out." Underneath that bracing tone, he himself looked about ready to end up face down either in a ledger or in his tea mug, though.

"I think we all could use a bit of rest and some dinner," Varel said. "What do you say, Mistress Woolsey?"

"Certainly." She picked up two ledgers from the table and tucked them under one arm. "I'll take a closer look at these after dinner, and we can start creating a correct muster roll of the Vigil's soldiers tomorrow, captain."

"Yes," Garevel said, all the brace gone out of him.

They all went down with Anders to the dining hall which had once been the place where the Howe family entertained guests. Now it was much less formal and more crowded, since both the wardens and the larger part of the keep's staff gathered there for meals three times a day, with some of the senior soldiers joining in now and then, though otherwise they ate out in the mess hall with the guards in the garrison.

Varel supposed there would have to be some other arrangement made once the recruitment of wardens really got going, and wardens and staff didn't all fit in one room any longer. Probably the kitchens would need to promote an additional under-cook, to take care of the meals for the soldiers' barracks, as well as taking on more scullions. At least they had plenty of fancy dishes to eat on. Rendon Howe hadn't cared much, but his wife had been a bit of a collector.

For now, though, this casual, comfortable arrangement worked very well. Varel had to smile a little when he saw Sigrun and the senior laundress sitting side by side, eating with single-minded intensity, both of them ignoring Oghren, who was waving a tankard in one hand and saying something about the door of his room always standing open.

"You should talk to my brother about that," Voldrik Glavonak said. "He actually trained as a carpenter for a little while, when he was going through a rebellious phase."

The laundress shook her head. "Carpentry don't sound that rebellious to me. Not compared to blowing things up."

"Carpentry is a human thing," Sigrun said. "It's rebellious if you're a dwarf."

"Dwarves don't make things out of wood," Voldrik agreed. "It's said some of the artisans in Cadash used it for ornamentation sometimes, but since that thaigh fell to the darkspawn, no one else has picked up the practice. Anyway, if there's something wrong with your door, Oghren, my brother can probably try to fix it for you."

"Ehehe, that's not actually what I meant," Oghren mumbled. "I was just saying that my door's always open to a hot and willing legionnaire..."

"If I see any, I'll let them know," Voldrik said.

Oghren set his tankard down with a clank and a slosh, and jerked his thumb at Sigrun. "What, are you tryin' to say she's not hot?"

"No," Voldrik said, and stopped there, very deliberately.

The laundress started giggling. So did Sigrun, leaning a little against her. They made a pretty sight, Varel thought, all laughter and pigtails. Apparently Voldrik thought so, too, to judge by the slight smile on his face.

Varel sat down next to Woolsey and grabbed a plate from the stack in the middle of the table. He snagged a couple of forks, too, and handled one politely to Woolsey. This was the fancy Howe silverware, he noted, with a bear worked into the top of the handle. Woolsey looked at it, less than impressed, to judge by her eyes. She turned to Voldrik. "I take it your brother grew tired of carpentry."

"Oh, he did." Voldrik shook his head. "He decided he'd rather be a smith and his own man, after all, than some human's apprentice. The carpenter didn't want to let him go at first, but after Dworkin blew up the carpentry shop a couple of times, he realized Dworkin was just too much trouble to keep around."

Dinner was more pork and early apples and onions and bread, though cooked and spiced a bit differently. Varel reminded himself that compared to the army's iron rations, this was a feast, and now that the Vigil's farmers were starting to bring in their harvest, of course they'd be eating one thing for a few days, and then another thing for a few days after that, when the next delivery came. He'd have the whole fall and winter to get tired of apples and onions. Maybe he could even have apple sauce with his porridge tomorrow.

People came and went, eating and talking. Varel kept a slow pace, but even though he stayed for quite a long time, long enough to go through three different sets of dining companions, the commander never showed. Varel wanted to talk to him, but not enough to go deliberately looking for the man; a casual meeting in the dining hall would be better.

Finally he gave up on pushing the last piece of onion around on his plate and rose to his feet, stepping aside to let his seat be claimed by Maverlies, who had a smut on her nose and looked tired after a long shift. She was still working, with men brought in from the nearest village as well as staff from the keep, to clear out the deeper levels of the cellars and sort out what could be salvaged and what was too damaged by age, by explosions, or by darkspawn.

Varel left the dining hall and went into the kitchen, where the cook was sitting down at the kitchen table, sipping at a mug of something hot. "Don't get up," he said when she seemed about to move. "I just wanted to ask you something. I didn't see the commander in there. Did he have his dinner early?"

Mistress Hansa shook her head. "Working in his office, he is. I'm hoping he'll want something sent up to him, at least."

"You should send something up even if he doesn't ask for it," Varel said. "Man's got to eat."

Cupping her hands around the mug, Hansa shook her head again. "He's polite about the food," she said. "But I've never seen such a picky eater in all my days. Two bites here, one bite there, it just plain takes the heart out of me."

Varel looked in what he thought was the right cabinet, and was pleased to find mugs there; he got one for himself and filled it out of the teapot. When he sat down across from Hansa, she splashed something from a small flask into his mug without asking. "Tell me you didn't get that from Oghren," Varel said, but he drank without waiting for an answer. It wasn't tea, it was some kind of herb tisane, and the addition from the flask made the taste deeper and sweeter. "Is that Rendon Howe's best brandy?"

Hansa sniffed. "Well, he's not around to miss it."

"Send this up to the commander," Varel said.

She looked doubtful. "The brandy? I don't think he's much of a drinker."

Varel shook his head and gestured to his mug. "This herb stuff, with a splash of brandy in. Bit of bread to go with it."

"Well, if you say so." Hansa took another sip out of her own mug while she thought about it. "Don't seem much of a dinner to offer the Commander of the Grey, though." She made a face. "He's probably used to all those fancy Orlesian dishes."

"This is Ferelden," Varel said. Anyone who wanted fancy Orlesian dishes was out of luck. "But I reckon we could try to send him a little food at a time, if he doesn't show up for meals. Maybe some cold apple pie later, if there's any left over." He sighed. "I can tell you, I wasn't trained to deal with Grey Wardens who don't eat properly."

"I wasn't trained to deal with any Grey Wardens at all," Hansa said tartly. "You know Howe hated 'em mortal bad. Them and just about everyone else that wasn't his precious self." She paused, an arrested look creeping into her eyes. "D'you remember when the old arl's mother-in-law visited here and she got sick?"

"Do I," Varel snorted. Rendon Howe had not been happy. Bad enough that his mother-in-law came visiting in the first place, but then for her to take ill, and linger, and rule the keep from her sickbed... with the able assistance of her daughter, of course. "We had to move our arms practice away from the keep so the sound wouldn't disturb her."

"Everyone in here went on tiptoe," Hansa agreed. "I don't know what-all I had to make to tempt her appetite, possets and sops, and when the hens started laying that year she got every single egg. Dainty meals, but lots and lots of them. You think that's what the commander needs?"

"Seems to me he wouldn't take well to possets," Varel said. It wouldn't do to treat the commander like an invalid, after all. He certainly wasn't that. "But if you let him have just a small something, often enough, that ought to do it."

"I'll do that, then." Hansa nodded resolutely. "It was fair breaking my heart the way he seemed to eat less the bigger meals I tried to put his way. All the other wardens, you give them food and it's gone." She snorted. "Most of the soldiers, too."

"A fighting man gets hungry, mistress, you know that." Varel drank some more. The heat from the tisane and the brandy spread comfortably through his body. He moved his injured arm, and was happy to feel no more than a twinge.

"That's what they keep telling me," Hansa said, not sounding very convinced. She poked at Varel's arm, the uninjured one. "You'd better get to your room now, get a good night's rest. Or else I'll have that pesky mage in here again to say he's looking at your wound, when really he's stealing all the dainties lying around for his cat."

"If he tries to tell you the cat likes brandy," Varel said, "he's a liar." He drained his mug and stood up. "I'll go to the hall for breakfast tomorrow, then."

Mistress Hansa made a rude sound. "You're always welcome here," she said. "It's him that's the menace." She got to her feet, too, and got out a small round tray and started to plunk things down on it: a tea mug, a plate with just a little bread and cheese. Varel nodded approvingly to himself before he left. They'd get the commander eating properly again.

It wasn't late. In fact, it was still early in the evening. All the same, Varel felt tired enough when he got back to his room that he actually got himself ready for bed and crawled in.

He was sure he wouldn't be able to sleep, not at this hour, and not when the bed was full of memories of the commander's hands and mouth, and the very faint scent rising from the commander's hair. Varel had spent the whole day thinking about other things, but now that he was lying down in the same place again, it all came back to him. He'd surely be thinking about that all night.

Then he closed his eyes, and was out like a light.

The next day, Varel woke at his accustomed hour, and resolutely did not think about his dreams, which certainly hadn't featured the commander, and in which the commander had in no way made that sweet choked sound again. (And again. And...) His arm was moving very nearly as usual, and he barely felt anything when he got dressed, but he still decided to leave off the armor for the time being. He got to have his tea and porridge undisturbed, this time, and he didn't get apple sauce on his porridge, no, but chopped-up apple remains and even a tiny drizzle of honey. He smiled at Mistress Hansa, and she smiled back and nodded at a small bowl with chopped apples and nuts and a small dollop of porridge and a more generous helping of honey. That was for the commander, then. Good.

After breakfast, he went to his office and found Garevel and Woolsey already there, facing off across a table spread with even more papers and ledgers than Varel remembered from the day before. "I can't just stop the payments," Garevel said. "The soldiers want their money. We'd have a revolt on our hands."

"I'm not asking you to suspend payments indefinitely," Woolsey said. "Merely until we can get the current payroll into proper order. They will only miss one payday, I should think. Perhaps two, if matters turn out to be more complicated than we have anticipated."

"The men won't stand for it," Garevel said. "They've been through enough when the old arl died and they couldn't get a copper until Rullens paid them out of his own pocket. Once the Orlesian wardens took over, we got things in order again, barely. The situation down in the barracks is still volatile. What do you expect me to tell them?"

"Tell them the truth," Varel said. He walked into the room and shut the door behind him. "Tell them Rendon Howe left a mess behind that we've only just discovered, and you have complete faith that loyal men can wait another week for their money while we make sure that the king gets his due and the Vigil gets her due. Tell them we'll wait for our pay, too, same as them. Tell them their dead comrades wouldn't want to see false payments made in their names."

"But no one's drawing payments in their names," Garevel said.

Varel shook his head. "You don't have to say that."

Garevel looked startled, then thoughtful. Woolsey smiled a tiny smile. "You have a more subtle and manipulative mind than I have given you credit for previously, seneschal," she said.

"If that's a compliment," Varel said, "I could probably do without it. Now, has anyone compared that list of dead prisoners you brought with the names of missing soldiers and Vigil staff?"

"No," Garevel said, appalled all over again. "Maker, it never occurred to me. You think that's what Howe did with..." He trailed off, seemingly unwilling to put it into words.

"Here," Woolsey said, gathering up a few books and sheafs of paper and putting them in front of a chair by the table. "You've been here the longest, seneschal, so you have the greatest chance, out of the three of us, to identify people."

"Yes," Varel said glumly. He wasn't looking forward to it.

Whoever had written the list of dead prisoners removed from the Vigil's cellars had deplorable handwriting, crabbed and uneven. After a couple of hours, Varel felt as though he was wearing a badly fitting helmet and someone was trying to fix it with a hammer while it was still on his head. He straightened up and rolled his shoulders, then got to his feet, meaning to take a turn around the room.

The window in his office looked out over the soldiers' barracks and the smaller practice yard, and he saw when he got there that Sigrun and the young Howe were sparring together. Varel had never seen Nathaniel Howe try to fight with daggers, since he normally favored the bow, and it was clear that Sigrun was much better at it. She seemed to be teaching him some move or other; they drew apart, then did it in tandem, the dwarf woman and the stocky human male mirrors of each other for a moment despite their differences in size and build.

Varel looked more closely at Nathaniel Howe. He looked less surly than usual. That was an improvement, and made him resemble his father less, even with the nose. Delilah Howe was a pleasant-enough-looking girl, but young Thomas was really the one who'd gotten all the looks in the family. Not that it had done him much good.

Someone whistled, the sound sharp enough to reach Varel through the window. That had to be Anders, sitting to one side and watching them, back against a tree and long legs stretched out on the grass. Sigrun said something to him, and he shook his head, waving one arm in a warding-off gesture.

Varel walked over to the other end of the room. He was just in time to meet a maid with a fresh teapot, and took it from her with a word of thanks. Turning back to the table, he poured fresh mugs for himself and Woolsey; Garevel shook his head when Varel gestured with the teapot. Varel knew he should get back to work, but he was drawn to take just one more look out the window.

When he did, he saw that the commander had turned up, and Anders was on his feet now, facing him; Sigrun and Nathaniel Howe had moved off to one side. The air in front of the commander shimmered, rippled, and when Anders raised his hands and threw a bolt of pure magic that way, it slid off this shimmering air without doing any harm, and the commander remained unruffled. They did it again, several times, and the bolts from Anders seemed to grow in intensity, but still couldn't touch the commander.

After one particularly striking bolt dissipated into tiny sparks, they paused for a moment. Anders said something, and that shimmer in the air rose around him instead. The commander raised a hand, and fire gathered around his fingers. Then he drew his arm back and threw the fire at Anders.

Anders yelped. Varel didn't need to hear it in order to know it. The shimmer in the air vanished abruptly as Anders dropped flat to the ground, and the fire passed over him and hit one of the bushes, uprooting it completely and setting every leaf ablaze. Sigrun danced from one foot to the other in glee. Anders rolled over on his back and lifted up a careful hand, apparently testing the air temperature.

Then the groundskeeper popped up out of nowhere, yelling and waving his arms, pointing accusingly at the bush. The commander nodded, and with another gesture, he encased the burning bush in ice, making sure the fire went out. Groundskeeper Samuel didn't look completely mollified, particularly as Sigrun came bouncing up and pointed to another bush, apparently trying to get the commander to set fire to that one instead. Nathaniel Howe came after her, shaking his head, one hand out to try to hold her back.

Varel chuckled. These Grey Wardens that the commander was collecting were an odd bunch, much more so than the group of Orlesians that had come to the Vigil before. The Orlesian wardens had been decent enough, though maybe a bit stiff. And Orlesian. Though Varel supposed they couldn't help that, being from Orlais and all. He thought the commander would probably have had an easier time with them, but not nearly as interesting.

"Seneschal," Woolsey said, calm and even. He could never get her to use his name. "Are you getting anywhere with those lists?"

"Unfortunately, yes," Varel said, turning away from the window with only the tiniest sting of reluctance and coming back to the table. "I've been able to put names to some of these nameless dead." And he wasn't happy about it. "Soldiers who went to Ostagar with me."

Woolsey raised an eyebrow. "I was under the impression that Rendon Howe never went to Ostagar," she said.

"He didn't," Garevel said. "But he sent Varel there, with the most loyal of the men, to get them out of the way. He probably hoped they'd all die there."

"Some of us did," Varel said. He'd gotten his men safely through the few initial skirmishes they'd taken part in, and had somehow ended up in charge of a very mixed group -- his own Amaranthine soldiers, some ragtag militiamen from Lothering who'd lost their own captain, a couple of people from another southern village he couldn't even remember the name of, who'd seen darkspawn in their fields and run south to join the army instead of north to get away.

But the main battle had been another matter. In his memory, it was nothing but a nightmare of rain and fire and darkspawn stench. So many had died there, and he'd barely managed to get a few of his men off that battlefield alive. It had taken them quite some time to cross the country again and get back to Vigil's Keep. And once they were there, Varel got to hear about what Rendon Howe had done instead of coming to fight by the side of his king.

In retrospect, going in to see the arl and shouting at him about the betrayal of the Couslands and the slaughter at Highever might not have been the most sensible choice, but after Ostagar and the long trek back north, Varel hadn't been feeling very sensible.

So he'd ended up imprisoned, the public face of dissent. Others with him had just vanished instead, in as un-public a manner as possible, from what he could tell now, long afterwards.

"We were told they deserted," Garevel said darkly. "The ones that came home with you. That Ostagar made them lose their nerve."

"Ostagar was enough to try anyone's nerve." Varel stared out at the sunlit practice yard, seeing fire and rain. "But we survived that." He couldn't identify every one of those men as someone described on the list, and he hoped that meant a couple of them really had deserted.

"You've identified some of the dead, then," Woolsey said. There was no sympathy in her voice, nothing beyond the factual statement, and Varel was grateful for that. He wanted no sympathy over Ostagar. "Are you finished with the lists, or do you need more time?"

Varel turned back to the room. "I'd like to go over them again with a few people -- Mistress Hansa the cook and Samuel the groundskeeper, because they've both been here a long time, and they know, or knew, some parts of the Vigil's staff better than I do."

Woolsey looked consideringly at him. "Will that really be necessary?"

"Yes," Varel said. He met her eyes. "We owe it to ourselves, as well as the memories of the dead, to be as thorough as we can about identifying them. Dying in Rendon Howe's secret prison cells might not be the most glorious way to return to the Maker, but I think we can restore some of their honor if we can separate any actual criminals in the cells from those who were imprisoned at Howe's whim."

"Might make all the difference to their families," Garevel put in. Yes, he'd understand about a thing like that.

"I was lucky," Varel said; going through these lists, he had begun to realize just how lucky. He doubted he would find any actual criminals. With people imprisoned for provable wrongdoing, there'd be no need to hide them away in secret cells.

"Varel was the one everyone knew about," Garevel said. "But it seems he wasn't the only one."

"I owe it to them." Varel was sure of that much. Others had died, and he'd been spared. Oh, he'd been kept back for a showy execution, he knew that, something that would dissuade others from even thinking about protesting Rendon Howe's actions. But he was alive because of that, and he couldn't help but feel that the others had died in his place. He'd fought so hard to keep them alive and bring them home, and then they'd met this other horrible end.

"Very well." Woolsey nodded."But it also seems urgent to me to find out how much money the Vigil has cheated the crown out of."

Garevel made a whimpering sound. Varel decided to let that stand for both of them. "What do you mean, mistress?" he said.

"These inflated numbers were used in all calculations," she said, gesturing to a packet of what was, judging by the seals, the Vigil's correspondence with the crown.

"Could just be an accident," Garevel said. "With the records being such a mess."

Woolsey didn't look entirely convinced by that idea. Varel admitted to himself that he wasn't, either. It seemed he'd been more right than he'd known to claim that payments were being made in the wrong names, and the king not given his due.

At midday, they went downstairs for lunch, which was a fried mess of onions, apples, and pork. Varel devoutly hoped it was the end of that particular set of leftovers. Not bad, if a bit greasy. With bread to balance it out, it made a decent meal. He had a feeling it wouldn't be to the commander's taste at all, though.

Varel didn't see the commander at lunch, or any of the wardens. Woolsey didn't let anyone linger over the meal, but had them out of their seats and on their way back to Varel's office as soon as they'd swallowed the last bite on their plates. Varel and Garevel traded swift, resigned glances. Woolsey worked twice as hard herself as she made anyone else work, so it was hard to complain about her expectations. She didn't make them do anything she wouldn't do herself.

They were at the door of Varel's office when the commander stepped out into the hallway. "A word with you, seneschal, if you please," he said.

"Of course," Varel said, taking two steps towards the commander before he could even think about it. He glanced back over his shoulder at the others, and they just nodded, Garevel opening the door and ushering Woolsey inside.

So Varel followed the commander into his office, a smaller and more awkward room than his own -- the commander had insisted that the rooms be switched around, because he didn't anticipate spending much time here. Which had been true enough so far, but Varel couldn't help looking around and thinking that the Commander of the Grey needed something better, something that fit the dignity of his title. There'd be visitors, after all, nobles and guild leaders and representatives of the crown, and the commander's office needed to be impressive enough for them.

And it wasn't as if, in the usual course of things, Varel spent a great deal of time in his office either.

"I know you're busy," the commander said, "but I should like to hear from you what you and Mistress Woolsey and Captain Garevel are working so hard on."

"Yes, commander." Varel took up an at-ease stance, legs apart, hands behind his back. "I apologize. We should have reported things to you right away."

The commander gave him a level look. "Sit down, please," he said. "You're looming."

Varel glanced around. There was only one chair in the room, pushed in under the desk, and the commander himself was leaning against the desk's edge. Which put the top of his head rather lower than Varel's collarbone, but there was nothing to be done about that. "Yes, commander," Varel said without moving. "We're going through the records of the Vigil's soldiers and staff. Garevel came to me yesterday and said there was a problem with the recruitment records, and I discovered that employment records for the keep also have several errors."

The commander lifted an elegant dark-copper eyebrow. "And what kind of errors are these?"

"Well." Varel shifted his weight a little. "There's malicious errors, and then there's either lazy or greedy errors. Probably greedy, truth be told. The problem is that record-keeping has been a sketchy business over the last few years." He cleared his throat. "Anything that was written down under the last years of Rendon Howe's rule can't be completely trusted. The seneschal then was Howe's creature, and likely wrote what he was told."

"I don't suppose we can ask him," the commander said.

"No. He went with Howe to Denerim, and died there. After that, no one kept up the records at all for a while. The Orlesian wardens, when they came, had their own system. Garevel and I have both tried to go back to the way we did things before." Varel shook his head. "I'm sorry, commander, it's all a bit of a mess."

"So it would seem." The commander still sounded cool and collected. "You said people had disappeared. Are those the malicious errors?"

Varel nodded. "Best as I can tell, yes. Rendon Howe had his little ways when it came to getting rid of those who didn't agree with him. Some of the people who have gone missing between one set of records and the next may just have given up on the Vigil and gone back to their farm, and no one bothered to note it down properly. But I've identified, from the descriptions of dead prisoners, soldiers who came back from Ostagar with me."

The commander looked up. "I didn't know you were at Ostagar."

Varel shrugged. "Rendon Howe sent some of us down that way before he took the better part of his soldiers to Highever. We thought we were lucky to survive, those of us that did, but it seems being back at the Vigil again wasn't particularly safe for any of us. For anyone. There were a lot more prisoners down in the cellars than any records could account for."

"Most of those prisoners were dead," the commander said. "Or driven mad by starvation and the taint, trapped in their cells." His lips tightened. "The other Orlesian wardens who came here before me never investigated why those people were held prisoner? Or did they even discover the prisoners' existence at all?"

"I don't reckon they had the time," Varel said. "None of us did. There was a lot to be sorted out here at the Vigil." Whoever had been bringing the prisoners food and water had never mentioned it, and must have died in the darkspawn attack, leaving the prisoners locked away and forgotten. Varel hadn't known about them. He stared at the hem of the commander's robe, wondering how it could be so perfectly clean-looking after that practice session down in the yard. Wondering how it could be so perfectly clean when they were talking about such unclean things. "But you're right, I should have taken the time."

"They should have taken the time. The blame does not rest solely on you." The commander looked even more tight-lipped. "And I should have come here earlier, rather than allow myself to stay for yet another event at court. The empress's birthday masquerade was not worth even one lost life."

"Oh, I'm sure she doesn't think that!" Varel tried to keep the bitterness out of his joke, but he had a feeling he wasn't all that successful.

"No, she probably doesn't." The commander's voice was so even, Varel almost didn't notice that this was, in fact, agreement with his criticism of the empress. And it wasn't fair. The responsibility rested on Varel, not on either the empress or the commander. Regardless of what the commander said. "And the greedy errors?"

"Well, they could as well be just laziness, to be fair about it. Woolsey may be able to straighten out the paperwork, but she can't read the minds of dead men." Varel shrugged cautiously, pleased to feel nothing in his arm when he did. "With recruitment records for the Vigil's soldiers in such a mess, it's hard to tell where the errors first crept in, but Garevel discovered that some soldiers are listed twice, or written down as recruited on the wrong date, or coming from two different places."

"But they can't be getting paid twice," the commander said calmly. "I feel quite sure that someone would have noticed that long before now."

"Oh, yes," Varel agreed. "No, the problem is... You do know that the wardens got a bit of support from the crown of Ferelden when Amaranthine was given to them?"

"But surely the arling is self-supporting." The commander frowned just a tiny bit, enough to make a thin line mar the perfection of his smooth brow. Varel bit his tongue for even noticing. "I know Mistress Woolsey tells me repeatedly that the financial situation is grim, but it can't be so grim that the crown would need to step in on behalf of the wardens."

"Not precisely, no," Varel said."King Alistair was a warden before he was crowned, and I reckon he wants to show how much the wardens mean to him, even now. And the Vigil's garrison was very small after everything that happened this spring. Howe brought a lot of soldiers with him to Denerim, and most of them died there."

"If they fell defending the city against the darkspawn," the commander said, "they deserve all honor."

"That's the report we got." Varel shifted a little. "So the king presented a bonus to every soldier who chose to stay and serve the wardens. He also exempted the Vigil itself from certain taxes and levies, based on the reported numbers of people here. There's a lot more soldiers listed as being recruited than actually are in the barracks, and it seems likely the Vigil got a bonus for every one."

"And presumably this bonus went into someone's pocket, rather than into the coffers of the Vigil," the commander said. He sounded just as calm as before, and Varel wondered if this kind of thing was more common in Orlais. "But this must have happened after Rendon Howe was dead and the arling already given to the wardens. Who was responsible, at the Vigil, for maintaining the muster roll?"

"That would have been Captain Rullens," Varel said. "Garevel's predecessor. He died not that long ago -- took a small injury in arms practice, but it went septic, and he never told anyone until it was too late."

"I see." The commander's face gave nothing away, of course.

"Very popular with the men," Varel went on. "Morale would likely go down if this became public knowledge, him being dishonest like that. When payments were suspended after Rendon Howe died, Rullens paid the men out of his own pocket. Might have been why he decided to make a little extra off the crown's bonus payments, afterwards. He cheated the crown, yes, but he never cheated his men, and that's what they'll remember."

"I see no need to make an announcement," the commander said. "Better to keep this as discreet as possible. The Vigil has seen enough trouble. Excess crown bonuses will have to be paid back, of course. I'm certain Mistress Woolsey can handle the fiscal aspect." Before Varel could decide whether he was relieved or annoyed by this attitude, the commander's voice sharpened. "But I'm concerned by your story of missing people and unidentified prisoners. Can I trust you to investigate the matter, seneschal?"

"Of course." Varel straightened. He, too, felt this was the most important matter that had come to light since Garevel had brought up his concerns, and it pleased him that the commander seemed to take the same view. The money was less of an issue, no matter what Woolsey would say. "I'll give it my full attention, commander."

"Good."

"There's another matter I'd like to discuss," Varel said cautiously. The commander looked at him. "Have you spoken to Nathaniel Howe about Bann Esmerelle's attack on you?"

"A little," the commander said. His eyes were clear and sharp. "He had nothing to do with it, seneschal. He hardly knows anyone in the arling these days, having been away for so long, and he was never particularly friendly with Bann Esmerelle, from what I can discover."

"He seems to have grown into a strong young man," Varel said neutrally. He remembered vividly how difficult Nathaniel Howe had been to capture. "Strong-minded, too. I don't think the king would take the arling away from the wardens, even if Bann Esmerelle had succeeded. But he's a warden and a Howe. Some might think that's as close as they can get to having the old order back."

The commander gave a single nod. "I know. I do believe Nathaniel Howe can be trusted, having given his word. He is intent on proving himself different from his father."

"Can't blame him for that," Varel said. "No one in their right mind would want to be like Rendon Howe. I just hope he's not more like him than he thinks he is."

"I've asked Nathaniel to keep an eye on the nobles for me," the commander said calmly, "and of course I'm keeping watch on his sister, although her removal of herself from arling politics seems genuine enough."

"Yes," Varel said, thinking about Delilah Howe as a little girl. "She's not likely to start up a conspiracy of her own."

"Nor is Nathaniel, I feel." And the commander was no stranger to the notion of plots and conspiracies. He was from Orlais, Varel reminded himself unnecessarily. He knew an intrigue when he saw it. "But it would have made sense, as you implied, for the nobles who rebelled to choose him as the figurehead of their cause. He says they never even contacted him."

Varel frowned. "Bann Esmerelle was not a naive woman," he said. "She must have known King Alistair wouldn't simply go back on his word, take the arling away from the wardens again, and give it to her."

"If I were to be killed," the commander said slowly, "the way matters stand now, there is a good chance that Nathaniel Howe would, in fact, be left commanding the Grey Wardens in Ferelden, and thus the Vigil. Anders doesn't want command, Sigrun is still too green, and no one in their right mind would put Oghren in charge of anything."

"You mean there'd be no need to contact him," Varel said. "Until afterwards."

"Just so," the commander said. "He would see it as his duty to remain in charge, rather than let any replacement sent from Orlais take over, and he'd look favorably on his father's old cronies." The commander shook his head. "Or so they might think, until they actually spoke to him."

"You put a great deal of trust in the young Howe, commander," Varel said. He wouldn't have described the commander as the trusting sort, either. "Didn't he come here to kill you originally?"

"So he said," the commander said, unruffled. "Since then, he has fought at my back in several difficult situations, when he could easily have stepped aside and left me open to injury or worse." Dragonlings, Varel thought. "He has a very strongly developed sense of honor. Yes, I believe he can be trusted."

"Then I'll take your word for it, commander." Varel drew himself up. That hadn't gone too badly. "Thank you for listening to me."

"Of course I listen to you. Your advice on matters concerning the arling is invaluable." The commander straightened, too, stepping away from the desk. "Now, show me your arm." Varel stopped where he was, taken aback. "Anders told me he didn't look at your wound this morning."

"It's fine, commander," Varel said. He waggled his arm in the air to show just how fine it was. "There's really no need for you to concern yourself about it."

"I'm glad to hear that," the commander said impassively. "Now show me."

Varel rolled up his sleeve, and the commander came up next to him and took his arm in both hands, turning it this way and that. His fingers prodded gently at the muscles as he tested Varel's range of movement. "It's fine," Varel said again. The commander's fingertips were warm and sure against his skin.

"Yes, excellent," the commander said. This time, when he held up one hand, the glowing light that danced in his palm was a clear, light blue. "Your body will easily be able to heal the rest on its own." Despite the words, he turned his hand and sank that glowing energy into Varel's arm.

It felt good. Gentler than the green glow from the night before last, but still powerful. Varel could feel his body answer to the commander's touch again, could feel a lingering tension in his arm begin to ease. And another kind of tension between his legs begin to grow.

He didn't have a blanket to shield himself with this time, not that it had done him much good when he'd been in his bed. Maybe it was a response to the magic, or maybe it was just the commander, so close that Varel's breath stirred the hair on his bent head. Having the commander so close made Varel feel like a great clumsy brute, and reminded him yet again of how short and slight his commander really was. The commander had a great deal of presence when he chose, despite his unassuming appearance, and could fill a room from wall to wall with no more than a glance from his cool grey eyes, but the top of his head didn't quite clear Varel's shoulder, no matter how straight and upright he stood. He was short and slender even for an elf, and Varel knew he himself was tall and brawny for a human. The commander looked as though Varel could break him in two without any particular effort, though the mage robes were a reminder that no, he really couldn't.

"Thank you, commander," Varel said, taking a step backwards and hitting the door with his shoulders. "If that's all, I'll just be going now."

The commander hadn't let go of Varel's arm, simply followed when Varel moved, as though it were part of a dance they'd rehearsed. Now he turned his face up, beautiful and close, and looked imperturbably at Varel. "No, that's not all," he said. "You appear to be experiencing the same unexpected reaction to magic once again." His tone wasn't mocking, held nothing but a calm statement of fact, but Varel felt his cheeks heat a little, just the same. "If you will allow me?"

"Commander," Varel said, which wasn't much of an answer. He was startled to see the commander go down on his knees, with the same smooth elegance he did everything else, and then reach for the fastening of Varel's trousers. The commander's hands, deft and sure, drew out Varel's cock, and the warm certainty of that touch made Varel grow fully hard. He tried to tell himself he should step back again, as if he could walk through the thick wood of the door from sheer willpower, but he couldn't move, or, indeed, look away from the commander, who pressed his lips against the head of Varel's cock and let it part them and slide slowly deeper and deeper into the wet heat of the commander's mouth.

Varel groaned in shocked pleasure. He hadn't let himself think too much about what had passed between them, the night before last, because a man shouldn't think about his commanding officer like that, and also, it was a sure way not to get any work done. Now, though, he could not escape the knowledge that the commander's mouth was precisely as amazing as he remembered, and seeing it stretched wide around his cock was an even more stunning sight from this angle.

The slow, deliberate way that the commander sucked him was deeply arousing to Varel; there was time to feel every agonizing nuance of lips and tongue stroking over him. He bumped against the back of the commander's throat, and would have drawn back, if the door hadn't been in the way. The commander made that tiny choked sound that haunted Varel's dreams, and then he shifted a little on his knees and pressed forward, sliding his tongue out around the underside of the shaft, fitting his throat slowly but surely around Varel's cock, like coaxing an arm into a tight sleeve, or a sword into a new-made sheath.

The sensation was indescribable. A starburst of splintery lights filled Varel's head, and he couldn't tell if he'd hit it against the door in pure startlement or if this was a reaction to the intense pleasure washing over him. No one had done this to him before. Tried, yes, tried and failed, and Varel still had rather horrible memories of a fellow soldier throwing up on his legs, but there was no room for such thoughts when the commander took him in deeper and deeper until Varel could feel, incredibly, that high-arched nose pressing into his pubic hair.

When the commander took one of Varel's hands in his and slid it into his hair, Varel didn't think about it, he just let his fingers wrap easily around the curve of the commander's skull. A moment later, the commander grasped his hip and urged him forward, and then Varel did draw a breath of sharp disbelief, because surely the commander couldn't be telling Varel to fuck his mouth.

One more tug, though, a choked moan when Varel shifted in response, and then the commander dropped his hand from Varel's hip again, let both arms fall by his sides, so that Varel was left in complete control, with his hand on the back of the commander's head and his cock, by all the dissonant verses of the chant, down the commander's throat.

Varel was a good soldier. He knew how to give orders, and he knew how to take orders, particularly orders that offered him exactly what he wanted. So he thrust, slowly and steadily, feeling the commander's throat ripple around the head of his cock, feeling the commander's tongue press up against his shaft, a slick rasp of sensation. The sounds coming from the commander were pure encouragement, and every one of them went straight to Varel's balls, little jolts of increasing desire.

The commander's eyes were closed, delicate lids seemingly dragged down by the weight of the long lashes, and there was a faint flush in his cheeks. Varel pulled back to let the commander breathe, and when he hesitated for just a moment about thrusting deep again, the commander moaned and pushed forward a little, offering himself. That might be more than any man could resist; it was definitely more than Varel could resist, and so he rocked his hips obediently and sank into that sweet tight throat, letting his cock take what was offered.

Fucking the commander's mouth and throat was an incredible experience. The commander had given himself up to Varel's control, yielding sweetly to every thrust, but he wasn't passive by any means. He moved into the steady pumping motion of Varel's hips, meeting each deep thrust, sucking and swallowing, taking Varel's cock in as deep as it would go and still making those little moans of enticement and approval.

Varel thought he would never be able to stop. This was a pleasure beyond anything he'd ever known, and hearing his partner take it, crave it, want more, made his pulse beat even faster. He kept his head enough to pull back regularly and let the commander breathe, but he always pushed back in, his hand keeping the commander's head tilted back at the perfect angle.

When his balls drew tight and his thoughts began to jump like the sparks from a smith's forge, Varel thrust in deep and stayed there, feeling his cock throb deep in the commander's throat, and then he was coming like a hammer blow, hard, shattering.

The commander's hands came up to rest on his hips then, steadying him, which Varel was grateful for, and pressing back a little to make sure that Varel was leaning his weight against the door, not slumping forward over the commander. Varel was fully occupied with breathing, but he did manage to keep his eyes open, so he saw the commander pull back slowly and, yes, press a kiss to the head of Varel's cock before tucking it away gently and fastening Varel's trousers again.

Varel still had one hand in the commander's hair, and he wanted to pull his fingers through the soft strands, feeling it run like silk against his skin. But the commander stood up, and Varel let his grip fall away.

"You had better get back to work," the commander said, and although the words were deeply prosaic and spoken in his usual cool manner, his voice was a husky rasp, wrecked by what they had just done. The commander's lips were reddened, and when he turned his head a little, Varel could see that he had half-dried tear tracks on his skin, showing that his eyes had watered and spilled over.

"Commander," Varel said, lifting his hand again. He had no very clear idea of what he wanted to do, besides grasp the lithe form of his commander and pull him close, but the commander stepped aside, reached around Varel, and opened the door. Varel just about staggered backwards.

"Thank you again for your efforts on behalf of the Vigil's staff and soldiers," the commander said, and Varel wondered if it was possible for anyone to hear that voice, like velvet ripped to jagged pieces, and not know just what the commander had been doing. "Your work is greatly appreciated."

"But commander," Varel said. He stared at the commander, who would have been immaculate if it hadn't been for that slightly swollen mouth, those drying marks on his face. The beautiful gleaming tangle of his hair, where Varel's hands had just been buried. He acted as if everything about him were pristine and untouched. Varel wanted to change that. "Please let me do something for you, commander."

Varel would happily have been more explicit, but he was out in the hallway now, pushed from the room by the force of the commander's personality, and anyone could come along at any moment. Anyone could have come along at any moment before, and opened the unlocked door behind Varel's back, he realized, to see the commander with Varel's cock down his throat.

"That won't be necessary," the commander said. His face was back to the usual smooth mask, despite the signs on it of what had just happened; they seemed accidental, like spilled paint. And his voice was even harder to read like this, Varel realized, when any uneven note or tremor was likely due to pure physical after-effects and had nothing to do with the commander's emotional control. "I won't keep you from your duties any longer, seneschal. I'm very grateful for your hard work."

The commander stepped back and closed the door in Varel's face. Varel drew a deep breath, ready to open that door again and say something, even if he didn't know what, when he heard the rattle and click of a key turning in the lock. The commander had ensured his privacy.

All the same, Varel lifted a hand and put it against the polished wood. He didn't knock, just stood there and tried to get his bearings. He wasn't sure what had just happened.

Well, the commander had just sucked him off. For the second time. Cool, remote, untouchable Warden-Commander Elyon Andras had gone to his knees for Varel, had encouraged Varel to fuck his mouth, had taken Varel down his throat. The memory of the incredible pleasure he'd just experienced brought a pleasant twinge to Varel's balls.

But the commander was still untouchable. He wouldn't let Varel reciprocate in any way, it seemed. The first time, he'd left Varel's room. This second time, he'd thrown Varel out and locked himself in. And both times, Varel acknowledged with a scowl, he'd said thank you, as if he'd just expressed his gratitude for something Varel had done.

The first time, Varel had decided he was wrong about that, because the commander wasn't the kind of man who would thank someone with a blowjob for saving his life. But that had been because the commander didn't give the impression of ever trading his mouth for favors or services, and... wasn't that what had just happened?

Varel scowled even harder. Had the commander just discovered what seemed like the right way to handle him? Give the old seneschal a touch of magic to make his cock think it's young again, give him a decent suck, and he'll do anything.

That couldn't be right. He didn't want it to be right. But Varel wasn't sure what else to make of it. He wanted to touch the commander, very badly, wanted to find out what was underneath the robes, touch and taste the silky skin he'd only caught glimpses of, but it seemed the commander didn't want that. Could be that the commander found Varel unattractive, much as he'd suggested once that Varel might find him -- or any elf -- unattractive. Could be that was why the commander only satisfied Varel's desires, and appeared to have none of his own.

Varel leaned against the door and listened, hoping for something, anything, the rustle of clothing, the stir of movements and faster breaths, any sign that the commander was not unmoved and had decided to take matters into his own hands. But there was only silence.

He turned away and strode down the hallway. It wasn't all that far to his own office; Varel stopped outside that door instead and made sure his trousers were indeed properly fastened and his shirt tucked in as neatly as it should be. There was one long copper hair on his right thigh, and he plucked it away and rubbed it between his fingers for a moment before dropping it on the floor.

When he opened the door, he saw Woolsey and Garevel bent over the books, just as before. Garevel looked up and nodded; Woolsey considered him a little longer, until Varel began to wonder if she could somehow see the commander's touch on him. But all she said was, "There is tea on the sideboard, seneschal."

Varel went over there and poured into the one empty mug left for him. A delicate cloud of steam rose into the air; the tea was still hot. He brought his mug to the table and took his accustomed seat. Garevel muttered something and flung his pen down. "I can't get these numbers to add up!"

"I have told you before to leave the numbers to me," Woolsey said.

"Yes, but if we're to have any hope of getting this done before next payday--"

"That certainly won't happen if I need to do all your work over as well as my own," Woolsey said briskly.

Garevel leaned back in his chair, and Varel could see him consider an angry retort, then bite it back. Good. Garevel was young to be captain of the guard, his appointment a hurried necessity when Rullens had died so suddenly, but he was growing into the work, rather than letting it overwhelm him. Instead of snapping pointlessly at Woolsey -- snapping at Woolsey was always pointless -- he turned to Varel. "Did the commander have any new instructions for us?"

"No," Varel said, taking care that his own voice wouldn't give anything away, either. "No, he just wanted a report on the work we're doing here. Wanted to know what we were so busy with."

Garevel looked annoyed and resigned at the same time. "I should have known we couldn't keep anything from him. He's too sharp."

Woolsey straightened in her seat, a contrast to Garevel's tired slouch. "Perhaps I should reassure the commander," she said, "that none of the Vigil's apparent financial irregularities are due to my work, and that they will be straightened out as soon as possible." She actually looked as close to concerned as Varel had ever seen her.

"I wouldn't worry about it," he said. "I told the commander there was money in the wrong places, but he didn't seem that fussed about it. Seems to believe you'll work it out so we can make it right, Woolsey."

She sniffed. "Of course I will."

Varel glanced over at Garevel. "The commander was more concerned about the missing people and the identity of the nameless prisoners. Seems to me we'd better make that our priority here."

"Right!" That made Garevel straighten up. "Of course we will." He held up a slightly tea-stained sheet of paper. "I'm looking at the list of what Rendon Howe sent for from Denerim, including people, and comparing that with the tally of people who came back."

Too few had come back, Varel knew. The Vigil's garrison had been seriously depleted by the time he was released from his imprisonment. Barracks still stood empty down in the soldiers' yard. There was no way of telling, either, if the lost soldiers had fallen on some nefarious business of Howe's, or later, when he was dead and darkspawn invaded the city. Better to think they'd died defending Denerim against the darkspawn, anyway. The soldiers who came back had mostly reported their fellows as fallen in that battle; Varel couldn't blame them, and he certainly wasn't about to argue with them.

"They're likely dead if they didn't come back," he said, leaving aside the question of where and how. "What about Highever?"

"The better part of the soldiers went there," Garevel said slowly. "It's only chance and some bad sausages kept me from being one of them. And then they came straight back here, before going with Howe to Denerim."

"Yes, but Howe must have left people in Highever," Varel said, "to hold the Cousland castle, and then to take charge when the teyrnir was made over to him."

"I don't suppose Fergus Cousland wants to do us any favors," Garevel said, "but maybe there's someone in Highever who can tell us how many Howe soldiers fell when he took back the castle, at least."

Varel rubbed his forehead. "We should have done this a long time ago," he said. "I've been too ashamed of what the old arl did, but those soldiers were our people, and they did what they were commanded to do. We should at least know their fates."

"Yes," Garevel agreed. "We can write a letter to Highever, and even one to Denerim, I suppose -- though I don't even know if we should be writing to the new arl of Denerim, or the steward of the estate--"

"Denerim's more of a mess, but less of a problem," Varel said. "We've got reports of who died there, but no one's spoken of what happened at Highever, and who was left behind at the castle, living or dead. We can start by talking to the soldiers who went there and came back."

He and Garevel looked at each other. "They won't want to," Garevel said. "Down in the barracks, nobody ever even mentions it, not after that fight when Jermyn lost a tooth."

"Yes." Varel sighed. "We've been too used to feeling shame and keeping quiet. But we have to get a clear idea of what happened to the Vigil's soldiers. If they're dead, where they died, or if they were locked up somewhere, even. And I want to know about the people who went missing here at the Vigil, too." He weighed the papers in his hand. "I want to know who those prisoners were."

Woolsey cleared her throat. "I can deal with the matter of misappropriated monies," she said. "All I need is a clear tally of how many soldiers the Vigil has at present, and how many have actually joined up, or left, in the time since the king deeded Amaranthine to the wardens. I believe we are working to resolve those matters as best we can." She nodded to Garevel.

"Then I'll deal with the prisoners," Varel said, "and I could use Garevel's help about Highever. But the keep doesn't run itself, and I know for a fact that the barracks don't, either."

"No," Garevel said, "and I hope my part in the work here doesn't take much longer, because I have things to do that I can't keep putting off on others." He looked at Varel. "About Highever... I think it's better if you talk to the men. That way it will be clearer to them that this isn't a matter of ordinary military discipline. I'll get you some names of people I think are level-headed enough to handle it."

Varel nodded. He could see the shape of the days to come, and he didn't much like it, but it had to be done. "There's no need to rush on my account," he said. "I'll be busy talking to Hansa and Samuel, and trying to catch up with the everyday business of the past couple of days." He rubbed his forehead again. The headache was still there. "Maker, and there's still all that mess with Bann Esmerelle to deal with."

"My impression was that Bann Esmerelle is dead," Woolsey said, dismissing that lady and her treasonous plot with a small, one-shouldered shrug.

"Very dead," Varel agreed. "And so are the nobles who followed her. But I have to arrange what happens to their bodies, and make sure that their heirs swear fealty to the commander instead, and hopefully are more honest about it."

"They'll be afraid of him after this," Garevel said. "Just as well, too. The nobles had no respect for the Orlesians who were here before. They'll learn to be a bit more wary of this one." Something about the way he said it suggested that he'd learned to be a bit more wary of the commander, himself.

"It would be more to the point," Woolsey said, "if they could learn to pay their taxes promptly. Horror stories about the wicked Commander of the Grey won't help restore the arling's finances to what they should be."

"Oh, he's not that bad," Varel protested. Garevel and Woolsey looked at him. "Would you really call him wicked?"

"I would not," Woolsey said, gathering her papers together. "But it has not escaped my notice that the people of Amaranthine have some reservations about the commander, for several reasons."

"No one was happy with the idea of Orlesians in charge," Garevel said. "And this Orlesian is a mage. And an elf. Bann Esmerelle had her own reasons for doing what she did, but I don't think she'd've gotten so many to follow her if they hadn't been unhappy that an Orlesian and a mage and an elf had authority over them."

"No, I don't reckon she would have." Varel had admittedly had doubts himself, finding out that he would have to work with Orlesian wardens and under an Orlesian commander. The Orlesian wardens hadn't been so bad, though. And the commander... Varel felt a wholly unexpected rush of protectiveness, as fierce and embarrassing as it was unnecessary, and tried to suppress it. The commander certainly did not need Varel to fight his battles for him.

"But the commander has done a great deal to help Amaranthine," Woolsey said. "The trade routes are safe again, and both the Vigil's market and the Amaranthine shops are doing very well. And when the roads are safer, so is the countryside and its farms. No doubt the people of the arling will notice that the commander's policies are to their advantage."

"Well, they might," Garevel said, "but I doubt it."

"People see what they want to see," Varel agreed.

"Yes, but they also see the money in their hands," Woolsey said. "If the commander makes Amaranthine rich again, I imagine the arling will forgive him worse sins than being an Orlesian."

She stood up, and Garevel and Varel followed her example. "I'll let you know about the ones you need to talk to," Garevel said, "within a day or two." He shifted his shoulders, adjusting the fit of the mailshirt he insisted on wearing even for this work. "For now, I have to figure out the best way to tell the men that their wages will be delayed."

"At least there's still food," Varel said. "Speaking of which, I'd better go talk to Mistress Hansa. She'll be relieved to know she won't be sent out on scouting duty."

"She'd be safe from that even if I found her on the rolls," Garevel said. "None of the scouts I do have can cook worth a damn."

Varel held the door open for Woolsey and Garevel, and when he turned back to his office, it seemed unaccustomedly large, merely by virtue of not being so full of people any longer. He poured himself some more tea, even though it wasn't better than lukewarm now, and sat down and spent an hour trying to draft a letter to Highever to ask about the Amaranthine soldiers. He'd be able to use most of the wording for the letter to Denerim, too, he thought, if he decided to send one. Probably it would be best to address the letters to the office of the steward or seneschal, since they didn't know the names of the persons holding those offices.

After a while, his neck and shoulder started to feel stiff. Varel got up and went to the window, but there was no intriguing practice for him to watch. A couple of soldiers walked by below, talking about something. Voldrik Glavonak came and measured a distance out from one of the walls with a piece of knotted string and jotted down notes in a notebook that seemed in a fair way to falling apart. Varel wondered if they'd agreed to have that wall rebuilt, and if there was money for it. He'd done his best to set aside what seemed like a proper sum for the dwarf to get his work done, but back when Voldrik and his brother had arrived, the Vigil's finances had still been unstable enough that Varel had felt no hesitation in prioritizing money for food over money for dwarves.

Of course it was important to rebuild the parts of the Vigil that had been ruined in the darkspawn attack. And by Dworkin Glavonak's explosions. Varel shook his head. One dwarf blew things up, the other demanded money to rebuild them. He would have preferred not having things blown up in the first place, but it was true that those explosions had killed a lot of darkspawn.

It was also true that he'd feel more comfortable once the Vigil was whole again. They'd put up a temporary front gate, at least, just planks roped together, and it was better than nothing, but seeing the Vigil in this state was like seeing a knight charge into battle with half his armor missing.

Varel rolled his shoulders and decided that he wasn't getting any farther forward on that letter, so he might as well do something else. He picked up the lists of names that he was beginning to feel a great deal of distaste for, and headed out of his office. When he passed the commander's door, he noticed that it was still firmly shut.

Down in the kitchen, Mistress Hansa was mixing up pastry in a huge bowl, while the scullions were peeling and chopping mounds of onions and carrots. Varel tried to guess what dinner would be. Onion and carrot pie didn't sound like the most appealing thing in the world, but he'd certainly had worse. Then he glanced through the open larder door and saw a row of skinned rabbit carcasses.

Hansa, flour to her elbows, glanced up at him. "I'm busy," she said uncompromisingly.

"I can see that," Varel said. His errand wasn't one that he'd be happy to discuss in front of the scullions, either. "But there's some important Vigil business we need to go over. Could I have an hour of your time after dinner?"

She nodded. "That'll be fine. Now shoo, unless you've a fancy to peel carrots with that big sword of yours."

Varel chuckled, because his sword was safely racked while he went about unarmored, but it was probably high time for him to resume his normal way of dress. He was fine, after all. Probably didn't even need any more checkups. "I'll come back later," he said.

The Vigil's myriad inner passageways from room to room were confusing, to say the least, to the newcomer. Varel had learned them years ago, but it seemed he always found some bewildered new maid with a stack of towels, or a lost soldier hoping to find the bathing rooms, going in entirely the wrong direction. He didn't need to pass through the great hall to get to the outside, but he chose that route anyway, just to see if the wardens had gathered around the fire there, as they often did when they weren't out and about with the commander.

This time, he found Oghren communing with something in a tankard, and Anders and Nathaniel Howe deep in a friendly argument. At least, Varel hoped it was friendly. He had a hard time interpreting the expressions on the young Howe's face. Varel had never seen much of Nathaniel Howe as a child, and this man who'd returned from the Free Marches seemed only to have two facial expressions, grumpy and grumpier.

Anders was definitely grinning, though. "I'm just saying that it's ridiculous for you to shout that if they surrender, we'll be merciful. Because we won't be!"

"The last captain I served under in the Free Marches taught me that," Nathaniel Howe said. "I suppose it stuck."

"Well, I can tell you right now," Anders said, "I'm not about to be merciful to darkspawn. We'd look incredibly silly if they took us up on it. Can you imagine us marching back to the Vigil with a band of darkspawn prisoners?"

"The Vigil would appreciate it if you didn't," Varel said, because really.

"Darkspawn's only good for killin'," Oghren muttered morosely into his tankard.

Nathaniel Howe looked even grumpier than usual. "Next time, just say what you mean, then, instead of accusing me of fumbling. I don't fumble."

"I could have meant the commander," Anders said cheerfully. Nathaniel Howe looked at him. "Or not! Because it's probably better not to accuse the commander of fumbling. He could make my head explode, and not in the good way. But Oghren, I could have meant Oghren!"

"Hey!" Oghren set his tankard down with a clank and a slosh. "Are you sayin' I fall over my own feet, you swishy-skirted spark-shooter!" Varel blinked, impressed despite himself. Oghren must be more sober than he looked, to manage a mouthful like that.

"Of course not!" Anders said. "Not if there's someone else's feet to fall over instead."

"That's right!" Oghren growled. "Wait, what?"

Nathaniel Howe shook his head. "I also find it difficult to believe that there is a good way to make your head explode. From your perspective, I mean."

"Oh, I can tell you've never been with a mage," Anders said. "This one girl I knew back in the tower, she could--"

"Stop," young Howe and Oghren growled, practically in unison.

"I'm not interested in hearing about your exploits," Nathaniel Howe said.

"I'd rather have some exploits of my own, if you know what I mean." Oghren took a swig. "That lusty li'l legionnaire can't resist the Oghren charm forever."

"I think she means to try," Anders said. "Have you thought about giving her a pair of ear plugs? Or nose plugs. Nose plugs and ear plugs."

Oghren looked thoughtful. "Kinky."

Varel, for his part, couldn't stop himself from thinking about the commander, and what the commander could do with his mouth. There'd been no magic involved in that, not after the healing that started the whole thing off, but all the same, Varel thought he had a fair notion of what Anders meant. There was, indeed, a good way to make a person feel as though their head had exploded.

"One of the girls at the Pearl told me she had a customer who was crazy about blindfolds and ear plugs and gags, everything like that, but I don't think he ever tried nose plugs at the same time. Or maybe they wouldn't let him. Bad for business if a customer chokes to death in the back room."

"The Pearl? In Denerim?" Oghren stared up at Anders. "That's where you went when you ran away from that tower of yours? Always knew you were a dirty little mageling." He turned his head to look at Nathaniel. "The Pearl's a brothel," he explained.

"I know what the Pearl is, thank you," Nathaniel said. "Most of the young nobles I knew before I left for the Free Marches were saving their coppers for a visit there when their family went to the capital. They thought Denerim would be much more anonymous and discreet than whatever town they came from."

"Well, that was optimistic of them," Anders said. "Also, tragically wrong. The madam at the Pearl could recite the ins and outs of every noble family in Ferelden, and tell you exactly who was in Denerim at the moment, and quite a bit about what their finances were like and if they'd had a good harvest that year."

Varel chuckled a bit to himself. But listening to the wardens' idle banter wasn't getting him anywhere, and the way Oghren took off after Anders with his axe when another remark put his back up was frankly Anders's problem, so he left them to it and walked down to the main entrance and out into the Vigil's front courtyard.

The breeze was warm enough that he wasn't surprised to see the guards edging into the shade where they could. Varel thought it was pleasant to feel the sunshine on his face, though. The courtyard was bustling and noisy, with Voldrik and his men hammering stone on one side and Master Wade hammering metal on the other, and everyone raising their voices to be heard over the steady clamor. Varel didn't see the groundskeeper anywhere, so he walked towards the barracks and the practice yard.

Groundskeeper Samuel wasn't there, either. Garevel was putting some of his soldiers through arms practice, shouting commands at a line of flashing shields. He nodded a greeting to Varel, who nodded back and went on around the side of the keep, heading for the kitchen garden.

That's where he found the groundskeeper, at long last. Samuel was turning over the big compost heap in the corner, a fragrant task. He was wearing gloves, but his arms were bare above them, and he'd managed to get a long brown smear on one arm, as well as a bit of dirt on his forehead. "Seneschal," he said, waving his pitchfork in something that might have passed for an informal salute. "Is there something I can do for you?"

"Yes." Varel stepped closer, trying not to step in too many of the bits that had rolled off the compost heap as Samuel worked on it. "You've been here a long time. I'd like to talk to you about this," he gestured with the papers in his hand. "I'm trying to find out what happened to some people who used to work here at the Vigil, and I thought you could help me."

"Maybe I could at that," the groundskeeper said. He squinted up at the sky. "Can it wait a bit longer? I'd like to get this done while it's still light enough here that I can see what I'm doing."

Varel looked up, too. The sun would disappear around the bulk of the keep in a while, and this corner of the kitchen garden would get a lot darker and less hospitable. "It could wait," he said slowly. Really, the men on the list were dead, and an hour would make no difference to them; it was Varel himself who wanted the task to be over and done.

"You could give me a hand." Samuel grinned. "It'd go faster that way. And you're dressed for it, for once."

Varel was startled into a laugh. It was true that his usual heavy armor and two-handed sword wasn't what anyone would call a gardening outfit. It was also true that he was the seneschal of Vigil's Keep and not often called upon to help turning over compost heaps. But it would get him Samuel's help sooner, and give him something to do in the meantime that might take his mind off both missing men and the commander's mouth. And he might as well give up on keeping these boots clean, anyway.

He picked up the shovel that leaned against the wall and went to work.

Turning over the compost was heavy work, and Varel gained new respect for the groundskeeper's wiry form. Samuel was tall for an elf, but not what anyone would call stocky, and he looked to be at least Varel's own age; still he worked on patiently and steadily, while Varel started out a bit too vigorously and had to stop and take his shirt off and use it to wipe the sweat from his face. This used a different set of muscles from his usual sword practice.

The compost was crawling with worms, and at first Varel tried to avoid them, but Samuel shrugged and said a worm cut in two made either two worms or more compost. After that, he just worked, falling into the same steady rhythm that Samuel had. "Will you use this here in the kitchen garden?" he asked.

"Wherever it's needed," Samuel said, his voice as good as another shrug.

Once they were done, Varel stood leaning against the handle of his shovel and thought that probably this had been good for him, but he could feel his arm ache now, just a little bit. It looked fine from the outside, though. There was barely a mark.

"This isn't where I thought you were off to," a voice said behind him. Varel turned to see Mistress Hansa in the open kitchen door, arms crossed as she leaned against the lintel post and watched him and Samuel. "I'd've let you out this way if you'd asked."

"I didn't know this was where I needed to go," Varel said, shaking his head ruefully. He'd walked through and around the whole Vigil just to end up outside the kitchen.

"Can't let you come in this way," she said, "not as filthy as you both are. Go get cleaned up, and I've got a special pie for you, pigeon instead of rabbit. The commander only wanted the one."

"The commander was here?" Varel said, startled.

The cook nodded. "Sat here with me for a while, even, so I could see him eating." Her grin broadened. "I mostly had eyes for the view, though."

"Well, I know you don't mean me," Samuel said with a trace of laughter in his slightly cracked voice. "You see me working in the kitchen garden all the time. Better get yourself cleaned up and dressed, seneschal."

"There's more apple pie for after, too," Hansa added. "But you'd better be dressed if you want to eat it. Even if it seems like a right shame."

Varel didn't mind Hansa's friendly ogling, but his mind was stuck on the idea of the commander sitting inside the kitchen and looking out at him while he stood shirtless and shovelled compost. The commander would probably have been his extremely clean and tidy self, too, while Varel was sweaty and dirty. His boots were definitely wrecked.

But he had other things he ought to think about, things that needed to get done, whether the commander was watching or not. He looked from Hansa to Samuel. "It would be convenient if I could talk to the pair of you at the same time," he said. "There's a matter that's of some importance to the Vigil that we need to get sorted out."

"What I need is my dinner," Samuel said. "But I said I'd give you the time you wanted, and I will."

"If both of you get yourselves fit for a kitchen," Hansa said, "I'll have some pie and ale ready for you, and we can all sit down together. The girls can handle the cleanup on their own." A faint but mistress! drifted out from the kitchen behind her.

Varel definitely felt better after he'd washed up a bit, even if it was in icy-cold water from a bucket in the scullery. He'd get a hot bath later. They scraped their boots as clean as could be, and while the result wouldn't pass muster in a noble's fancy salon, it was good enough for the everyday Vigil. His shirt was a lost cause, though, and none of Samuel's spares would fit him.

"I'd best run up and get something from my own supply," Varel said. "You go on ahead, and tell Mistress Hansa I won't be but a minute or two."

He didn't actually run up the stairs, though, because running up tall flights of stone steps was for younger men, or earlier in the day, or at any rate for someone who hadn't just spent an hour shoveling wormy kitchen compost. When he emerged into the antechamber that led into the hallway with his room, he came across Sigrun and the commander, deep in conversation. "I still think you should have recruited her," Sigrun said. "She wanted to be a warden. And you'd have another mage! And another elf. Doesn't it get lonesome, being the only elf here?"

"I'm not the only elf here," the commander said. "Unless you mean in this room. And I prefer my wardens to be more stable and reliable." Sigrun drew breath to say something, and the commander held up a hand. "Yes, and then there's Oghren. But at least when I found him he was killing darkspawn, not massacring caravans."

"I liked her," Sigrun said a little sulkily.

"I am aware." The commander seemed about to say more, but then he caught sight of Varel.

Varel realized that there was nothing to be done but keep moving. "Excuse me," he said, walking forward and past the commander and Sigrun.

"Ooh, you're not wearing a shirt," Sigrun said. "You should do that more often. Don't you think he should do that more often, commander?"

"I doubt the commander has an opinion on the matter," Varel said, and ducked down the hallway to his rooms as quick as he could. He could feel the commander's eyes on his bare shoulders right up until he closed the door.

Well, going around half-dressed certainly wasn't expected from the seneschal of Vigil's Keep. A shirt restored some of Varel's dignity, and as he ran his hands through his hair to smooth it down, he wondered who this elf was that Sigrun had wanted to recruit. Seemed that the wardens' adventures in the Wending Wood had been even more interesting than what Varel had heard tell of so far.

He couldn't stay where he was; the pie would get cold, the ale would get warm, and Hansa and Samuel would get impatient. Varel knew the perils of keeping a cook waiting, and so he went out again, and walked right into the continued discussion. "But she was pretty," Sigrun said.

The commander sounded particularly bland and prosaic as he said, "Wardens aren't recruited on basis of their looks."

Of course, Varel reflected, anyone who just looked at the commander himself might be excused for thinking that. Elyon Andras was so pretty it was downright ridiculous. "Excuse me," he said again, squeezing part Sigrun, who gesticulated a lot when she got excited. Since most of her gesturing was at groin level for Varel, and she wore some fairly tough gloves to boot, he'd rather be cautious than a target.

"He got dressed," she said, sounding disappointed.

"Clothing is only one of the perks of working at Vigil's Keep," the commander said.

Varel couldn't help it, he started to chuckle. He might be a bit angry with the commander, he might feel upset about what had happened between them that afternoon, but seeing the commander's sense of humor peek out behind the neutral facade was a rare and wonderful thing. "There's baths, too," he told Sigrun as solemnly as he could, "and regular meals." He narrowed his eyes at his commander, finally realizing what seemed wrong about seeing the man here. "Didn't Mistress Hansa give you some apple pie for dessert five minutes ago?"

"It's in my room," the commander said. "Where I was just going." He turned to Sigrun. "Perhaps we can continue this discussion later."

"That means never," Sigrun said, but the resignation sat lightly in her voice. "You could have just said before this, you know. Enjoy your apple pie, commander!"

Varel turned and went down the stairs, fighting the urge to go with the commander to his room and see him eat. He didn't think he ever had seen that, come to think of it. He'd only ever seen the commander drink a bit of water, and-- Varel had to stop right there on the stairs for a moment. He'd seen the commander suck and swallow, twice. But that definitely wasn't any way to keep a grown man fed.

Resolutely refusing to get flustered about it, Varel went on. The commander was eating now, Mistress Hansa said so. And Varel had some issues with the commander, yes, but those would have to wait. Right now he was set to have some dinner, and a long talk with Hansa and Samuel.

When he came back down to the kitchen, Mistress Hansa was waiting for him, and pulled him into a small side room that looked like an unused scullery, all raw stone walls and with storage crates stacked along one side. There was a small table, though, and some mismatched chairs. Groundskeeper Samuel was standing by the table and cutting up the pie, and it smelled incredible.

"Figured you wanted a bit of privacy," Hansa said. "Won't nobody come in here and bother us."

Ale and pigeon pie in that grey little room, with Hansa and Samuel, turned out to be one of the best meals Varel had ever had in the Vigil. The cook had outdone herself with that pie, and he just hoped the commander had appreciated it, too. When she brought in the apple pie afterwards, Varel felt like saluting. The food and ale made him feel more mellow, and when they started in on discussing the people who had gone missing from the staff records for the keep, and the list of dead prisoners from the deep cellars, all three of them could do it in a calm enough manner. Varel refilled their mugs, and they drank a quiet toast in ale to the unidentified dead.

As Varel had suspected, Samuel and Hansa could help him sort out what had happened during the time that he himself had been imprisoned. He should have done this earlier, he knew that. Being released and reinstated as seneschal, rather than executed, had been a considerable relief to him, to put it mildly, and there had been so much to do in getting the Vigil running smoothly again, coming to terms with all the changes in Ferelden -- Rendon Howe dead, Teyrn Loghain dead, the Blight ended, a Theirin bastard taking the throne. Varel had barely had time to wonder who would inherit the arling, when the letters with the king's seal had come from Denerim, saying that Amaranthine belonged to the Grey Wardens now, and they were all rushing around to set things in order for a contingent of Orlesian wardens, coming in to get the order re-established.

That hadn't sat right with any of them. Varel had fought the Orlesians thirty years ago. He remembered the feeling when Ferelden had finally won its freedom and the occupation was ended; he wasn't any too keen on starting to take orders from Orlesians once more.

The wardens who arrived hadn't been so bad, though, he repeated to himself yet again. They'd been wardens first and Orlesians second. In fact, several of them hadn't been Orlesians at all, though they came as part of the Orlesian contingent. It seemed wardens moved around a fair bit more than most people, learning from each other. A warden called Besham had told Varel, late one night after a lot of wine, that he figured it was so they wouldn't forget their loyalty was to the Grey Wardens, not to the country they happened to be living in, or the country they came from to start with.

None of them wore masks, which was a considerable relief. And they started recruiting right away, getting volunteers from amongst the Fereldan knights and soldiery.

Their commander hadn't been with them, kept back in Orlais for something or other to do with the empress. Varel had tried as best he could to hide his disapproval of that. A commander should be with his men.

Every one of those men had either died or been taken prisoner on that horrible night when the darkspawn swarmed up from the deep cellars, overrunning the Vigil. Varel himself had been as close to death as he cared to get, the edge of a darkspawn sword laid against his throat. And then the new Orlesian commander had come to the rescue.

Varel wasn't sure what he'd been expecting. The other wardens had told him that their commander was a mage and an elf, but they hadn't gone into detail. The immense power of the commander's magic had been a bit of a shock, though a good one, seeing as how he was saving Varel's life with it. Actually getting a good look at the commander for the first time... Varel wasn't sure what had startled him the most, that the commander was so young, or that the commander was so pretty.

He also remembered thinking, very clearly, that no one should have been able to fight their way through a darkspawn-infested fortress with a bare handful of companions and come out of it looking so prim and proper and downright tidy.

Things had been extremely busy at the Vigil before the commander arrived, and even more so after he arrived. Still, Varel knew he should have taken the time to make sure he knew just who had come and gone at the Vigil, precisely because it had been such a turbulent period. And the time he had languished in the dungeon was definitely a gap in his knowledge of what had gone on, he realized as he heard Hansa and Samuel tell it as they'd seen it.

It was a relief to Varel to hear that most of the Vigil workers he'd worried about, after seeing the way their names disappeared between one set of records and the next, had actually left on their own two feet, taking themselves out of Rendon Howe's employ before they ended up in a cell next to Varel. Only one or two could be identified as part of the group of mysterious dead prisoners, in addition to those Varel had already recognized, to his sorrow, as some of his old Ostagar veterans.

Of course, the remaining unidentified bodies had still been someone, and it meant that somewhere else, someone else was missing a husband or a daughter who had never come home, but Varel had learned long ago, when he first began to command soldiers in battle, that he had to be careful with his feelings; he couldn't let himself be swamped with grief and guilt even for the people he knew, let alone those he didn't know.

Finding out the fate of some of his fellow soldiers had brought him close enough to that. He was glad, at least, that he didn't have to add a lot of maids and local workmen to his own inner tally of dead.

One person on the list, though, both Samuel and Hansa thought might be a trader who'd come up from the south. "She looked like that, right enough," Hansa said, squinting at the list. "But healthier."

"Being alive does make people look healthier," Samuel said with black humor. "She was spreading rumors the old arl didn't like, though. About the Blight, and the civil war, and these wardens working to stop it all."

"I meant to get some spices from her," Hansa said, sounding a bit put out. "But she just disappeared before I could make up my order. I figured she went to Amaranthine instead."

"Doesn't look that way, does it," Varel said, looking at the list. He made a notation next to that description -- trdr fr so? -- and took another swig of ale. "But you don't think any of the others are our people."

"No," Hansa said. "Leastways, this don't sound like anyone I know."

"That's good, I suppose," Varel said, turning the list over in his hands. The descriptions were a bit vague, now that he looked at them again. "But these people still died in the Vigil, and we don't know who they were."

"The old arl had a powerful quarrel with some of the farmers along the river," Samuel said tentatively. "I could send word down that way, when I get the chance, and if there's any families with folks missing, they'll know they can ask you."

That must have been another thing that happened while Varel was imprisoned. The last days of Rendon Howe's rule had been full of incidents, and even once he'd gone to Denerim, the old arl had managed to make his presence felt in Amaranthine through letters and orders sent with trusted messengers. But if the river farmers had a problem with the Vigil, surely they would have said something in the time that had passed after Howe's death.

"Thank you for helping me with this," Varel said finally, looking from Samuel to Hansa and back. "I thought the two of you would be able to point me in a fresh direction."

Samuel sounded amused. "I don't figure I need to be thanked for eating the finest dinner I've had in weeks," he said. "I should be thanking the pair of you. Mistress, I swear you're the best cook in all the arling." Hansa's face always had a high color, but Varel thought she went a little pinker. "And seneschal, you did some fine work with that shovel out there. Next year's carrots will be thanking you, too."

"I would prefer it if the carrots didn't talk," Varel said with a half-grin. "Even if all they said was thank you. There's been enough strange things happening here."

"Ain't that the truth," Samuel agreed.

After that, they lingered over their ale and talked idly about the Vigil's food stores, and how the garden crops looked and what would be planted for next year, and how to keep the soldiers fed and happy through the coming fall and winter. Last year had been harsh for them all, and the darkspawn raids had interfered to an extent with this year's planting, too. Harvest deliveries were beginning to come in, though, from the farms and villages nearest to the Vigil, and they did have enough money to buy whatever they ran out of that wasn't locally grown, provided things didn't get any worse.

"The commander will take care of all those nasty darkspawn," Mistress Hansa said. "I mean, he has to, don't he. It's what he's here for."

"I do believe he's doing his best." Varel emptied his tankard. He was glad not to be a warden, with those expectations resting on his shoulders. Keeping the Vigil running was enough of a challenge for him, given how much of the arling that the Vigil's decisions affected.

The scullions, having run out of other dishes to clean, came into the room to take their empty plates and mugs away, and that finally broke up their little dinner party. They all wandered off in separate directions, with Samuel going outside again, and the cook herding her scullions into the kitchen, scolding and praising by turns all the way.

Varel went to take a turn about the Vigil. He wanted to see for himself that everything was in order. Most of the small rooms on the lowest floor were empty, which was just as it should be. He checked into storage rooms for the pleasure of seeing scrubbed-out bins waiting to be filled with turnips, crates and barrels stacked high, cheeses in their racks. It gave him just as much satisfaction to look into the armory and see different racks more lethally filled, the quiet gleam of swords and daggers reassuring in a different way. The Vigil's people wouldn't starve, and they had weapons to defend themselves. Master Wade's new armor was beginning to fill up its own stacks, too, and well-crafted breastplates jostled for space with a stack of kite shields just waiting to be covered with the emblem of...

Well, that was probably why they were waiting, Varel reflected wryly. No one wanted to cover these shields with the old Howe crest, even though they had plenty of hides painted with the lumbering bear. It should rightly be the griffon insignia, these days. Or was there a specific version for troops that fought for the wardens, but weren't wardens themselves? Varel made a mental note that he would have to find that out, and also that they needed to build more weapon racks and armor stands, both to fit the new equipment and to replace some of the older racks that were starting to look extremely worn down. He'd get a handful of men assigned to that shortly.

The great hall, when he reached it, was empty, its fire banked down to a quiet glow. The throne stood on its dais at the far end, looking forlorn. Varel tried to remember if he'd ever seen the commander using it. It seemed Elyon Andras was always on his feet, facing both friend and foe with that same level stare. And the truth was, that massive wooden chair would make him look small, even if the dais added a great deal of height. Meeting everyone on the floor, without any artificial reminders of rank, was probably the wisest choice.

And the commander wasn't arl the way Rendon Howe had been arl, either, Varel reminded himself. The arling of Amaranthine had been deeded to the Grey Wardens. The commander was arl for as long as he was commander here, but he could be replaced from within his own order, and another warden would be commander and arl in his stead, ruling just as absolutely and just as precariously. It was bound to happen sooner or later, going by what the other Orlesian wardens had told Varel. Especially since an Orlesian Commander of the Grey in Ferelden probably wasn't the best choice, long-term.

Varel would have said so himself, not long ago. The commander had the odds stacked against him, being an Orlesian and a mage and an elf. People despised Orlesians, feared mages, and looked down on elves. Maybe Woolsey would turn out to be right, and the commander would win the arling over by filling its coffers, but Varel wasn't so sure. People would hate and fear an arl who led them to starve, yes, and they might revere an arl who made them extremely rich, but if what they had was enough, they'd spend their time fretting about other things.

And Varel knew just what those other things were. He couldn't say he disagreed, either. Unless the commander could stop the darkspawn attacks and ensure the arling's safety, there'd be no love for him in Amaranthine, whether from nobles or commoners. Safety was a more immediate concern than money.

With a sigh, Varel moved on. He took a turn outside, in the front courtyard, and saw that the merchant Armaas was standing with his arms crossed and a crate at his feet, open to demonstrate the contents, and carrying on some sort of negotiation with Herren. At least, Varel assumed that's what it was. Herren talked and gesticulated, and Armaas stood stock still and sometimes shook his head, while Herren looked more and more exasperated. Finally, Armaas nodded, and Herren slumped and glared before he nodded, too.

Herren caught sight of Varel, said something quick to Armaas, and hurried over. Varel braced himself.

"Seneschal! You're just the man I need."

"Is that so," Varel said neutrally.

"Yes. Our business here is thriving, especially now that Armaas says he can supply us with some rarer items. But this location is starting to get a trifle cramped."

"A trifle cramped, he says," Wade sniffed in the background. "Seneschal, I need more space. There's no scope here, no proper room for my visions!" He gesticulated rather alarmingly with his hammer.

"What Wade means is," Herren said, "that we could use more storage room. The space behind the forge here," he gestured at the door behind Wade, "is useful for smaller items, and for the supplies Master Wade needs for his work. But we simply must have a place to store bigger, heavier items, and those things we don't use every day."

Varel made a non-committal noise. "I'll have to see what I can do about finding more space for you."

"Well, we need it to put our new supplies in." Herren waved a hand at the crate Armaas had brought. "Right now. There's a whole wagonload piled up outside the gate there."

Varel groaned. This wasn't his idea of a good way to spend the hours after dinner. Still, he was strongly opposed to the idea of merchants' crates piling up in places they weren't supposed to be. And Wade and Herren were important assets to the Vigil. Varel hadn't been certain at first, when they'd arrived and set up shop, with a great deal of fussing and complaining, and a great deal of waving-around of a letter from the crown that said they should be treated well. But Wade really was as good as Herren said he was, and the armor he was making for the Vigil's soldiers certainly surpassed what they'd had so far.

So Varel knew he'd better try to keep them happy. "Does it have to be very close?" he asked. "I can't give you more space right here, but there are some empty buildings down in the bailey, just on the other side of the inner walls. You could use one of them for storage."

"And I suppose I'll have to run all the way out there every time I need something." Wade clanged his hammer against the anvil for emphasis. "Herren, I refuse."

"Yes, Wade," Herren said with surprising patience. "We'll send someone. But the things you need every day will still be right here, I promise. And you can't keep stumbling over sword blanks while you work. It just isn't practical." He turned back to Varel. "We'd appreciate it if you could spare us some men to help move everything into place."

Varel nodded. "I'll get Captain Garevel to send some men over with the key right away." He headed for the guards barracks.

The yard outside was unusually empty for this time of day. Varel would have expected soldiers strolling about to let their dinner settle, or lounging in the last of the sunlight against the wall into the kitchen garden. He opened the door into the biggest of the barracks and saw that everyone was crowded together here, facing a rather harried-looking Garevel. "You're soldiers of the Vigil!" Garevel said. "You'll be housed and fed for these two weeks, and then everything will be back to normal."

"We've seen our pay stopped before," someone called from one side of the room.

A pair of soldiers right in front of Varel were muttering to each other. "Fine to say we'll be housed and fed, even if we aren't paid, but I don't need this money to buy myself extra socks, do I? It's what my family has to live on, after their farm was burned by darkspawn."

"You think the commander's decided to use it for Orlesian fripperies instead? I thought we could trust him."

Garevel crossed his arms. "Are you questioning your orders?"

He didn't get a shout in reply this time, just a steady mutter that all the same seemed to amount to too bloody right we are. Varel could see the anger in Garevel's shoulders and drawn-down brows, and he shook his head. "Seems I've come at a bad time," he said, loud enough to be heard over that muttering. "I need a word with Captain Garevel."

"As many words as you like, ser," the soldier in front of him said grouchily.

"Dismissed," Garevel said curtly, and the soldiers began to trickle out of the building, talking to each other in low voices. Most of them still sounded angry, Varel thought. Garevel strode over to Varel. "This is not the best time," he said. "I thought our men had come to have more discipline than this." He cracked his knuckles. "If I cancel all leaves for the next two weeks, there won't be anything they would have spent their pay on anyway."

"You know they mostly send money home," Varel said.

"Yes, I know," Garevel said with a grim look in his eyes. "Stopping payments like this is like taking the bread out of their families' mouths. I told them no one would be getting any money, not me, not you, but they think all officers have a mattress full of silver for times like these."

"Well, I wish they'd tell me where mine is." Varel shook his head. "I came to ask you for your keys to the old carpenter's shed, and a couple of men to help Herren and Wade move some of their supplies there. Seems they just bought up nearly everything that Armaas fellow had. It's starting to look as if the Vigil will have a market to rival Amaranthine's."

"Not if no one has any money to buy things," Garevel said. He scrubbed a hand angrily over his short hair. "I know Woolsey says this will just be a temporary measure, and I know it has to be done, but I remember what it meant last time payments were stopped. Now I know how Rullens felt. Blight take it, if I had a mattress full of silver, I'd use it to pay the men myself. But that's what got all this trouble started, isn't it."

"You know Woolsey would take care you couldn't cheat anyone to make up for it," Varel said dryly. "Rullens was always a close man." He looked at Garevel. "I don't suppose he left a mattress full of silver behind? That money he cheated the crown out of, it must have gone somewhere."

"Whores in Amaranthine, most likely," Garevel snapped. "All he left here was his sword and a cot that stank of old sweat." The low talk of the soldiers outside rose into a shouted argument, and Garevel swung towards the door. "Damn them. I have to deal with this."

"You can't ask half of them to arrest the other half," Varel said. Garevel strode for the door, and Varel followed him.

"It would do them good to at least cool their heels overnight." Garevel practically vibrated with anger. "If we don't have discipline, we don't have anything."

The soldiers hadn't scattered, outside, but stood in tight little clumps, talking to each other. The loudest ones were in the middle; the shouted argument was between Danella and a man called Glisher, a veteran of ten years' standing. "Take that back!" Danella said. "You think the captain's sold us out to the Orlesians?"

Next to Varel, Garevel growled like a mabari.

"The commander's an Orlesian, and he's the one owns us now," Glisher snarled. "They come here all fancy la-di-da to set things in order, and now there's darkspawn everywhere, the Plains are burning, and we get no money!"

Danella was right up in Glisher's face. "Shut up, dung-for-brains! The commander's a good man. The wardens are here to fight the darkspawn, and you can help or you can run crying home to your ma."

"You're only saying that because he helped you." Glisher raised his voice even more. "You deserted, Danella, you're the one ran crying home to your ma, and you got rewarded for it! Well, the rest of us have got families, too! With no money to send them, how are we going to keep them fed? You think all of us should run away like you did?"

"Your family lives in Amaranthine," Danella said. "There's city walls and a city guard. And you know blighted well I'm no deserter. I'm here, aren't I?"

"We have to do something," Garevel said. "Right, I'll take Danella if you--"

Varel put a hand on Garevel's arm. He'd caught sight of something grey and tan moving on the edge of the crowd, and the gleam of copper hair. The people over there fell quiet, and when the commander cleared his throat, the sound carried over the whole yard, though that shouldn't have been possible. Both Danella and Glisher quieted, and everyone turned that way, until the commander stood in front of the crowd instead of on the outskirts of it.

It was impressive, Varel had to admit. One small, slender figure in those plain robes that were about as far from Orlesian frippery as you could get, and he held everyone's attention, without any apparent effort. Seeing the commander made it clear to everyone present, without a word spoken, that he wasn't taking the Vigil's money to spend on any personal prettification. No, the commander's beauty was all in the fine bones of his face, his clear grey eyes that seemed to see straight to a man's soul.

Varel pinched his own arm. This was no time to moon over the commander's looks like a would-be tavern minstrel.

"Your captain has told you there's an error in the payroll," the commander said, "and though our good Mistress Woolsey is working as fast as she can to bring order, we may all have to wait a week or two longer for our pay."

A murmur stirred through the crowd again, a low muttering, but what Varel heard was mostly, "We? Did he say we?"

"Captain Garevel was the one to bring this to light," the commander went on. "That was a commendable act, for which I'd like to thank him, and it's not right that this honest man, and the good soldiers of the Vigil, should suffer any inconvenience for it."

"What is he doing?" Garevel muttered under his breath. "If these men turn on him..."

"They won't," Varel said. "If they did... have you ever seen the commander in a fight? But they won't. Look at them."

"Payments to the Vigil's soldiers will continue as usual," the commander said calmly.

Some of the assembled soldiers began to cheer. Others looked thoughtful. Danella was the one who took a step forward and called out, "So where's the money coming from? My lord."

"The wardens have no urgent need," the commander said, "nor families that clamor for support." Having met Felsi, the mother of Oghren's child, Varel nearly choked at that. "We can wait for our wages more easily than you, as long as we have Mistress Hansa's excellent cooking to keep us fed." He swept his eyes over all of them, seeming to see and recognize everyone in the crowd. "You're soldiers of the Vigil, and the Vigil takes care of her own."

Varel pushed his way through the crowd until he could stand beside the commander, a little behind him, so he wouldn't loom and overshadow the man. Not that he thought he really could, not with the commander's presence and the way the commander drew the eye, but Varel wanted to make it clear that he wasn't trying. "I'll wait, too," he said, loud enough to be heard. "The Vigil's senior staff is with the wardens in this."

"And the wardens thank you for it," the commander said, giving a quick look back and up at him. Then he turned back to the crowd. "Rest assured," he told them, "that I won't leave the Vigil's soldiers to suffer for the mistakes of others. You're the Vigil's strength and protection. You take care of her, and she'll take care of you."

"We can wait," Glisher blurted. "I mean, if it's needed."

"No, no." The commander shook his head. A final shaft of light from the setting sun broke through the massing cloudbank on the horizon and made his hair glow like molten metal. "It's noble of you to offer, and it warms my heart to think the Vigil's soldiers are so honorable, so willing to bear hardship if it's necessary. I won't forget this moment. You've shown yourselves worthy of all the trust that's placed in you, and in return, I hope you'll allow me to show my appreciation for all you do. You're the Vigil's soldiers, you work hard, and you will be paid for it."

"A cheer for the commander!" Garevel shouted from the back of the crowd, and the soldiers cheered until they were nearly hoarse.

This time, when the crowd broke up, nearly all the soldiers were smiling. Danella and Glisher went off together, talking intently, and the only word Varel could find for the look on their faces was uplifted. "Well done, commander," he said. "They're yours now."

"Yes," the commander agreed placidly, his voice gone soberly quiet. "Until they get another compelling reason to dislike Orlesians. Or mages. Or elves in authority."

Garevel came up to them, moving against the stream of soldiers, clapping a shoulder here and punching an arm there. "That's settled for now," he said, a look of lingering displeasure on his face, "but you can't keep giving in to their demands, commander. If an army doesn't have discipline, it doesn't have anything." He saw the expression on Varel's face at hearing that twice in just a few minutes. "Yes, Rullens used to say that. Doesn't mean it's not true."

"They made no demands, captain." The commander looked completely unruffled. Garevel did loom, and though he was a smaller man than Varel, he was still considerably larger than the commander. That didn't seem to make a difference. Varel wondered if there was truly anyone or anything that might genuinely intimidate the commander, to the point where the commander would actually show it. "And now they won't. Though I'm afraid I've made more work for Mistress Woolsey, who will have to redistribute the Vigil's funds for a short time."

"She won't mind," Garevel said. "Not as long as you don't spend it all on lace mittens for the maids or something like that."

"That sounds extremely impractical," the commander said dryly. He looked at them both. "I trust you don't mind my interference. I could see you from the battlements," he nodded up, "and speaking to the men in person seemed like the best idea."

"I believe it was," Varel said. He considered the scene he'd just seen. "You manipulated them beautifully. And me."

The commander didn't even flinch. "I thought you were merely offering your support," he said, his voice so neutral that Varel had to grin, ruefully.

"Seems like you offered everyone's support," Garevel said, still sounding a bit ruffled. "We agreed to do it, but commander, you can't just order the wardens to go without their stipend. This has nothing to do with the wardens."

"It has everything to do with the wardens." The commander had steel in his words, for all he kept them low and calm. "The wardens rule Vigil's Keep now. That means all Vigil business is our business, and ultimately my responsibility. If the wardens should happen to need anything before Mistress Woolsey has the payments sorted out, I'll pay for it myself."

"Just as you're doing with the soldiers?" Varel said. The commander raised an eyebrow at him, but Varel went on. "Commander, you only have four wardens. I don't believe they get paid enough to cover the wages of the Vigil's entire garrison."

"There's a great deal of back pay for all the men who died when the darkspawn came." The commander's mouth was very firm. "You're right, of course, that the wardens need to bring in more money, but even Mistress Woolsey agrees that our actions on behalf of the Merchant's Guild in the Wending Woods paid off very well in terms of both gold and goodwill. The Vigil can afford to bear this cost, particularly if it keeps the soldiers loyal."

"But--" Garevel began.

The commander pinned them both in place with a cool grey stare. "You should have brought this to me," he said, "before you decided on your own how to solve the problem. You did not mention this to me before, seneschal."

"I'm sorry, commander," Varel said. "It seemed like a minor matter for the Vigil to handle." Though he might have remembered to mention it if the commander hadn't distracted him by kneeling in front of him and--

No, that had nothing to do with it, Varel admitted. He'd had plenty of time to mention the matter of suspended payments before the commander's mouth on his cock had made him forget his own name.

"I was the one who brought it up with the men," Garevel said stiffly. "If they had simply followed my orders, none of this would have troubled you, commander. You may want to replace me as captain."

"Yes, finding and installing a new captain that the soldiers respect, and making sure the new captain can be trusted with all the necessary responsibilities, certainly wouldn't make more work for anyone." The commander looked at Garevel, and now Garevel seemed ready to sink through the earth. "You will stay and continue in your present position. Unless you want to leave?"

"No, commander!" Garevel snapped upright. Even with all his military bearing, he still had nothing on the commander, who must have a sword for a spine for all that he was a mage.

"With me, then, both of you," the commander said. "I should like to speak with the pair of you and Mistress Woolsey at the same time."

"Yes, commander!" Garevel seemed ready to march off there and then.

"Just one moment, please, commander," Varel said. "I came here because I had some relatively urgent business with Garevel." He turned to the captain. "I need you to send a pair of men with the keys to that old shed, before we do anything else."

"Of course I will," Garevel said, with the air of a man pretending he hadn't forgotten all about it, "but I don't see what makes that so urgent."

"Presumably the large stack of crates just outside the inner gate," the commander said. "I saw them as I came out here. Herren is getting rather agitated."

"Of course he is," Garevel sighed. "Vendel! Arbar!" He called two soldiers over and gave them quick, terse instructions. They didn't look too thrilled, but they nodded and went off to do as they'd been told.

Then the commander turned and headed for the keep, and Varel and Garevel followed him, flanking him as if they'd trained for it. Varel was fascinated by the air of authority the commander exuded so effortlessly. He made men notice him, and he made them want to follow. It certainly wasn't because he was tall and impressive, or spoke in a loud voice. Nor was it because of his looks, really, as striking as they were. He was beautiful, yes, but so was the sunset.

But the sunset didn't look at people as thought it expected them to do their best, and would thank them for it, nor as if it knew just what that best was, and would notice them shirking. The commander did all that with the tiniest twitch of an eyebrow. Varel wouldn't have expected it of someone who was trained to an Orlesian mask-face, and it surprised him that soldiers who'd barely met the commander would be able to read just what that beautiful mask was saying.

The commander's voice was very level and even, too, and his every word carefully chosen. And still the result was someone people would look at, listen to, and obey.

Those plain robes helped as well, somehow, Varel reflected. Back when the commander had first arrived at the Vigil, he'd worn something embroidered and Orlesian and purple that had clashed really badly with his hair. People had still listened to him then, but he was more authoritative now.

The commander led them into the Vigil, through the entrance hall and into the labyrinthine warren of back rooms and staircases. Varel was pleased to see that the commander obviously knew these rooms and the passages connecting them, and didn't take a single wrong turn as they made their way to Woolsey's office. The other Orlesian wardens had managed to get themselves lost on a regular basis, the Vigil being what she was.

With the new set of wardens, it was only Anders who would, now and then, take a wrong turn and end up an hour late. Nathaniel Howe had grown up here, and didn't find the Vigil at all confusing, and as for the dwarves, well, Oghren had belched and said something about stone sense and natural advantages and how dwarves never got lost either underground or in a stone building, which Varel had thought at first was just a typical Oghren boast, but apparently it was true. At least, neither Oghren nor Sigrun had ever hesitated either in the above-ground parts of the Vigil or in her cellars.

Woolsey was in her office, of course. She sat at her desk, surrounded by towering stacks of ledgers, and made notes from two of them into a third.

"I didn't know we even had that many accounts," Varel said.

Woolsey put her pen down and looked up. "Commander." She nodded at Varel and Garevel. "Gentlemen."

"I'd like to speak to all of you," the commander said, "about the work you're currently doing that involves errors in the muster roll and payroll, money obtained from the crown of Ferelden under false premises, and missing Vigil staff."

"Yes, commander," Woolsey said. She didn't look in the least taken aback.

"Seneschal Varel gave me an overview earlier today," the commander went on, "but I'd rather have all the available information." He turned his head. "Captain Garevel, please describe to me how you first came to discover this problem."

"Yes, commander." Garevel began to explain how he'd gone to enter the name and details of a new recruit, dropped the ledger, and opened it a few pages back instead. He'd seen a name he recognized, one of the keep's maids, listed with the soldiers. "So I began to read through the lists, and I saw more names that shouldn't have been there. And then I saw the names of people who were never here, like ten men written down as coming from West Hill when we only got two, and I knew that wasn't right."

The commander held up a hand. "Wait, please. I do want to hear about both these things, but let's start with the errors that involve the Vigil's staff. Those who were listed as soldiers, are they also still on the Vigil's books as working in their household duties at the same time?"

"Yes," Woolsey said. "I checked that. The bookkeeping has remained regular and correct in that respect."

"And those people get paid for the work they actually do, as household staff, not as soldiers."

Garevel nodded. "Trust me, commander, I would have noticed this a lot sooner if there'd been maids lining up with the soldiers on payday. They probably don't know about it at all."

Woolsey gave a brief nod of agreement. The commander considered the pair of them. "So the purpose of this deception was to commit fraud against the crown of Ferelden, do I have that right?"

"I wouldn't have believed it of Rullens," Garevel burst out. "I thought he was a good man, a loyal man."

"I've said it before," Woolsey said tightly. "Gold corrupts men's souls. Your Rullens may have been a fine soldier, but he was not proof against this temptation."

The commander looked perfectly calm, but dissatisfaction radiated off him like heat. "It seems to me," he said, "that the Vigil's odd habit of maintaining separate books for the soldiers facilitated this instance of fraud. I was not previously aware that payments to the Vigil's garrison were not under the direct supervision of the treasurer."

"They are now, commander," Woolsey said, sounding as if the words were pulled from her like teeth with a set of pliers. "But it was an oversight on my part not to have investigated the earlier records, rather than relying on Captain Garevel's word."

Garevel flushed with anger. "I'm the one who discovered this," he said, "and if you think I've been lining my pockets all this time--"

"No," Woolsey said, "I don't believe you have. I merely meant that if I had requested the books from you, this unfortunate state of affairs might have come to light sooner."

"But we had no money then," the commander said plainly, "so perhaps this was just as well. Mistress Woolsey, Captain Garevel, I would like the two of you to work together to make an account of how much money the Vigil received, and how much needs to be paid back to the crown. I understand from Seneschal Varel that the Vigil was given a bonus for every reported soldier."

Woolsey nodded crisply. "I'm already working on that, commander."

"Good." The commander nodded back. "It is also necessary to construct one single and correct payroll that lists every person in the Vigil, this payroll to be maintained by the treasurer."

"But commander," Garevel broke in, "do you really expect every soldier in the barracks to tromp in here for their money every week?"

"That is entirely up to Mistress Woolsey," the commander said. "She can easily decide on a routine where you or some other officer is entrusted with the payments, if that is more convenient to her. In the meantime, the Vigil's soldiers will be paid out of my personal resources."

"That is quite generous of you, commander," Woolsey said.

"It seems like the best choice," the commander said. "If discontent and seditious talk continue to spread, it would have unfortunate consequences. The Vigil's soldiers must remain loyal."

"I would never have allowed that kind of talk to spread!" Garevel said. He practically had steam coming out of his ears. "Surely you know, commander, that I would have enforced discipline through any means necessary."

"Yes." The commander's cool eyes pinned Garevel in place. "As I said, this seems like the best choice. You're free to draw on my personal account, kept by Mistress Woolsey. I trust between the pair of you, you will keep a good record of what is paid out to the soldiers."

"Of course we will," Mistress Woolsey said, "and you will be reimbursed as soon as possible."

"I have also promised the soldiers that the wardens will accept the delay of payments in their stead. Please withhold the payment of warden stipends to myself, Nathaniel, Anders, and Sigrun."

Woolsey raised an eyebrow. "What about Oghren?"

"The money to Felsi and the child must continue as usual, of course." The commander gave a minimal shrug. "If Oghren sends it on himself, then continue paying him as usual."

"He does not. In accordance with his request, I keep a portion of his stipend back and arrange for its safe delivery." Woolsey eyed the commander rather thoughtfully. "He told you he sends the money himself?"

"He's said nothing about it to me one way or the other." The commander sounded very nearly bored. "Withhold his stipend as well, then, and take the money for Felsi out of my personal account for the time being."

Varel stood where he was, slightly behind the commander and to one side, and felt invisible, something that didn't happen often either to a man of his size or a man in his position. All the commander's attention was focused on Woolsey and Garevel for the time being, but all the same, Varel didn't imagine that he'd been forgotten. He knew his turn would come, and he wasn't exactly looking forward to it.

"If that's all, commander," Garevel said, "I think I should be getting back to my men, to keep an eye on them. I'll let you know if there's any trouble."

"Yes," the commander said levelly. "If it's at all possible, I would appreciate being informed of events."

Garevel actually looked flustered. In a way, Varel could understand that. Garevel had been trained up by Rullens, and by the man before him. Rendon Howe hadn't cared how the captain of the guard kept order, as long as sufficient order was, in fact, kept and the men did as they were told. The Orlesian wardens had also been content to leave the management of the soldiers in Rullens's hands. The idea of an arl who took a closer interest was a new one.

"Yes, commander," Garevel said. There was an unaccustomed note of uncertainty in his voice. Varel thought he'd better have a talk with the man. He was fairly sure that the commander didn't mean for Garevel to pass every decision or minor issue on to him.

On the other hand, Garevel was the one who would have to learn to make those judgments, and perhaps the matter was better left between Garevel and the commander after all. Having Varel's opinions mixed in might only add to the confusion.

Garevel turned for the door, giving a sort of slapdash salute as he went. Then he stopped, turned his body in the correct direction, and actually gave the commander a proper salute instead, full and formal, before leaving with long, hurried steps.

"Mistress Woolsey," the commander said. "Tomorrow, I will work with you and Captain Garevel to investigate how much money the Vigil owes back to the crown. I will also want your opinion on the best way to make these repayments."

"Of course." Woolsey showed no signs of being flustered, unlike Garevel, but she did look very serious, and her grave nod to the commander was more respectful than usual.

The commander glanced up at Varel, and gestured for him to lead the way out of the room. Varel swallowed hard and wondered how this small, delicate-seeming, polite-spoken elf could be so downright terrifying. That wasn't a way he'd ever thought of the commander before, and he rather wished he weren't thinking it now.

It wasn't all that far from Woolsey's office to Varel's, and he led the way without asking if that was where the commander wanted to go. Varel had no doubt that the commander would speak up if he'd intended something different. He opened the door to his office and held it open, waiting for the commander to step inside. A softly glowing light began to spin about the commander's head as he went by into the darkened room, and Varel hurried to light the lamps. The warm tone of regular lamplight was much more to his taste than that odd magelight, green with a silvery undertone, which made the commander look a little sickly, and presumably did the same to Varel himself.

"It seems your report this afternoon was missing some rather important details," the commander said.

Varel winced. "Commander, I had no idea the men would react so strongly. I thought Garevel's fears were exaggerated."

The commander raised an eyebrow. "Captain Garevel predicted this?"

"He always thinks the worst will happen," Varel said. "And in this case, he was right and I was wrong. I'm sorry." He looked at the commander's face, at the lack of expression, the way the long grey eyes met his assessingly and then looked away. "I know this makes it more difficult for you to trust me."

"I have faith in your loyalty," the commander said, with chilly patience. "I'm not certain I can trust your judgment about what I need to be told." Varel locked his knees and stood where he was, keeping as steady as he could, staring at the wall. He'd known something like this was coming, but that didn't make him feel any better about actually hearing it. "So I think it would be better if we worked more closely together for some time."

Varel felt entirely taken aback. He looked at the commander and saw nothing but the same steadiness, which the commander apparently kept on ice somewhere. "Whatever you want, commander," he said, but then went on, "I can't come with you on warden business, you know that, unless you appoint someone else as seneschal in my stead."

"Which I have no intention of doing, any more than I intend to replace Captain Garevel." The commander twitched an eyelid, and Varel thought that would have been a half-hour rant of exasperation in another man. "At least Mistress Woolsey has not suggested that I replace her."

"She came a long way to get here," Varel said. "Probably doesn't want to drop everything and go back again. Also, she didn't do anything wrong."

"No," the commander agreed. "Nor would I say that you and Captain Garevel have done anything wrong, precisely. You both acted according to your best estimations of what you thought the situation warranted, and what you thought I needed to know. Which is why I'll be working with you, seneschal. It will give you a more accurate idea of what I do want for the Vigil and the arling."

Varel wanted to shift his weight, to shuffle and squirm like a raw recruit. Something had shifted between them, and it was making him both happy and acutely uncomfortable. He thought he'd accepted, long before this moment, that the commander was not only young and beautiful but also extremely powerful, but this exchange made him realize that he'd always thought of that power primarily in terms of magical ability, and to some extent warden authority, even though he knew full well that the commander was the arl of Amaranthine as well as Commander of the Grey in Ferelden.

Here and now, the commander was making it clear that he was not only the final arbiter of a number of matters, but also intended to be present for, and shape, the policies that lay behind all the smaller decisions made for the Vigil and maybe even for the arling. If the commander was serious--

And when was the commander ever anything but serious?

Yes, it made Varel feel raw and awkward, in a way nothing had for too many years to count, because he had never truly offered this choice to the commander before, and he should have. He'd said he would be willing to do as much as the commander wanted, just as he had when the other Orlesian wardens had come to build their organization. Had offered to run things for him. Had expected to do so, in most matters.

In fact, ever since Rendon Howe died and Varel was freed, Varel had been the one who ruled from the Vigil, as best he could, setting some bigger decisions and serious matters aside for later. He had ended up dropping them in the commander's lap, when the commander finally arrived, without much in the way of background information or explanation.

No wonder the commander was tired of it. Varel was deeply embarrassed at the way he'd continued to smooth the commander's way without even asking if the commander would, in fact, like his way to be smoothed. Was it because the commander was so young? Because he was an elf? Because he was Orlesian, and Varel was reluctant, deep down, to let Orlesians dictate the policies for his beloved Amaranthine?

That last was probably a large part of it, Varel admitted to himself. He remembered fighting Orlesians. He remembered hating Orlesians. Meeting the wardens from Orlais had gone a long way towards easing those feelings in him, because they were wardens, and also because their business in the Vigil had been all about being wardens. The commander was different. The commander clearly meant to be both commander and arl, and wasn't going to remain content with Varel shouldering his responsibilities until he at least knew what those responsibilities were.

"Of course, commander," Varel finally said, because he had to say something, and neither shame nor jubilation would be appropriate. "When would you like to begin?"

The commander looked at him, considering. "I don't intend to watch your every move," he said. "But I do have a great deal to learn from you, things I have been careless in overlooking before. The error is mine, seneschal, as much as yours."

"No, it isn't," Varel protested before he had time to think about it. "I'm the one who's been unfair to you, commander, and I apologize for making your decisions for you."

The commander bowed his head fractionally. "You know the Vigil, and quite possibly the whole arling, better than anyone. Certainly better than I do. But in the future, I think it would be better if we agreed on the decisions before they need to be made."

"Yes, commander." Varel cleared his throat. "Ah... it will be necessary for you to take new oaths from those who succeed Bann Esmerelle and her supporters. Always provided that you want to give out just yet that they're dead. The absence of Bann Esmerelle herself, at least, could create quite an interesting power vacuum in the city of Amaranthine."

"Who is her successor?" the commander asked.

"That's for you to decide, commander." Varel relaxed a bit more where he stood, settling into his customary at-ease position. "Strictly speaking, since she committed treason against you, her liege lord, her lands are forfeit. Same goes for all the others who followed her, of course. You give them to anyone you like, or you can choose to take Amaranthine under your own direct rule."

"Yes, because I need more work," the commander said dryly. "She does have an heir, I presume."

"Yes," Varel said. "There's a nephew, her dead sister's son. In addition to being Bann Esmerelle's nephew, he was also married to Lady Liza Packton, who took part in the conspiracy and was killed here at the Vigil. I think it's safe to say he won't feel any great fondness for you."

"That could get complicated," the commander said. The long skirts of his robe swished about his calves as he turned, pulled out a chair at the table, and sat down. He gestured Varel at the chair next to him. "Take a seat, please, seneschal. I think it would be best if you wrote these things out for me -- everyone who was here, their heirs, how they're connected and what their alliances are."

That took quite some time. Varel wrote and explained, explained and wrote. The number of nobles who had conspired against the commander wasn't that high, but all the noble families in Amaranthine were connected to some extent, and Varel kept having to go back to explain that someone's cousin had died and the quarrel over the inheritance had fractured the family, or that a married couple had actually lived apart their whole lives and the household was split in two. To his relief, the commander had no trouble grasping all of Varel's explanations, and their implications. Varel supposed, thinking about it, that the aristocracy in Orlais had to be much worse. He had heard a deal about the Orlesian game of intrigue, after all, and what he'd heard was likely not the half of it.

By contrast, the petty, small-scale quarrels of minor Fereldan nobles must seem provincial and boring. But the commander listened, and the incisive comments he made showed that he really was paying attention.

"No matter what you do," Varel said at last, "someone will be unhappy about it."

"That's hardly surprising." The commander picked up the document that Varel had written out for him. "I'd better keep this, for future reference."

"I could make a cleaner copy," Varel offered, because the crooked scribbles and ink blots didn't make the best impression. He was a soldier rather than a scribe, but he could write a better hand than that, given a little time.

The commander shook his head. "I'd rather keep this," he said. "And I'll have to give a little more thought to the inheritance of Amaranthine. Will the bodies of the dead conspirators keep for another day or two?"

"Yes," Varel said unhesitatingly. "I've had them moved to the coolest part of the cellars. You intend to give them back to their families, then."

"I think it would be more convenient if they were burned here -- Fereldans do burn their dead, am I correct?"

"Of course we do," Varel said. The dead burned, as Andraste herself had burned. He knew the Avvar had practiced burial back when they held the Vigil, and as for what the Chasind were rumored to do with their dead, he really didn't want to think about that. But for a decent Andrastian Fereldan, a decent Andrastian funeral pyre was the only alternative worth considering.

"The families would have to be invited, of course. We could make it coincide with the new oath-taking." The commander stood up. "But please don't notify them yet. We'll work on the letters of announcement together, after I have settled the matter of repayments to the crown with Mistress Woolsey and Captain Garevel."

Varel nodded. When he looked up, he saw that the sky outside the window had grown considerably darker. He straightened his back and rolled his shoulders. "Yes, commander. Will it be acceptable to you if I spend the next couple of days going through the use of store rooms and buildings here at the Vigil? Herren and Wade's problems made me realize, we have a lot of temporary solutions in place, and we could probably do better. Particularly now that the Vigil's market is turning out to be so successful."

"You're still the seneschal of Vigil's Keep," the commander said. "I expect you to carry out your duties as you see fit, unless I've given you other instructions."

"With all due respect, commander," Varel said, putting the smile in his voice because it didn't quite fit on his face, "your instructions seem to be for me to think before I do anything." Which was what he himself wanted everyone at the Vigil to do, he realized. But Varel's own position had a great deal of authority, and his orders were second only to the orders of the man in front of him. Whatever he decided would carry a great deal of weight, and so the thinking he did, before the doing he did, would have to be careful.

It wouldn't do to have his orders contradict some deliberate policy of the commander's. No, of the arl's. That was what he had to be careful to remember. This wasn't just the Commander of the Grey, this was the arl of Amaranthine. And it was in the role of arl that he was Varel's superior. Varel had half started to feel himself an honorary Grey Warden, working so closely with them and becoming privy to a few secrets that he didn't think were normally spoken of outside of warden ranks. But he was here to serve Amaranthine and the arl, who also happened to be the warden-commander.

That position ought to be a secondary issue, from Varel's point of view. And hadn't he just been glad not to be a Grey Warden?

The commander headed for the door, but stopped and turned with his hand already lifted. "Go and see Anders in the infirmary tomorrow," he said, "so he can take one last look at your arm."

"It's fine," Varel said. If his arm could handle an hour of shovelling compost, it was better than just fine. The commander's healing seemed to have worked wonders.

"Nevertheless."

"There's really no need--" Varel began to say. Then he remembered Rullens, who had insisted for days that everything was fine, up until he'd died screaming. The commander hadn't been here to hear that, no, and Varel would prefer it if the commander never did have to hear that. People enough would die under his command, from violence and malice, humans and darkspawn, magic and swords, and Varel wasn't going to be the one who added stupidity to the list. "Yes, commander. I'll go."

They faced each other for a moment longer, and Varel wondered if the commander was thinking about what had happened between them that afternoon, when the commander had started out by checking on Varel's injury, and then gone on to kneel for him and suck him.

Varel's hand had been tangled in that smooth copper hair. He'd fucked the commander's throat.

He really had to think about something else. They worked together. They'd work together even more closely after this. The commander was his superior, his arl, the man to whom he owed his allegiance. Not his desire.

The commander's eyes were like polished silverite shields, all bright and impenetrable surface, giving nothing away. He nodded to Varel and left the room. Varel sank down in his chair again. There was a lot of work for him to do, and better that he should work than think about the commander that way. He still didn't know for certain why the commander had done it, either of those times, and if the commander's mouth was a thank you for a job well done, the way Varel feared, it was clear that the commander wasn't likely to thank him for what he'd done lately.

Which was just as well. That wasn't what Varel wanted. He'd been startled and delighted the first time, until the commander had left him alone and confused. And he'd been just as startled and delighted the second time, then painfully disillusioned when he came to believe the commander really was just saying thank you.

Varel didn't need to be thanked that way. Of course he'd enjoyed it, he'd have to be dead not to enjoy it, but the idea that he could be rewarded with physical pleasure into continuing to do his job well didn't sit right with him at all. He knew he owed it to the Vigil, and everyone who depended on the Vigil, to do the best he could, and that was true whether his orders came from Rendon Howe, the crown of Ferelden, a bunch of Grey Wardens, or the prettiest warden-commander anyone could have imagined.

The idea of Rendon Howe trying the same kind of reward system made him shudder, but also laugh. Even in his younger and more cautious days, Howe had been more inclined to punish errors than to reward successes. And Varel could imagine very few people who'd want the reward of Rendon Howe's physical devotion, although it had seemed to work out well for Bann Esmerelle at the time. That affair had been an open secret, and Varel didn't doubt that the bann's anger at Rendon Howe's death had been genuine, although he also didn't doubt that what she missed most about the previous arl was not his skill as a lover so much as his willingness to look the other way when she dealt with the recurring problem of Amaranthine smugglers in her own way.

Now the smugglers were the commander's problem, one that Varel suspected he was dealing with rather differently. There was every advantage to the wardens in keeping the crown of Ferelden stable, and thus in maintaining its policies. Varel had no doubt that with Bann Esmerelle dead, the smugglers would try even harder to get the commander on their side, but it seemed unlikely they would succeed.

Rendon Howe had never involved himself directly in the matter, leaving it in Bann Esmerelle's hands, and had no agreements made that would linger on after his death. All the smuggled liquor in the Vigil's cellars, for instance, and Varel had a feeling there was quite a bit of it, would be gifts from Bann Esmerelle, so that Rendon Howe could claim utter ignorance of its origins, should that become necessary.

Varel made a mental note to himself to take a closer look at the assembled nobles when the commander called for the new ceremony of oath-taking. It might be useful to see who was wearing new Orlesian silks and the fine new lace that was reputed to come from the far end of the Anderfels, where folks had nothing else to do in the long winter months but sit indoors and crochet, so the vendors said. Varel had his doubts about that, because the Anderfels were better known for producing warriors in bearskins than delicate lacework, but no matter where the lace came from, it was taxed something considerable by the time it came into Ferelden. And although Varel had no great eye for fashion, he thought he could see when someone was definitely dressing beyond their supposed income, because he did know the revenues of all the major holdings in the arling, if not down to the last copper, at least to the nearest piece of gold.

But that would be for later. He'd mention it to the commander, because it was probably something the commander needed to know, and because the commander was presumably used to Orlesian fashions and might not be an expert on what Fereldan nobles wore, or were supposed to be wearing.

For now, Varel needed to decide on his work for the next few days, something that wouldn't touch on what he would be doing with the commander once the commander had finished with Woolsey and Garevel. The investigations into the unknown prisoners' identities, as well as the letters to Highever and Denerim, would have to wait. Better to take a good look at the assignation of storage space to the merchants who plied their trade in the Vigil's market. All of it had been hastily set up at the time, and Varel couldn't deny that he'd continued like that only tonight, letting Herren and Wade have that shed.

He spent the rest of the evening going through what he'd scribbled down, and what he could remember, of who'd set up shop where and which nooks and crannies of the Vigil they were using. Tomorrow he'd have to go down and ask them, to confirm it all and make certain he hadn't forgotten anything, and then go through all those rooms and corners, finding out where there was free space and where things had become much too crowded.

Perhaps, Varel thought, he could finally get all those crates cleared away from the high walkway on one side of the inner wall. That space needed to be free for archers, if the Vigil was attacked again and the bailey breached. Not that he expected an attack to happen, but no one had expected the darkspawn to come pouring out of the deep cellars, either. Voldrik Glavonak swore that those underground passages had been closed off, and the Vigil was safe now, for the next few years or so. But then, he was a dwarf.

Varel was more used to the idea of enemies approaching on the surface, and that couldn't be closed off. The darkspawn loved their tunnels the best, but that didn't mean they wouldn't come up in the open air for an attack. The Blight had certainly proved that, if nothing else. And though the patrols went out every day, and the commander himself was doing his best, as reported by Anders, to keep the arling's roads safe, there were still bands of darkspawn about -- not big enough to threaten a fortress like the Vigil when they came one by one, but who could say they'd always do that?

Or that darkspawn was the only enemy they had to worry about. Varel knew the attack on the commander that Bann Esmerelle had led was likely as organized as the discontented nobles were likely to get, and no one in the arling could field a fighting force to rival the Vigil's well-trained garrison, but he hadn't attained his present years and position by ignoring any possible or supposedly impossible danger. Dragons weren't truly a danger, despite what Anders said. Orlais wouldn't invade; renegade Rivaini pirates wouldn't take the city of Amaranthine for their own. But if it happened, the Vigil wouldn't be unprepared, either.

It was late when Varel finally rose from the table, and the lamp was flickering; he'd need to refill it. He stretched his arms over his head and felt the stiffness and stretch of the muscles he'd used, working with the compost. The spot where he'd taken the crossbow quarrel, though, was no worse off. Magical healing was an amazing thing, truly.

He blew out the lamp and made his way in near total darkness to the door. The hallway outside was still lit with a torch in a wall holder, and Varel went back to his room without meeting anyone, though he heard voices and movements here and there, signs that the Vigil wasn't fully asleep yet.

Going to bed, he was full of resolve for the coming day, and all the things he would do, and all the things he'd never do again. But he still dreamed about the commander making those sweet little noises.

When Varel got up the next morning, he hesitated for a long moment at the armor stand, and only decided on going unarmored, as he had yesterday, because the investigation into various storage rooms might involve crawling and squeezing through tight spaces, and also because he'd promised to get his arm looked at, and rolling up a sleeve was considerably easier than stripping out of layers of metal. He dug a leather waistcoat out of the depths of his armoire, and between that and the dirt on his boots, he felt he was trying to disguise himself as a farmer.

Of course he met Anders just outside the kitchen again. "I like this look on you!" the mage said. "It really shows off your arms. But I'm not sure it gives the right impression if the Vigil has any important visitors. 'And this looks like a ditch-digger, but it's actually the seneschal.'"

"Most of the banns and minor lords here have worked the fields a day or two in their lives," Varel said. "The harvest doesn't care about rank. You met Lord Eddelbrek, didn't you."

"Yes, and I do seem to recall that he was all over gold embroidery," Anders said. "You, on the other hand, look like you're on your way to dig up root vegetables. In a very muddy field."

Varel sighed. Anders's robes certainly had a lot of gold ornamentation; it figured that he would remember something like that. It made Varel wonder if Anders had tried to get the commander to keep that awful purple thing. For his part, Varel hoped it was cut up for dustrags. "Actually, I'm on my way to eat breakfast," he said. "And I promised the commander that I'd go past the infirmary today and have you take a last look at my arm, but since you're here, perhaps you could--"

"Yes, yes," Anders sighed, mock-harried, "I suppose I can do that." He looked thoughtfully at the kitchen door. "In fact, I think we should go into the kitchen for this."

"Are you after a second breakfast again already?" Varel hadn't slept late today, after all.

Anders grinned. "The cook talked about your shirtless charms for hours last night, I'm told. If you distract her by flexing a little, I can probably get away with some of the cream. I've tried to get the girls here to let me have some, but it seems they have more respect for her than fondness for me."

"Which is just as it should be," Varel said. "Did it occur to you that I'm the seneschal of this fortress? I don't believe it's part of my duties to help you steal cream from the kitchen."

"It's not stealing," Anders said. "The Vigil belongs to the wardens, doesn't it? And I'm a warden. Maybe I need the cream to defeat the darkspawn!"

"Yes, I've been given to understand that the darkspawn are terrified of dairy products," Varel said.

"Right!" Anders nodded. "Hold out a bit of cream on a saucer and they fall all over themselves trying to get away from it, like Oghren when he sees soap. So will you do it?" He gestured Varel towards the kitchen door.

Varel shook his head. "There are two rogues among the wardens who could probably steal the crown off a king's head while he's sitting on his throne, and your best plan is for me to take my shirt off? It's a sad day when a warden is reduced to using an old man's carcass this way."

He opened the door and went into the kitchen, which was full of good kitchen smells. Anders followed, practically trampling on his heels. "Sigrun won't do it unless I set a bush on fire," he said glumly. "I don't know what she has against them, most of the time she's absolutely potty about the trees and the dirt and every piece of vegetation we come across, she reminds me of, well, me, the first time I escaped from the tower. It had been such a long time since I'd seen a flower, I was ready to marry the first one I came across."

"Well, don't you go proposing to my geraniums," Mistress Hansa said. "And I've told you before, my kitchen's not for the likes of you, so go make love to the flowers somewhere else, do."

"But Varel needs his breakfast," Anders said. "Me, I'm only here to look at his arm like a good healer should. Did he have any trouble moving it yesterday?"

"That he didn't." The cook eyed Varel in pleased reminiscence. "It all looked fine to me. Very fine."

"I'm glad to hear that. But maybe we'd better have that shirt off so I can get a good look for myself."

"And maybe we'd better not." Varel pushed his sleeve up and thrust his bared arm under Anders's nose. "Mistress Hansa, I apologize for being in your way. I was just hoping you'd have a bit of breakfast for me."

"Of course I do," she said. This time the bowl of porridge that she set down for him had both apples and a fine brown dusting of sugar, and Varel nodded his thanks.

"You're as good as new already," Anders said, rolling Varel's sleeve down and giving his arm a brisk pat, "so I suppose I can't make you take your shirt off if you don't want to. It's bad practice for a healer to strip a patient who doesn't need it, and besides, I'm sure you're quite a bit stronger than I am."

Given how skinny Anders was, Varel was sure of it, too. Those staffs that the mages carried about weren't weightless by any means, and he was fairly certain that most mages knew how to hit an attacker over the head with them if they had no other options, but that wasn't the same as having the strength needed to wear heavy armor and wield large metal weapons every day.

"Seems to me you'd better ask young Howe, then," Varel said. Not that he should be encouraging Anders in his quest to steal cream from Mistress Hansa, but he was also fairly certain that--

"Of course I should!" Anders said. "He's such a friendly, easy-going person, and doing favors for me is his favorite occupation! Why didn't I think of that!"

Varel noted that sarcasm didn't go with porridge nearly as well as apples did. Mistress Hansa ignored the tone of Anders's words completely and just crossed her arms and gave him a look. "Well, go talk to him, then, and leave poor Varel alone with his breakfast. I disremember when I ever had to deal with such a troublesome fellow. Out of my kitchen with you, now!"

"The cooks in stories are always nice," Anders said mournfully.

Hansa huffed. "I'm not in a story, now am I? This is a real kitchen, not a story kitchen. Out!" She pushed Anders firmly out the door, and came back to sit down at the trestle table. "He'd talk a knot into a mabari's tail, that one."

"Mm," Varel said, with his mouth full of porridge.

"But if he comes back with the young Howe, I'll let him talk his shirt off before I throw them out," she added. "He grew up right nice."

Varel remembered Nathaniel Howe as a spotty youngster, all nose and ears, and he had to agree there had been a lot of improvement. He had no interest in seeing him shirtless, though.

Once Varel was done with his breakfast, he went down into the courtyard, which was in a pleasant early-morning bustle of activity. He began his work for the day by going around to the merchants, hearing from them how trade was going as well as finding out which storage rooms and areas they had been assigned. There was no real order to it, he found, and people whose stock had increased, or who had teamed up with others, had their goods spread out in several different places. Sometimes they'd just pushed their things in with someone else's when it seemed convenient.

The Vigil was coming to have quite a considerable market again, and Varel took a great deal of pleasure in that. While Master Wade was busy making armor for the Vigil's soldiers, Herren bustled about selling non-standard -- that is, better and more expensive -- weapons to anyone who could afford it, as well as creating a waiting list for armor upgrades, which Wade would get to after he had finished all the basic armor. Not that this basic armor needed upgrades to be reliable. It was good, solid stuff, Varel thought.

Both Herren and Wade, in their very different ways, talked about how Wade did much better, faster work if he got a greater challenge and was allowed to put more of an individual spin on it, but Varel was of the opinion that the Vigil's soldiers would be much better off if they could take each other's swords or helmets by mistake and not even notice until two days later. Things got mixed up in the barracks, new recruits came in and were trained up, people got injured, and even if Wade worked faster when he was properly inspired and given more artistic freedom, it seemed to Varel that getting individual inspiration for every individual Vigil soldier would take a great deal of time.

Besides, as much as he respected and valued them, Varel would be the first to admit that the Vigil soldiers weren't a terribly inspiring lot. Nor did he want them to be. He wanted good, boring, standard soldiers with good, boring, standard equipment, all of them ready to defend their fortress in good, boring, standard ways. That was what the Vigil needed. Under Garevel, the soldiers would be well-trained and reliable, and their arms and armor ought to reflect that, rather than be tailored to every one of their personal quirks and habits.

Herren also assured Varel that the goods they'd bought from Armaas would be moved into the building assigned to them as soon as he had completed his plan for the best and most convenient way to arrange everything. Varel sighed.

Next to Herren's tidy market stall, Dworkin Glavonak took up a great deal of space with his experiments, and Varel thought it wasn't an ideal placement by any means. He'd rather not have the dwarf working right by the Vigil's main entrance, where any accidents with explosives could do a great deal of structural damage to the building as well as to the dwarf. It would be better to move Dworkin outside the inner walls, and charge a couple of soldiers with the duty of moving all his things back into the fortress proper if the Vigil were to come under attack. Wouldn't do to run the risk of enemies using those lyrium bombs against the Vigil rather than the Vigil using them against their enemies, but Varel thought the work of creating them had better be done at more of a distance.

And that meant he could give more room to the elven enchanter-cum-Circle ambassador Cera and her assistant, whose business would also be expanding a great deal, Varel guessed, if even half of the Vigil soldiers decided to pay for minor enchantments to be set into this new equipment of theirs. Cera's assistant was a dark-skinned and dark-eyed Tranquil man called Edwer, who had a profitable sideline in herbal remedies. These sold much better than Cera's supply of lyrium potions, since Vigil's Keep had very few mages, and half the time Anders and the commander obtained what they needed somewhere else. After their trip into the Deep Roads, they'd come back with enough lyrium to poison every templar in Ferelden, as Anders had gleefully put it. Varel wouldn't have taken any special note of the comment, except that the commander had immediately and specifically forbidden Anders to poison any templars with a lyrium overdose. Apparently that really was something they needed to worry about.

In any event, a lot of the stock that Cera and her assistant offered had a fast turnover, as well as being small and fragile. They'd need storage that was close by and as dry as Varel could make it. Not that anyone's wares were really improved by damp storage.

Then there was Yuriah. Varel scratched his head. Yuriah seemed to feel that he merited special treatment because he was the first merchant to return and set up shop after the darkspawn attack, and because by now he had the largest stock of all the merchants in the market, regularly buying up passing shipments that would otherwise have gone to Amaranthine, and because the commander was a frequent customer of his. Mistress Woolsey favored him, too.

He did have the largest stock, though, there was no arguing with that, and it was largely due to him and his work that the Vigil's market had become what it was today. Varel's vague dislike of him was probably due to the way Yuriah would ask for more storage space at the most inopportune moments; as a result, his stock was awkwardly spread out, and a lot of the time he could be found running around areas of the Vigil where Varel didn't think he had any business being, digging for some box or other that someone had told him to just shove in there for the time being.

Varel spent all day talking to the merchants, with just a quick break for a leftover slice of rabbit pie for lunch. Then dinner was onion-carrot-rabbit soup, but with fresh bread baked up to go with it, and a bit of cheese for those that the cook favored. Varel was pleased enough to be one of them. He also wondered what the commander was eating, but not quite enough to go and ask.

Being less physically active than he usually was meant that Varel had a bit more trouble getting to sleep at night. He didn't want to get in the habit of a brandy nightcap to help him drop off, though it had seemed like a good enough idea when his arm still ached. Varel had seen too many good men take to brandy to take away the pain of their injuries, and then to whatever they could afford to take away the pain caused by lack of brandy. So he tossed and turned in an unaccustomed way, and the next morning he got up and put his armor on and joined the soldiers' morning drill before breakfast, as was his usual habit.

This morning drill was more physical training and warm-up for the day to come than arms training, and every soldier not on watch or patrol or long-range scouting duty took part in it. Varel stayed in the back, keeping himself as unobtrusive as he could, though he was aware that his height and his armor made him more than a little conspicuous. This had been his morning ritual since he'd first come to the Vigil, a gangly boy of fifteen, more years ago than he liked to count. He had followed his captains through the movements; he had been the captain, leading the others.

During his long imprisonment in the Vigil's dungeon, he had tried to keep up the habit, exercising as much as he had room for in his cell. The feeling had been both familiar and unfamiliar, since morning drills, specifically, were always done in full armor. New recruits invariably wondered about that, some of them quietly and some with a louder air of complaint, particularly the ones who aspired to wear plate. They were told, as everyone had been told before them, that they had to be as comfortable in their chosen armor as they were in their own skin, and strong enough to move in their chosen armor as easily as if they really wore nothing but their own skin.

For Varel, this was a pleasure, pure and simple. He enjoyed using his body in this way, feeling his muscles work as they were meant to, and he enjoyed the meditative stillness this physical exertion brought to his mind. The presence of others around him, doing the same things at the same time, was familiar and soothing. With every breath, he became more at ease with himself, as his arm gave him no trouble.

Garevel caught him on his way out of the yard, looking more cheerful than he had in days. "Talk in the barracks is a lot happier now," he said without preamble. "Seems that speech of the commander's really did win them over."

"He told them how good and honorable they are," Varel said, "and that they'd keep getting their money. That's quite a combination. There are some soldiers who'll fight for honor alone, and a lot who'll fight just for gold, but it's bound to make the men happier to think that they can have both."

Garevel snorted. "I'll admit that I had my doubts about the commander," he said. "I still think he went too easy on those peasants of Lord Guy's who came here to protest about the tyranny of Orlesian rule."

"And have you said that to him, or just to me?" Varel asked. Personally, he felt that the way the commander had made the would-be rioters see sense and sent them off home again had been an admirable display.

"Of course I said it to him," Garevel snapped. "Some of my own soldiers came close to taking part in that riot! If we're going to have an Orlesian ruling over us, we can't let people get away with spewing anti-Orlesian propaganda whenever their fields aren't yielding enough or they see something in the woods that they think might be darkspawn."

Garevel was even less fond of Orlesians than Varel; he was too young to have fought them himself, but his father, uncle, and aunt had all died in the rebellion, and he'd been raised in the certain knowledge that everything that went bad in Ferelden was the result of lingering traces of the Orlesians' rule. Working with the first Orlesian wardens to arrive at Vigil's Keep hadn't changed his attitude all that much. Working with the commander just might, though.

"Seems to me we all think it might be darkspawn when we see something in the woods," Varel said. "These days, it probably is darkspawn." Garevel huffed, but didn't argue the point.

"They can't go around saying those kinds of things, even if they have darkspawn hiding behind their cabbages. I told the commander he had to take a firm stand." Garevel shook his head. "And he said, dead peasants don't pay taxes."

Varel threw his head back and laughed, loud enough that a pigeon perched on the outstretched hand of the statue of Andraste squawked and flew away. "You have to admit that he's right, there."

"I didn't mean for him to kill them." Garevel frowned at the way the pigeon had left a long white streak down Andraste's stone skirt. "But if he doesn't show them a firm hand, they'll be back because they think he's a pushover."

"And if he showed them too much of a firm hand," Varel said, "this rumor of Orlesian tyranny would grow beyond just idle talk. Lord Guy's dead, and we don't need his malicious gossip to outlive him."

Garevel went with Varel up the stairs into the Vigil. Normally he ate breakfast with his men, but if he was still working indoors with the commander and Mistress Woolsey, it made sense for him to do things differently. "No, and we don't need it said that the warden-commander coddles his troublemakers, either. Just because things are easier now than they were under Rendon Howe, people can't suddenly go thinking they can have anything they want."

"Like protection against the darkspawn?" Varel led the way through the big open entrance hall where Dworkin had blown up both darkspawn and walls. The walls were rebuilt now, and reassuringly solid-looking. If Voldrik said they'd last a while, that probably meant a few centuries at least.

"Of course the Grey Wardens have to offer protection against the darkspawn, and they do." Garevel gestured for emphasis. "Our patrol schedule is tighter than it's ever been. And the commander's out on the roads of the arling himself as well, nearly every day, trying to keep those miserable peasants safe. And all they could do was come here and complain that he's an Orlesian."

Varel shook his head a bit, trying to work out where Garevel was arguing from. "People don't like Orlesians," he said. "You don't like Orlesians."

They turned in through a side door and went down one of the Vigil's many long, winding corridors. The Vigil had grown to her present size over many centuries, room by room and wall by wall. Varel thought some parts of the cellars were the oldest, like the crypt where Avvar prayers to Avvar gods were still carved into the stone. Everything else had spread outwards and upwards from that, making the Vigil a grand and impressive fortress with high walls and strong gates.

Well, except that someone had dug down deeper instead, and ended up much too close to the Deep Roads, and the darkspawn had seen their chance to come swarming up. Varel shook his head. People forgot about the Deep Roads. People thought the ground under their feet was solid and reliable, because mostly it was solid and reliable. He wondered how many times it had happened that someone had tried to dig a well on his property and instead broken through into a tunnel like the one Sigrun had described out in the Knotwood Hills, with carved pillars and fancy dwarven stonework and the stench of old rust and old blood.

Probably not all that often, Varel decided, or there'd be stories about it.

As they got closer to the kitchen, Varel could smell frying eggs. That smell always cheered him up, with its inevitable associations to spring and the first eggs of the year. The hens had been slow to start laying, back in Cloudreach, and this summer had been shorter of eggs than any in Varel's recent memory, as if the birds were as unsettled by the Blight and its aftermath as the humans around them.

He lengthened his stride a bit, but Garevel took hold of his arm and held him back. "No, I don't like Orlesians. But the commander's our Orlesian, and I'll personally beat some sense into anyone who doesn't show him proper respect. He's a good man." Garevel looked a little embarrassed at his own fervency, and immediately tried to cover it up with an attempt at a joke. "And I think Woolsey's getting ready to marry him. She'll explain something to him out of those books of hers, and he'll actually follow what she's saying the first time around."

He opened the door to the kitchen and stepped inside, and Varel followed him just in time to hear Mistress Hansa say, before they'd even asked, "It's an omelet for the commander, and no, you can't have any. Get to the dining hall with you. There's porridge."

"Of course we will," Varel said over Garevel's shoulder. "Good morning."

Hansa turned away from her delicate work enough to give him a nod and a crooked grin. "Figure I might as well make one when the hens are laying properly for once and we've no cakes planned. Maker knows the poor dear deserves it -- did you hear he went out last night, with only that dwarf girl for company, and they ran into some darkspawn just up on the road to Stark's farm, if you can believe it. Bit too close to the Vigil for my comfort."

"Bit too close for old Stark, I'll wager," Varel said. That redoubtable yeoman had been among those who'd come to complain of Orlesian tyranny not that long ago. Varel had a feeling that old Stark was thanking the Maker for Orlesian tyranny today.

"I keep telling him to take an escort of soldiers when he goes out," Garevel said. "It's not proper for the arl of Amaranthine to run around on his own like some common vagrant. This is why we have patrols on the roads."

"At least he took Sigrun," Varel said. He was on Garevel's side in this, though. The commander shouldn't go into danger so blithely, alone or very nearly so. Of course Sigrun was capable, Varel had not the least doubt of that, but the soldiers of the Vigil were sworn to serve their arl, and it would be a fine thing if they could actually get to do it, some time. "Maybe you could get some men to just stand idly by the front gate, ready to go along whenever he leaves."

"I've tried that." Garevel scowled. "He must sneak out through a sally port half the time." With a last deep breath of the egg-scented air, he turned for the door again. "At least now I'm hungry, even if I'm not hungry for porridge."

They settled down in the dining hall, where the porridge was plain but plentiful. Varel barely had time to think that the last couple of mornings had spoiled him, when one of the scullions came up and put a small napkin-covered plate down by his elbow. He lifted a corner of the napkin and found a piece of yesterday's bread fried up in the eggy butter, and wrapped around two thin strips of herb-flecked omelet. It looked delicious.

Garevel leaned in and sniffed the air. "I assume you're going to share that."

"I think your view of the matter is much too optimistic," Varel said. "Eat your porridge, man."

After breakfast, Varel collected an apple and a piece of chalk, and started to look into all the storage rooms and nooks and crannies where merchant goods and Vigil supplies were kept. He put chalk marks on the doors as a reminder to himself, after he'd looked over a room. Things were a bit too spread out and mixed up for his taste, and he had been told -- repeatedly and, in Herren's case, at great length -- that the merchants would prefer it, too, if they could lock their goods away easily and separately.

Investigating the store rooms involved a lot of lifting and heaving, and after a while, Varel commandeered a couple of soldiers to help him out. While they did the lifting, he could stand still and think. Since that looked like doing nothing to anyone who happened to be watching, he got a lot of people drifting up to talk to him about various matters, and after a while, Varel went back to the lifting and moving things around, which at least went faster with the soldiers assisting. He figured if people interrupted him then, whatever they had to say probably was at least marginally important.

When they broke for lunch, Varel sent the two soldiers off to the barracks with orders to tell Garevel to send him two different soldiers back for the afternoon's work. He didn't care, himself, if Garevel decided to call it punishment or reward. The two men who saluted him when he came back looked a little sulky, and one had a split lip, so Varel deduced it was punishment and made them sort through and re-stack all the crates up on the wall.

By late afternoon, he had a reasonably clear idea of what goods were stored where and who had the keys to which doors. Varel began to sort it all out in his head: where to put the merchants, which goods would need to be moved where, how best to consolidate Yuriah's stock, how to get Dworkin moved even though he always claimed to be in the middle of some sensitive experiment that couldn't be disturbed. If enough soldiers could be pressed into doing all the lifting and carrying, the whole rearrangement could probably get done tomorrow.

Varel strolled out of the inner gate, soldiers on his heels, took a moment to glare at the huge stack of crates still taking up one side of the platform, and considered the bailey. There was the carpenter's shed he'd set aside for Wade and Herren's use; it was called the carpenter's shed because the man who repaired the fence by the kitchen garden had kept spare tools and fence posts there, the better part of fifteen years ago. Maybe it would be known as Master Wade's stockroom instead fifteen years from now. If the crates ever made it in there.

And there, on the other side of the bailey, was another small building that stood abandoned. Varel strode across to it and pushed the door open. Under Rendon Howe, this had been a place to house the soldiers or guards that visiting nobles brought. They couldn't have been very comfortable here, Varel thought now, looking at the bare and dirty floor. Still, this was set reasonably well apart from other buildings, and far enough from both inner and outer walls that Dworkin Glavonak would have to try really hard for his explosions to do any damage to them. Attempting to map things out in his head, Varel also thought it wasn't directly above any of the cellars or underground passages. It would do nicely.

"You two," he said, turning to the two soldiers. "You're to move the dwarf Dworkin out here, with all his things. Get the place cleaned up first, and then set out the way he wants it."

The first soldier saluted. "Yes, ser!"

The second soldier looked more hesitant. "But he'll blow us up, ser!"

"I wouldn't recommend touching his things without telling him first," Varel said. "But those bombs of his are made with lyrium sand, and that's hard to come by." Dworkin had told him all about that, for more than an hour, some days ago. "He won't waste that on the likes of you. You'd best be careful, though."

The second soldier saluted, too. "Yes, ser!"

Varel sat down on an empty, overturned barrel over by the wall and began to plot things out in his head. First he'd have to talk to the merchants again and let them know how things would be rearranged and moved, and not give them the opportunity to argue about it, because they did love to argue. He'd better start off by telling them he was going to make things simpler and better for them, and then just keep talking.

No, before he did that, he'd have to talk to Dworkin. Moving the dwarf's workshop to its new location was a matter of Vigil security, and it would give Dworkin a more restful environment for his work, too. Varel simply wouldn't give him any room to argue. Then he'd talk to the merchants. Soldiers would have to be assigned to move the goods, and it was probably best if each merchant oversaw the process for their own stock, so nothing got lost or misplaced again. That meant Varel needed to tell Garevel how many soldiers were needed, and when and where.

A cloud of dust rose from the building he intended for Dworkin to take over. One soldier was sweeping it out, and the other was gathering up all the things that got swept out and putting them in an empty crate. Varel hoped that crate wasn't going to end up with the others up on the wall.

With one hand shielding his eyes against the sun, narrowing his field of vision, it wasn't until Varel saw the soldier look up that he himself turned his head. The commander was coming out through the courtyard gate. Alone. He had his hair tied back with a businesslike grey ribbon and his staff in his hand. Varel got up and moved to intercept him before he could make it all the way down the steps.

"Commander. If you're going out, it won't take more than a moment to find some soldiers to go with you."

The commander took one small step to the left, so he was in Varel's shadow and didn't have to squint. He looked up at Varel with calm grey eyes. He was a tall step up from the flat ground Varel was standing on, and still shorter. "No doubt. But nevertheless, I am going out alone."

"But commander, the men would really--"

The commander held up his free hand. "You may consider all the objections about the arl going out alone as already made, seneschal. Captain Garevel was quite thorough in his little speech when I told him what I intended. Nevertheless, I am going out alone."

"Commander." Varel didn't move aside. "The men of the Vigil are your men now. It's important for us to be allowed to protect you. That's what we're here for."

"Garevel emphasized my dignity more," the commander said. "Or rather, the dignity of my position. Your argument fits my reply better." He raised his chin a little. "If I brought soldiers from the Vigil with me, I would spend time and energy on keeping them safe, not the other way around. It would be irresponsible of me to put them in danger like that."

"They put themselves in danger every day," Varel said, "going on the patrols you ordered. Being a soldier is not a safe occupation, nor would they thank you for treating them like liabilities."

"Soldiers patrolling the roads are not liabilities," the commander said. "It's important for the arling and for everyone who lives here, not just the merchants, that the roads remain clear. But we don't have enough soldiers to schedule patrols for the smaller roads, nor to protect the farmlands properly, and it's been made quite clear to me that the farmers are anxious."

That had been made quite clear to everyone, when the angry mob descended on the Vigil shouting incoherent arguments about the dangers of darkspawn and the dangers of Orlesians in charge. Varel crossed his arms. "And your response to the upset farmers is to go out and try to take care of this threat personally. By yourself."

"I believe we already had this discussion. You're well aware that I can take care of myself. And protecting people from darkspawn is, in fact, the duty of the Grey Wardens. It's my purpose and obligation." The commander didn't cross his arms, nor did he make any kind of gesture, but his eyes were on Varel's, steady and unyielding. "Please move out of the way, seneschal."

Varel sighed. "I promised myself I wouldn't let you do this any more."

"I'm afraid you will have to break that promise." The commander didn't look as if he felt any personal regret, though.

"Patrols on the road should be soldiers," Varel said, "not the arl himself."

"That was Captain Garevel's argument as well." The commander's eyes cut to the left when one of the soldiers inside the little building dropped something with a loud clatter, then came back to pin Varel in place again once the commander dismissed the noise as unimportant. "And I agree that we should reestablish a schedule for regular road patrols over a wider area than we have at present, as soon as the number of soldiers has grown sufficient for such a schedule."

Varel eyed the commander. That steady gaze didn't waver. "I don't suppose that means you're staying here."

"Not now, no," the commander said calmly. "But as you can clearly see, I'm not a patrol, just a man going for a walk to stretch his legs at the end of the day's work."

Varel tried to think of a reasonable argument, one that didn't mention anything about how the commander was too young, too slight and delicate, too pretty. He had a feeling objections along those lines would not be appreciated, and he also had enough sense to know he couldn't make them. "You're too valuable to the arling to take risks like this," he said instead.

That, oddly, made the commander's face turn even more expressionless than usual. "No. The arling belongs to the Grey Wardens, not to me," he said, "and all Grey Wardens are replaceable. We must be. If I should perish on the road, another commander would simply come to take my place."

Varel took half a step back, no more. He had thought something like that himself, not that long ago, but the commander was a lot more stark about it. "You make it sound like replacing a cracked roof tile," he said.

"Or throwing out a broken hammer," the commander agreed placidly. "There is always another tool ready for the work that needs to be done."

"You're not a tool," Varel said, unable to keep all the shock out of his voice. Hearing the commander speak like that of his own possible death made Varel's stomach turn over. "If my sword was ruined, I could get another one, but that doesn't mean I should be careless with this one. And at the risk of sounding like a chantry dedicate, I'll say that people are a lot more valuable than things."

"Of course." The commander did sound as if he meant it. "And that's why I won't take any soldiers with me. It would be inexcusably careless of me to risk them unnecessarily."

"But you'll risk yourself?" Varel shook his head. "It's not my place to argue with you, commander," he made himself say.

"Which doesn't stop you from doing it, as we both know." The commander took one step down, and Varel took another step back. "I assure you I will return in one piece. Would it be convenient for you to begin our work together tomorrow? The bodies of those conspirators must be dealt with, for one thing."

"Yes, commander," Varel said without thinking. Then his brain caught up. "I mean, no, commander. I'm afraid I need to spend tomorrow as well in dealing with the Vigil's merchants. The market and the storage areas both need to be rearranged."

One of the commander's delicate eyebrows rose just a little. "And you believe you can get this done in one more day? That would certainly be impressive." He took the final step down on the ground, and once again Varel stood looking at the top of his commander's head. Backing up quickly, Varel let the commander past him.

Then he fell in behind him, easily keeping the same pace; the commander moved briskly, but Varel had long legs. "You're right, commander," he said. "We do need to deal with those bodies. They won't keep indefinitely."

"Bodies rarely do," the commander said. "Please get back to your duties, Varel. I will come and find you tomorrow." Then he slipped through the outer gate and continued down the road, while Varel stood looking after him.

He didn't like seeing the commander go, but he knew sending soldiers to catch up would only annoy the man. And though he wasn't about to admit it out loud, the commander's arguments carried a great deal of weight with him. Varel didn't want to send soldiers out if it would only risk their lives needlessly, and distract the commander's attention. The soldiers were supposed to be for the commander's protection, not the other way around, after all, and until that problem could be solved somehow, it was probably better to let him go alone. Even if it made Varel uncomfortable. He couldn't agree with the notion that the commander was somehow more expendable and easily replaced than a common Vigil soldier, no, but he couldn't throw their lives away and split the commander's attention unnecessarily, either.

Turning back and walking up towards the keep, he met Sigrun and Oghren. Sigrun smiled brightly up at him. "We're looking for Elyon! Haven't seen him all day."

"Probably flitting around here somewhere," Oghren grumbled. "Elves do that, you know. Flit."

"No, I don't know," Sigrun said. "The commander is the first elf I ever met. He doesn't flit, does he? If that thing he does is flitting, I've been reading that Nevarran romance all wrong."

"Elves always flit," Oghren said. "'Cept for this fellow I went around with during the Blight. He'd flirt, instead." He cleared his throat. "Mind you, he was about as different from the commander as a deepstalker is from a bronto. Only the ears are the same."

"But deepstalkers don't even have ears," Sigrun said. She looked thoughtful. "I'm not sure brontos have ears, either. Or do they? You'd think--"

"Gah!" Oghren shook his head. "I meant the commander's ears."

"Are the same as a bronto's?" Now Sigrun looked even more thoughtful. In fact, judging from the studiously innocent bewilderment on her face, she'd picked up the habit of Oghren-teasing from Anders. "I'm pretty sure that can't be true."

"The commander just left to go for a walk," Varel said hastily, before Oghren could explode into another round of explanations. "You could catch up with him easily enough, if you just hurry a little."

"Thanks!" Sigrun bounced into motion.

Oghren watched appreciatively. "She sure is something," he said, then stumped off after her. "Better catch her before she asks the commander if elves are related to brontos."

Varel remained where he was until they'd both gone out the gate. Sending wardens after the commander was bound to work much better than sending soldiers. The wardens could definitely take care of themselves. Both Sigrun and Oghren seemed to take a much more relaxed approach to the commander's little evening excursions than Anders had shown. Varel let himself think that perhaps the mage was just cautious by nature.

Then he considered Sigrun and Oghren. Sigrun viewed herself as being dead already, with nothing to fear from a second death, and Oghren would charge an army without stopping to think that-- Well, without stopping to think at all, probably. Perhaps, Varel thought, Anders was just sensible by nature.

Still, the commander was better off having Sigrun and Oghren at his back than no one, Varel felt. He headed for the small building that was now the center of a cloud of dust, to see how the soldiers were doing and how long it would take for them to get everything ready for Dworkin.

"Ser!" The soldier with the split lip saluted him as he stepped inside. They'd actually made remarkable progress already, clearing away all the miscellaneous junk and sweeping the floor clean, and now they were raking the brooms down the walls to take down the cobwebs. Which meant they'd have to sweep the floor all over again, but that wasn't Varel's problem. "Do you want us to remove the intact furniture? We're taking away the broken chairs, but there's a couple of stools, and a table in the other room..."

"Leave those for Dworkin to decide about," Varel said. "When you help him to move in here, he'll let you know what he wants to keep and what he wants to get rid of. Are the broken chairs worth repairing?"

The soldier hesitated. "They would be in some places," he said. "But they won't ever be good chairs."

"Not fit for the Vigil, ser," the other soldier put in.

"Well, I wasn't planning to put them in the great hall," Varel said. He went and looked at the chairs for himself, and deduced that they'd been put in here because they weren't worth keeping anywhere else. Rickety to start with, made of poor wood and warped by damp winters, and those cracks would only get worse when the wood was properly dried out. "No. Break them up and make a pile outside by the wall for the time being, of that and everything else you throw out that can be burned."

They'd probably have the pyres for the dead nobles out here, in the most open area the Vigil had, and while it wasn't really proper to burn broken furniture in a funeral pyre, Varel reckoned they could stack wood around the outside to make it look neat, and he wasn't going to shed any tears over Bann Esmerelle going up in smoke along with the remains of some badly made chairs. In his opinion, she deserved a lot worse, only he knew the commander couldn't afford the ill-will that treating her corpse badly would engender.

"Ser?" That was the other soldier again. "Should we scrub the floor?" Varel just raised an eyebrow, and the soldier's shoulders slumped. "Yes, ser."

Varel went back outside. He'd better speak to Dworkin at once, so the dwarf would be prepared for the soldiers to descend on him once they'd done the scrubbing. There was probably a lot of packing-up to be done. He went to the wooden stairs up to the platform outside the inner gate, made it two steps, and stopped. One of the timbers that made up the platform's side was cracked, just underneath where all the crates from Armaas's wagon were stacked; probably it had been damaged in the darkspawn attack and was only now beginning to show it, under all that pressure.

That would need to be replaced, and the crates certainly had to be moved. The Vigil was built to be a defensible keep, not a marketplace. Varel didn't mind the merchants, not really, and he knew Woolsey was right when she said that the Vigil wouldn't be able to afford the repairs needed after the darkspawn attack without the revenues that those merchants brought in, but he wasn't going to compromise the Vigil's defenses.

He put a hand on the wooden railing. The commander had stood right here, and Varel had done his best to think of him as both commander and arl. Which, Varel thought a little grouchily, wasn't made easier by the commander's view of himself as an arl-shaped tool that could be replaced at any time by another arl-shaped tool. Varel didn't doubt that the commander was serious in his ambition to be a proper arl to Amaranthine, and not just because the commander was always serious. Finding out that the commander meant to learn all the details of Amaranthine politics that Varel had so far glossed over had been a chastening experience.

But the thought that the commander saw himself as someone who could be taken away at any time, either by death or the orders of the First Warden, to be replaced by someone else who'd need the same instructions-- That thought made Varel very unhappy. Not tired, not exasperated at the thought of starting over with someone who knew nothing, but unhappy.

He wanted the commander to live. He wanted the commander to stay and be successful.

Anything else he wanted from the commander could be easily put aside. Should be put aside, he knew that. When he'd been speaking with the commander before, Varel hadn't thought about their two more intimate encounters. He hadn't thought about the commander crouching over him in bed, or on his knees before him in a cramped office, mouth full of cock, making those incredible little choking noises.

Varel tightened his hand on the railing until it creaked. He wasn't thinking about it now. Whatever the commander's motives had been, there could be no such intimacies between them. It was up to Varel to show the commander that he would do his job well and better than well without any rewards or encouragement of that nature. The commander was beautiful, was incredibly desirable, and he apparently thought of himself as a suitable tool for the work he'd been set to doing. Varel couldn't let the commander hand himself over as a reward for a job well done, as if that was somehow the correct response. It would cause nothing but trouble and accusations of favoritism within the Vigil, if anyone found out, and as for doing it outside the Vigil--

He shuddered. That would be a political nightmare.

Varel shook his head. The commander wouldn't do that. The commander wasn't a political ignoramus, he came from Orlais and had successfully navigated the court of the empress, and he'd been named Commander of the Grey here in Ferelden, so clearly the wardens thought well of him. He wasn't about to offer the king a blowjob whenever the king turned up again, which was good, since King Alistair didn't seem to be the kind of man who'd be at all receptive to that.

Unlike Varel. Oh, he was very clear on not wanting to be either rewarded or bribed that way, and he thought the business of what had passed between the commander and himself had better be forgotten, but he couldn't say he hadn't enjoyed it. Or that he wouldn't enjoy touching the commander in return, finding out what lay underneath those prim robes that covered the man from neck to wrists to ankles. Tangling his finger in the commander's molten-copper hair again, licking his throat, kissing his gorgeous, sinful mouth. Maybe even getting to touch his ears, though probably not, because Varel knew elven prostitutes charged extra for that, so any elf who was free to choose would most probably say no.

Not that it mattered. Touching him, that was all, his smooth skin, his delicate hands, the unyielding straight line of his back.

Touching him anywhere. Touching him everywhere.

The railing cracked under Varel's grip. He stared down at it to see he'd pressed the handrail away from its supporting posts, bending the nails in the process. That would have to be fixed.

And he had to stop thinking about the commander like that. No good would come of it. Varel had a life, a perfectly good, plain, prosaic life in which he talked to soldiers and merchants, kept the Vigil running smoothly, dealt with small emergencies in the hopes that they wouldn't turn into larger ones, and also made the policies for the arling on the quiet, although he'd have to stop that, which was just as well. The point was, he'd spent all his years getting where he was, and he liked where he was. He was an old man, settled in his ways and content with that. The commander was--

Varel stopped himself, with an effort, from thinking about everything the commander was. Not for him, that was the important part, and he'd do well to keep that in mind.

He went into the courtyard and headed over to talk to Dworkin.

It took some time to make Dworkin see the advantages of the idea, even when Varel made it very clear from the beginning that he wasn't so much offering an alternative as telling the dwarf how matters would be from now on. Dworkin wanted to argue, even when he was told there was no room for argument. But when Voldrik came over to get himself involved and have opinions and poke at things, it became apparent that Dworkin would be just as happy to have a small building to himself, with a door he could shut if he needed to. The Glavonak brothers were close, Varel thought, and they supported each other, always, but they did better when they weren't too close.

Varel left Dworkin gesturing excitedly at his apprentices, and went into the soldiers' yard. Nathaniel Howe had taken over one corner of it, setting out straw targets and drilling soldiers in the proper way to hold and use a bow. Garevel sat to one side on a couple of crates that probably held arrows, watching and occasionally shouting when someone came too close. Varel walked over to him.

"The next time someone tries to walk between a bowman and the target, I'll let them," Garevel said. "Or I would, if we had enough soldiers to be careless with them. I can think of better uses even for the stupid ones."

"Send some of them to find a nice suitable tree to cut down," Varel said. "One of the timbers on the side of the platform outside the inner gate is cracked, and it needs to be replaced."

Garevel scowled. "It's those blighted merchants," he said, "always stacking their crates there, like it's their personal loading dock." They did, it was true, and that was a little annoying, but before the current huge load of crates, it hadn't been more than a few things at a time, and not for more than an hour or so. "And now it looks like a warehouse. We can't have it that way, Varel."

"No," Varel agreed. "And I'll be getting a carpenter in from Amaranthine. The railing by the steps is broken." The Vigil really needed a permanent carpenter, he thought, someone who could keep up the necessary maintenance, rather than someone who got called in when things were more broken than what an inexpertly hammered nail could fix. There hadn't been a carpenter employed at the Vigil since the old one had died, fifteen years ago. Rendon Howe had been too cheap to replace him, and they'd grown used to it. Maybe it was time to start doing things properly again.

"Don't let Dworkin try," Garevel said. "I don't care what his brother says, he'd likely just make things worse."

"He's got other matters to deal with," Varel said. "But the timbered wall needs to be mended. Send some men out for new wood tomorrow, with Samuel and Voldrik to make sure the replacement gets done properly, and we might have it fixed when it's time for funeral pyres for those nobles who attacked the commander."

"That's more than they deserve." Garevel spat over his shoulder. "We really made a blighted mess of that, letting assassins into the Vigil. The mourners will have to leave their weapons at the outer gate."

Varel shook his head. "We can ask them to leave their swords, maybe," he said. "But if we tried to search them for hidden weapons, that would give a bad impression."

"So would the commander being assassinated under our noses," Garevel snapped. "Have you seen the new dresses that are coming into fashion these days?" Varel wondered if Garevel was feeling well. "Those women could hide crossbows for an entire army there."

"Oh," Varel said, relieved. "We'll have a lot of guards, then. With any luck, that will make us look intimidating rather than paranoid. There should be enough of the new armor Wade has made to outfit the people you choose. Tell them it's a reward for managing to hit the target."

"I thought you said you wanted lots of guards," Garevel said. "This lot couldn't hit the side of the Vigil." He raised his voice. "Vendel! Hold! Go behind the bowmen, curse you, not in front of them, or are you volunteering to be their new target?"

"I thought they were taking a break," Vendel said.

Garevel drew breath for what Varel suspected would be some truly impressive yelling, but before he could get started, Nathaniel Howe spoke up. "Do as your captain tells you," he said. "Or if you prefer, I could pin your toes to the ground with ten separate arrows."

"He probably could, too," Garevel said quietly to Varel. "Never seen a better shot with the bow in my life. I was hoping he could put some of that skill into my men, but it looks like I might have to settle for him putting the fear of the Maker into them."

"They'll do better with more practice," Varel said. "Once they learn the basics, have Maverlies set up a range for them down in the field outside the outer gate. Now the wall's been repaired, they can put targets along it, and there's no reason for anyone to walk there. As long as they get good enough not to shoot towards the road instead, they'll do fine."

"If they ever get good enough," Garevel said. Varel would have thought he was exaggerating, except that just then, someone yelled, a bowstring twanged, and an arrow hit a tree at right angles to the row of targets. "I don't think even the young Howe can make archers of this lot."

"They do better in close combat," Varel agreed. But the Vigil'd had a good complement of archers once, men who could hold her walls for a long time before the enemy ever got in range of a sword. Some of them had marched off to Highever and never come back, some had marched to Denerim and never come back, and the last few had fallen to the darkspawn attack, unprepared for an enemy who came up practically under their feet.

That wouldn't happen again, so Voldrik and the commander vowed; the Vigil wouldn't be assaulted from within again. The entrance to the Deep Roads had been securely closed, and extra guards posted. And as long as any potential enemy came up outside the walls, rather than inside, having archers to shoot that enemy down would be very useful.

"I'll have Howe pick out the ones who aren't completely hopeless," Garevel said, "and Maverlies can drill them until they're good enough to benefit from his teaching again." He nodded sharply. "And the ones who aren't good enough will get to work on the rampart. A bit of digging will at least teach them something."

Varel clapped a hand on Garevel's shoulder. "I'm sure it will. I'll see you at dinner later." For now, he'd better get a start on talking to the merchants, before they closed up for the evening.

He went back out into the Vigil's central courtyard, crowded and bustling, and took a moment just to enjoy the sight. Wade was drawing water from the well, Voldrik was hammering blocks into place in the last segment of the wall, a nervous-looking apprentice strode across the yard with a crate held at arm's length, Dworkin shouted something after him... Varel frowned. He'd specifically told the two soldiers on punishment detail to help Dworkin get moved once they were finished with the cleaning. Just as he was about to go out into the bailey to find them for a well-deserved scold, he saw them across the courtyard. The soldier with the split lip was putting a candle down at the foot of the statue of Andraste.

Varel couldn't help grinning. If those two felt they could use a little extra prayer before they started carrying around Dworkin's experiments, he couldn't really blame them. And it was good to see the Vigil like this, busy and full of people working. He knew Woolsey would say that successful merchants were the foundation of the arling, whereas Garevel would snap out that what a fortress needed was good soldiers, and so did the arling. Garevel said the merchants couldn't be here without soldiers to protect them; Woolsey said without the merchant trade, the soldiers wouldn't have food, let alone new armor.

And Varel knew he'd spent too much time with the pair of them when he could hear their argument perfectly in his head. He was a soldier himself, and leaned more towards Garevel's side of things. The Vigil needed strong arms and strong walls, that was the foundation this thriving market was built on. No merchants would come and set up shop at a badly-protected keep. But the Vigil was strong now, and growing even stronger. These people felt safe here, and that warmed Varel's heart.

He started with Herren and Wade, since they were both closest and easiest. They wouldn't have to move, after all. Wade would stay by the forge. Varel stressed how much more convenient it would be for them if everyone got their stock properly sorted out, and told them Dworkin was packing up and moving out to the bailey for safety reasons. And if Herren and Wade heard that as being for their safety, Varel wasn't going to bother with clarifications. He did want the pair of them to be safe and happy, after all, at least as happy as Wade needed to be to finish the armor for the Vigil's soldiers. All they had to do, personally, was make sure everything of theirs went in the right place, including, Varel stressed, the crates on the platform outside.

"And I assigned you a whole separate building for that," he said. "After you asked for it. Yesterday."

"I've already told you, we'll get that done as soon as we can," Herren said. "Within the week." He took a second look at Varel. "Ah, we can begin today, of course. Or tomorrow!"

Dworkin was already in the process of moving, and seemed pleased at the prospect of having a small building to himself, where he could experiment in peace. Varel just hoped he didn't see it as a challenge to make that building blow up. "Don't you worry about that," Dworkin said with his stuttery laugh. "My brother's a mason, and I was halfway to being a carpenter. If anything blows up, between us we can put it back together again."

"Your work will go faster if you don't have to stop for repairs," Varel said, in what he trusted was a sufficiently diplomatic tone of voice. "And the healers will be happy if they don't have to put anyone back together again."

Dworkin's laugh ended in a snort, and he glanced sideways at Herren. "My work will go faster if I don't have to stop for stupid questions all the time," he said. "Humans make such a fuss about these things. He keeps wanting to know if what I do is safe."

"Well, he won't disturb you once you're in your new workshop." Varel stepped aside as the two soldiers began to pack up the countertop, Dworkin turning to them to wave his hands and explain which things had to go together, and which things absolutely could not go together.

He told the soldiers they'd have to clean up the space once the move was done, and watched them wilt at the news. Maybe they'd had enough punishment detail by now. "Break for dinner at your usual hour," Varel said, "and then report to your captain. He can decide who takes care of cleanup here."

This spot would do well for Yuriah, he thought, and Cera and her assistant could set up a stall next to the entrance to the small dungeon. Varel grimaced a little. Those cells were empty now. There'd been no need for them since the commander brought Nathaniel Howe out to take the Joining. Varel wondered how he would have chosen, himself, if that offer had been made to him when he'd been imprisoned in the same place: join the wardens or be hanged. Likely he'd have chosen the uncertain death of the Joining rather than face the certain death Rendon Howe intended for him. But he was too old for the wardens, so the offer would never have been made.

Nor did he think Rendon Howe would have been content with simply hanging him.

Varel shrugged off these rather morbid thoughts about the death he hadn't experienced after all, and went to talk to Yuriah instead. "I have some excellent news for you," he said. "I know it's been troubling you to have your stock spread out in so many different places, and none of them conveniently close to where you've set up shop." Certainly not convenient to the Vigil. "The new arrangement I have in mind will be much more practical for you."

By dint of telling Yuriah repeatedly that this was all for his benefit and would make his business much easier, Varel managed to get through the conversation in a surprisingly short amount of time. He left Yuriah planning how to set up a good storefront, and went in search of Cera and her Tranquil assistant, Edwer.

He only found Edwer; Cera had gone to Amaranthine to meet with some mages passing through there. This was, in Varel's opinion, a stroke of luck. He thought the Tranquil were unnerving, the few he'd met, but it couldn't be denied that they were efficient workers, and never made a fuss. When he explained to the fellow how things would be rearranged for increased efficiency and convenience, Edwer just nodded calmly. "Is there a market stall available for me to set up?" he asked. "I can construct one, but it will take more time."

There was one, Varel knew, at the back of one of the storage rooms he'd inventoried yesterday. The Vigil's market had been a busy place for a while, before Rendon Howe had become obsessed with his more sinister plots, and shut the merchants out for secrecy. The stall should still be good, although the awning might need patching. Edwer said that he could fix that, and Varel had no doubt it would get done quickly and well.

He went to the dining hall for dinner, turning everything over in his mind as he went; this was a tricky job, half-done. Varel took a seat next to Maverlies, who told him funny stories about the would-be archers of Vigil's Keep, in between trading anecdotes with Nathaniel Howe about the most impressive feats of shooting they'd ever seen. Though the Howe was still a taciturn young man, so it was an uneven trade.

Anders plopped down on the other side of Varel. There was a minty smell about him today, as if he'd been mixing balms all afternoon. His hair was coming loose from his ponytail, and he looked aggrieved. "Elyon didn't take me!" he said accusingly. Leaning forward a little, he snagged a plate. "Or Nathaniel. Not that I blame him for that, it must be like taking a thundercloud for a walk, really." He raised his voice. "But if he comes back all over blood, it won't be my fault."

"What are you talking about?" Nathaniel Howe leaned forward, too.

"Elyon went out to make the roads safe, the way he does," Anders said. "But I don't suppose you know about that, since you're sitting here having soup. I tell you, if he comes back all over blood again--"

The again didn't sit right with Varel, both because he disliked the idea of the commander having been injured and because he found it difficult to imagine the commander so untidy, but he was even more startled by the way Anders had begun so casually to refer to the commander by his given name. The Orlesian wardens had been a little more formal, if not by much, but the new wardens that the commander had collected were rather an informal group, and Anders possibly the least formal of them all. He was definitely the farthest removed from any kind of military discipline.

"Of course it will be your fault," Nathaniel Howe said, just as Varel was about to ask something about that disturbing again. "You're the healer. You're also the one who said he didn't want to trudge along any more wretched, muddy roads full of bandits and darkspawn."

"Well, I don't," Anders said, "but I didn't mean for him to do it alone, either!"

"He's not alone," Varel said. "Sigrun and Oghren went with him. They should be back quite soon."

"Oh?" Anders picked up his spoon. "You have precognitive powers now, seneschal? And here I thought you only got your job because you look impressive in armor."

"Yes, I'm sure you did," Varel said, ignoring Maverlies' amused snort. "Sigrun never misses a meal if she can help it. My impression is that regular mealtimes are still something of a novelty to her."

"If half the things she's been telling me about Dust Town are true, any kind of mealtimes might be," Nathaniel Howe said somberly.

"Yes, but surely the Legion of the Dead feeds its people," Anders said. "I mean, I know they're counted as dead once they join, but they don't actually become the ethereal spirit, no more bread kind of dead. No one can fight darkspawn on just dank cave air."

"I think that's why she joined," Nathaniel said. "For the food."

Nathaniel Howe had a way of making everything he said sound dark and thrilling and important, and his words hung over the table until Maverlies said, cheerfully, "Then I'm sure she'll be back for this soup. It's very good, isn't it?"

"If you like cabbage," Anders said glumly. "Oghren will fart for days."

"I doubt we'll be able to tell the difference," Nathaniel said.

"True. With Oghren, it's like every day is cabbage day."

Nathaniel nodded. "He does bring his own unique atmosphere wherever he goes."

"Yes, it's--" Anders put his spoon down. "You know, Nathaniel, I was sure we could find something we could agree on one day, but I never quite expected us to bond over dwarven flatulence."

"Congratulations, gentlemen," Varel said. "Pass the bread, please." He turned to Maverlies and went back to talking to her, asking her if she could have a group of men ready tomorrow for rearranging the merchants' stockrooms. "People who will be careful, and who won't mind Herren fussing over every single crate."

"Not sure I can promise that," Maverlies said with a grin, "but I can at least make sure that they won't say they mind. Sounds like tomorrow will be a busy day!"

Varel had a feeling it would be. He finished his soup and left the table with a short nod to his companions. Outside the dining hall, he turned for the courtyard again rather going up to his room. He wasn't worried about the commander. He was sure the commander, with Sigrun and Oghren, would come back safely. The only reason he was going back outside was to check that everything had gone well with Dworkin's relocation, and that the place Dworkin had occupied would be ready for Yuriah tomorrow.

When he came out, a moody-looking soldier was scrubbing at the stone table-top, where Dworkin's work had left a few marks. Varel nodded his approval, and the soldier scrubbed harder. He crossed the yard, cooler now that the sun had sunk below the keep walls, though a strip of orange light still came in through the gate. Varel stepped into it and shielded his eyes to look out and down into the bailey. The crates on the platform were still there, but hopefully not for much longer. Dworkin's building was still standing, and the windows were still intact. As Varel watched, one of those windows opened, and someone shook a dustrag vigorously.

There was movement down by the outer gate. Sigrun came bouncing in, apparently still full of energy. Oghren followed her at a more measured pace, as usual, and the commander was right behind them, looking as neat and tidy as if he'd just gotten dressed and combed his hair. No one was covered in blood, despite Anders's dire predictions. Varel lifted a hand in greeting, but didn't stay and wait for them to cross the bailey and come up to where he was standing. Instead, he turned back into the soldiers' yard, went to the barracks, and tracked down Garevel, who was sitting by the wall next to the door, rubbing sand on a vambrace.

Varel dropped down next to him on the wooden bench. "I've told Maverlies to get me men for tomorrow, to get all the merchants and their stock moved," he said. "We'll start right after breakfast."

"As long as they don't miss morning drill," Garevel said. "At least I know to stay away from the merchants tomorrow. It's bound to be a blighted mess, if you ask me. All those merchants are a fussy lot, and I wouldn't put it past Ambassador Miss Priss Cera to have the vapors if things don't go as she wants." Cera and Garevel had started off on the wrong foot, and kept going on even wronger feet, as far as Varel could tell, though he had no real idea why. Since they didn't have to work with each other, it didn't really matter.

"She's not here," Varel said. "She's in Amaranthine, and Edwer is handling everything in the Vigil."

"He's not likely to have the vapors, I'll grant you that," Garevel said grudgingly. "Useful fellow, on the whole. I could wish my soldiers were as good at taking orders." He set the vambrace down and stretched. "But I hear that Tranquil thing only works on mages, so I suppose I'm stuck with what I have."

"They make mages Tranquil by branding them with lyrium," Varel said. He'd finally asked about that in Ostagar, where the mages and the Tranquil had been a noticeable presence, for all that they were so few. "That's what the mark is, on his forehead."

Garevel looked as though he'd bitten into a bad apple. "Branding? Really?" Varel nodded. "I don't hold with torture," Garevel said. "Don't reckon I'd be doing that to anyone."

"Then you're no worse off than you were a minute ago." Varel shook his head and tried for a lighter tone. "And imagine all your soldiers talking like that. Could be enough to give a man the creeps."

"Only if he's fanciful," Garevel said. "I'm not." That was true enough. Garevel had no time for anything he termed nonsense; Varel had heard him more than once dressing men down for telling ghost stories, or trading legends about the Vigil's long and bloody past. He wasn't sure how Garevel would react if he ever met any of the Vigil's ghosts. "Here, let me put this away, and we'll go over to the kitchen door. I hear Mistress Hansa likes you well enough to give you special dinners. Does she like you enough to let hard-working men like us have some ale?"

"She only gives me special dinners when I take my shirt off," Varel said lightly. He looked sideways at Garevel, who drew breath to speak, and shook his head. "No, I'm not about to take my shirt off to get us ale. If you're that set on wetting your throat, you do it."

"She'd probably just give me tea." Garevel elbowed Varel, or maybe his elbow just stuck out like that when he bent to pick up the vambrace and the sanding rag. "Mistress Hansa is a fine-looking woman. Just the right age for you."

This sounded like the beginning of a conversation Varel felt no urge whatsoever to have. It was also a bit of a surprise to hear it coming from this particular person. "I had no idea you were such a romantic," he said, trying to make his voice as dry as the polishing sand.

Garevel grinned. "I was going to say that she still has all her own teeth, too. And you know she can cook."

"I also know she's been a good friend and colleague of mine for the better part of fifteen years," Varel said. "I reckon if we were meant to be married, it would have happened already. That dinner was Vigil business, not a marriage proposal. I'm too old for anything like that."

"You're not that old," Garevel said. "And that doesn't seem to stop anyone, even when they are. You should come with me to Amaranthine, then, next time we have a day off together. I heard the Sailor's Fancy has some new workers. If you're not interested in getting married, at least you can get some relief."

Varel made a noncommittal noise. He could hardly tell Garevel about his recent experiences. Though whatever it was the commander had brought him, relief probably wasn't the best word for it. More like the commander had woken an itch inside his skin that he hadn't felt in a long time. Maybe he should go along to the Fancy; maybe that would make him forget all about those encounters with the commander. At least with a whore he wouldn't think it was anything beyond a business transaction.

He followed Garevel through the door in the wall into the kitchen garden. Whether Hansa was in the mood to give them ale or tea, it was true he could do with something to drink. It would be a while before he and Garevel had days off at the same time, and Varel hoped by then Garevel would have forgotten all about this idea. Maybe he should go to the Fancy, yes. But he didn't want to.

Garevel strode to the kitchen door and wrenched it open; it skewed enough on the hinges that Varel was reminded again of his resolve to get a new carpenter for the Vigil. "Bring us up some ale," Garevel told the nearest scullion, "and be brisk about it!"

"Think this is a tavern, do you?" Hansa caught the scullion by the shoulders and steered her back towards the dirty dishes. "You can't just come in here and order my girls about all high and mighty like that."

"Well, we need a drink," Garevel said. "Please bring us some ale, then. Better?"

She huffed. "As if we've nothing better to do here but serve ale to soldiers! Didn't even wipe your feet before you came in, did you, and I'll have you know I keep a clean kitchen, so you'd better go right back out where you came from, and take your friend--" She caught sight of Varel. "Oh, it's you. You should be teaching this fellow some better manners instead of skulking in the corner all silent-like."

"Evening, mistress," Varel said. "That was a fine soup you gave us tonight."

"See?" Hansa looked at Garevel. "Try being polite next time. It won't hurt you none."

"But will it get me ale?" Garevel said.

Hansa chuckled at his single-mindedness. "You don't need to ask me for that when you've the seneschal and his keys right there." She straightened her apron, making her own keys jingle. "Or I can make a pot of tea for the pair of you, if you'd rather."

Garevel turned to Varel with a touch of rising temper in his eyes. "You have keys to the ale cellar? And you never told me about it?"

"I'm the seneschal of the Vigil," Varel said. "Of course I have keys. A fine thing if there was a room in my fortress that I couldn't get into." Seeing Garevel's brows draw down, Varel couldn't help but chuckle. "And it should be your business to know about this already. Now, get us a pair of mugs from the clean stack over there."

Varel went to get a pitcher, himself. He chose a small one, having no fancy to sit up all night over ale and whatever talk Garevel thought was suited to ale. Ale was good for summer, but once fall started to creep in, he thought both of them would prefer the heat of tea when they could get it. Varel hated to admit it, but the joints of his two smallest left fingers were getting stiff, and curving them around a mug of hot tea was a welcome relief, regardless of season.

It was odd, really, he reflected, unlocking the cellar door and going down the stairs, that in some ways he had no trouble admitting he was getting old -- he'd been at the Vigil for what seemed like forever, and all those years of experience were certainly good for something -- and in other ways, such as the little aches and pains that crept up on him and might slow the swing of his sword one day, he'd rather pretend everything was just the way it used to be. And he'd go on pretending that, no doubt, until he couldn't lift his sword any more. It was part of who he was, that sword. In some ways, it was who he was.

He was the seneschal of the Vigil, and he took that responsibility very seriously. But deep down, he knew he'd never be anything but an old soldier all his remaining days.

Varel filled up the pitcher; the barrel of ale was freshly tapped, and some of the froth spilled over on his fingers. He went back up to the kitchen and found Garevel waiting by the back door, mugs in hand.

"Go on, then," Hansa said, flapping her apron at them as if she were shooing chickens, "out with you. There'll be no drunken roistering in my kitchen, I'll have you know."

"There'll be no drunken roistering anywhere," Varel said. He doubted he remembered how to roister, or had the energy for it.

"Not for us, not on that amount of ale," Garevel agreed. He pushed the door open, and the air outside felt pleasantly cool compared to the heat of the kitchen.

Garevel led the way to a small watch hut that wouldn't have been Varel's first choice for a comfortable drinking spot, but he changed his mind once Garevel evicted the men who were dicing in there and he found that there were some very non-regulation blankets folded up to pad the seats of the chairs. They settled down, and Varel poured the ale.

"To the seneschal of Vigil's keep," Garevel said, raising his mug. "Who never told me he had the keys to the ale cellar, the stingy old bastard."

They both drank deep. "It's not a privilege that needs abusing," Varel said. "It's just another responsibility. You'll find that out for yourself."

"Oh?" Garevel looked intrigued. "Are you going to make me my own key just to teach me a lesson? I could abuse that privilege a few times a week. I'd say every time the men do something stupid, but that would be a few times a day."

"You'll get your own key soon enough." Varel shook his head. "You're captain of the guard now, but you won't be forever, you know. Most likely you'll be seneschal after me, if you don't go drowning yourself in a pitcher of ale."

"Huh." Garevel put his mug down. "You and I must have different ideas of what soon enough means, then. Looks to me like you have a few good years left in you yet. I mean, a good few good years." He frowned, and his gaze on Varel turned uncomfortably sharp. "You've done that for the past couple of days. Talked like you were on your deathbed, or at least ready to be pensioned off. You're not. You're getting older, but you're not old."

Varel chuckled. "And you only had a sip of that ale. I suppose it's a good thing you won't be getting your own key just yet. If we're talking years, you're too young for the position you do have."

"Don't think I don't know that," Garevel said. He picked his mug up again and sat turning it in his hands while Varel drank. "Blight take it, some of the men I command could be my father, and sometimes they look at me as if they are my father. I know I can do this," there was a note of belligerence in his voice, "but sometimes I'm not sure they know it."

"Oh, they know it," Varel said. "Just relax." Not that he expected Garevel to follow that bit of advice. The man was probably born tense. "You were Rullens's own choice for this promotion, you know. Though I don't reckon he thought that you'd take over after him for a few years yet."

"I didn't, either." A shadow went over Garevel's usually so earnest face, and he hid it behind the ale mug. "Though who knows what might have happened in the darkspawn attack. Even the wardens fell to that." He set the mug down again with a firm thump. "But that's not what we were talking about. Why d'you think you're so old all of a sudden?"

Varel looked at Garevel in resignation. The young captain of the guard was as tenacious as a mabari after a rat, and usually Varel thought that was a good trait. "I suppose I'm just feeling the years a bit, what with one thing and another," he said. "Especially when I find out that you don't know things about the Vigil that you really should, like who's got the keys to which doors."

"Yes, yes." Garevel waved his hand dismissively. "But when you came out of that dungeon... No one would have blamed you for being worn down then, but you worked harder than a new recruit. And when the darkspawn attacked, all the Orlesian wardens went down, but you survived."

"I had a blade to my throat," Varel said dryly. The memory was still fresh in his mind: the rain on his face, the edge of a sword against his throat, the darkspawn's terrible breath. "It wasn't any skill of mine that saved me, it was the commander."

"Lucky for us he came when he did," Garevel agreed. "But my point is, you were fine after that, too. It's after Bann Esmerelle attacked and you got hurt that you've been acting strangely. The healers got a good look at that wound of yours, didn't they? It's healing up all right?"

Garevel had heard Rullens's death agonies, too, Varel reminded himself. "It's fine," he said. "Anders said there probably won't even be a scar." He shrugged a little. "Just as well, that. It's not as if I needed any more of those."

"Good," Garevel said, a little too emphatically. He must definitely have been thinking of Rullens. "I expect it just left you feeling a little..." He trailed off and looked at Varel.

"Sooner or later, a man starts to feel his age," Varel said.

That only got him an exasperated look. "Yes, but you're talking as if you're twice your age," Garevel said.

"If I were twice my age, I'd be long dead." Varel drank some ale. This was a delivery from a new brewer, and it was a little more hoppy and bitter than the stuff they'd bought before. He thought the taste might not be to everyone's liking, but it suited him. "But I suppose I have a few years left in me."

"You have a few decades left in you, so stop talking as though you're tottering at the foot of your own pyre, blight it!" Garevel refilled their mugs. "You're making the men nervous. To the Void with it, you're making me nervous. And that takes a lot of doing, I'll have you know."

Varel chuckled and leaned back in his chair. It might be a straight-backed wooden thing, but the back was blanket-padded, too. "It does at that," he agreed. He hadn't realized it was so much on his mind lately, his own age and the commander's untarnished youth. Not that he was about to explain that. But he supposed it was folly to think himself into aged decrepitude, just as much as it would be to imagine he was twenty again.

"I wish you'd tell me, instead, what you think of this archery training I've set up," Garevel said. "I thought maybe you'd remember how the archers we had at the Vigil before got their training. Maverlies says there was this elf called Jacen who trained the men up, but she thinks he's gone crooked..."

They spent an hour on archery, on training for the soldiers and how to best fit it into the patrol schedules, on how much new equipment was ready and whether they needed to hire more miners to get enough silverite for Wade to work with. Talking with Garevel was restful, even if he wasn't by nature a restful man; Garevel's conversation was simple and straightforward, and within the scope of his own interests, he could spend any amount of time going over the Vigil's business.

Varel only realized how much time must have passed when he lifted the pitcher to refill their mugs again and got nothing but a weak little trickle. Turning his head, he saw that the night hung dark and heavy outside.

"Time for me to leave," he said. "I'll be having a busy day of it tomorrow." He stood up. "I hope Cera won't decide to come back from Amaranthine for a while yet."

Garevel laughed through his nose. "That's all we need!" He handed Varel the empty pitcher. "Take this back with you, and I'll take care of the rest."

The night air was unexpectedly cool for this time of year, particularly given the temperatures during the days, but Varel felt warm from the ale and the company, and he was in no hurry as he walked back through the soldiers' yard and across the central courtyard. All the candles at the foot of the statue of Andraste cast a warm light, and so did the torches burning at the entrance to the keep. The fire in Wade's forge was well banked, but Varel thought he caught a glimpse of a glowing coal.

Those candles held his attention for a moment, and he looked assessingly at them, trying to judge how many there were. About as many as the last time he'd counted, he thought. The statue of Andraste had become the center of public worship in the Vigil, rather than the chapel, which stood untended at the moment. The priest, Mother Ithene, had sadly been killed when the darkspawn attacked, and finding a replacement was a slow business. Varel suspected that the conservative Revered Mother Leandra in Amaranthine was loath to send any of her priests to a keep full of uncouth soldiers, particularly now that the arl of Amaranthine wasn't the head of a noble family that might shower the chantry with gifts, but a Grey Warden, a mage, an elf, an Orlesian, and so on.

Varel thought the real sticking point was probably the commander being a mage. If the revered mother ever got around to sending a priest to the Vigil, that priest would probably come with a full guard of templars to protect her against any possible harmful influences, and that would be trouble waiting to happen, right there. Varel considered himself as devout as the next man, and he very much wanted the Vigil to have a priest again, but he didn't want the Vigil to become a templar outpost.

Templars were good soldiers, but the Vigil already had soldiers, and as far as Varel could tell, neither the commander nor Anders was about to start worshipping demons or turn into abominations. It would have been good to have regular services again, but Varel thought the Vigil could last a little longer with nothing but private dedication and prayer. The candles at the foot of the statue of Andraste in the courtyard remained steady in number, neither growing noticeably more nor noticeably fewer, and Varel thought that was a good sign, a sign that people were still as pious as before, neither abandoning their faith nor growing fervent or worried in their devotions.

Varel shook his head a little ruefully. He probably shouldn't take it upon himself to monitor the spiritual well-being of the people in the Vigil. That was the job of a priest, and that was why they wanted a priest again. But as long as the chapel remained unused, someone had to keep an eye on staff and soldiers, just to make sure that there were no signs of unhappiness that needed to be attended to.

It was a clear night, and all the cooler for it, he supposed. Varel tipped his head back and looked up at the stars, tracing the position of the Maiden and the Sword out of habit. Everything was where it should be, and he laughed a little at himself, because much he'd be able to do if it weren't, really. The stars went their own way, and it might be a predictable one, but he couldn't touch it. They kept their own order.

There wasn't much difference in temperature inside the walls of the Vigil, either, not in the hallways closest to the exit and the open airwells. Varel lengthened his stride to catch up with a maid and hand her the empty pitcher; he felt no desire to go past the kitchen yet one more time tonight. Instead, he headed up to his room. It wasn't really very late, but ale made him sleepy.

Varel went to bed, making plans for the next day in his head until he drifted off to sleep.

When he woke up again, he'd been dreaming about the commander's choked little noises again, and he was tangled up in his sheets and better than half hard. Varel swore to himself and sat up, scrubbing both hands through his hair. It was very early, he could tell by the angle of the light, but he thought he'd better not try to sleep any longer. With dreams like that, it wasn't likely to be a very restful sleep. He got up instead, wincing as he put his bare feet on the stone floor and thinking for the hundredth time that he ought to get a rug for next to his bed. Varel collected the things he needed and left his room, taking the stairs at the far end of the hall and going down to the lowest level, where the baths were.

The water here was heated by the forge in the courtyard outside, and he didn't think Master Wade was up and working quite yet, but a cold bath would probably do him good. Varel shouldered the door open, to find that someone was there before him; a lamp glowed steadily on the table by the changing benches, and his eyes tracked a few spilled drops of water on the floor.

"Seneschal," a cool, quiet voice said from the darkest corner of the room, and Varel nearly groaned aloud. "You're up early."

"There's a lot to do today," Varel said. "I figured I could get an early start on some of it." He turned towards the changing benches and began to undo the laces of his shirt. From behind him came a lot of splashing and sloshing, and when he pulled the shirt over his head and turned around, the commander was out of his tub and wrapped in a worn-out toweling blanket that was tied across the left shoulder and covered him down to his toes.

Not that Varel could really blame him. The room wasn't all that warm.

The commander's hair was wet, and the water had darkened its bright copper to a dull, muted bronze. When he leaned to one side to wring it out, the curve of his body was only a hint inside the drape of cloth -- tan and brown, of course. Above the bunched line of fabric, the commander's bare right shoulder looked almost unnaturally smooth, the color of old lace. Varel could also see the commander's naked feet, long-toed and with high arches, and the slim ankles above. That was unexpectedly enticing.

"Today is when the merchants all get moved around, isn't it? I'm very interested in seeing how that will go."

"Fine, I expect," Varel said.

The commander made a little coughing sound that was just on the polite side of disbelief. "I look forward to it."

"Oh, you can have a little more faith in me than that," Varel said. "I'm used to organizing things around here."

Varel sat down to strip off boots and socks, then stood again to unlace his trousers. He'd spent the better part of his adult life living in the barracks, where everything you did was done in public, more or less, and that meant you'd better be able to take your clothes off in front of just about anybody. No matter how aware he was of the commander's presence, he didn't think twice about undressing in a communal bathing room. At least, not until he heard the commander scramble to pick up his things and thrust still-damp feet into a pair of soft shoes. Then he looked up to see that the tips of the commander's ears were faintly flushed.

"I'll let you have a little peace and quiet," the commander said with his hand on the door and his face turned away. "I'll come and find you after breakfast." He slipped out in a brief draft of cooler air.

Varel would have wondered if this was an Orlesian thing, some kind of over-mannered modesty they thought was proper, except that the Orlesian wardens had never shown any signs of it, crowding in happily for their baths and standing around half-dressed to argue about who should clean out the tub, just like any other soldiers. No, this was something else, something specific to the commander. There had to be a reason why the commander got up at dawn to bathe, and wrapped himself up so thoroughly when he came out of the tub that barely any skin showed.

It was difficult to believe that he could be hiding a scar. The commander was a warden, wardens were fighters, and fighting men took injuries, that was just the way of it. Varel would be a little surprised if the commander was heavily scarred, yes, because the commander was still young and a powerful healer, but he would be more surprised if the commander didn't bear a mark or two. That was nothing that needed concealing.

It was also difficult to believe that the commander was shy. Reserved, certainly, but there hadn't been anything of shyness in the way he'd approached Varel before, for activities that were considerably more intimate than being half-dressed in the same bathing room.

But that didn't change the facts: the commander had wrapped himself up in a way that all but hid his body from view, and when Varel had started to strip down, the commander had fled. The commander didn't want to be naked in front of Varel. The commander didn't want to be here when Varel was naked in front of him.

Looking down at himself, Varel shrugged. He'd be the first to say that he wasn't such a pretty sight, scarred and battered by years of soldiering as he was. All his hair had turned grey, too, not just that on his head. He rolled his shoulders and shook his arms out. At least everything still worked. And he didn't feel anything special at all in his left arm. When he looked down on it, Varel could barely make out the mark.

Putting his trousers down on the bench, Varel went over to the filled tub and checked the water temperature. It was quite warm, and he wondered for a moment if Wade had risen to work in the middle of the night, before he realized that the commander must have heated the water with magic. Varel had no scruples about taking advantage of that. He climbed into the tub and sighed with pleasure.

Varel allowed himself a short moment of indulgent thought. He couldn't deny that he would have liked to see more of the commander than just one bare shoulder and those pretty feet and ankles. He didn't mean to moon after the man, no, that would be both unseemly and undignified, but he was curious about that well-hidden body. More curious, perhaps, precisely because it was so well-hidden. But if the commander wouldn't show himself naked in a communal bathing room, he was unlikely to do it anywhere else.

Not that there was much communality to the bathing room at this hour. Later all the tubs might be in use, and the room crowded with men trading jokes and slivers of soap, but not as early as this. The commander had probably hoped to be alone. And when Varel had come in and started taking his clothes off, disturbing that privacy, the commander had left, because they wouldn't have been people casually meeting each other in a shared and public space, they would have been two naked men in a room together.

It would have been intimate, and the commander did not wish to be intimate with him. Varel reached out for a bucket on the floor and used it to tip some water over his head. What they had done together before-- No, better to be as exact as possible. What the commander had done to Varel before, then, had not been intimate, no matter how it had felt at the time. It was a thank you, a reward, an acknowledgement of a job well done, and Varel was quite intent on making certain it never happened again. He couldn't have the commander acting like that. He couldn't have the commander thinking he needed to bribe Varel like that.

At the same time, Varel couldn't deny any longer that he wanted the commander. Wanted to see him naked, wanted to touch him, wanted to kiss him.

No, leaving so precipitately had been a sensible choice on the commander's part. The commander was putting a much-needed distance between them, making sure that they weren't put in a situation that might be misinterpreted, that Varel did not think this another occasion for physical intimacy between them. It was up to Varel to make it clear that he didn't want any more of those physical rewards the commander had decided to give him, that he'd rather have the unweighted and casual closeness of co-workers, that was all.

Having reasoned it out like that, Varel tried to decide if it was true or not. He did want them to be easy and natural with each other, and a week ago, he would have said that they were. He wanted the commander to rely on him to do his job well because he was a good seneschal, not because he hoped to get the commander's mouth on his cock again.

He wanted the commander. He definitely did want the commander's mouth on his cock again. But he didn't want it to be a thank you, and he didn't want this awkwardness between them.

Varel growled under his breath. He could want the commander as much as he liked, on his own time, but he refused to have it brought into the Vigil's business. There'd be no more of that. He scrubbed himself with a chunk of soap, and found a long-handled brush within reach that he could use to take long swipes down his back.

Once he was clean, he got out of the tub and stood over the drain in the corner to rinse off, pouring a bucket of fresh water over himself. Cold water, because he'd been right to think that Wade didn't fire up the forge this early. Varel snorted and shivered, fumbled for a drying cloth, and rubbed himself vigorously. Time to get dressed and face the day.

Going armed and armored seemed like the best choice, on the whole. The weight was a comfort to him. When Varel strode off to find his breakfast, he was wrapped up in layers of metal and duty, and he greeted the sleepy-eyed maids he ran into with casual, cheerful nods.

The kitchen level was already bustling with activity, of course. He was too early for breakfast to be set out in the dining hall, but when he poked his head in through the kitchen door, Hansa greeted him with a cheery smile and gave him the morning's first bread, fresh from the oven. It was deliciously warm, with a crunchy crust, and Varel didn't bother to go anywhere with it, just stood leaning against the wall and eating contentedly. When he was done with the bread, she tossed him an apple, and he took that with him out to the courtyard.

Varel walked around, apple in hand, and looked over the market and the doors to various storage rooms, going over in his head what needed to be moved where, and how many people he would assign to each task. When he was done, he went down into the bailey and found the one sunny corner, and stood there slowly eating his apple and watching the Vigil wake up. It was a pleasant, quiet interlude; the guards down at the outer gate saluted him, but didn't talk. Varel thought it would be a fine thing to be up and about this early every morning, but he also thought he probably wouldn't be. Most mornings, he liked his bed and another hour of sleep better.

He ate the apple core and all, tossed the short stalk away into the grass, and started back up to begin dealing with the day's duties. Soldiers were hurrying across the courtyard now, and Wade was tending to the fire in the forge. The commander came out of the Vigil, fully and properly dressed, carrying two mugs. He handed one of them to Varel, who curved his hands around the comfortable warmth without thinking.

"Mistress Hansa said you'd had no tea yet this morning," the commander said.

"Thank you, commander." Varel sipped. "That was kind of you." Two soldiers came over, saluted him, and stood at attention; by the time he'd had another sip of the tea, they'd been joined by four more. Varel nodded his approval and gave them their first instructions for what room to go to and which crates to move.

Edwer came out of the keep. He was possibly the only person at the Vigil who looked as neat as the commander. This morning, with the commander's hair still drying in the light breeze, looking inclined to curl at the temples, Edwer might even be the more precise of the two. "Commander. Seneschal," he greeted them flatly. "I am ready to set up the market stall."

"Very good," Varel said. "The stall is at the back of the storage room at the end of the entrance hallway, to the left. Private Marjen," he snagged a passing soldier by the arm, "will assist you in bringing it out and setting it up."

Private Marjen looked appalled for a brief moment, hid it quickly, and straightened into a salute. "Yes, ser!"

The commander cocked a brow as they left. "Not a popular assignment, I take it."

"Many of the soldiers here have never met any Tranquil before," Varel said. "They find Edwer unnerving. I think it's mostly because of the way he speaks."

The commander nodded. "They said no one would be able to tell the difference with me if I were Tranquil," he said. His voice was a little flatter than usual, but still.

"That's not a very friendly joke," Varel said. Nor was it the kind of thing anyone would actually think who took the time to look at or listen to the commander for more than a minute. The commander's calm voice and impassive face was very different from the eerie blankness of the Tranquil. The commander veiled his feelings very thoroughly, but no one could doubt that he had them.

"It wasn't a joke," the commander said. "At the circle in Lydes, where I come from originally, a guesting priest whose sermons were quite compelling inspired a strong religious fervor among the apprentices, and as a result, nearly everyone in my dormitory asked to be made Tranquil, freed of the sin of magic and the sins that magic had brought them to."

Varel choked on his tea. "Nearly every one?"

"Yes," the commander said calmly. "As a consequence of their requests, the templars decided that if so many of us regretted sinning, we must all be guilty of it, which was true enough, and the sin had to be something to do with blood magic, since that was all they had the imagination to be concerned with. So they'd better make us all Tranquil, just to be on the safe side. Fortunately, I was recruited into the Grey Wardens before the rite could be carried out." He stepped aside gracefully as a soldier staggered past carrying a tall pile of presumably quite light crates. "It caused quite a fuss when the wardens demanded I be Harrowed instead."

Varel had never heard the commander share anything about his personal life before, and he would have been very pleased if such a private and reserved person relaxed enough to bring out anecdotes about old friends, perhaps, or something funny about a dog. But this -- this was a comment that very nearly left Varel speechless. "Fortunate indeed," he managed to say. "I take it you didn't have the same regrets as your fellow apprentices?"

"Oh, I did," the commander said. "Just not enough to offer myself up to the branding iron for it." He glanced up at Varel. "Don't look so disturbed, seneschal. It wasn't blood magic."

Varel drew breath to say something, though he didn't know what, when two more soldiers came skidding up to him, one with wet hair standing on end and the other with a split lip that was more healed today. He assigned them to their moving duties, and then one of the first lot of soldiers came back for more instructions, and it was all an intricate dance from that moment on, people and goods moving across the courtyard just as he had planned.

Having the commander there was quite useful. People didn't come up to argue half as much as Varel had thought. They took a second look at that small, still figure who stood there quietly holding a tea mug, and then they approached Varel for directions, nothing more. As a result, the work had progressed quite far by the time an argument sprang up between two soldiers trying to move the same crate in two different directions, which turned out to be an argument between Yuriah and Edwer, since both of them claimed ownership of the crate and its contents, materials for rune manufacturing.

Varel strode over to sort it out. This was precisely the kind of situation he hoped to avoid in the future by having everyone's goods stored in clearly separated areas. Though it would, of course, help if the merchants marked up their property in unambiguous ways.

"This crate bears both your mark and that of Enchanter Cera, at opposing sides," Edwer said, gesturing at the edge of the crate. "That is incorrect."

"Yes, it is," Yuriah said. "I suppose she put her mark on it by mistake, the way things were stacked, if she could only see the unmarked end. But the contents are all mine."

"You are incapable of working with lyrium to create armor runes." Edwer looked at the contents of the crate. "This looks like one of our orders from the chantry-sanctioned suppliers."

"Of course it does!" Yuriah gestured, too, his movements much more expansive and jittery than Edwer's. "They pack up every crate the same way, don't they? And I don't have to be able to work with this stuff to sell it, do I? I can't use half the things in my stock. I've a very nice staff that would be perfect for a mage such as..." He trailed off, looking at the commander, who carried no weapon at all this morning.

Varel looked at the pair of them, Yuriah quite agitated, Edwer showing no emotion at all, of course. "Place the disputed crate in the great hall," he said to the soldier standing nearest to them. "Do the same for any other item there's a conflict about. Be sure to place any such items separately. Actually, it would be best if you labelled them, so we don't add to the confusion." He looked at Yuriah, then Edwer. "This is not the ideal time and place to settle matters. Please bring me your account books later and show me what you have ordered and sold, and I will check against the undisputed inventory to see if there's a discrepancy. Provided that your accounts are correct, we'll easily be able to find out whose crate it is."

Easily might be an exaggeration, and maybe he'd have to ask Woolsey to help out, but at least the argument could be postponed for now.

Edwer merely nodded, and went back to his work, checking the awning of the market stall for holes or worn patches. Yuriah stood his ground and huffed. "I've heard those Tranquil fellows can't lie," he said, looking uncertain. "But that can't be true, can it? I mean, I know for a fact that crate is mine."

"The Tranquil see no reason to lie," the commander said, "but naturally they can be in error due to having wrongful information, just like anyone else. I'm certain an investigation into the books will settle the matter, if both you and Enchanter Cera have kept a proper account of your stock and deliveries."

"Of course, commander." Yuriah backed away, looking a little less uncertain, but not much.

The commander looked at Varel. "It would save time if I dealt with this, and any similar matter that may arise during the day. You need to keep your attention on the work of moving the stock and the merchants, of course." He glanced around the courtyard. "This is impressively efficient, seneschal."

"Thank you," Varel said, only a little flustered, because he did pride himself on his ability to get things done. "But settling merchant squabbles isn't your work, commander. You don't have to do that."

"Someone has to do it," the commander said with a small shrug, "and we cannot deal with the questions of cremations and oathtaking until this is finished."

"Yes, commander." Varel couldn't argue with that. "I think both Yuriah and Edwer want to be out here, though, to unpack and set up and keep an eye on their things. They may not want to come to the great hall for explanations quite yet."

"There is no reason why they should." The commander arched a brow. "I believe I shall set up a temporary office on the steps into the keep," he nodded to the side that would remain comfortably shaded even when the sun came around all the way, "and ask them to bring their books to me there. As soon as the matter is settled, a soldier can be sent to fetch the crate again and store it in its proper place." Now the commander looked very faintly amused. "Or do you fear that I will disrupt the order of your careful arrangements? I assure you, I will give no instructions that run counter to yours. That would clearly be counter-productive." He looked around again at the soldiers carrying and moving, the merchants unpacking and settling. "I am quite impressed, Varel."

Now Varel was a little more flustered. This was his job. He hadn't been aiming to impress the commander. Precisely. "That sounds like a fine idea, commander," he said instead, because it did. "I'll tell Private Marjen to bring you a cushion to sit on." He strode off to collar the hapless Marjen yet again, the commander went to set up on the steps, and after that, they saw very little of each other for the rest of the morning.

Varel went on directing his workers, keeping an eye on the sun, so he could call for a break and send the soldiers off to lunch at the right hour. The merchants, of course, did things at their own pace and had their own supplies. He was amused to see that Yuriah talked Herren and Wade into letting him use one corner of the forge to grill long, thin sausages, which smelled delicious. Then Yuriah brought one over to the commander, who thanked him, but did not smile at the gesture.

Going over that way, Varel leaned against the wall of the keep next to where the commander sat. "I don't suppose he's trying to bribe you into a favorable decision about that crate," he said.

The commander held the bread-wrapped sausage out to one side, so it wouldn't drip on his robes. "The matter has already been settled," he said. "The error was Yuriah's. Possibly he is trying to apologize for it." He bit into the sausage.

It was good to see the commander eating. Varel smiled to himself. He should go in to the dining hall and get some lunch for himself, too, but he lingered a little to enjoy this perfect moment, standing in the sunlight with the Vigil at his back and watching the commander try to deal in an elegant Orlesian fashion with a staple of Fereldan street food.

A maid came running down the steps, dodging neatly around the commander, and drew to a halt in front of Varel, her curls and skirts remaining in motion a little longer. He recognized her as Tione, one of the newest additions to the Vigil's staff. "Mistress Hansa says, would you like tea and bread brought out to you here, seneschal?"

Varel was tempted to say yes, but he'd already set enough people running back and forth this morning, and the afternoon would be no different. "No, I'll come in," he said, straightening away from the wall.

"If you please, ser," the maid Tione went on, "she says it wouldn't be any trouble, she's sending out a tray to the warden commander anyway." She bobbed a brisk curtsey, half towards Varel and half towards the commander.

"In that case," the commander said, his diction remarkably clear for a man eating a grilled sausage, "please bring out enough for the seneschal as well, Tione."

"Yes, ser!" She ran off, and Varel followed her with his eyes, shaking his head a little.

When he turned back, the commander was watching him. "Or perhaps you had a reason for wanting to go inside. I would rather stay outside, since the weather is so fine, but of course you may do whatever is most convenient for you, seneschal."

"No, I'd like to be here," Varel said. "Come to think of it, if I went inside, I'd have to lock everything up first, and then unlock all those doors again when I came back out."

"And that is clearly too much trouble," the commander said in that unemphatic manner of his, and took another bite of his sausage.

Their lunch arrived, and the commander drank tea and ate a sliced apple and tried to give away most of the honey-glazed carrots and pork-in-a-bun to Varel. His hair was dry now, gleaming copper in the sun. He didn't look like a tool for killing darkspawn, nor like a tool for running an arling. He looked like a remarkably beautiful young elven man who didn't like carrots much, and Varel realized that he wanted to indulge him, but he also wanted to make sure the commander ate properly, so he refused to take more than his rightful share of the pork, at least.

Varel did like carrots, though, so he ate most of those.

"Looks like we'll be done with all this in good time," Varel said, gauging the mess in the courtyard with an experienced eye. The soldiers had simply put everything down where they stood when they left, so he could easily track which way things would be moving again when they came back.

"Yes." The commander finished his tea and put the mug down, ready to be taken away. "A very well-executed campaign." He looked at Varel, his eyes for once more visibly thoughtful than opaque. "Do you play chess, seneschal?"

Varel shook his head. "That's not my kind of game, commander," he said. "Quite popular with the nobles, though. There's a set on one of the shelves in the great hall, if you've a fancy to it."

"I thought it might suit you," the commander said. "No matter." Tione came to sweep away the remnants of their meal, the soldiers returned to pick up where they'd left off, in many cases quite literally, and soon the courtyard was bustling once again. Everything ran as smoothly as could be expected. When a messenger arrived halfway through the afternoon, Varel headed her way, expecting an interruption, but she handed her letter to the commander and was off again, quick as that.

The sun was low enough to leave most of the courtyard in shadow by the time Varel could finally go around and lock up all the storage rooms, knowing that the merchants now had the correct keys and could each access the place that held their goods and no one else's. With any luck, this would be the end of misunderstandings such as the one between Yuriah and Edwer today. He thanked the soldiers for their excellent work during the day, and they went back to their barracks smiling.

Varel studied the new setup of the courtyard, looking for potential problems. The market stall was in place in the nook between the Vigil's main entrance and the door to the dungeon, and Edwer was busy rigging the awning, which had been mended neatly in two places. Yuriah was well established at Dworkin's old spot, already spreading sample goods and price lists out over the scarred stone top of the table. He seemed to get along well with Herren and Wade, too, which was certainly a bonus.

Enchanter Cera would no doubt have things to say about the new arrangement when she came back, but Varel decided not to borrow trouble. And the crates were finally cleared away from the platform outside the gate; Wade, complaining all the time, had done quite a bit of carrying himself, under Herren's directions

The commander came up to him on quiet feet. He'd braided his hair back in a simple fashion, and the curls at his temples were still there. It made him look even younger than usual, but his first words were reassuringly businesslike. "I have been speaking with Mistress Woolsey. She's hard at work on the Vigil's employment records, creating a new and correct payroll. I know you want to investigate the matter of the unidentified prisoners, but there are some other things that need to be dealt with first. We must write to those who will inherit after Bann Esmerelle and the others who conspired against me, and arrange for the cremation and the new oathtaking ceremony."

"Of course, commander." Varel straightened his back and dropped his shoulders to a more comfortable position. "Would you like to begin this evening?"

The commander shook his head. "You are going to rest," he said, sounding as if he was pointing out that the sun was going to set, "and I have warden business to attend to. Aura has written to me from Amaranthine."

"Aura, commander?" Varel thought the name sounded faintly familiar, but he couldn't place it.

"Kristoff's wife." The commander looked quite extremely expressionless. "She thinks it is outrageous that I have made no further efforts to search for him. She is right, of course."

"You've been busy," Varel said. That was putting it mildly, he thought. He'd never seen the commander stay still in one place for as long as he had today. "And it took us a while to find out that Kristoff hadn't returned to the Vigil before the attack."

The commander gave a single nod. "Aura writes that she has traced his steps in Amaranthine, just as I did. She expects me to go to the Blackmarsh for him as soon as I can."

"I see." Varel wondered if the funeral rites for Bann Esmerelle and the others could be put off any longer. If the commander took his wardens to the Blackmarsh, there was no saying how long they would be gone. He had been wondering about this, though. "I admit, commander, I thought you would search for Kristoff the first thing you did."

"Kristoff is a very competent man." The fine mask of the commander's face didn't look young any more, but timeless, ageless. "If anyone can handle scouting alone in hostile territory for a prolonged period of time, it's Kristoff. But I should have gone after him sooner."

"There's cheap salt to be had on the docks," Varel said, calculating the cost in his head and hoping Woolsey would agree with his estimates. "Better than ice, especially this time of year when there's not much ice to be had." Even if he could find any for sale, it would be dirty and half-melted. "I'll send a couple of men and a wagon for it as soon as possible, and we can--"

The commander held up a hand. "I feel as though you suddenly started having quite a different conversation. Would you like to let me in on it?"

"Salt for the bodies," Varel said. "If you're going to the Blackmarsh, they'll spoil before you get back unless we do something to preserve them." The Vigil's deep cellars were cool, but not cold enough.

The commander nodded. "The ice made with magic won't help," he said. "It thaws much faster than regular ice, even under winter conditions."

"Salt, then." The cost would be high, but not insurmountable. The salt was cheap for salt, but that didn't mean it was cheap, just that the Vigil might be able to afford it in the needed quantities.

"No. We cannot leave them unburned for so long," the commander said. "It would be disrespectful, and I believe it would be unwise of me to give the heirs to the conspirators more reason to dislike me. Though they may, of course, feel that a hurried ceremony is equally disrespectful. Nevertheless, we must arrange it in the shortest time possible."

"Seems to me we should start tonight, then," Varel said. He took a second look at the tension around the commander's mouth, amazed that he could see it so clearly. "But you'll need to write to Kristoff's wife. I'll just go over the list of heirs and have it ready for you in the morning."

The commander drew a breath, then let it out again. "Thank you," he said finally. "That would be most convenient. I'll come to your office tomorrow morning." He gazed thoughtfully around the courtyard. "I feel as though I've wasted a day. But also as though I wouldn't have missed it for anything."

Before Varel could ask him to elaborate on that, there was a bellow from the entrance to the Vigil. "Commander!" That was Oghren, listing a bit to the right. "We need you in here, commander. That soft-headed mage bet me I can't belch The Battle of Kal Vedeth on one mug of ale."

"And what do you expect me to do?" the commander asked placidly. He began to walk back to the keep, though. "I do appreciate that you thought to do the belching on your own time, this time."

"Aw, commander, that was just the pickled cabbage, that one time," Oghren said. "I'm not used to all this surface food. I need more grit and dirt in my guts." He thumped his stomach for emphasis and let out a small burp. "Anyway, need you to count the syllables for me. I don't trust that mage not to cheat."

"You do realize that I have no idea how many syllables there are supposed to be."

Anders appeared behind Oghren, carrying a silver goblet that Varel recognized as being part of the loot a Howe ancestor had brought back from a campaign in the south, and looking quite merry himself. "He'll recite it for us before he belches it," he said. "I never imagined that one day I'd be drinking out of an arl's own cup and listening to a dwarf reciting heroic poetry."

"It ain't poetry," Oghren said grouchily. "It's a drinking song."

"Sigrun says it's an epic poem that commin-- commer-- commemememorates a great victory against the darkspawn." Anders waved the goblet for emphasis. A few drops spilled over to scatter on the stone steps.

"I think we'd better go inside, children," the commander said.

Oghren planted his feet well apart and actually managed to stand up straight. "Hey, who're you calling a child?! 'M not a child. Just because I'm shorter than you are, doesn't mean you can talk like that to me."

"That's not why," the commander said, and shooed Anders and Oghren before him into the keep.

"Don't mind if you call that pesky mage a child, though," Oghren muttered as they went. "Even if he did run away to a whorehouse."

"Runaway apostates don't get magically fed, you know," Anders said. "I had to make a living somehow."

Oghren's voice rose in slurred surprise. "You worked there? Well, rattle my teeth and call me a warrior!"

"You are a warrior," the commander said dryly. Oghren huffed.

Varel couldn't help but smile. Oghren was probably the oldest of the wardens at the Vigil, he thought, but certainly not the most staid or responsible. For a moment, Varel considered following them inside, because he did have a certain urge to hear Oghren recite poetry, but he thought he had better get some work done on that list he had promised the commander, before it was time for dinner.

So when he went into the Vigil, he chose a route that wouldn't take him past the great hall, which seemed to be Oghren's and Anders's favorite hangout, and instead went up to his office by a less elegant and more direct way, taking narrow back stairs. He settled down and began to work on phrases for a letter to send out that would combine condolences on the death of the head of the household, a strong condemnation of the treasonous attempt on the commander's -- the arl's -- life, an invitation to be present at the cremation, and a requirement to swear an oath of fealty that would be more honest than the words the dead conspirators had spoken.

Varel knew who the recipients of this letter should be, mostly, especially after going over the nobility of the arling with the commander the other night, but he had to go to Woolsey's office and look at the tax rolls to be absolutely certain of who stood next in line to inherit after Lady Morag. Not that there was much to inherit; he thought Bann Esmerelle must have promised Morag and her family some kind of advancement, to enable them to keep living in Amaranthine rather than retire to the country and pay attention to their farms. Which, Varel noted, could really use some attention.

He lost track of time as he worked, and only realized when his stomach growled that he should have gone down for dinner long since. Varel put the list and letter aside and went to see if there were any leftovers for him. The dining hall was empty, its table cleaned off, but when he looked into the kitchen, Hansa pushed him down into a chair and slapped a plate in front of him -- mostly cold carrots from lunch, but also a bit of cooked grain with herbs and chunks of roasted pigeon.

It was a good meal, and Hansa joined him in a mug of tea afterwards; Varel spent the rest of the evening in the kitchen, listening to Hansa on the subject of vegetable garden yield, and the number of things that could be made with turnips, and the outrageous prices Amaranthine merchants charged for imported luxuries, such as tea. "I like your herb tisanes just as well," Varel said mildly, holding out his mug for a refill.

"The arl says he likes them better." Hansa shook her head. "It's not fit, though, an arl being fed on nothing but turnips and his cup full of what grows by the side of the road. He won't even take wine with his meals."

"Well, we can't force him to," Varel said. He could understand Hansa's point of view, and it was a shame, in a way, because the Vigil's wine cellars were well-stocked. "And I doubt you serve him nothing but turnips. You don't serve any of us nothing but turnips."

"Just you wait for the winter," she said darkly, then grinned. "There'll be days of baked turnip yet."

Varel went to bed in a cheerful mood, and he was still cheerful when he woke up again. He shaved himself slowly and carefully, peering at his reflection in the small, dull mirror that hung in the lightest corner of his room. It wouldn't do to be slovenly. He made it outside in time to join in the morning arms drill, and the fresh air cleared the last of the sleep out of his head.

Breakfast was a hurried bustle, as everyone who was early enough got a dollop of redberry jam with their porridge -- last year's jam, so the crisp flavor was going a little flat, but it was still good. The scullion in charge of the jam pot confided in Varel that Mistress Hansa wanted some of the old jam pots emptied out so she could use them for apple sauce. This was a good year for the early apples.

Varel didn't see the commander eating with the other wardens, but when he stepped out of the dining hall, the commander was there, waiting for him. "Are you ready to begin?" he asked.

"Of course, commander." Varel fell into step beside him, and they went up to Varel's office, where the table was still covered in lists and letter drafts.

"I've been going over the list of the arling's nobles and their politics that you were kind enough to make for me the other night," the commander said. "It seems to me that with Bann Esmerelle and a large part of her faction gone, the balance of power shifts quite heavily towards Lord Eddelbrek and his supporters."

Varel nodded, pulling out a chair for the commander. "In a way it does, yes. But Eddelbrek doesn't have much of a united faction, truth be told, though of course there are those who share his viewpoint and interests. He's more concerned with the harvest than with intrigues."

"I could wish that more of the arling took that view," the commander said. He sat down and put Varel's old list, a little tattered by now, with the other documents on the table. Varel took a chair next to him. "Now, this Lord Gorthwait Packton appears to be the heir both to the bannorn of Amaranthine and the lands held by Lady Liza Packton. Which puts him in a reasonably powerful position. Is anything known about him personally, other than the fact that he does not seem to have taken active part in the conspiracy?"

"Not much," Varel said. "I've barely met the fellow, myself. It's said Lady Liza married him mostly to gain a closer tie to Bann Esmerelle."

"Which seems to have worked," the commander said, "regrettably enough. A suspicious person would also think she married him for the inheritance, since Bann Esmerelle had no children of her own."

"Seems likely enough," Varel agreed. "You've decided to let him have the lands, then, rather than let them be forfeit to the arling?"

"Yes." The commander turned a little towards Varel. "Administering the city of Amaranthine would be a considerable burden, and not one I am particularly interested in adding to the wardens' lot at the moment. Taking the city, and the incomes associated with it, would also be seen as an attempt by the new arl to consolidate power and wealth, and would cause the other nobles in the arling to feel insecure in their positions, no matter how much evidence of Bann Esmerelle's treachery they were presented with."

That seemed all too probable, in Varel's opinion. Losing so many nobles at once was a blow to the stability of the arling, and if the arl took the city of Amaranthine for his own, it wouldn't be long before talk about Orlesian greed and Orlesian tyranny sprang up again. "I just hope he's a reasonable man."

"That would be for the best, yes." Today there was no trace of curls in the commander's hair, which was brushed into its usual sleek, strict order. Varel rather missed them. "The letter to the heirs should express regrets, but not too much; the emphasis must be on the treachery. It seems unlikely that the families of those who were involved had no intimation of what was about to happen."

"They probably knew something," Varel said. "You could hint, fairly strongly, that any second attempt at changing the balance of the power in the arling would meet with stern reprisals."

"If anyone tries to kill me again," the commander said calmly, "I shall take it extremely personally."

Varel couldn't help but chuckle. "And so you should." He sorted through the papers on the table until he found the one he wanted. "I have the draft of a letter here," he said. "It will give us something to start with."

As it turned out, the draft was quite useful, though the commander turned it around, putting the death announcement and the condemnation of the act that led to the death first and the condolences on this death second. "They tried to kill me," he said. "It will sound odd if I begin by expressing my regret that they're dead. I realize that their families will grieve, but it must be made clear that this grief is due to the conspirators' own decisions and acts. The letter must convey that these actions were unpardonable. My regret is over the loss the families have suffered, not over the deaths of the conspirators, who would have been hanged if any had survived."

"They knew that," Varel said. "That's why they fought the way they did, to the last man, even when they must have seen there was no hope of winning. If they died in the attempt, at least there'd be no public execution to shame their families."

The commander nodded. "And that is what must be expressed in the letter, without putting it into quite such blunt words," he said. "That this is, in fact, the most merciful and tactful resolution of the matter. It might not feel like it at first to those who have just lost a husband or wife, a son or daughter, but I hope a little reflection will make it clear."

Varel hummed. "This is Ferelden," he said. "Being blunt is something of a national tradition. I think it might actually be better for your letter to be explicit about the crime they committed and the punishment they would have faced. You don't want them thinking you're too Orlesian, begging your pardon."

The quick glint of something lightening the commander's eyes had to be amusement. "Of course not," he said gravely.

"That will make the rest of the letter sound more merciful, too," Varel went on, though he felt a smile tug at his mouth. "The cremation, the new oathtaking, the confirmation that the lands will remain the property of the same family, unless they give you any reason to doubt their loyalty again."

"In which case," the commander said, "I will sow their fields with salt."

"I know I said salt was cheap on the docks," Varel said, "but it's not that cheap. So let's hope these new vassals are trustworthy."

They spent the first hours of the morning hammering out the letter together, until every phrase was to the commander's liking. "I should like to have the cremation as soon as possible," the commander said. "Can we arrange it for the day after tomorrow, or is that too soon?"

"No, that will work, I reckon," Varel said. "The conspirators in Bann Esmerelle's plot were all nobles who lived close to, or even in, Amaranthine. The messengers will get to them tonight, and they'll have to travel here tomorrow. They'll be rushed, of course, and probably uncomfortable because of it, but they'll be here."

The commander nodded. "I'm not that deeply concerned with their comfort," he said. "Will we have to put them up for more than one night?"

"Very likely, yes," Varel said, not without a certain regret. "Even if we hold the funeral as early in the day as is decent, there's still the oathtaking. Some may choose to leave once it's done, no matter what time it's finished, but we can't just throw them all out. After all, you want them to be loyal to you."

"I do." Neither the commander's voice or face gave anything away. "If that is all, let us add the date to the letter and copy it up at once. Is there enough clean paper here?"

"Yes," Varel said, "but the arl of Amaranthine should not be making fair copies of his own official letters."

"I doubt any of the recipients know my writing," the commander said. "And in the circle, we did a great deal of copying. Books are traded between circles when mages travel, and all apprentices are set to copying work as soon as their writing is deemed good enough for it. It's a common punishment for unsuitable behavior, at least in Lydes." His face was as expressionless as ever as he went on, "I have had a great deal of practice."

"I see," Varel said. He really wanted to ask the commander about that, to find out what exactly constituted unsuitable behavior in a circle, and more specifically what had been unsuitable in Lydes, and if it had anything to do with the sinful acts that had made his fellows in the dormitory ask to be made Tranquil. The question was just about hovering on his lips, but the commander was already pulling up a fresh sheet of paper, his profile clean and forbidding as he bent over it.

Varel turned his attention to his own copying, instead. He wrote a decent hand when he took the time to be careful, and between them, he and the commander produced the necessary number of letters. Varel couldn't help but notice that the commander's writing was smooth and elegant, easy to read even though he shaped some of the words the Orlesian way, with little hooks at the top.

"There," the commander said, putting down his pen at last and sprinkling sand on the paper. "These should be sent off as soon as the ink is dry."

"I'll see to it, commander." Varel spread out his own copies. "You'll need to sign these, of course."

"Of course." The commander signed his name with a loop under the final s, then paused. "I suppose I should put both my titles here, too. Or is this letter only from the arl, not from the Commander of the Grey?"

"Can't hurt to remind people that you're both," Varel said. "I'll take care of it if you like, commander."

The commander sat back. "I saw that the soldiers have begun to build pyres out in the bailey," he said. "We must hope the wind will be away from the keep that day."

Varel nodded. "And Captain Garevel will set up a guard for you," he said. "That reminds me of something I've been meaning to ask. What heraldry should the Vigil's soldiers have emblazoned on their shields? The griffon of the wardens, or something else?"

"Yes, the griffon," the commander said. "On a plain background -- it would be a blue background for actual wardens. One of the old shields that belonged to the wardens can be used as a model. Do you have covers ready to be painted, and someone to paint them?"

"Yes," Varel said firmly. "And you will not do any of the painting, commander."

"Of course not," the commander agreed. "That would be quite below my dignity." Varel looked suspiciously at him, and the commander looked back with limpidly clear eyes. "Circle mages do stand a little on their dignity," he said, "but I left the circle quite young, and wardens will turn their hand to whatever needs doing. Even Orlesian wardens."

"So I noticed," Varel said. The Orlesian wardens had been much easier to deal with than he would ever have expected in that respect -- simple in their demands, practical and down-to-earth. "But you're an arl as well, commander. And it's because you're a warden, and an Orlesian, and a mage, that--"

"And an elf," the commander put in. He tilted his head, so that the point of his ear showed more clearly through his hair.

"And an elf," Varel agreed. Any one of those things might be the sticking point for people -- even being a warden, though it was the least likely to be objected to, compared with the elf-mage-Orlesian combination. Which didn't mean it was completely unlikely, of course. "It's because of all that, that you need to keep up the dignity of being arl. It would be very easy for people to lose respect for you."

"That would be unfortunate," the commander said, in his very flattest tone, and Varel couldn't hear if that was irony or simple agreement, though he suspected the former. "I take your point, Varel."

"If you like, commander," Varel said, "I'll take care of this, and you can spend the rest of today and most of tomorrow on warden business, though I'll need to have a couple of words with you about the arrangements for the cremation and the oathtaking."

The commander shook his head. "There is no urgent warden business that can be done in that time, and the two of us have more to deal with," he said. "I'd like you to explain in more detail this matter of the unidentified prisoners and the missing Vigil staff."

"I was concerned about staff gone missing in the records," Varel said, "but I got that sorted out with Samuel and Hansa. Seems most of them just left, when they didn't want to work for Howe any more."

"Sensible of them, I should think," the commander said. "And the prisoners?"

"That looks to be a bit more complicated. We did find that a couple of the Vigil staff were among the dead, but no more than that. Severel were soldiers, the ones who went to Ostagar with me, and as for the rest of them, I-- Commander, I'm not sure this is the best time for us to start discussing the matter."

The commander raised an eyebrow. "Do you mean that you want me to do something else, so that you can be free to make those arrangements you spoke of? If that's so, try for some proper Fereldan frankness and tell me directly."

"I do need to make arrangements," Varel said. "Someone must be assigned to paint the shield covers, the honor guard must be selected and properly equipped, pyres built up that look like proper funeral pyres and not piles of broken chairs, rooms assigned and prepared..." He trailed off, thinking about all the additional things that needed to be done, all of them small but necessary. Men would have to be detailed to bring out the bodies to the pyres at a suitable hour. Mistress Hansa had to be notified that there'd be an unknown number of guests to feed at several meals, and also that she had to make a small spread of wine and finger food available for the nobles at the oathtaking.

"We don't even know how many people will come," the commander said. "We have an interesting few days ahead of us."

Varel nodded. "Yes." He tried for some proper Fereldan frankness. "Commander, I do need to spend most of the time until the cremation and the ceremony of fealty in making sure that everything is suitably prepared."

"I see," the commander said. "There is a great deal to be done, and no doubt I have work of my own. The matter of the prisoners will have to wait until I return from the Blackmarsh, then."

"Commander?" Varel thought he knew, now, how the commander had felt when Varel had started to talk about the price of salt. It was difficult to follow someone who had taken a side turn in the conversation when you were still going ahead on the main road.

"I must go there as soon as possible after the new oaths have been sworn. The messengers to Amaranthine can also take my letter to Aura. I believe she is staying at the chantry." The commander's mouth was a thin, straight line. "Very pious woman, Aura."

"Bring the letter here," Varel said, side-stepping the whole issue of Kristoff, Kristoff's wife, and how the commander felt about the matter of piety, "and I'll see to it."

The commander stood up. His robes fell tidily into place without even a shrug or minor gesture on his part. Varel wondered if it was the result of a spell in the fabric. "I have it in my office," he said. "I'll be back in a moment."

While the commander was gone, Varel pulled up another piece of paper and penned a swift note of his own to the chantry in Amaranthine. The traitors would be burned according to the proper rites, with the proper Andrastean words spoken over them, and since the Vigil currently had no priest, one would have to come for the ritual. Soldiers could hold cremations for their fellows in the field, of course, and they all knew the words that needed to be spoken then, but a real funeral required a real, chantry-ordained priest, and it was yet again a question of doing things properly, of showing respect to the dead.

A respect they didn't deserve, in Varel's opinion, but that wasn't the point. There was nothing to be gained by treating the traitors' corpses badly, and doing things the right way might soften the revered mother's heart a little, as unlikely as that seemed. She'd complain about the rush and the lack of preparations, and Varel couldn't really dispute that, but she'd send someone. A request from the Vigil was too important to ignore. He pushed that letter in with the others and set to tidying up pens and ink.

The commander came back in again with the letter to Aura in his hands. He went to put it on the table and leafed through what was already there, then stopped, looking down. "I was not aware that there would be another letter sent to the Amaranthine chantry. Is this official Vigil correspondence?"

The tension in his voice was a little too obvious to be ignored, and Varel turned his head in surprise. This was the first thing he'd seen break through the commander's careful facade of indifference from the outside. "I suppose it is," he said. "I'm speaking for the Vigil in this matter, and a formal request from the Vigil is bound to get their attention."

"And what have you requested," the commander said. He didn't ask it, just said the words, and his voice was so completely leached of all emotion that Varel fought the urge to take a step closer to him, tilt his head up, look in his eyes. It should be obvious what Varel had requested, self-evident, and he felt all the confusion, himself, that the commander didn't express.

"We need a priest for the funeral rites," Varel said instead, answering the not-a-question as clearly as he could. "Don't want people to think we're being disrespectful to the chantry."

"Yes," the commander agreed after only the briefest pause, "of course we do. And that seems wise." His shoulders didn't relax, though. "I would not want the chantry to have any additional reason to think ill of the Vigil."

It occurred to Varel that the revered mother in Amaranthine in all likelihood thought the Vigil was a hotbed of sin and magery, all of it embodied in this slim young man. And of course the commander would be aware of that.

"Would you like to read the letter?" Varel said. He turned it the commander's way. "I should have thought of that, that you might want to..." Unsure of what he was trying to say, Varel let his words peter out. He looked at the commander, at the commander's politely attentive mask, and found a new resolve. "It's for you to decide if you want to set the tone for all the Vigil's letters. But I wouldn't advise being remiss in proper civility to the chantry and its representatives. This should be polite enough, I hope."

"Of course," the commander said. His eyes cut swiftly to Varel and back again. "I apologize. I did not mean to imply that your letter might be unsuitable." He paused for a breath. His voice was still stripped of everything that resembled feelings. "Nor did I truly believe that you had written to denounce me as a blood mage and a heretic."

"No," Varel said blankly. This was more than a side turn. This was as if the commander was following a road in the next country over. "Why would I do that? And commander, you're not a blood mage. Or a heretic, as far as I can tell."

"No," the commander said, "but the wardens don't specifically forbid blood magic. Such an accusation, about a Grey Warden, would likely be believed, in a strongly anti-mage environment, at least."

Such as the chantry. Particularly the Amaranthine chantry, since Amaranthine had been troubled by a band of apostate mages who had used blood magic to evade capture by guards and templars, finding sacrifices to power their spells among the crowds of refugees outside the city gates. Varel had heard the stories. He had also heard that the commander and his wardens had put a stop to it.

Which ought to mean that both templars and chantry looked favorably on the commander, even if he himself was a mage. On the other hand, Anders had hinted and more than hinted at trouble with the templars, which was hardly surprising given the circumstances of his recruitment, and Varel thought it quite likely that taking a wanted runaway out from under their noses would have made the templars quite annoyed.

None of this answered the most important question, the one the commander hadn't even seemed to notice.

"But why did you think I would do a thing like that?" Varel had started to rise out of his chair, but now he sat back down again. He didn't want to tower over the commander if the commander had suddenly decided, for some reason that Varel didn't understand, that Varel was somehow an enemy who might take hostile action.

"I don't think that," the commander said. "As I said, I apologize."

"If you don't think that," Varel said, "you've no need to apologize. I'm sorry, commander, but I don't understand. You know I don't care about you being a mage. Why did you suddenly think I'd lie about you to the chantry?"

"I don't. I didn't." The commander was all ice and stone, a statue in winter. "I overreacted, and I beg your pardon. I should not have mentioned it."

Varel shook his head slowly. Something had happened here, and it was difficult for him to grasp. The slowly-growing camaraderie between them was gone, and the commander more distant than ever before. It seemed that the commander expected betrayal, in this matter, and leaped to that conclusion.

Varel tried a little conclusion-leaping of his own.

"Does this have something to do with what you told me yesterday?" he said. "The templars wanting to make you Tranquil, make all of you Tranquil, because they suspected blood magic?"

The commander remained as he was, icy and still. "I don't want to talk about this," he said, possibly the most plain and straightforward thing Varel had ever heard out of him, as stark as the look in his eyes. "Please keep me informed as the arrangements proceed, seneschal." He turned and went out of the room.

Varel stared at the door, left ajar, for a very long moment. Then he looked down at the pile of letters on the table and shook himself into action. He gathered them into his hands and went out in the hallway and past the closed door to the commander's office, down the stairs, along another hallway, and so on until he came out into the courtyard, where the air was fresh and the breeze had picked up enough to be like a slap on his neatly shaven cheek.

He made the arrangements to have all the letters delivered as quickly as possible, and told the messengers make as good time as they could, since the Vigil was delivering bad news and a summons with very little notice. The messengers set off, and Varel hoped they would meet with no trouble on the road. The road between Vigil's Keep and Amaranthine was probably the safest in the arling, considering all the patrols, not to mention how often the commander and his wardens travelled that way, but that was no absolute guarantee.

Going down into the bailey, Varel nodded to the men who were removing the cracked timber from the platform wall, under Samuel's directions, and Master Voldrik's workmen, most of whom were busy down by the gate towers, repairing the damage that still remained from the darkspawn attack. He would have liked to be more involved in that work, himself, but he had other things to do. Instead, Varel considered the piled-up heaps that had to be transformed into respectable pyres. Somehow the stack of broken-down chairs from Dworkin's new workshop had grown to include an originally three-legged stool that only had two and a half legs left, several broken crates, all the packing straw from someone's shipment, fragments of broken pottery, and a couple of extremely dirty old tabards, their appliqué bears ragged and torn.

It would all likely burn well enough, except for the pottery. The nobles wouldn't like to see their relatives on such makeshift pyres, though. Varel lifted a hand at Maverlies, who was passing by the inner gate, and she came down to join him. "Yes, ser?"

"I need you to take some people and make this look like the setting of a decent funeral," Varel said. "We'll burn those conspirators two to a pyre, to save space, but we'd better make it look like they're getting proper wood pyres. The families who are coming will be here tomorrow afternoon, and by then everything has to appear respectable."

"Seems like a waste of good wood," Maverlies said frankly.

Varel couldn't disagree with that, but nevertheless, something had to be arranged. "Have the men cut brush down towards the river. It needs trimming back in any case."

Maverlies nodded. "Do you want the pyres here, or closer to that wall, or out in the open? There might be anywhere between two and twenty mourners coming," her eyes went distant as she calculated, "plus their guards, plus the priest, plus you, plus the commander and his wardens..."

"Not sure the other wardens will be here," Varel said, "but the commander will have a guard from the Vigil's garrison, at least ten men. Put the pyres as far down and towards that wall as you can, as long as the priest can still walk around them. We'll need most of the open space for the people."

Maverlies nodded again. "Consider it done," she said cheerfully, and went to collect people for the work.

Varel took another look at the heaps of trash, because that was what they were, there was no other word for it, and marvelled a little at how fast one thrown-away thing would become a pile of many thrown-away things. They were lucky there was no kitchen refuse that would have to be picked back out; the smell of old porridge and fish guts would not have been suitable.

Which reminded him that the kitchen hadn't actually served fish in a good while, and that was odd, because the farmers down the river often paid their taxes in fish, at least in part, and they used to come by with deliveries whenever they had something suitable. They were half farmers and half fishermen, really, though they were usually called farmers, since they did have land and plant crops on it. River farmers, both as a description of their geographical location and because they made their living from the water as well as the land. Could be the trouble between them and the Vigil that Samuel had mentioned was more serious than Varel at first had thought.

Going closer to the nearest heap, Varel kicked at a chair to see if the legs would fall off. They did. Shoddy craftsmanship from beginning to end. The Vigil really did need a carpenter who knew his business. Too much at the keep was being run on a good-enough-for-now basis, and it really wasn't good enough for now, not when now had become a time when the Vigil was under proper rulership again and they had an arl who needed to look respectable.

A carpenter, then, and a housekeeper, since Hansa and Woolsey were currently splitting those duties between them, and a priest.

Varel stared at the ground. That meant he had to write to the revered mother in Amaranthine again, and the commander would probably not be quite happy with that, though it might go better if Varel told him ahead of time, and explained the reasons. With any luck, he could avert another scene such as that which had taken place in his office.

He'd upset the commander badly, without any intention of doing so, and he still didn't quite know how he would keep from doing it again. Varel shook his head slowly. It seemed he would have to be very careful about what he said and did around the commander. He'd grown complacent, no doubt, because the commander had always seemed before now to be such an extremely calm and rational person, someone who was practically impossible to upset and who dealt with everything and everyone in the same matter-of-fact way.

Now it seemed this veneer of calm could indeed be cracked, and until Varel knew better how to avoid that, he needed to think twice about everything he said and did.

That was an uncomfortable reflection. It reminded him a little too much of the way things had been between him and Rendon Howe, at the end. Of course, he'd known quite well what Howe would object to, and he'd learned how to pick his battles, had been very deliberate about what he would say and would not say on any given occasion. And the commander was very different from Rendon Howe in every way, and the things that overset him were clearly very different, too.

But working for a superior who might have a strong negative reaction to something he said or did, having to consider his words carefully -- yes, that was familiar, and something Varel had hoped to be done with.

He didn't know where he was with the commander, that was the plain truth of it. Thinking about the man as his quiet and competent commanding officer, that had been one thing. Finding him very attractive had been another and far more unsuitable thing, but one Varel could have ignored. Then the relationship between them had changed, with that one night and that other afternoon, with the commander's mouth on Varel's cock.

That had complicated matters. But at the same time it had seemed to Varel that as they worked more closely together over the past few days, they developed a better understanding of each other, grew more at ease.

Judging by how the commander had reacted today, Varel had been wrong. The commander was not at ease with Varel. The commander didn't trust him, and that made Varel realize how very much he wanted to be a person the commander did trust and rely on. Seeing glimpses of the commander's thoughts and feelings below the smooth surface... he wanted that.

Except that he didn't want to upset the commander or make the commander unhappy, and the knowledge that he apparently could do so without meaning to made him quite uncomfortable.

Varel looked up again and did his best to shake off these thoughts for the moment. He had no time to stand around and brood over the commander's strange behavior. He'd dealt with difficult superiors before, and never mind that the commander was as different from Rendon Howe as could be. No matter how Varel felt about the commander, there was still work that needed to be done, and this was the time to do it, not get lost in ponderings about the commander's mysterious past and peerless beauty.

Really, he should be ashamed of himself for even having thoughts like that about the man. Varel told himself sternly that it would be better if he and the commander just went back to their brisk and businesslike interactions of the time before all this, before the commander had sucked him so sweetly, before the beginning of this unexpected intimacy that had somehow led to the commander standing in Varel's office and showing feelings.

Varel tried to ignore the part of himself that said he'd quite like to see the commander show his feelings some more, just not those particular feelings. Happiness, now, that would be something to see.

When he turned back to go up the stairs to the platform again, Voldrik Glavonak was there, waiting for him. "This is a disgrace, seneschal," he said. "I knew wood wasn't to be trusted." He pushed at the railing, which wobbled in response. "At least you're taking those timbers down from the sides, but I don't know if I have enough stone yet to replace them all the way around."

"We're putting up new logs," Varel said.

"Now why would you do a foolish thing like that?" Voldrik crossed his arms, then uncrossed them right away so he could use one hand to point. "You can see for yourself what comes of that. Stone will serve you much better."

"And what will it cost us?" Varel knew the commander had paid out more money for repairs, as soon as more money was available. But he didn't know how much more. "You'll need both more stone and more men for something like this, won't you?"

Voldrik looked as if he was about to agree, but then, with an air of resignation, he shook his head instead. "No. No, if it means I don't have to watch this sorry excuse for a grand entrance any longer, I'll make it happen with what I've got. The Vigil deserves better than this."

And that was a statement that Varel could never find it in his heart to argue with. Voldrik probably knew that. "I suppose you're right," he said.

"You know I'm right. Mind you," Voldrik added, "I'm not making any fancy railings for you. If you want that, you'll have to solve it some other way."

"I intend to," Varel said, because even if Voldrik managed to get the platform revetted, the Vigil still needed a carpenter, and a carpenter could certainly make a railing. "Talk to Samuel, then, so the men don't start to do repairs with new wood, and make your own arrangements to take the wood down and put up stone in its place. Just don't take those stairs away and leave us with no way to get out of the Vigil until you're done working."

"Do I look like that kind of fool to you?" Voldrik shot him a distinctly un-amused look. "I'm not some lyrium-addled lackwit who can't tell his hammer from his yardstick."

"You know what us humans are like," Varel said. "For my part, I can't tell your innuendo from your inventory."

"You've listened too much to Oghren," Voldrik said, and went off to find Samuel.

Leaving the bailey, Varel trudged up to the soldiers' yard and started to look around for Garevel. He was just about to go in and look in the small room that served Garevel for a private office, when the door opened and the man came out. "Do you know how many sets of the silverite armor that Wade has finished?" he asked abruptly. "The men need to start getting used to their new equipment."

"They do," Varel agreed, too used to Garevel's habit of bursting out with whatever his thoughts were full of to feel any surprise. "I came to see you because we need to assign a honor guard to the commander for the funeral of Bann Esmerelle and the others, which will be the day after tomorrow. Those who are assigned ought to wear the new armor."

Garevel nodded. "That would be a good way to start," he said. "How many men are we talking about? There ought to be at least ten. Twelve. They know how to do a neat formation for twelve men."

"That ought to be sufficient," Varel said. "It's all being done on very short notice, so we won't know until they start arriving tomorrow just who is coming or how many attendants and guards they're bringing with them. If all six families show up -- no, five, because Gorthwait Packton is the heir to both Bann Esmerelle and Lady Liza --"

"They can leave their guards outside the gate," Garevel said. At Varel's look, he went on, "They can't be surprised that we don't trust them! They're here for the funerals of people who tried to assassinate the commander!"

"They can't leave their guards outside the gate overnight," Varel said. And he'd just assigned the building meant for guards like that to Dworkin Glavonak, which was, in retrospect, not such a brilliant choice. "It would be best to put the guards in the empty barracks."

"No," Garevel said. He crossed his arms. "They can borrow tents, we've plenty. They can sleep in the old sheep-shearing sheds if it's raining."

"You could at least let them take the new stables," Varel said. "There's no hole in the roof of the new stables."

The new stables weren't new at all, though the old shearing sheds were old indeed. Both buildings stood empty since a number of years back, and due to a rather confusing chain of events, mostly to do with Orlesian chevaliers and the unfortunate choices made by certain Howes during the rebellion, the arls of Amaranthine were actually forbidden to keep horses at the Vigil. Rendon Howe had never bothered to do anything about this, getting around the prohibition by hiring animals when he needed them.

The stables would make a reasonable place to house a few guards, but Varel actually agreed with Garevel that letting the funeral guests bring armed men into the Vigil would make it look as though they didn't take their arl's safety seriously.

"The new stables are inside the Vigil," Garevel said, as if hearing Varel's thoughts. "And so cluttered up besides that it would take weeks of cleaning to sleep a cat in there, let alone any guards, if we let them in, and I don't think we should."

Varel nodded slowly. "We've enough to do without trying to fix that," he said. He'd overlooked the way the new stables, so conveniently empty, had become a repository for everything that needed to be out of the way. "We don't have a lot of time to make the arrangements."

"Right." Garevel was brisk, as if Varel's words meant the matter was decided. "I suppose the nobles will have to be housed inside the Vigil, and that's bad enough. It will be a small funeral, at least."

"Probably not too many family members," Varel said. "My guess would be about ten people or so, and the priest, and the commander, and the two of us, of course, and ten or twelve guards, and... I should find out if the commander's other wardens intend to be there. Between twenty-five and thirty altogether."

"If they all come," Garevel said. "I wouldn't be surprised if the rest of the Luttons cut their losses and fled to the Free Marches. Lord Guy was always an embarrassment to them."

"Yes," Varel said, "but that was when he was a healthy young man who seemed likely to get drunk and make a spectacle of himself at every party for the next forty years. Now he's dead and Tanna Lutton will inherit and be the head of the family instead. The Lutton lands are probably worth a bit of embarrassment, don't you think? Everyone knows they weren't involved in what young Guy did."

"Definitely twelve guards," Garevel said. "The Vigil needs to look strong. We have to show them that we're going to take good care of the commander." He grimaced a little. "Even if we failed in that once. Blight it, we wouldn't be holding this funeral if we hadn't failed. They would never have been able to attack the way they did if I hadn't been so careless."

"But the commander is alive to hold it," Varel pointed out. "And it's my fault. I'm the one who let them into the great hall."

Garevel huffed. "I let an armed company onto the Vigil's grounds. And armed nobles is one thing, but some of those people were professional assassins. I won't let that happen again." There was a gleam in his eyes that went beyond his usual earnest intensity. "I'll make it clear that the Vigil is ready to defend her commander."

"As much as he'll let us," Varel agreed.

"Yes, there is that," Garevel said. His brows scrunched up. "I should go along with him myself the next time he tries to go out alone. None of the other Orlesian wardens ever did anything like that."

"Kristoff went out alone," Varel said. "And everyone agreed he could handle it."

That didn't change the look on Garevel's face much, except possibly to make it more mulish. "Kristoff wasn't arl." And there was no real arguing with that, of course, though Varel had the feeling the commander would have found a way. "And he never came back, either. Let's go see about this new armor. Is it all kept in the new armory?"

The new armory wasn't new, precisely, just as the new stables weren't new, only in comparison to the old armory, which was a great deal older than the old shearing sheds. The old armory dated back several hundred years and was a bit awkwardly placed by now, as the Vigil had grown around it. They still used it, but only for things that were rarely needed. Some of the weapons in there were so old, Varel wasn't sure they were fit to use any more. He should probably look into that at some point.

Varel and Garevel set off together, going towards the main entrance to the Vigil. Today was a little more windy than the days before, and the sky was hazed with very thin white clouds, not dense enough to hide the sun. They made the sunlight muted, though, and all shadows were softened.

The new arrangement of merchant shops seemed to be working well. Wade was hard at work by his forge, Herren and Yuriah discussed something, with much hand-waving, and on the other side of the keep entrance, Edwer was turning a sword over in his hands, tapping the hilt, while the owner stood next to him with an eager look on his face. Varel nodded approvingly. Then they headed up the steps towards the main entrance and ran straight into Cera.

"Seneschal," she said curtly. "What is the meaning of this? I come back after only a brief absence to find that you have moved my shop and all my goods, relegating me to a less favorable location and forcing me to work with second-hand equipment of deplorable quality."

"How can you call it less favorable?" Garevel said with a snort. "You're in the main courtyard right by the steps, where everyone will see the shop and pass right by it. Look, you've got customers right now."

Cera gave him an icy look. "I'm not at Vigil's Keep to be a merchant," she said. "I'm an ambassador from the Circle Tower, and my trade goods are primarily meant to benefit the wardens."

"There's nothing stopping the wardens from shopping at your new location," Varel said. "As I explained to Edwer, the new arrangement is beneficial to everyone. You gain an excellent location and much better storage possibilities, and the Vigil will run much more smoothly."

"If your ambassadorial duties take up so much of your time," Garevel said, "you can just leave the shop in the hands of your assistant. He managed things just fine when you were in Amaranthine."

"I did not expect the Vigil to take advantage of Edwer's simple and obedient nature in such a manner," Cera said. "I will speak to the commander about this."

"That might be best," Varel said. "He was present for the whole move, and he spent some time talking to Edwer, so he'll be quite familiar with the issue involved."

Cera looked a little taken aback. "He was?"

"Yes," Varel said. "And I'm sorry you don't like the merchant stall that the Vigil has lent to you, but we're happy for you to keep using our property for as long as you need to. Of course, you can get a new one that suits you better whenever you like."

Cera looked even more taken aback, and Garevel almost smiled. "The Vigil is a hard-working fortress," he said. "The staff who work on the inside need to keep everything in good order, and we soldiers can protect everyone much better if they are where we expect them to be -- the merchants are much safer like this, all gathered together."

"I'm sure you want your assistant and your goods to be easily protected," Varel said.

"Of course I do," Cera said. She still didn't look happy, though. Not that Varel had expected her to be delighted, precisely. "But I'll speak to the commander."

"I believe he's up in his office," Varel said. Once the words were out, he wanted to take them back, because if the commander was still upset, he didn't need Cera knocking on his door. It felt uncomfortably like a petty revenge on Varel's part, setting her on the commander because he himself was a little angry that...

A little angry that the commander had leaped so quickly to the conclusion that Varel would denounce him to the revered mother for no real reason. Yes, that tight feeling in him was probably anger. And that was wrong. He shouldn't be angry at the commander, not when the commander was upset because of Varel. Whatever had happened between them before, Varel definitely shouldn't indulge in anything as absurd as taking out his anger by sending Cera to be a thorn in the commander's side.

Knowing that didn't make him call her back when she walked away, though. Because he was angry. Not the fierce kind of anger that got things done, not the loud kind of anger that could be vented in shouting and a good sword bout, but something low and simmering and entirely too close to hurt for comfort. He'd thought that he and the commander were finally growing a little closer and a little easier with each other, past their stiff and formal beginnings, past the strange sexual encounters and the resultant awkwardness, and to be met with this sudden distrust had affected him more than he wanted to admit.

"Come on," Garevel said, nudging Varel's arm.

Varel shook himself and followed. This was unbearable. All this emotion, and the thinking about it. He was acting like a boy barely old enough to shave, in the throes of the worst kind of calf-love. It was absurd, when he was a grown man with a rich and busy life, full of hard work and responsibilities. He was long past the age of making a fool of himself over a pretty face.

So long past it, in fact, that Varel began to wonder if Garevel's words to him a couple of nights ago had been nothing but the kindness of a strong young man towards an old and dwindling one. Perhaps he truly was a doddering old lecher whose interest in his young commander could bring nothing but unhappiness to him, and confusion and trouble to both of them. Perhaps the commander had chosen to reward Varel with blowjobs because his attraction to the commander was painfully obvious and it seemed like an excellent way to manipulate him.

Varel growled under his breath and slapped the wall in frustration. Garevel turned to look at him. "I just remembered something," Varel said. "No matter."

The commander did have a certain skill when it came to manipulating others. Varel knew that pretty mask of a face might be hiding anything, and he'd seen and heard for himself how skillfully the commander handled the angry soldiers of the Vigil until they were just about eating out of his hand. It wasn't that impossible to imagine that the commander's actions towards Varel were part of the same mindset and way of thinking on the commander's part.

But it wasn't right, and it wasn't necessary. Varel would do his duty without any such reward. He had both his own honor and the honor of the Vigil to work for. He didn't want the commander's mouth. Not for that reason.

And no matter how many times he kept telling himself that he knew his own mind and only had to keep acting according to that knowledge, his thoughts kept going around and around the same issues. He wanted the commander; he didn't know what the commander wanted. It really wasn't any more complicated than that, but every time he thought about the matter he found some new way to make it more convoluted, all the same.

And maybe it was more complicated after all. He wanted the commander, and he shouldn't want the commander, and he didn't know what the commander wanted from him. Presumably the commander wanted Varel to keep working to the best of his ability, but then, Varel already did. Perhaps the commander wanted to ensure that Varel was completely devoted to him and his interests, and not about to denounce him to the chantry.

But Varel didn't have any reason to denounce the commander to the chantry, and he'd had no interest in doing it nor shown any signs of doing it before the commander had come to his bedside, that first time. At least, he didn't think he had done so. And if anything, he had believed that the commander was using sexual favors as a way to say thank you, not as a way to bribe Varel into loyalty.

Either possibility was repugnant to him. And he was doing it again, thinking himself into an unfamiliar emotional tangle. Unfamiliar and uncomfortable.

"You look troubled," Garevel said, unlocking and opening the door to the new armory.

"There's a lot that needs to be considered to make this funeral run smoothly," Varel said, which was certainly true. "Now, let's see what we have, here."

Master Wade had been hard at work, and they could easily equip twelve soldiers with new, shiny silverite armor, swords and shields. They could equip a lot more than twelve, if it came to that, but Garevel wanted to make this first trial of the new armor a small-scale test and a reward for soldiers who had done well recently. "And I'll set Marjen and Vendel to paint up the griffon heraldry," he said. "That's one of the Orlesian warden shields over in that corner, isn't it. I'll tell them to keep it as simple as they can and make sure the paint will have time to dry. We won't make a good showing at the funeral if the griffons are dripping."

"I'll leave this in your hands, then," Varel said, dragging out the warden shield to lean it against the wall next to the blank silverite ones waiting to be covered. "Have the men be ready in the morning, the day after tomorrow. We'll start as soon as the priest is ready, but-- No, wait. The guards should probably be in attendance on the commander as soon as the mourners begin to arrive here tomorrow afternoon."

"Before the mourners get here," Garevel said. "The commander needs to greet them with an honor guard at his back, to make the right impression."

"I suppose that would be best," Varel agreed. "The shields might not be dry, though."

"They can use blank ones for tomorrow, if need be." Garevel tapped a finger against his teeth. "Do you suppose there's a way to talk the commander into some fancier robes? Something more impressive. Not the purple, though."

"I'm hardly in charge of the commander's wardrobe," Varel said. Had he been, the purple robe would have vanished as soon as the commander moved into the Vigil. "If you have a suggestion, make it to him directly. I have the impression that the commander values straightforwardness in his subordinates."

"That may well be," Garevel said. "He's a tricky one himself, though." Varel entirely agreed, but he thought he'd probably better not say that, because he didn't know if he'd be able to stop himself from explaining just why he thought so. Telling Garevel that he wondered if the commander was using sex as a manipulation tool would probably lead to an extremely awkward conversation. Varel liked Garevel and counted him as a friend, but not that close a friend.

They closed up the armory again for the time being, and walked back towards the courtyard. Going through the great hall, they met Oghren, who was fondling his axe and muttering to himself. "Where do you keep the whetstones in this giant castle of yours?" he said when his eyes focused on Varel. "We're going out after lunch, and my baby here needs a new edge if I'm going to have a chance of keeping up with the commander." He shook his head. "Don't know what put the phyllosilicate crumbs in his smallclothes, but if it means I get to kill more darkspawn, I'm all for it."

"The what crumbs?" Garevel gestured impatiently. "None of us know what you're talking about, but I very much doubt anyone in the Vigil would--"

"What, you fellows never saw mica start to flake if you even breathe on it?" Oghren put his axe down to start digging in a belt pouch. "Think I even have some here. I was going to make something pretty and glittery for the nugget with it."

"If you don't have your own whetstone, you can borrow one in the barracks," Varel said. "The wardens are going out?"

"Out on the roads again," Oghren affirmed with a pleased look. "I haven't killed anything in days. I'm hoping the darkspawn will be stupid enough not to hide from us."

He went towards the door, and Garevel made a sound between his teeth. "It's good that the commander isn't going alone," he said, "but the wardens aren't exactly the kind of company that lends dignity to the position of an arl."

"I don't think Oghren could lend dignity to anything," Varel said. After all, Oghren had no dignity to lend, and certainly none that he kept for himself. "But wardens are skilled and respected warriors, traditionally, everyone knows that, and even a king would be proud to be seen in their company. Money could not buy guards like that."

"They are very skilled," Garevel said grudgingly. "Even if they aren't very disciplined."

"Not in the conventional way," Varel agreed. "I wouldn't want them under my command. But if I were overrun by darkspawn and the situation seemed hopeless, there's no group of people I'd rather see come to my aid."

"I'd rather have them than an army." Garevel nodded. "And as fighters, they set a good example for our soldiers, giving them something to look up to and try to emulate." He shook his head instead. "They're just so blighted sloppy!"

"I don't think any of them knows what a proper salute looks like," Varel said. "Wardens don't put much stock in formalities. But they do follow the commander's every word, and they definitely know which end of a weapon does the most damage, and how to use it on their enemies."

"I'll send Vendel and Marjen up with pots of paint," Garevel said abruptly. "Will you come and eat down in the barracks with us? I'll point out some men to you that I know went to Highever, and then it will be up to you when you talk to them."

Varel nodded slowly. The commander had asked him to hold off on his investigation until they could do it together, after the funeral and after the commander's planned expedition to the Blackmarsh, and Varel fully intended to obey this request, but it seemed to him that merely knowing which men he needed to talk to later on would save him some time when their investigation did begin. There was no doubt that the commander appreciated efficiency.

"Yes, I'll be there," he said. He watched Garevel leave and thought about whether he also needed to talk to the people who had been responsible for clearing out the corpses left behind when the commander had cleared out the cellars underneath the keep. Varel knew their names, the lists were signed, and he wondered if they could give him more information, something that would help him flesh out the scanty report he had and that might help him make more positive identifications of the dead.

Then again, perhaps not. He doubted they had memorized the faces of dead strangers, and at least the lack of identification on the lists meant that the prisoners had indeed been strangers to the soldiers who burned the bodies -- newcomers all, so they wouldn't have known the Ostagar veterans. And Varel knew he had work enough to do at the present time, with so many of the arrangements for the funeral still waiting to be dealt with, but it bothered him to think that the unknown dead would have to wait even longer, and that letters to Highever and Denerim wouldn't be sent for what was most likely weeks yet.

Varel went off towards the kitchen. He knew Hansa would be busy putting the finishing touches to whatever she was offering as lunch today, but he still thought he might as well speak with her while he remembered. Going down a set of broad, shallow steps, he dodged a maid with her arms full of freshly-laundered sheets going the other way. The maids did seem to be kept busy even without a housekeeper, but Varel had a feeling their business would be more effective and organized with someone to oversee it who could give their full attention to the matter.

He didn't bother knocking on the kitchen door when he got there, since that would just mean someone had to take time away from their duties to answer. Varel pushed the door open and found the scullions dividing up a giant pot of stew in two large tureens, while Hansa sat at the table and stripped tiny green leaves from their stalks. It looked as if the cooking had been finished early, so Varel went in and took a seat next to Hansa. "That smells good," he said.

"Fresh silleaf to go on top," Hansa said. "It's grown well, this year." She shifted in her chair, turning towards him. "And what's your business in my kitchen today, then?"

"There's a parcel of nobles coming here tomorrow afternoon," Varel said. "I don't know exactly when, or how many, or how many guards they'll be bringing. We're holding funerals for Bann Esmerelle and the others who tried to assassinate the commander in the morning, the day after tomorrow, and once that's done with, the heirs will swear their oaths."

Mistress Hansa looked at him in a way that suggested his next few breakfasts would be a lot less special. "And they'll need food," she said. "Are they dining with the commander tomorrow night, then?"

"No," Varel said slowly, "I shouldn't think so." The commander hadn't ordered it, and Varel could see why. "Bit uncomfortable for everyone if they did. What would they talk about? So, my sister tried to kill you, isn't the weather lovely?"

Hansa snorted with reluctant laughter. "Dinner on trays, then, and probably breakfast as well. That'll mean a fair bit of extra work. And then another oathtaking after the funeral?" Varel nodded. "And I suppose you want me to feed them something fancy."

"That is the custom," Varel said. "A bit of food and wine after the ceremony, although I'm thinking we can go easy on the wine this time. It's difficult to say what the mood will be like, but we don't want to encourage anyone to drown their sorrows and start behaving like Lord Guy."

Hansa sniffed. "I'd think people would have the sense by now not to make nasty remarks about Orlesians," she said. She handed a fistful of silverleaf to the nearest scullion. "I'll make up something. Around noon, then? So that will have do for lunch for you and the commander and the wardens, too."

Varel nodded. "Likely it will. And Garevel's assigning twelve men to be a guard for the commander. They'll want food for afterwards, if you just set a bit aside of whatever you're sending down to the barracks that day."

"I'll do that." One scullion held the door open for another, who trotted off with one of the tureens. "Will you be eating in here with me today?"

"No, I'm going down to the barracks," Varel said. "I've more things to discuss with Captain Garevel." He got up again. "Some of the nobles will bring guards. We're not letting them into the Vigil, and we don't know how many they'll be, but I doubt they're bringing their own rations."

"Soup," Hansa said firmly. "Or I suppose they could have whatever's left over after the soldiers' meals, if they're willing to wait for it, but I'll have soup and bread ready. They can eat in--" She broke off with a frown. "You gave that house to that mad dwarf Dworkin to blow up, didn't you?"

"Not to blow up, no," Varel said. "At least, I hope not. But regardless of that, Garevel won't let the nobles' guards into the Vigil. They'll be staying outside the walls, in tents or the old shearing sheds."

"I'm not having my girls run all the way out there," Hansa said with a determined tilt to her chin. "They'll have work to do and more besides, with everything in here. You tell Garevel he'd better have soldiers ready to carry the soup out, if he insists on putting those guards so far away."

"I'll tell him that," Varel nodded. He took a step towards the back door that led out into the kitchen garden, then stopped and turned back to Hansa again. "I don't want you to think I'm complaining about your cooking, because it's excellent as always. But could you tell me why we haven't had your fish soup with parsley yet this summer?"

"Because there's no fish, that's why," Hansa said. "The riverside farmers usually bring their catch up here at least once a week, but there's been nothing so far, and I'm fair puzzled about it. The Vigil won't run out of food, that we won't, but that bit of fish now and then makes for a nice change, and I'd like to make that soup, myself, before the parsley turns yellow."

"Yes, of course," Varel said slowly. He'd been thinking about this, after all. "I reckon I'd better look into that, then. Those farmers are usually reliable enough people, and if something is stopping them from bringing their catch to the Vigil, we need to know about it." He didn't imagine that the farmers down the river could have been attacked by anything, though. Not without the Vigil hearing about it, either the moment it happened or shortly afterwards. Not only did they have regular patrols, they also had the commander and his wardens going out at irregular but frequent intervals. Anything that happened close to the Vigil would be discovered within hours, most likely.

But that didn't change the fact that the river farmers hadn't come by the Vigil with fish in quite a while. Samuel's reference to trouble with Rendon Howe seemed worth investigating.

"That would be right kind of you," Hansa said. "I've been thinking about walking down that way myself, but what with one thing and another I never do have that much free time."

Varel was surprised she had any free time at all. People always needed food, and the Vigil was home to a lot of hungry soldiers and a lot of hungry wardens. They did need an undercook, someone Hansa would entrust with more responsibilities than she was willing to give her scullions. Judging by how she treated them, she didn't think any of them were ready for that kind of promotion just yet. Then again, she talked about the commander as though she'd like to help him hold his spoon. "I'll look into it," he said again. "Now I'd better get out of your way."

Hansa nodded. "Here," she said, handing him a handful of silverleaf, only slightly crumpled. "There wasn't enough to make things all fancy for the soldiers, but you take that with you."

"Thank you." It seemed he hadn't completely fallen from grace yet in her eyes. Varel left the kitchen and stepped outside. The wind had picked up a little more, tugging at his hair. The ground was hard underfoot; there hadn't been much rain lately, not after the rainy night that had seen the Vigil overrun with darkspawn. Summer was the only dry season they got. Dry in comparison to the rainy springs and rainy falls, at any rate. As for winter, Amaranthine was rarely cold enough for snow, at least not snow that stayed for more than a day; winter meant more rain, usually, only colder.

Varel went down to the barracks and made his way into the mess hall there, which was crowded with soldiers lining up for their bowl of stew. He found Garevel waiting for him, and they got food together and sat down at one end of one of the long tables. Varel split the silverleaf between the two of them.

"Did you just put strange greenery on my food?" Garevel poked at it suspiciously. The leaves began to wilt rapidly in the heat of the stew.

"It's just silleaf. A gift from Mistress Hansa," Varel said and picked up his spoon.

The soldiers closest to them gave them both respectful little nods, but didn't try to talk to them, giving all their attention to their food and their comrades. Varel gave most of his attention to his food, too, because it was good and he was hungry. He had to admit, though, he didn't think the silverleaf made any particular difference, although it smelled good.

Next to him, Garevel ate with the same dedicated silence, but now and then he looked up from his bowl of stew to give Varel a name and a description. After the fourth one, he gave Varel a sideways look and put his spoon down. "Those are the ones I think might talk to you," he said. "There's others I've considered, but they're even more likely to swear and get angry, or say nothing, and I don't see a reason to give them the opportunity to act like that towards a superior officer."

"I'm not about to accuse them of anything," Varel said. He wished he had some good bread to mop up the sauce. "All I need from them is a bit of information."

"You don't have to accuse them," Garevel said. "They were at Highever. They know what they did. I was lucky to be left behind here, and you were, well."

"I've never counted myself as being lucky for fighting at Ostagar," Varel said dryly. Though he'd survived and come back home, which was more than could be said for most of that army. "But it could be that you're right."

Garevel's spoon began to scrape against the bottom of his bowl. "If you'd been there," he said. He looked at the soldiers, checking that they weren't paying any attention. "You'd have tried to warn the Couslands, wouldn't you."

"I don't know." Varel had come close to being locked up just a few days before he'd left for Ostagar -- not for questioning Rendon Howe's orders, but for the discovery that he'd encouraged some of the maids to leave their positions and run away, if it seemed that they risked becoming the targets of the arl's interest. He'd been in trouble already. "And I doubt they'd have believed a warning like that."

"Coming from you?"

"They didn't know me." Varel shook his head. "I met the family when they were guests here, years before, but not to speak to." Honesty compelled him to add, "I'd probably have tried, though."

"I know. The men have a great deal of respect for you," Garevel said, speaking to his bowl and pushing the last bit of onion from side to side. "The ones that were here when you spoke up against Howe all wish they had been as brave, and they're angry at themselves for what they did and didn't do."

"Is that so," Varel said, taken aback. That had never really occurred to him. He knew working under Howe's orders had encouraged everything that was worst in some men, and he'd had no hesitation in slapping them down to the best of his ability, even when he was demoted so far he didn't have a shred of authority to do it, but he hadn't given much thought to the others, the ones who were decent enough people, but still sworn to obey, and doing their best with the orders they got.

Garevel had been one of them, back then. Garevel, whose aggressive energy simmered just under the surface of his skin and came out in everything he said and did. He was a good man, fiercely determined to make the Vigil's garrison a fighting force to be reckoned with, to defend this new arl they'd been given. Maybe he was trying to live up to an example Varel hadn't been aware of setting.

"Captain." That was Vendel, whose hands already bore a few paint stains. "Permission to take Glisher for the painting, too? We'd be done a lot faster."

Garevel nodded. "Do it. Report back to me when you're done."

Varel dropped the spoon into his bowl, which was as well-cleaned as he could manage to get it with no bread. "I need to go," he said. "There's always work to be done. Do you think--"

Garevel waited for him to finish the sentence, but grew impatient in the time it took Varel to draw a thoughtful breath. "Well?"

"Will the soldiers react better or worse if they have to talk to the commander as well? He's determined to be part of the investigations I do, and a big part of that is the reckoning up of what happened to the men in Highever."

"Worse," Garevel said at once. Then he visibly thought about it. "They won't really want to talk to you, but you can make it look casual. The commander's new enough still that if he stops by to talk to a soldier there'll be no end of questions asked about it, and if he calls people into his office to meet with him, that will be even worse. I won't have brawling in the barracks on account of this."

"I'll explain that to him," Varel said. "I'm sure he'll be reasonable about it. The commander's not out to make trouble for you, or for the soldiers of the Vigil."

"And we're not out to make trouble for him," Garevel said. "If he makes it an order, I'll make it an order, and the men will follow it if they know what's good for them, but if you do the talking and report to the commander afterwards, you can get it done faster and easier for everyone."

"I'm sure the commander will appreciate that."

Varel and the commander hadn't exactly parted on the best of terms that morning, but having necessary business to discuss would make their next meeting that much easier. And he did think the commander would be reasonable about this matter, as long as he was fully informed. The commander was a very practically-minded man, after all. Varel kept reminding himself of that.

The mess hall was a familiar place to Varel, and he liked it despite how worn down it was, liked the sound of cutlery clashing against dishes and soldiers talking with their mouths full about whatever duty or exercise they'd just been engaged in. He actually felt a little reluctant to leave, but he'd finished eating, there was a lot to do, and when he stepped outside he saw that the sky had cleared again, the fine haze of the morning giving way to encouraging sunshine.

Varel spent the rest of the afternoon in the bailey, assisting Maverlies with the construction of the pyres, making sure they were in a suitable place and looked respectable enough that no one would say, afterwards, that the Vigil had dealt shabbily with the remains of Bann Esmerelle and her sad little cabal. He saw the commander and the wardens go out after lunch, looking like any group of extremely well-armored friends strolling along, and he saw them come back some hours later, strolling just as comfortably, although everyone except the commander was a lot less tidy. Sigrun carted along a sack that clanked when she dropped it to chase after Anders for some ill-considered remark; Nathaniel Howe picked it up and carried it for her. The commander just went on walking, deep in conversation with Oghren and looking neither left nor right as they went up to the inner gate and disappeared into the courtyard.

Maverlies cleared her throat, and Varel went back to his work.

They dug out a considerable fire break of bare dirt around the pyres, since it was such a dry season. Everyone who worked on it was sweaty and uncomfortable once they were done. Varel went along with them to the bathing room, which was very different this late afternoon from what it had been the other morning. Now it was well lit, and full of people and noise; the air was hot and damp, steam rising from all the filled tubs, where most of the wardens were already soaking comfortably. Nathaniel Howe tossed a chunk of soap at Oghren, who batted it out of the air with a curse.

Maverlies took the women of the company into the smaller bathing room next door, where Sigrun could be heard singing something guttural and dwarvish. Varel sat on a bench along the wall and prepared to wait his turn, but the men insisted that he should go first, and he realized an argument about seniority and rank would probably take longer than the actual bath. As he stripped and got into the tub, he listened with half an ear to the wardens' conversation.

"I think Sigrun is right," Nathaniel Howe said. "We could learn a great deal about the darkspawn by studying how their equipment is made."

"Bronto balls," Oghren said. "Everybody knows they just scavenge from the dead. Dead dwarves, mostly."

"Didn't you say they had their own smiths?" Anders asked from the next tub over. "And their weaponry does have a unique style to it. I mean, not that I would decorate my room in early Blight or anything."

"I think we would all appreciate it if you refrained," Nathaniel Howe said. "But from what I've seen so far as a warden, the darkspawn do seem to have some type of culture of their own."

"And you want to learn about them?" Oghren didn't sound impressed. "Don't know if you've noticed, son, but they don't want to be learned about, they mostly want to cut your head off, and the best thing to do is to cut their sodding heads off first. You think the dwarves and the darkspawn spend all their time in the Deep Roads trading smithing tips?"

"But they can talk now," Nathaniel said. "It looks to me as if something's happened to change them, and perhaps that means we can come to a new understanding of them. If there's a new generation of darkspawn being born--"

"Then we cut their heads off," Oghren said. "Nobody wants to get to know them."

"I can't say I do," Anders said lightly. "Unfriendly little beasts."

"But if we learn more about them," Nathaniel said seriously, "perhaps we can--"

The door slammed open, and Sigrun stood there, hands on naked hips, water dripping off her body. She lifted one hand and pointed accusingly at Nathaniel. "I want to learn about their weapons and armor so I can kill them better," she said. "You know how darkspawn are born, you saw the broodmothers in Kal'Hirol with your own eyes. Those were probably dwarf women once! I don't want to understand the darkspawn, I want them all dead so that doesn't happen any more."

Nathaniel made a choked sound. Varel couldn't really blame him.

"I knew you were a fine figure of a woman," Oghren said appreciatively. "Want to come over here and share a tub with ol' Oghren?"

"No," Sigrun said. She stood for a moment longer, looking at all of them, and Varel had to agree with Oghren that she was, in fact, a fine figure of a woman -- a lot shorter than he expected women to be, true enough, but all curves and muscles, in a very pleasing arrangement. "Hey, I've never been in here before. It looks like the women's bath, but you have more space. Why do you have more space?"

Maverlies appeared behind Sigrun, wrapped in a towel. "Because there are more men than women at the Vigil. The Howes have generally preferred to have male soldiers."

"Huh," Sigrun said, tilting her head back to study the arched ceiling, completely unselfconscious in her nudity. "Don't see why that matters on the surface. It's not like surfacer enemies will turn you into broodmothers." She looked back down again. "But I meant to ask you, commander-- Where's the commander?"

"He didn't go with us in here," Nathaniel said.

"Heh, I thought he was in there with you on the women's side," Oghren said. "I mean, he looks like a girl. Wears a skirt and everything."

"I think if the commander was a girl, he would've told us," Sigrun said. She shrugged, which produced an interesting effect; someone behind Varel dropped something on the floor with a clatter. "I suppose I'll ask him later, then," she said, turning to go. Just before she closed the door, she looked back over her shoulder with an impish grin. "Seneschal, you really should spend more time without a shirt."

Sinking deeper into the water, Varel shook his head. That seemed unlikely, particularly as he mostly went about in full armor. Also, he really had to do something about the door between the men's and women's bathing rooms. It was supposed to be locked, but clearly that was no obstacle to a determined dwarven rogue, and presumably not to a human or elven rogue either. Nailing it shut wouldn't be such a good idea. Perhaps he could ask the commander if there was a way to do something with magic, so the door would open in case of emergencies but remain securely shut otherwise.

"Phwoarr," someone said behind him. "That's a lot of woman in a short package."

"That's what a real woman's supposed to look like," Oghren said, his hands shaping something in the air that was either a dwarf woman or a badly-constructed defense fortification. "Ample and zesty. Human and elven women, they're just too tall and skinny. It's like the good parts get all drawn out." He made another gesture, apparently wringing his imaginary dwarf woman out by head and feet, and splashed water all over the floor. "What do you need all that leg for, anyway?"

"Well, some of us like long legs on a woman. I suppose we don't have your refined taste," Anders said. Oghren threw a washcloth at him.

"Where is the commander?" Varel asked, before the conversation could get back on the subject of dwarf women. "I thought he came down with you."

"He never bathes with us," Nathaniel said. "I thought Orlesians would be a lot more finicky about hygiene, frankly."

"Well, he does do something," Anders said. "Otherwise, he'd smell like Oghren."

"Hey!" Oghren splashed a bit more. "You need your eyes checked, mage? I bathe!"

"Yes, but it doesn't seem to help," Anders said sweetly.

Varel had finished scrubbing himself and climbed out of the tub, leaving it free for the next man. He padded over to the corner with the drain and rinsed himself off with a bucket of water that wasn't too cold.

"I want to look like that one day," someone muttered quietly behind his back. "Is sword training supposed to give you shoulders like that? I just get bruises."

"I think Sigrun had a good point." Anders's voice was unmistakable. "In fact, I think we should institute a Seneschal Varel Shirtless Day. It would do wonders for morale."

"I think it's more likely to make people self-conscious," Nathaniel said dryly. "Hand me the soap, please."

"I don't have the soap," Anders said. "I think Oghren ate it." Varel turned around just in time to see a watery scuffle break out. He crossed to the bench and picked up his pile of clothes and armor, hesitated for a moment at the weight of it, then put it down again and picked out the thin trousers, sitting down to pull them on.

"That's enough," he said when he was done and the scuffle was still going on, pitching his voice as though speaking to any new group of recruits and not wardens entirely outside his chain of command. "Don't waste the water like that, there's still plenty of men waiting for their turn."

The splashing stopped. Varel stood up and took his pile again, and slipped out of the room, careful not to let too much of the heat escape. Just as he closed the door behind himself, he heard Anders say, "Shirtless and stern. I'm sure Sigrun would approve of that. I know I do."

Varel went up the back stairs to get to his room relatively unobserved. The air was chilly on his still-damp skin, especially where drops of water ran from his hair down his back and chest. He should have taken more time to dry off, but he'd been taken aback when men who could have been discussing the shape of dwarf women had apparently been staring at his shoulders instead. Perhaps he wasn't quite as old and decrepit as all that, after all, but he thought most of the men were more interested in women, dwarven or not, than in him.

He'd never considered taking a lover among the soldiers of the Vigil after the first time he'd made captain. Which was an appallingly long time ago, when he thought about it. The Vigil staff had been a possibility, until he became seneschal and they were under his direct command -- then the idea didn't sit right with him.

Now the wardens were, as he had just noticed, outside his chain of command. But there was only one warden he had any interest in, and that one wasn't just a warden, but his arl and commander. It felt different, Varel reflected as he walked into his room, to be on the other side of the power imbalance. The situation between him and the commander might make him feel uncomfortable, yes, but that had nothing to do with who gave orders to whom.

He got fully dressed again, and went in search of dinner. The dining hall was full of wardens being rambunctious, and maids giggling about something, and even a few soldiers who should have been down in the soldiers' yard, babbling excitedly about the new armor, all of them hoping to be chosen for the honor guard at the funeral. The mess hall had to be a great deal worse. Varel found a quiet spot next to Maverlies, where he could eat and then leave with a minimum of conversation.

Walking away from the dining hall again, Varel aimed to stretch his legs in the courtyard, but when he was crossing the great hall, he met the commander and had to stop. "Everything is progressing well with the funeral arrangements, commander," he said.

"As I would expect," the commander said. He had changed clothes, from his plain tan working robes into something greyish-blue and nearly equally subdued. "You have a knack for organization, seneschal."

His voice was even and colorless, with no sign of the morning's upset. His face showed nothing. But Varel thought the commander looked at least halfway approachable, especially when he saw that some of the hair at the commander's hairline was a little damp, as if caught by the swipe of a vigorously applied washcloth. It reminded him of the day before, and the commander's hair drying in the breeze and the sunshine.

"There's something I would like to request of you, commander," he said. "Or rather, two things."

"Yes?" the commander said, cool but not icy.

"First, I would like you to speak with Captain Garevel about the honor guard," Varel said. "I believe he has some suggestions about how to make it look as impressive as possible."

The commander nodded, or at least gave half a nod. "That seems reasonable." Varel wondered if there would be an actual expression on the commander's face once Garevel started talking about suitable clothes.

Then he cleared his throat and clasped his hands behind his back. This next bit was trickier. "My second request is on a completely different matter. The captain has given me the names of some of the soldiers who went to Highever with Rendon Howe and came back again. He believes that the men might be willing to talk to me, if I approach them the right way. I'd like your permission to do that, while you're away in the Blackmarsh. It might give us more information that makes it easier to know what we should be asking, when we write there."

The commander's brows drew together the tiniest bit. "When we write there?"

The tone of the question brought Varel up short. He had been making all kinds of plans for what needed to be done to discover the fate of some of the Vigil's lost soldiers, as well as the identities of the mysterious prisoners, and in his mind it had all become one large issue for him to work away on. Only now did he realize that despite all his good intentions, despite the way he'd vowed to himself that all the important decisions would belong to the commander from now on, he hadn't made a full report.

"I'm sorry, commander," he said. "I've been remiss in my duties again. I should have informed you of this days ago."

"Inform me now," the commander said, not quite as sharply as Varel had feared. "Perhaps we should sit down." He sat unceremoniously on the steps leading up to the dais, and Varel sat next to him. "Tell me why the Vigil should write to Highever, and on what subject."

Varel cleared his throat and tried to marshal the arguments in his head, to make this as simple and clear as possible. "You already know, commander," he said, "that your predecessor as arl, Rendon Howe, brought his men to Highever under false premises, and attacked and killed nearly everyone at the castle, attempting to wipe out the Cousland family."

"And he took over the teyrnir," the commander said, "claiming that the Couslands were secretly allied with the Orlesians." The commander's voice was even dryer than usual as he went on, "This claim was something of a surprise to Orlais, once the matter became known there."

"Bit of a surprise to everyone," Varel said shortly. "Of the soldiers who marched to Highever, some must have been left behind there to man the castle. Howe also brought a lot of soldiers to Denerim when he took over the arling there. Records are very sketchy, and with your permission, commander," which he had been appallingly remiss in not asking before, "I'd like for the Vigil to write to Highever, and maybe even to Denerim, to see if they can tell us more about what happened. And I thought I'd start by asking some of the men who were at Highever if they know anything about who fell during the attack, and who stayed behind. As I said, Captain Garevel thinks they'll talk to me."

"I see," the commander said. "And they wouldn't be willing to talk to me?"

"You have to understand, commander," Varel said, "they're probably ashamed of it, and I reckon they would prefer not to talk or think about it at all. There's been a bit of brawling between those who went and those who stayed, and between those who served under Howe and the new soldiers. Garevel told me some of these men might talk to me, but to involve the arl as well, to have you seen down there with the men, speaking to them, might mean that everyone else started asking questions, or even found out what was going on. If I'm careful, it's possible we can avoid any fighting in the barracks."

"Of course we can't have the men fighting each other," the commander said. "The Vigil's garrison needs to be united against external threats, particularly with the darkspawn so active. But this is something I wish I'd known about before. I dislike the idea of being served by soldiers who took part in Howe's more unsavory activities."

Varel shook his head. It wouldn't do for the commander to start doubting the men's loyalty. They might start doubting it themselves. "I can see why you'd feel that way, commander," he said carefully. "But they weren't the arl's co-conspirators. They were his men, and sworn to follow his orders. They were good soldiers, and still are."

The commander gave him a long look. "I have been informed that there were, in fact, those here at the Vigil who questioned Howe's orders."

"That's why I was imprisoned for a while," Varel said, not pretending not to know what the commander meant. It had been a long while, at that. "I didn't obey my arl, because I knew more than most about what he was doing, and I thought he was wrong. But I don't want you to believe that everyone who obeyed him thought he was right, or thought much about it at all. They followed orders, and now Howe's a traitor and a villain, and that made them villains, too, in the eyes of a lot of people. Maybe even in their own minds."

That little line appeared between the commander's brows again. "And you propose to remind them of this again, by talking to them."

"Yes," Varel said. He hesitated, then drew a deep breath and went ahead. "Commander, there's been too much shame. The Maker knows, there's plenty to be ashamed of, but most of the blame for that lies on Howe, not the men who followed him. All I want is to know what happened to these soldiers who were serving their arl. The Vigil's records are flawed in many places, and I think we should at least make an attempt to discover as much of the truth as we can. We owe it to the men we lost to find out where they died and where their ashes lie, if we can."

"I see."

"We might even write to Denerim," Varel added, "just to find out if there's more to be known about what happened there, too."

The commander was silent for a while. "Is there anything else you've forgotten?" he asked, sounding almost as if he weren't interested in the answer. "I would just like to know, you understand."

Varel did his best not to flinch, although the commander's words were like glass splinters working in under the skin, for all that they sounded so dispassionate. "No, commander. Well, there's the matter of the smugglers, although that's completely unrelated." The commander raised one delicate brow. "Bann Esmerelle turned a blind eye to the smuggling in Amaranthine, mostly, and as a result, she was one of the best-dressed women in the arling. I know you dealt with most of the smugglers, but they might not all have had the sense to run, the ones that were left."

That got him another tiny lift of an eyebrow. "What do you mean?"

"Could be that someone else has taken Bann Esmerelle's place as a supporter of the smuggling trade, and you might be able to tell, tomorrow, if one of the mourners is a bit better decked out than they ought to be."

"I'm afraid I don't know the arling well enough," the commander said. "I don't know what they should be able to afford."

"I do," Varel said, because he did. "But I'm not exactly conversant with fashion and what's fancy and expensive, beyond good armor and weaponry. And they shouldn't be dressed for battle when they come to a funeral."

"In that case, we shall have to work together," the commander said matter-of-factly. "I'll ask you about someone's income, if there's anything in their attire that makes me suspicious."

Varel nodded. "Yes, commander. And about Highever? What would you like me to do?"

"I will let you know before I leave for the Blackmarsh," the commander said. "Until then, I believe you have quite enough to do with the funeral arrangements, as well as ordinary Vigil business. Mistress Woolsey tells me we would do well to hire a housekeeper."

"Yes," Varel said. "And a carpenter. And a priest. At least, speak to the chantry in Amaranthine about assigning one here, and letting the chapel be opened up again. It would likely improve morale among the men, commander, if we could hold regular services the way we used to."

Varel was determined not to keep anything that involved the Vigil's business with the chantry away from the commander's attention again. Could be that the commander would be displeased at the idea of having a priest at the Vigil, but at least he'd know that the soldiers wanted one.

"And no doubt it would be more proper," the commander said levelly. He seemed more deliberately emotionless than ever. "This seems like a matter that could be discussed with the priest who comes here for the funeral rites. Have you received any answers to your messages?"

Not even running every step of the way could messengers have reached Amaranthine, received so much as a hasty verbal reply to the letters they carried, and come back to the Vigil, but Varel merely shook his head. The commander knew the road to Amaranthine about as well as he did. He answered the real question. "The funeral guests will likely start arriving tomorrow afternoon. Do you intend to welcome them, commander?"

"I will greet them if I am at the Vigil when they come," the commander said, "but welcome is probably the wrong word. Mistress Hansa told me you had said I wouldn't dine with them."

"You could if you wanted to," Varel said. Once again he'd made a decision for the commander without thinking twice about it. At least the commander didn't seem to be displeased with this one.

"I don't want to. It seems to me it would be unkind to everyone."

Varel nodded. "There's no need to create that particular awkward situation. You'll see enough of each other during the funeral and oathtaking, and they haven't been invited to the Vigil for reasons of hospitality, precisely. No one would expect a formal dinner."

"Very well." The commander stood up, and this robe, too, fell into place neatly and without a wrinkle. Perhaps the commander had the same spell on all his clothing, or cast it anew every time he got dressed. "The wardens and I will be here for most of the day tomorrow, training, and perhaps going for a short walk." Which, as Varel well knew, meant that they would go out and search the roads for darkspawn or bandits or even unfriendly wildlife. So the commander might indeed not be here to greet the funeral guests as they arrived.

He wondered if Garevel would consider it more impressive, or less so, if the commander appeared at the funeral wearing a robe stained all over with darkspawn blood.

"I'll let you know if there is anything that needs your attention, commander," he said, and stood and watched the commander walk away. Varel had an impulse to call the commander back and ask him if he'd eaten any dinner, but the mood between them was entirely wrong for that kind of personal question, and he figured besides that he could safely leave the matter of feeding difficult young Grey Wardens in the hands of Mistress Hansa.

When the commander was gone, Varel went out, as he'd intended to do before this unexpected meeting. The wind had died down again, and the air was still and heavy around him as he took a turn about the courtyard to see that everything was in order.

Most of the merchants had closed down for the evening and retired to their own quarters; only Edwer was still at the market stall, packing a few objects away and taking the awning down. Varel nodded to him in passing and got a flat, "Good evening, seneschal," in reply.

The idea of the commander as Tranquil came back to him in full force. Edder's flat voice and unemotional manner was a sharp reminder of what the commander had told him, here in this courtyard, only two days ago. That the commander had come very close to being made Tranquil; that someone had said the difference would hardly be noticeable, anyway.

Varel found that difficult to grasp. The commander spoke quietly and in an even tone, most of the time, but it wasn't anything like the monotone Edwer used, or the other Tranquil mages Varel had encountered. And the commander could certainly put enough feeling in his voice if he chose to, to sway or manipulate others. That had been demonstrated more than once over the past few weeks.

The commander didn't show his feelings on his face, either. But the masklike stillness of his features was just that, a mask, a way to deliberately hide himself in plain view. Varel wanted to see the commander's eyes light with laughter again, and even more to see the commander's mouth soft and swollen with kisses, although as soon as he acknowledged that wish to himself, he tried to shrug it away. He couldn't have that; he shouldn't want that.

But he did want it. He wanted it very much. Varel walked across to the inner gate and looked into the bailey, where the pyres were still piled up as before and did, in fact, look more respectable now that the old chairs and broken washboards and worn-out crates were hidden from view. He refused to consider any of the fancy nonsense of burning spices and incense with the dead. The Vigil didn't have enough of that to waste it on these people, who were criminals for all that they were noble.

It was possible that the mourners would come bearing their own small boxes of crumbled incense to be sprinkled on the pyres, though, and if they did, Varel wouldn't stop them. Grief was grief, after all. No one was likely to bring anything for the hired assassins; no one had come forward in the past few days to claim kinship with or responsibility for those men, so Varel had made a description of them and of their clothing, as thoroughly as he could, and meant to burn them along with the others both to remind the mourners that this was the remains of an assassination attempt, not a funeral like any other, and because bodies did not last indefinitely, and he wasn't about to waste salt and storage space on unknown killers for hire who had tried to take the life of his arl and commander.

Looking down, Varel saw that Voldrik and his men had already begun to work at the stone revetment that would replace the logs. The old logs lay by the side of the platform, and a sawhorse stood next to them, waiting. He nodded his approval. The Vigil used up a lot of wood in the winter, and it wasn't too early to begin adding to her stores.

Varel went back again, and found that Edwer had finished his packing-up and was about to leave, a box under his arm and another in his hands. "Is the new location and the market stall working out well for you?" Varel asked as they went into the Vigil together.

"Yes," Edwer said. "It is more convenient, just as you said, seneschal. And new customers have approached me there."

"Good." Varel held a door open for Edwer, who only had an elbow free. "Do you mind if I ask you, why were you made Tranquil, Edwer?"

"I do not mind." Edwer adjusted his grip on the box under his arm, but continued speaking as he did so. "My magic was unstable, sometimes quite powerful and sometimes almost non-existent, and I made no attempts to control it properly, despite the efforts of my teachers. The Knight-Commander judged that it would be safer for all if I were made Tranquil, rather than being Harrowed, and the First Enchanter agreed."

"Did you agree, yourself?" Varel asked.

"Not at the time, no." Edwer continued to walk ahead, then stopped, since Varel had stopped. "But it is obvious now that being Tranquil keeps me from bringing harm to either others or myself with my magic."

Varel nodded slowly and began to walk again. "Well, yes," he said. He wondered what it meant that Edwer hadn't agreed, at the time. Maybe he'd been brought kicking and screaming to be branded, as hard as that was to imagine. Those templars must have strong stomachs and nerves of steel. "How old were you then?"

"I do not know," Edwer said. "No one knew quite how old I was when I came to the circle. It seems most probable that I was about seventeen, or perhaps a little younger."

That was the age of the youngest recruits in the Vigil's garrison, Varel thought. He himself had been two years younger when he went for soldier, already half a head taller than most men and confident of his ability to pass for an adult.

"I see," Varel said.

Edwer stopped and turned at the door that led to the merchants' living quarters, as well as the rooms set aside for ambassador Cera. "Good night, seneschal."

Varel went on his way back to his own quarters. His pulse was a little too fast, and he couldn't stop thinking about the commander, as though the commander had just escaped some danger, rather than this threat being several years in the past. It would make more sense, he told himself, going up the stairs and striding along the hallway, to worry about the danger the arling's roads presented, or the upcoming trip to the abandoned village of Blackmarsh -- Varel remembered stories being told about that as he grew up.

The Blackmarsh was a real and present danger to the real and present commander. And if the commander had been made Tranquil back in Orlais, obviously Varel would never have met him, and so never have known about it. There wouldn't be this feeling of disquiet prickling all through his body, or the protective urge that was, Varel knew, even more pointless than the urges he had to protect the commander against the hazards of Amaranthine.

Edwer seemed perfectly adjusted to and at peace with his life now, just as every other Tranquil mage Varel had met. That seemed to be the point of Tranquility, as far as Varel could tell. None of the Tranquil he'd met were ever worried, or bored, or annoyed. They just went about their business, as if sweeping a corner or setting a lyrium rune into a sword were equally important and all-absorbing. There was no point in wondering how they felt about it. They didn't feel anything about it.

Varel cursed at himself. It hadn't happened to the commander. If it had happened, he wouldn't have known, and there would have been nothing he could have done about it. There'd just be one more Tranquil mage somewhere, copper hair cropped short over his branded forehead, setting a cheap enchantment into a pair of leather boots.

With his hand on the door to his room, Varel changed his mind and went to his office instead. He needed a distraction from these fretful, pointless thoughts. Walking from one place to another in the Vigil at least gave him something to do, and once he was in the office, he read a few reports and went over all the most recent paperwork, to make sure there was nothing he had left undone or forgotten that needed to be dealt with immediately or, even worse, should have been brought to the commander's attention days ago.

But there was nothing of the kind, and his lamp had been refilled, too, so even without a housekeeper the maids were keeping up the routines of the Vigil well enough. Varel fastened his mind on that question, and wondered how best to go about finding someone for that particular position. The previous housekeeper, Mistress Davila, unfortunately killed in the darkspawn attack, had been a distant cousin of the Howes, hired many years ago. Varel himself had no relatives or acquaintances suitable for the post, and there wasn't anyone already at the Vigil who ought to be promoted into it; they were short of people as it was.

He left his office again and went down the hall, knocking on the door to Woolsey's office but walking right in. As he had expected, she was elbow-deep in paperwork, and looked quite content to be so.

"When you have the time," he said, because this wasn't such an urgent matter, "could you make some calculations for whether the Vigil could afford to hire a housekeeper for the same pay as the old one? And what we could afford to pay a full-time carpenter, based on what we already pay to bring people in for ongoing repairs."

"Of course," she said collectedly. "Are there any repair jobs planned at the moment?"

Varel nodded. "The railing by the steps from the bailey to the courtyard." He could still feel it breaking in his hand. "And I daresay that's part of the problem I'd like to solve. As it is, we only find out that something was in a poor state when it falls apart. With a decent carpenter to look things over before they get that far, we could do reasonable maintenance."

"I see. And the Vigil certainly needs a housekeeper." She tapped her quill against the desk. "The wages that were paid to the previous housekeeper were not exorbitant. I would prefer to be able to concentrate more fully on the duties I am here to do, and no doubt so would you and Mistress Hansa."

Varel was a little taken aback, because he'd taken on very few of the tasks that normally fell to the housekeeper, only the ones that impinged on his own business, really. He hadn't thought that anyone would notice when he made sure the cleaning cupboards were stocked with the right supplies, and there was always enough laundry soap. It wasn't much, but he liked sleeping on clean sheets in a clean room.

"I'm not sure how to go about finding a suitable housekeeper," he admitted. "None of the maids is old and experienced enough for the job. Ordinarily it would be up to the arlessa, but we don't have one."

"And the arl does not have an extensive network of friends and relatives in Ferelden," Woolsey agreed. "Or in Orlais, I should imagine. Neither circle mages nor Grey Wardens are precisely well-known for their cultivation of family ties."

Varel hadn't thought about that. He knew the commander was a stranger here, without any of the ties into the Amaranthine community that a Fereldan and a local and a nobleman would have had, but he'd never reflected on the fact that the commander would have been just as cut off from family ties, and from whatever friendships he'd gained growing up, back in Orlais. Once he was out of the circle, he probably wouldn't have gone back regularly for tea. Particularly not if he'd been conscripted, and his friends of the same age were all Tranquil now.

The commander would just have the other wardens for both family and friends. No wonder, then, that he took such good care of the ragtag little band he had assembled so far. Varel's brows drew together a little as he considered that no volunteers had come forward to declare themselves potential recruits since the commander had taken over the Vigil. Maybe it was because all the previous candidates had died during the attack on the keep, or in the case of poor Ser Mhairi, during the joining itself.

Or maybe the anti-Orlesian talk spread by Lord Guy was doing its part in keeping potential volunteers away. Those who had come to the wardens at first had been fervent enough, fired up by tales of the Hero of Ferelden, and the gossip hadn't been all that vicious before the commander arrived in person.

Varel wondered if that would make it difficult to find regular staff for the Vigil, too.

"Well, we do need someone," he said. "I reckon knowing what we can afford to pay them is a start, at least."

Woolsey nodded. "I suggest speaking to the senior staff," she said. "And perhaps Nathaniel Howe will have a suggestion."

"That doesn't seem likely," Varel said. "I never met a young boy who cared about matters like this, and he's spent all his adult life away from Amaranthine."

"True." Woolsey looked as if she thought Nathaniel had been sent to the Free Marches for the sole purpose of making it more complicated to hire a housekeeper for the Vigil, and she wasn't very impressed with this. "The senior staff, then. They may have sisters or aunts with a suitable background." She didn't sniff, as that would have been undignified, but she looked as if she thought about it. "The laundress Dorith would probably do a decent job, but it seems she's needed in her present position."

"I hadn't thought about that," Varel said. "I don't know much about the laundry staff." Except that there were more of them than one would think, because laundry was a hard job and with the Vigil's garrison filling up, there was always a lot of washing to be done. "Aren't there any laundry maids that could be promoted in her place?" It would be much easier to hire new junior laundry maids, to start to fill up the empty spaces among the Vigil's staff from the bottom rather than the top.

"I don't know," Woolsey said. Her manner made it clear that she didn't spend much time talking to the laundry staff, either. "You had better speak to her about it."

"I'll do that," Varel said "Good evening, mistress."

The conversation had reminded him that since the Vigil had no housekeeper, someone else would have to make the arrangements so rooms were readied for the nobles coming in for the funeral and the oathtaking. Someone else was probably Varel himself, at that. Varel went and found one of the senior maids, and told her to spend the morning tomorrow making sure at least three rooms stood ready, and more could be easily prepared.

He wasn't sure how many people could be reasonably expected, despite all the best guesses and discussions on the subject, and he was still fretting about the question when he went to bed, though it didn't keep him from sleeping.

To Varel's considerable surprise, the next morning when he was crossing the courtyard after morning drill, he ran into one of his messengers, panting and mud-splattered and looking as if he ached all over. Varel brought him along to the dining hall, so he could have breakfast with his report.

The man didn't have a written message in return, just a verbal reply from the Luttons and the Packtons, saying that they would come. "Slept the night in one of the Broadmoor cottages," the messenger said, leaning down to rub at his calves. "Packtons only sent me back because they were too cheap to give me a bed, I dessay."

Varel nodded. "And the chantry?" he couldn't help asking. "Is there no word from Revered Mother Leanna?"

The messenger shrugged. "I dunno. Jordin's the one who went there. Probably too nice there to make him run all the way back right away."

That seemed entirely likely. Varel clapped the messenger's shoulder. "Well done. Rest up and get yourself clean, and if you've a problem with cramps, go to the infirmary."

The messenger grinned. "Yes, ser!"

The next arrival was neither a returning messenger nor a funeral guest, though, but an errand boy from the Merchant's Guild, come to talk to Yuriah. He came running into the bailey just as Varel and Maverlies were selecting men to be responsible for bringing the corpses up from the cold cellars, telling them when to do it, and where to place which body. The men didn't look too happy with this particular duty, but it had to be done.

Even though the guards at the gate had let the boy in, Varel stepped up to find out his identity and his business. There was only one subject on his mind, though.

"I saw darkspawn on the road," the boy said, pale beneath his freckles. "In the distance, like."

"You'd better tell the wardens at once," Maverlies said. "Particularly if this was near the Vigil."

The boy shook his head. "'Bout halfway," he said. "I ran as fast as I could after that! I'll go talk to the wardens right now."

Varel grasped the boy by the collar before he could set off to do so. "When you were setting out from Amaranthine, did you see any other travellers ready to go to the Vigil?" he said.

"Oh! Right!" The boy dug into his pocket and pulled out some badly crumpled papers. "Lady paid me to take these along. Silly, if you ask me, they'll be here in a few hours themselves."

As soon as Varel let go of the boy, he was off towards the inner courtyard, as if the darkspawn he'd seen were actually on his heels. Some of the men threw nervous glances at the outer gate, but they didn't move, or stop their work, sawing up the old logs and chopping them into pieces fit for the Vigil's fireplaces. Varel was proud of them. He also wondered if those who belonged at the Vigil were, perhaps, growing just a little blasé about darkspawn, at least as long as the darkspawn weren't breathing down their necks.

Smoothing out the written replies as best he could, Varel got the feeling that some noblewoman, or perhaps the scribe of a noble family, had sat up late to put together a few words that were polite but not obsequious, apologetic but not grovelling. The families of Lady Morag and Ser Timothy were both coming, possibly with gritted teeth, if Varel read these messages aright. They were fussed enough to have written these notes, at any rate. With a clearer idea of how many people were to be expected, Varel sent a message into the Vigil to the maid in charge of preparing the rooms.

The commander took some of his wardens out in response to the errand boy's tale of seeing darkspawn from the road, which wasn't really surprising. Varel was in the courtyard when they left, busy along with Garevel in putting soldiers into the new armor and making sure it fit them well enough, while Wade stood by and made minute adjustments. Striding by them, the commander just nodded, and both Sigrun and Anders offered cheerful grins.

"It feels wrong," Garevel muttered. "Here we are, busy putting together a well-armored guard for that man, and there he goes off to chase darkspawn with only a couple of people to help him, and barely one decent set of armor between them."

"I've asked Sigrun more than once to let me spruce up that dreadfully plain brown leather," Wade said.

"There's really no need," Varel said at the same time as Garevel replied, "Don't do that!"

Wade huffed, but Varel thought Anders provided all the color that group needed; if the commander preferred plain robes, Anders chose the brightest and most gold-embroidered ones he could find, it seemed. Maybe it was a way for him to celebrate his freedom, being as obviously and eye-catchingly a mage as he could.

By mid-afternoon, the honor guard was outfitted, the pyres were ready, a few soldiers on punishment detail were tidying up the bailey, and a lookout came down from one of the higher towers to say that the first mourners were close enough to see. Varel went down to the front gate at once, and it wasn't long before Garevel joined him.

Mourners might not be the correct word, Varel reflected, since this was the Lutton party, who were here for the late and not entirely lamented Lord Guy. His sister, Lady Tanna, who inherited after him, was a little red-eyed, but she looked more grim than sad. This was a small group, with only two additional guards, and Varel decided it was a positive sign that they believed the roads to be safe enough. Hopefully they hadn't seen any darkspawn, unlike the errand boy.

They made no fuss, either, about being met by the seneschal and the captain of the guard rather than the arl himself. Which was fortunate, since the arl himself wasn't on the premises. There was no difficulty in getting the guards settled outside the walls, and Lady Tanna and her companions turned their swords over to Garevel's keeping without any real complaint.

Lady Tanna only broke from her careful propriety once, when she asked Varel, "We're not expected to dine with the arl, are we?"

"No," Varel reassured her at once. "There's no need for you to meet him until tomorrow, my lady. I'll make sure you get food sent to your rooms."

Garevel assigned a cheerful soldier to take the Lutton party inside, and turned to Varel. "I hope they're all that easy to deal with."

"Seems unlikely," Varel said.

At least they didn't have long to wait before the lookout came down again, looking flushed enough that Varel wondered if he ran up the stairs as well as down, to say that another group of people were on the way.

This time it was the families of Lady Morag and Ser Timothy, travelling together, and they'd brought more guards than the Lutton family, although to Varel's experienced eye, several of those guards looked like boys dragged away from farm or house work, hastily crammed into whatever armor was at hand. The sight reminded him of the volunteers at Ostagar, and he winced a little. Ser Timothy's family, the Hearnes, were happy enough to leave their guards outside the walls, but argued vigorously that they should be allowed to keep their own arms; the family of Lady Morag was the other way around, giving over their swords with no argument but claiming they needed their guards to attend them.

"The Vigil has plenty of staff to look after your needs," Varel said.

One sharp-eyed older woman tried to look down her nose at him, no mean feat. "We might not want to be beholden to the Vigil and its servants," she said. "Not after you cut my sweet girl Morag down in her prime!"

"Aunt Tilly!" a teenage boy hissed.

Garevel crossed his arms. "That sweet girl, as you call her, took up arms against her liege lord, breaking her oaths," he said. "We're not feeling particularly trusting, now. You can be beholden to the Vigil's staff or you can go home again."

"I should have know nothing good would come of letting Orlesians into the country," she said. "Now here you are, thinking you're better than us and can dictate as you like, when all we want is to give our darling girl a proper send-off--"

"I'm not an Orlesian," Garevel snapped. "I was born on the Plains, as you know perfectly well, Matilda Rutten. And I'm loyal to my arl, unlike some."

"Well!" She had her hands on her hips now. "Don't you go thinking that--"

"Aunt Tilly!" The teenage boy stepped on her foot. "Oh, I am sorry. Let's just go in. The men will be fine out here."

Aunt Tilly sniffed. "You're the heir now, Lucas! If you step in there like a lamb to slaughter, you might never be seen again, just like sweet Morag!"

"I give you my word," Varel said, "that no harm will come to any member of the Rutten family here at the Vigil unless you've come to offer our arl insult and violence."

"Of c-course not!" young Lucas said. He wasn't even old enough to shave regularly. "Aunt Tilly, please."

Watching them go in, Varel shook his head. "I hope the boy has had a few other influences in his life than Morag and his great-aunt."

"He must have," Garevel said, "or he wouldn't have argued with that old harridan." He looked out the open gate. "I suppose it would be too convenient to have the Packtons turn up right this moment."

"And the priest," Varel agreed. "Well, I've other work to do in the meantime."

He went inside, where a bevy of maids were cleaning the great hall. Varel thought privately that maybe they shouldn't have done even the first round of cleaning, because nothing would have shown the seriousness of the new oathtaking as much as seeing the bloodstains of the previous oathbreakers still on the floor.

Blood did smell very badly, though.

The maid Tione came in with fresh cleaning rags and beeswax for the furniture, and asked him to go see Mistress Hansa at his convenience, so he went down to the kitchens and was met by a number of delicious smells; his mouth began to water. When he pushed the kitchen door open, Hansa came up and poked him in the chest. "You never came in for lunch," she said. "I hope for your sake you ate with the soldiers."

Varel had meant to do that, he really had, as soon as he'd looked after a few more things and checked on a few more matters, but by the time he'd been done with that, the men assisting him had begun to come back, ready for new tasks. "Today is turning out to be a very busy day," he hedged. His stomach growled.

"I'll say." Hansa pushed him down into a kitchen chair and gave him a chunk of bread to gnaw on. "One maid said eight guests inside the Vigil already, and one said nine, which is it?"

"Nine," Varel said, swallowing a jagged piece of crust so he could speak. Looked like there would be more family members coming than he'd guessed. "And eight guards outside the walls."

Mistress Hansa nodded. "I've a pot of soup simmering that ought to feed howevermany turn up today, and I've readied everything I can for tomorrow. I'll be baking from dawn, so everyone will have bread for breakfast and they'd better not complain about it."

"I can't imagine that they would," Varel said honestly, and was rewarded with a chunk of cheese.

"Have you arranged for someone to take food out to the guards?" she asked.

"Yes. Two men will be here at dinnertime tonight, at breakfast tomorrow, and then back again when the funeral is over, ready whenever you want them to carry out your orders."

Hansa grinned. "That does sound good, it does."

"Within reason," Varel said, but he returned the grin with one of his own. "They won't scrub out the pantry for you, so don't even try."

"The commander should entertain more," Hansa said. "Making all those little dainties for tomorrow is one thing, but I can't teach the girls to make a proper nobleman's dinner if there's never any call for it. I can see why he won't have a dinner tonight, but there's other times."

"I don't think he's the type," Varel said. "But with the garrison filling up, we should arrange to have a cook who does the plain food for the soldiers, and you can give all your attention to the wardens and the keep staff. There'll be enough variety there, surely."

"It's not the same," Hansa said. "But at least there's feast days coming up." Then her eyes sharpened on Varel. "Lebbeth is about ready to take on the soldiers' food full time. He's a decent hand with the simpler fare. But I'll need a good undercook for my own work. And more scullions to help him out."

"I know." Varel swallowed a healthy bite of bread and cheese. "It won't happen just now, so think on it for a day or two and tell me what you need, and if you've ideas about who to hire on." He lifted the bread to his mouth again, then stopped. "And if you've ideas about where to find a housekeeper, I'd be happy to hear them."

"That's sorely needed," Hansa said. "It will be good to see the Vigil fully staffed again, and everything working as it should."

Varel agreed. He was proud of his people for how they kept everything running despite the way the Vigil had suffered lately, and he hoped the commander hadn't felt the lack of some servants and amenities too keenly. The commander might be Orlesian and fresh from a turn at the court of the empress, but he was also a warden, and as far as Varel could tell, the wardens were soldiers with the harshest duty of all. He might not even have noticed that some little luxuries of the nobility were missing from his life at the Vigil.

Either that, or he just expected Fereldans to be uncivilized barbarians with no idea of how to do things properly, Varel reflected to himself.

Varel finished the bread in a few more hasty mouthfuls and strode out to see that everything was still running smoothly. He also kept an eye on the gate. When the commander and Sigrun and Anders finally walked back in, some muscles in his shoulders untensed. All these arrangements wouldn't have mattered much if they'd lost the arl himself the day before the new oathtaking ceremony.

He walked up to them when they stopped by the well in the courtyard. "Welcome back, commander. Wardens." Varel expected the commander to be as neat as always, of course, but it was good to see that Sigrun and Anders, too, were nearly as tidy as before, with just a little road dust on their clothes and not so much as a popped stitch in a seam showing that they'd been fighting. "Will the roads be safe for those who attend the funeral, then?"

"Yes," the commander said.

"There was just one little genlock," Sigrun said. "I think it was lost."

"At least it didn't ask us for directions," Anders said cheerfully. "It just tried to run away." Varel raised his brows, because it had never seemed to him that the wardens allowed darkspawn to just run away from them. "Took a dagger and two bolts of lightning in the back. There's nothing but a pile of ashes left. Deadest genlock I've ever seen."

"I liked that dagger," Sigrun said in a mournful voice.

"Elyon will buy you a new one," Anders said. Varel found it as disorienting as before to hear Anders use the commander's name so casually. It was strange for him to realize that other people didn't need to be so strict with themselves, mentally.

"Oh, I will?" The commander turned to Sigrun. "Yes, I suppose I will. Find yourself something suitable from what Herren and Wade have in stock. A warden should always be fully equipped."

"Thank you, commander!" Sigrun broke into a shining smile like a little dwarven sunrise and took off for Herren at a run.

"That's very generous of you," Anders said. "I don't suppose, while you're in a mood to spend money, that you might get me some new robes?"

"Not unless those you're wearing are destroyed by one of my lightning bolts," the commander said calmly. He raised one hand. "Which could be arranged, of course, but I don't think you'd like it much."

"No, no!" Anders stepped behind Varel and spoke over his shoulder. "I was just joking, really, commander." The sudden formality as well as the quick, nervous laugh made the words sound quite heartfelt. Maybe he wasn't quite as casual as he pretended to be.

"I'm sure you were." The commander looked at Varel instead. "I've spoken to the captain," he said. "It seems this guard of his will come to fetch me at my bedroom door and breathe down my neck all day. Is everything else in order for tomorrow?"

"Very nearly," Varel said. "Three of the families of the dead are here already. There's been no sign of the relatives of Bann Esmerelle and the Packtons, though, and we still haven't heard from the chantry." Anders made a derogatory noise behind Varel's back, but the commander didn't move a muscle. Varel took that as a cue not to let his own concern show. "If the revered mother won't send a priest, we can always hold field rites."

He didn't like that idea, though. The Vigil should be able to do better, and be seen to be able to do better, for the sake of the commander's standing in the arling.

"If she won't send a priest for the funeral," the commander said, "that doesn't seem to hold out much hope that she'll assign one to the chapel here permanently."

That was precisely what Varel feared. Revered Mother Leanna, if she was feeling uncooperative, could drag the matter out very nearly indefinitely. They might not be able to rely on her goodwill.

"Well, who'd want her to," Anders said. "Anyone she sent would probably be as sour-faced and snippy as the woman herself."

"The soldiers want it, I've been told." The commander was so still, Varel thought it had to be a deliberate effort. "And I'm sure the staff of the Vigil does, too."

"But if she won't send anyone," Anders said, "there's nothing to be done, right?"

"Oh, but in that case," Varel said, "we can always write to Denerim. If the king can't persuade the grand cleric to send a suitable priest to serve at the Vigil, I don't know my Ferelden."

He thought just mentioning the possibility to the revered mother might be enough, though.

Sigrun crowed happily behind them; it sounded as if she'd found something to her liking. "I suppose I had better find out how much of my money she just spent," the commander said. "Come on, Anders. I'll see you tomorrow, seneschal."

"Yes, commander." Varel watched the commander go over to Sigrun with unhurried steps.

"He's really something, isn't he?" Anders still hadn't moved from his place behind Varel's back, but now he stepped forward and shook out his robes. "Even when the rest of us look like we have been dragged backwards through a hedge," he made a face, "or a hedge witch, he doesn't even have a hair out of place. Wish I knew how he does it."

"Surely he can teach you the spell," Varel said.

Anders shook his head. "I don't think it is a spell. I think he was probably born neat."

"You said there was a time when he came back all over blood." Varel hadn't been able to forget that offhand remark, though it had seemed to be driven more by a wish to score points off Nathaniel Howe than any real worry about the commander. "Doesn't sound that neat to me."

"That might have been a tiny bit of an exaggeration," Anders said. "A bandit bled out on the hem of his robe -- that purple one that he doesn't wear any more." He raised his voice in response to a gesture from Sigrun. "Yes, yes, I'm coming, hold your water!"

Varel reflected that Anders was probably spending too much time with Oghren.

Sigrun was happily spinning a dagger between her fingers. "Look at this!" She grinned at Varel. "You too, seneschal! Isn't it amazing?"

"Amazing," Anders said, with about the same enthusiasm he showed for porridge. "Sigrun, it's a knife."

"It's not just any knife," she said. "Look at the balance!" She eyed him sideways. "Or don't look at the balance, then, but don't be such a grump, it makes you sound like Nathaniel. Were you like this when you worked in that brothel in Denerim, too? Because that can't have made you popular."

"I was the resident healer," Anders said, "not an item on the public menu." He took the dagger when Sigrun offered it to him and sighted down the blade. "Mostly not, anyway. They talked me into using my talents in a different way in a few special cases."

Sigrun shook her head. "You were a whore who used magic? No wonder the templars found you again. You must have been the talk of the town."

"I wasn't a--" Anders handed the dagger back. "Oh, never mind. I was discreet, though. That's not where they caught me."

"I've heard about setting the sheets on fire," Sigrun said, "but I never thought they meant it literally. Do people really pay for that kind of thing?"

"I'm happy to say I have no idea," Anders said. "I just did a few things with ice, and the usual old electricity trick, standard circle sex magic." He grinned at the commander. "Don't they pass those things down among the apprentices in the Orlesian circles, too?"

"No," the commander said flatly. His eyes were stone. "Let's go inside."

There was no message from the chantry that evening, no polite or not-so-polite refusal to come, which there really should have been, since it seemed pretty clear that they weren't coming. Varel was beginning to think that Jordin the messenger was taking a bit of a holiday in Amaranthine. Well, that would show in his payment. The Vigil didn't send messengers with important letters just so they could enjoy themselves in the city.

The three groups of mourners made no fuss and no difficulties, and Varel was grateful for that, at least. With no shortage of last-minute tasks, and things to be checked, and people to send scurrying to finish it properly this time, by the Maker, or you'll be standing guard on the walls all through winter, Varel had a busy evening, and when he finally dropped into bed, he fell asleep as soon as his head hit the pillow.

The morning of the funeral, he had no time to join the soldiers for morning drills. He got dressed, fully armored and with his sword slung on his back, just in case, and stood by the window in his room and breathed resolutely deep for a minute, the way he always had before battle. This wasn't a fight coming, but he felt much the same. Varel strode out of his room full of determination, and went down to the great hall to see that the maids had finished their work last night and everything shone... except for one corner that smelled of flat ale and dwarven piss, with Oghren snoring next to one of the puddles.

Varel cursed under his breath. He went over and grabbed the dwarf by the shoulders and began to drag him out towards one of the back side doors. A gasp made him turn his head to see Tione and another maid, probably come for another look at things, too. "Hold the door open for me," he said, backing that way. Oghren was beginning to make grumbling noises, but he wasn't awake enough to struggle, thank the Maker. "Then get that corner scrubbed off again. Put a rug down and a table on top to keep people away if you can't get rid of the stains and smell completely. Blasted dwarf."

"Yes, ser," Tione said, leaning back against the other door. The other maid had already run off, but she came back as Varel was wrestling Oghren through the doorway, and she was carrying soap and brushes and two empty buckets.

"I can walk!" Oghren said suddenly, with surprising clarity, and tried to jerk away from Varel's grip. "Let go of me, you filthy nug-wrestler, or I'll show you what a warrior of Orzammar can--" The sudden silence was alarming. "Think I might be sick," he said quietly.

Varel grabbed one of the buckets away from the maid and shoved it in front of Oghren just in time. "I'll get another one," the maid said and ran off again.

Varel looked at Tione. "Get a couple of men who haven't had breakfast yet," he said, "and tell them to meet me down at the bathing rooms to get this warden cleaned up."

Tione nodded. "Yes, ser. Can you get him down the stairs?"

"Yes," Varel said grimly. Oghren was both heavy and recalcitrant, but Varel had a great deal of practice in lugging bodies around, both living and dead, and he didn't particularly care if the dwarf got a little bruised around the edges.

Oghren complained every step of the way, but he didn't throw up again, which Varel was grateful for, and when they came down to the bathing room he could actually stand on his own two feet for a little while, leaning against the wall, and hold on to his own bucket. At least until he realized he was doing it. "What's this disgusting thing?" he said, peering at it through a tangle of beard. "I'll just toss it through that--"

"No, you won't," Varel said, catching Oghren's arm and wrestling it down again. Oghren was somewhere between hungover and drunk, and he managed to sway even when he was propped up against solid stone, but he was a strong little bugger. "Are you going to be sick again?"

"No," Oghren said, offended. "'M fine. You're gonna regret ever laying a finger on me, soon's I can get an axe in my hand. Think you're something, just because you're tall? I've cut better men than you off at the knees."

"The commander needs you to be clean and at least looking like you're sober in less than an hour," Varel said. "Can you manage that?"

"Course I can," Oghren said. "Hehe. No. Where's that bucket again?"

"It's still in your hand," Varel said, "and a good thing, too, it seems."

Two men in rough shirts came hurrying towards them while Oghren retched, and Varel was more than happy to leave the dwarf for them to deal with, telling them to get him clean and not let him have a weapon, and telling Oghren not to try to bite their legs off. "And if he's not fit for the funeral," Varel said, "for Andraste's mercy, keep him well away from it."

"We'll try our best, ser," one of the men said. "Er. Do we get to eat afterwards?"

"If you still want to," Varel said.

Varel went back up the stairs and navigated the hallways of the Vigil until he got to the kitchens, although he went into the scullery first and washed his hands, because he felt as if he had Oghren all over his palms. When he finally got into the kitchen, it was already full of the smell of baking bread, which was a wonderful counter to what he'd experienced so far this morning. Varel stopped where he was by the door and smiled.

"Out!" Mistress Hansa flapped her apron at him as soon as she saw him, raising a cloud of flour in the air. "I've no time for you this morning. Out! Lebbeth, give the seneschal some bread and throw him out that door for me."

The chunk of bread was still warm and had a ringle of honey on it besides, so Varel didn't mind at all. He thought about taking a turn into the dining hall for some porridge as well, because surely there was porridge, but he had too many things that needed to be done. The bread would keep him going.

The maids were still busy scrubbing in the great hall, but it smelled more of soap and less of effluvia-of-Oghren already. It wouldn't look right to get flowers in, but Varel thought he might send a lad for some green and leafy branches, and set those in large vases in all the corners they didn't want people going into. He came out into the courtyard, which looked as tidy as it ever did, and went straight towards Herren, to tell him that he had to keep Wade from hammering or doing anything correspondingly loud while the funeral was going on, which seemed like a surer way to handle the matter than asking Wade himself. Herren promised that he'd take care of it. Varel wasn't aiming for a respectful silence, but he thought it would be better if the field rites were at least heard by the mourners.

Down in the bailey, things were just as he'd left them. Maybe a little neater, since the soldiers had picked up and tidied even the far corners. The pyres hadn't up and run away overnight, and everything looked as proper as could be expected. Maverlies stood at the foot of one pyre with her men, pointing in easy gestures. When she noticed Varel, she came up to him and asked in a low voice, "Still no word from the chantry?"

Varel shook his head. "Nothing. This will end up a field cremation after all. But at least no one can say we didn't try for something better."

Maverlies nodded. "The bodies do have to be burned. And there's nothing unusual about holding additional rites later, without a cremation. Maker knows many of those who fell at Ostagar had a decent funeral for all their bodies are still down there in the Wilds."

It would be up to the families of the dead to arrange for that, Varel reflected. Whether he heard from the revered mother or not, the message had been sent and the Vigil had done its part. The lack of a reply could not be held to their account. He raised his voice and asked, "So does everyone know what they'll be doing?" and nodded in satisfaction when he got a ragged chorus of "Yesser!" in return. It was time to bring the bodies out.

Varel went to the old carpenter's shed and knocked cautiously before going in.

"There'll be a funeral out here this morning," he said to Dworkin, who was seated with a mug of something, peering at some badly stained notes, "so you can't blow anything up until that's done."

"Aye, I'd heard," Dworkin said with a grin. "I'll be spending the morning trying to read this, anyway. You'd think a paragon would have better handwriting."

Varel left him to it, grateful that not all the dwarves in the Vigil followed Oghren's example when it came to what to drink. He was pretty sure that had been tea in Dworkin's mug. He went back inside, collaring one man on the way and sending him for green branches, and then a maid to get out the large urns that the previous Lady Howe had bought in Denerim and shipped to the Vigil at considerable cost. Those urns, strategically placed, would look decorative and keep people from roaming all over the great hall and spilling red wine on the books.

When he passed through the great hall, the maids were gone. Varel sniffed the air. Better, but it wouldn't do to have the room smelling too strongly of soap, either. He propped the doors up at either end to get a bit of a draft going.

The commander came up behind him. Varel didn't notice him until he said, "I understand Oghren caused a little difficulty for you earlier this morning."

Varel bit his tongue, but he didn't jump. "Yes," he said, turning around to see the commander in plain warden-blue robes and with his hair braided back. "Some of the men are cleaning him up down in the bathing room, and I hope he can stand with the other wardens at the ceremonies."

"He got a letter from Felsi yesterday," the commander said. "That nervous child from the Merchant's Guild brought it. Apparently Oghren was celebrating his child's first tooth."

"Well," Varel said, "I think we got the smell out." He looked around. "Commander, where's your honor guard?"

"Having breakfast," the commander said placidly. "I really don't think I need to be guarded inside the Vigil itself by twelve stout fellows in silverite armor."

"I'll wager Garevel thinks you do," Varel said. He drew breath to say something else, but right then Tione came rushing past, bobbed a curtsey to the commander, wiped a spot of Oghren off Varel's armor, and rushed on. Varel laughed. "Well," he said, "despite a few unexpected events, things will be in order for the ceremonies, commander, I give you my word."

"I have perfect confidence in your ability to organize," the commander said. "I'm sure it will be."

Varel went down to the bailey again and watched as the bodies were brought out and placed on the pyres. Their weapons and jewellery had been removed, and would be given to the families after the ceremony, but they still wore the same clothes they had died in, rents and bloodstains and all. He hoped that if anyone noticed, it would be another reminder to the new lords and ladies not to turn on their liege, because that wasn't going to end well.

It looked like a clear day, and a reasonably cool one. Garevel had stationed himself at the outer gate along with several of his men, and Varel nodded to him, meaning to go there, but a steady stream of people came by to report on the status of the great hall, the food for the reception, the placement of vases and branches, and Oghren. Everything seemed to be going well enough, but it was still longer than Varel liked before he had the chance to walk over; he finally broke away when he saw a lookout come rushing down across the bailey, and they reached Garevel at the same time.

"Travelers on the road, ser," the lookout said. "Soldiers, I mean. I mean, they're-- Ser!" She snapped off a meaningless salute.

Garevel seemed to be about to snap out a reprimand, but then he looked out the open gate, and his thoughts were clearly given a different direction. He froze, eyes narrowing as he peered down the road. "Do you see that?"

"Yes," Varel said hollowly, staring just as Garevel did. "I see that."

Coming up the road was a large party of travelers, including a small figure mounted on a mule, attended by two armed guards. Several men and women in rich clothes led the way, with more guards following them. Walking a little to one side was a priest in a bright chantry robe, and she was accompanied by ten fully outfitted and helmeted templars.

"What do they think this is, a blighted Exalted March?" Garevel muttered.

Varel grabbed the nearest soldier by the arm -- the lookout, who hadn't left again fast enough -- and sent her up to inform the commander of the new arrivals. This definitely wasn't the kind of thing he wanted to take the commander by surprise. Even a little advance warning would be better than none. "We probably can't keep the templars out of the Vigil," he said.

"No," Garevel agreed, but a bit more reluctantly. "That's Gorthwait, isn't it, in the grey hat? Must be his daughter on the mule. Think she's wearing her own weight in lace, too."

Varel shook his head. "I don't know what possessed him to bring a child here," he said. "She's much too young for this -- she's what, two years old? Three?"

The first of the company reached them by then, and Garevel just grunted before stepping forward to greet them and welcome them to the Vigil. "Your guards will have to wait here," he said. "Our staff will bring out food and water for them. Leave your weapons with my men before you step onto Vigil grounds."

The priest barely spared him a nod before moving forward, templars at her heels. Varel took one step to the left, and her nose almost hit his breastplate. "I'm glad you're here. We had nearly started to believe you weren't coming. As the captain said, your guards will have to wait here."

The priest looked up at him, and Varel recognized her face as she did. "Templars of the holy order are hardly the same thing as hired guards," she said.

"Nor are they family members of the deceased," Varel said, "or here to take oath to the arl. Guards stay outside. We guarantee your safety here, Mother Disa."

The look in her eyes, now that he could see them, was far from friendly. "And you're surprised that we chose a different shelter overnight, rather than entrust ourselves to the Vigil's hospitality."

"No," Varel said. "I'm not surprised. I hope you found a safe place, for the child's sake."

He didn't think the priest had come with a full complement of templars because she, or the revered mother back in Amaranthine, feared the dangers of the road. No, the templars were probably here to make a point and to shield the priest from the wickedness of a fortress where the soldiers were ruled by a mage. Magic was meant to serve man, and the commander's manner of service was not to the revered mother's liking. Varel felt even more certain now that any priest assigned to the Vigil's chapel would also come with a detachment of templars at her side who'd expect to be fed and housed at the Vigil's expense from then on. It made him incline very strongly towards writing to Denerim for a priest instead of trying the revered mother's obviously not very generous heart.

The Packtons, in the meantime, had relinquished weapons and guards without any fuss. The little girl was swung down from her mule and clung to the skirts of a woman who had to be her nurse, hiding as best she could. She had her mother's brown skin and her father's dark hair, but it was impossible to make out her features. All Varel could see was grey lace and a glimmer of pearls, echoing the mourning brooch in Gorthwait Packton's hat. He could not fathom when there'd been time to make her such an expensive garment.

"These templars must come with me," Mother Disa said. "It is their sacred duty to protect me."

Varel sighed, though he took care to keep it quiet. "Against what?" He didn't actually think he could manage to keep the templars out, no, but he was willing to keep up the argument for a while, waiting for the word of his arl.

Mother Disa gave him a look that could have raised blisters on a stone. "A truly pious man would not need to ask."

"As long as they leave their weapons here," Garevel said.

"Certainly not," Mother Disa said.

"Let them come in, seneschal, captain," a quiet voice said behind them. "They can stand in the corner there. I would not have it said that the Vigil neglected a priest's safety in any way."

There was not an ounce of irony to be found in the commander's calm words, but Mother Disa still looked as though she suspected him of mocking her. Well, so did Varel suspect it, but all he did was stand aside as the templars marched past him. Even their helmets looked smug. Anyone could be hiding behind that featureless metal. "I don't like this, commander," he muttered.

"It's an insult," the commander agreed placidly. "But there's no need for the priest and her templar guards to come into the Vigil after the funeral. We will provide refreshments for them out here and send them on their way."

"As you say, commander." Varel watched the priest walk past the commander, offering him a polite nod but keeping her distance, as if she thought he might bite if provoked. The templars clanked after her, and the Packton family made up the rear, with Gorthwait Packton almost invisible under his big floppy grey hat, the child carried in her nurse's arms, and a few more distant cousins on Bann Esmerelle's side shuffling their feet as they went, looking as if they were only present because they'd lost the family coin-toss.

The wardens had gathered in an informal group, standing about at the foot of the pyre closest to the inner gate, talking in low voices and elbowing each other. At least they weren't shouting and scuffling. Varel had never really hoped for more from them than that they'd show up, and that Oghren wouldn't throw up on anyone. He was there, a little paler than usual, and probably getting more support from Nathaniel Howe's hand on his shoulder than either of them would admit. Anders stared at the templars, then edged behind Sigrun, which wasn't much of a hiding-place for a tall, skinny mage.

All in all, it was an odd and mismatched company that had gathered to witness these funeral rites. Wardens, mourners, templars, soldiers, and a smattering of Vigil staff. Varel noticed that Maverlies, too, was hovering to one side.

Lined up by the pyres, though, they made a reasonably respectable showing. And Varel had to admit he was grateful not to have to recite the field rites; Tilly Rutten would no doubt have complained about that over the length and breadth of the arling, laying the blame at the commander's feet. No, it was much better to have the priest walking around the pyres with her thurible swinging slowly from side to side as she blessed the (in Varel's view completely undeserving) deceased. The little Packton child made a discontented noise, and Gorthwait Packton went to comfort her--

No. No. To Varel's startled horror, that grey and nearly invisible little man went past his daughter with a sudden burst of speed, drew a poniard from his boot, and threw himself towards the commander, screaming, "You killed Liza! I hope you suffer forever, you accursed Orlesian bastard--"

Varel's sword was in his hands and swinging in a heavy, unstoppable arc at the same moment that the commander threw up a hand and a glittering spray of ice shot out to wrap around Gorthwait, encasing him head to foot, so that when Varel's sword hit him, he shattered in a thousand tiny pieces with the sound of a chandelier crashing onto a stone floor.

Mother Disa dropped the thurible. The nurse screamed.

Garevel started shouting a series of sharp commands at his men, and they tried to close ranks around the commander, but the commander wasn't standing still so they could form up neatly around him. He was already at Varel's side, putting a hand on his arm. "Thank you." Before Varel could gather his wits enough to think of a reply, the commander was looking seriously at the nurse. "Take the child away from here at once, if you please. Did you know what he intended to do?"

"No!" the nurse said, a little wild-eyed, jiggling the toddler in her arms for comfort so frantically that the child squirmed and cried out.

"Sergeant Maverlies," the commander said, "take the child and her nurse into the Vigil and look after them."

"Yes, commander," Maverlies said, and started to lead the nurse away with a firm hand on her elbow.

All the other mourners were babbling at each other, still in the half-hushed tones that everyone seemed to adopt for a funeral, but with a bit of shrill panic breaking through. Half the templars had their swords in their hands, shields held at the ready, but at least none of them had tried the effect of a holy smite. Varel thought he would probably have cut Gorthwait Packton down before the man had managed to stab the commander, even if the commander had been reeling from the temporary loss of his magic. Probably. But he wasn't entirely sure, and he was fiercely glad it hadn't come to that.

"Someone sweep up Gorthwait, please," the commander said. "Put him on the pyre next to his wife. It is fortunate," he went on in a voice so quiet that Varel was the only one to hear it, "that we were already having a funeral."

Varel would deny to his dying day that he did anything as undignified as smother a laugh. "Commander," he said instead, "is there anyone else in Amaranthine who wants you dead?"

"Oh, no," the commander said. "Not unless you count the darkspawn, I suppose."

Garevel broke away from his men and strode up to them. "Commander," he said between his teeth, "I have failed you again. I don't deserve to be your captain of the guard."

"But you are," the commander said, not giving an inch to the self-recrimination that burned in Garevel's eyes. "I expect you and Seneschal Varel to take charge of this situation and make sure that the funeral proceeds as planned. With one additional corpse."

Garevel only looked appalled for a fraction of a moment, then his jaw jutted out and a purposeful glint came in his eyes. "Yes, commander!"

With a new stiffness in his spine, Garevel herded the mourners back into a suitable formation, and somehow persuaded the wardens to take up positions around them, presumably in case someone else was overcome by grief and did something reckless. Varel wouldn't put it past Tilly Rutten to try to stab the commander with a knitting needle, frankly. He didn't hear what Garevel said to the wardens, though, since he was busy soothing Mother Disa, picking her thurible up for her and patting her shoulder carefully. She was made of stern stuff, and only hiccupped and swallowed a little before she straightened her back and said she was ready to go on.

Funeral rites were never cheerful, but there was something particularly grim about them now; the mourners drew together in nervous little clumps, and even the templars looked a bit flattened, hunching their shoulders and glaring through their helmet slits, mostly close to, but not precisely at, the commander. Mother Disa recited the appropriate stanzas of the chant, but her voice was hollow and tense and rather difficult to hear. Varel couldn't really blame her.

When the pyres were finally lit, it became obvious that someone -- more than one someone -- had discreetly pushed little packets of spices and incense in between the pieces of wood. Which was just as well, since Gorthwait had started to thaw out and smell quite rapidly. The incense and the woodsmoke did something to cover up the smell of fresh blood and exposed viscera, parts of the human body that should never lie around in the open.

It said something about this funeral, Varel thought, that the smell of spices and roasting meat as the corpses burned was the least disturbing part of it.

Everyone joined in the closing stanzas of the chant, and then they just stood and watched the fires burn. Tilly Rutten was the first one to move, of course. She walked up to the commander, elbowing a couple of guards out of the way, and fixed her smoke-reddened eyes on him. At least, Varel assumed it was due to the smoke. "What do you mean to do with that poor child, then? Little Gizel Packton?"

Oghren muttered something that sounded suspiciously like, "Have her for breakfast. Oof!" The oof was rather loud, and when Varel looked that way, Nathaniel and Anders were standing in front of the other two wardens, arms crossed, hiding Oghren and Sigrun from view. Anders was glaring at the templars now, instead of trying to hide from them, which might be an improvement.

"Since she is far too young to swear oaths of fealty," the commander said, "I suppose a trustworthy guardian will have to be appointed, who can also rule the bannorn of Amaranthine until she comes of age. The child's relatives may apply for the position. Are you one of them?"

Tilly Rutten huffed. "One of Gorthwait's younger sisters was promised in marriage to one of my second cousins, but nothing ever came of it," she said. "The girl ran off to Antiva and joined a mercenary company. He could have married the other one instead, I suppose, but she died of the summer fever."

"I see." The commander nodded a little, just enough to make his braided hair shift against the fabric of his robe. "So there's no connection."

Mother Disa handed her thurible to the nearest templar, who looked a bit startled, and strode up as well. "I'm not setting foot inside this unholy place," she said. "Seeing a man struck down by magic before my eyes was deeply shocking. I must return to the city."

"Yes, of course," the commander said, exquisitely bland. "I should have been more considerate of your feelings in the matter."

"And then you'd be dead," Tilly Rutten said tartly. "Disa Landover, don't be such a fool. The man had to defend himself. Can't blame him for that."

Mother Disa drew herself up. "I don't expect you to understand the feelings of the truly devout, but surely you must see that this is not the time and place for pointless name-calling."

"We're here in the first place because this young man doesn't hesitate to defend himself when people try to assassinate him," Tilly Rutten said. "And that's what killed my sweet Morag, and Gorthwait's wife, and now it's killed Gorthwait, too. I don't deny I'd rather have my darling girl alive than some Orlesian I've never even met before--"

"Aunt Tilly," Lucas Rutten whimpered, mortified.

"But I don't hold with oathbreaking, and Esmerelle got what she deserved, I daresay. It's just a shame she talked Morag into supporting her. I would have told the girl, if she'd asked me, putting her faith in someone as self-centered as Esmerelle's bound to end badly..." Tilly's voice suddenly broke, and she blinked angrily, tilting her head back as though the commander had suddenly grown a foot. Perhaps it wasn't the smoke, after all.

The commander, not at all startled by the onslaught of tears, pulled a clean handkerchief from the sleeve of his robe and handed it to her. Tilly took it and began to pat at her face with it.

"Matilda Rutten!" Mother Disa hissed. "You know what Revered Mother Leanna says about accepting gifts from the sinful and corrupt. It can only lead to--"

"It's a handkerchief," Tilly Rutten said. "And he probably wants it back."

"You can certainly keep it if you want," the commander said. "I don't believe there's all that much corruption on it."

Tilly Rutten blew her nose, which made it pretty clear that the commander wasn't getting that handkerchief back any time soon. "Looks like clean linen to me," she said. "I swear, Disa, sometimes I don't know what you're on about. And the smoke just got in my eyes, that's all. I hope this is the end of it. I suppose he'll bring that little girl of Gorthwait's up to call him uncle."

"That was not my intention, no," the commander said. "Mother Disa, would you and your men like some refreshment before you go back to Amaranthine?"

"I already said that I'm not setting foot in the Vigil's wicked halls," Mother Disa said. "And you may have cozened Tilly Rutten, but I'm not willing to take anything from your hand."

"It wouldn't precisely be from my hand," the commander said. "We're having food and drink brought outside the gate to the guards of all the families present, as well as everyone who doesn't belong at the oath-taking ceremony. Isn't that right, seneschal?"

"Yes," Varel said. It wasn't quite how he'd planned it, but it could be worked out, and the fewer people who set foot inside the Vigil after this, the happier he'd be. "I'm sure Mistress Hansa can provide a bit more, for the benefit of the holy mother and her templar guards."

She'd be fit to strangle someone, and it wouldn't be the commander she took it out on, but Varel reckoned he would survive. Mother Disa tossed her head, but she didn't say no again, which Varel thought was sensible of her; it was a long walk back to Amaranthine, and the templars probably needed something to drink at the very least. Varel knew how hot and uncomfortable it was to march along in full armor at this season.

Varel rounded up those among the funeral guests who would swear new oaths of fealty, and asked them to come into the keep for the next ceremony. Some of them had close family members with them; Tilly Rutten called young Lucas over to her side and took his arm in a tight grip, making it clear that he wasn't going anywhere without her. Mother Disa went down to the outer gate, and her templars clanked along behind her. They, in their turn, were escorted by Garevel, who left the honor guard in place around the commander.

Some of the mourners also drifted down that way of their own accord, the ones who weren't the direct heirs of the just-cremated conspirators, or trying to further their own interests. The ones, Varel thought, who might actually have been here to mourn. Others hovered, as if they wanted to talk to the commander before he went inside.

One of Bann Esmerelle's distant cousins made two tries at getting past the honor guard, the wardens, and Tilly Rutten, then sidled up to Varel instead. "Do you think I'll have to do it?" he said. "You must have an idea -- I mean, you're his seneschal, you're bound to know how he thinks, as much as anyone can know how an Orlesian thinks, haha. Only I don't think I'd be any good at raising a little girl. I'm a single man, and I don't, I mean, she needs more of a steady family life, I should think."

Varel turned his head and looked more closely at the man. This was Godfrey Norrell, who was known in Amaranthine for having sold years-old dried herring to both sides of the civil war last year, resulting in what was known in certain areas east of Lake Calenhad as the Battle of the Diarrhea. "I'm sure the commander won't leave Gizel Packton to be brought up by someone who doesn't want her," he said.

The man chuckled airily, as if Varel said said something funny. "I just mean, since I'll be controlling the bannorn of Amaranthine while she's growing up, I suppose I'll have to be involved somehow, and of course I want little Gizel to have the best possible upbringing, I mean, if I were to hire tutors for her, surely that would be enough. Haha."

Varel clasped his hands behind his back and took up a steady, resting pose. He turned the relationships over in his mind. Godfrey Norrell wasn't the man Varel would have chosen to take charge of Amaranthine after Bann Esmerelle, either because of the family ties, which were distant at best, or because of his abilities, which mostly seemed to be a certain skill for playing both sides against the middle. He probably wouldn't ruin the bannorn, at least not at first, but he wouldn't do it any good, either.

And he had no claims whatsoever to the Packton lands, which were mostly farmland on the edge of the Plains. The city of Amaranthine, and its immediate surroundings, was a rich prize, and one Varel didn't doubt that Norrell would be happy to claim for as long as he could, but the Packton farms and fields would need supervision and care, too.

"You had better speak to the commander," Varel said neutrally. "I mean, to the arl of Amaranthine. He will hear your case for being the caretaker of the bannorn, and of the child."

Godfrey Norrell gave another airy chuckle. "Surely I don't need to tell him why the bannorn of Amaranthine falls to me. Why, I would have inherited it, if it weren't for Gizel, of course."

"I think your cousin Leith would have disputed that claim," Varel said. "In any case, the disposal of the temporary rule of the bannorn is entirely up to the arl." So was the disposal of the permanent rule, but Varel opted not to go into that, since the commander would have to say for himself if he'd rather not have Gizel inherit after her father's attempt at the commander's life.

"Leith's already spoken to you about it, hasn't he," Norrell said. "You shouldn't listen to him, seneschal. I think you'll find that mine is the proper claim, and my disposition is considerably more generous, if this Orlesian elf we've had inflicted on us can be persuaded to listen to me rather than to Leith."

"You had better speak to him," Varel said again. "I will certainly tell him that you have a case to make." What else he would say, about what kind of case it was, about the validity of Norrell's claim and about his personality and abilities, Varel kept to himself. While he had no strong feelings about Gizel Packton, he thought she probably deserved a better guardian than this. The commander would hear Norrell's claim, but he'd also hear Varel's strongly worded recommendation against it.

The commander walked up towards the inner gate, drawing the wardens along in his wake. Varel made a quick survey of the remaining funeral guests. Everyone who needed to be in the keep for the oathtaking had already moved up to the courtyard, where the commander and the wardens would lead them inside. Those who were still here in the bailey were easy enough for Varel to round up and usher down towards the outer gate, where Garevel met them and made sure they went outside. Varel strode back across the bailey, walking as fast as he decently could. When he was going up the steps towards the inner gate, he met Maverlies, who told him that Gizel Packton and her nurse were resting in a room just off the great hall, with one of the older maids for company, and a guard outside the door.

"Good," Varel said. "Could you make sure someone keeps an eye on the pyres, so nothing in here burns down by accident, and then once the ashes cool, get the men to clean up."

Maverlies nodded. "Groundskeeper Samuel says he can cover up some of the burned ground. He kept the turf from when the men dug out those fire breaks around the pyres, before, and he can spread it out a bit."

That would help, though they had to be sure every trace of fire was gone, first. Varel was quite pleased with the thought that the bailey wouldn't look quite so scarred, though, and he trusted Samuel to do a proper job. He clapped Maverlies on the shoulder and hurried off through the gate and across the courtyard. Wade raised a hammer at him in a questioning manner, and Varel nodded, and heard the sharp clang of hammer against metal start behind him as he went towards the entrance to the keep.

The entrance was guarded by four soldiers, presumbly on Garevel's orders. It looked very impressive, but since the participants in the oath-taking were inside now, incapable of being impressed, Varel felt no compunction about taking one of them away from the job temporarily. "Run into the soldiers' yard," he said, "and take all the people you need, and carry all the benches you can find down outside the outer gate. Set up a trestle table under the tree -- get Vendel, he knows how to do that. Then you can return to your duties here."

"Yes, ser!" The soldier ran off, and Varel went into the keep.

Everything was in place in the great hall. The huge urns filled with fresh greenery had been set down just as Varel had hoped, blocking access to the alcoves that held books and ornaments. Two large, bare tables were waiting to be spread with refreshments once the ceremony was over. The nobles milled uncertainly around the fire pit in the middle of the room, while the commander stood talking to his wardens, the guards hovering not more than a step away.

Tione was setting out glasses and forks on one of the tables, and Varel walked up next to her. "There's been a bit of a change," he said. "About half of the funeral guests will need to be fed outside of the outer gate, with the waiting guards. Please ask Mistress Hansa to send some of the fancy food out there, as well as up here. And Mother Disa brought a troop of templars from Amaranthine. The least we can give them is water and some of the fresh bread."

"Yes, ser," Tione said. "She'll make a right fuss about that, though, ser."

"I know," Varel said."Tell her she can scold me for it later, but those nobles need to be fed now."

Tione set a glass into place. "Ser," she said quietly, "is it true someone tried to kill the commander again and you saved his life? Again?"

"Liza Packton's husband tried to kill the commander," Varel said. He turned around and looked out over the great hall. "But the commander would have managed just fine without me, both today and a week ago."

"Of course," Tione said, with absolute faith in her voice. "He's the commander. But that was so brave of you, ser!"

It really wasn't. When Varel had flung his arm up to catch the crossbow quarrel aimed at the commander, he hadn't even thought about what he was doing before he did it; bravery certainly hadn't entered into it. Just as when he'd swung his sword in the commander's defense down in the bailey, mere minutes ago. If he'd stopped to think, he would have been too late. And he'd been in no danger this time, taken no risks. All he'd done was his duty.

And it had been unnecessary, too, both times. The commander was perfectly capable of defending himself. The commander, on both occasions, would have been just fine.

Varel went up to the tight little group of wardens by the dais. "Tell me when you're ready to start, commander," he said.

"I'm ready," the commander said, looking completely unruffled by the day's events so far. "Just tell me first, Varel, where is Gizel Packton, and what am I expected to do with her? She obviously cannot rule her lands herself just yet. Is there an obvious choice for guardian to take oath in her place?"

Varel shook his head. "Everyone who wants to rule the city of Amaranthine will tell you different, but no, there isn't." However much Godfrey Norrell would like to argue the point. "You can take your time deciding on a guardian for the girl and the lands, talk to the candidates to determine the best choice."

"She's over there, isn't she?" Anders glanced at the door to a side room. "I'm not saying her nurse didn't look like a perfectly nice woman, but if she starts roaming the Vigil, looking for a way to avenge her employer..."

"They're not alone," Varel said. "And you'll notice there are two guards outside that door."

"Should have known," Anders said lightly. "You think of everything, don't you, seneschal."

"If I did, this would never have happened," Varel said. He bit down on any self-recriminations, because those would be useless. There wasn't much he could have done, he admitted to himself, short of searching Gorthwait Packton to the bone, but maybe he or Garevel would have noticed something off about the way the man behaved if they hadn't been so distracted by the templars. Not that he thought Mother Disa, even in all her mage-hatred, had deliberately provided cover for Gorthwait's assault; she was too earnest in her feelings and in the way she expressed them.

Varel was beginning to think, though, that Tilly Rutten could probably do a better job of protecting the commander than he could. With her knitting needles.

"Now, if you could just think of a way to get rid of those templars..." Anders's voice stayed light, but there was genuine distress in his eyes.

"They will leave once we are done here, so we may as well begin." The commander drew himself up even straighter, which Varel would have said was impossible. "I have no desire to draw this event out overlong."

"The boy's got that right," Oghren muttered. "I mean, the commander. Let's get this over with and get to the eating and drinking already."

"I thought you had already done your drinking for today," Nathaniel Howe said. "But Lucas Rutten looks close to passing out. He probably needs a bit of food."

"Or a bit of air," Anders said. "That aunt of his has a strong grip. Do you suppose she means to keep holding on to him even when he kneels in fealty?"

Oghren chuckled. "Wouldn't surprise me one bit. She reminds me of some of the feistier matrons back in Orzammar."

Varel realized there was no point in waiting for the wardens to grow quiet. They never did. He stepped forward and raised his voice instead. "Lords and ladies, the time has come for you to swear fealty to the arl of Amaranthine, Elyon Andras. Step forward, Lady Tanna."

Tanna looked a bit startled to find herself called first, but with Gorthwait dead and no guardian named yet for Gizel Packton, Varel had to do a bit of rapid mental reshuffling of those who were present, and she really was the highest-ranking of the prospective oathtakers in the room. She came forward and knelt gracefully enough, and spoke her oath without needing any prompting. None of those who followed after her did, either, although when Lucas Rutten stuttered on a word, Tilly Rutten hissed it for him. She'd let go of his arm, but she hovered very close.

Varel had seen new inheritors pace around the firepit and rehearse their oaths under their breaths, and he was used to having to cough a word here or there when it seemed necessary. He thought the boy did well enough, though Lucas Rutten himself would probably remember it as a terrible embarrassment for the rest of his life.

Once the swearing of oaths was over and done with, the maids brought in trays of food and large jugs of something that turned out, when Varel finally got a glass of it to himself, to be a lightly spiced wine drink. He nodded approvingly. This was mild enough that even young Lucas could drink it, and there was no risk of a repeat of the Lord Guy incident.

The nobles clustered around in little groups and talked, quietly at first and then at a more relaxed and natural volume as the food and drink started to have an effect, about this, probably the most eventful day of ceremonies that either the Vigil or the guesting participants had ever seen. Varel stayed in the background, ate slices of cheese and meat and fruit, and listened. Everyone told each other how shocked they were at Gorthwait's sudden attack, and the shock sounded genuine enough. Varel didn't overhear anyone saying that Gorthwait had been motivated by political beliefs, or part of a second conspiracy. Lady Liza was the one who'd listened to Bann Esmerelle's seditious talk, not he.

"He adored her, fool that he was," Tilly Rutten said, summing it up. "She married him for the inheritance and for politics, to get closer to that dreadful aunt of his, and he just adored her. And we can all see how that turned out." She looked sternly at her nephew. "A lesson to you, Lucas. Pick your wife wisely."

"I'm much too young to be married," Lucas Rutten blurted.

"Of course you are," Lady Tanna said. "Tilly dearest, tell us about that spirited conversation you were having with Mother Disa, you both looked so caught up in it..."

Tilly Rutten huffed. "We're moving back to the country house," she said to Lucas, ignoring Lady Tanna."Living in the city gets you into the wrong company. Just look at poor sweet Morag."

The food was good, the wine drink was plentiful, and everyone could finally relax after the long, tense morning. Varel couldn't see any sign of a renewed conspiracy, and he allowed himself to hope that the nobles in the arling had finally come to their senses and decided to just get on with their daily lives, now that Bann Esmerelle was no longer a living woman who told everyone how much better things had been under Rendon Howe.

No, Bann Esmerelle was nothing but ashes, and although there were a few glances Nathaniel Howe's way, Varel heard nothing to suggest that the nobles thought he ought to reclaim the Vigil and the arling for himself. They barely knew him. He'd been very young when he was sent off to the Free Marches, and had spent many long years there. Now he was a warden, and a loyal one, according to the commander. Varel wasn't seeing anything to make him think otherwise.

Tione came up by Varel's side, tray held under her arm. "Seneschal, Mistress Hansa says the templars outside are eating like they haven't seen food in a week and drinking like someone else is paying for it, and the Vigil is the someone else that's paying for it and and she's not sending them aught else if the dishes come back empty again."

"No, of course not," Varel said. That definitely had the air of a direct quotation. He'd known Hansa wouldn't just feed them bread and water. "But have Garevel's men made sure that the nobles and their guards have been getting their part? Those refreshments weren't even meant for the templars, since we didn't know any templars were coming."

"I thought the chantry fed them better nor that," Tione said. "Taught them better manners, too. I can go out and look if you like, seneschal."

Varel shook his head. "No, I need you to stay here. I'll send one of the guards out." He really wanted to go himself, to see whether the templars were truly being as greedy as the report suggested, or if that was just Hansa's irritation at having to feed more mouths than she'd bargained for with only the food she had to hand. But he knew his place was right here, until the assembled nobles broke up and left, either of their own accord or because the commander grew tired of the event and called an end to it.

"Mistress Hansa would like a word with you later," Tione said, and went off to collect abandoned glasses and crumb-strewn plates. Varel was sure she would.

The newly oathsworn nobles stayed in a tight group at first, sharing food and gossip, but as the wine drink mellowed them, they began to mingle more freely, even talking a bit to the wardens, although most of those who started to talk to Oghren stopped and backed away after a few words. They made their way in turns to the commander, exchanging a few words and then drifting away again. Varel had no scruples about trying to overhear as much as he could. It was his duty to stay close to the commander, after all. He thought the nobles were mostly trying to present themselves as charming, loyal, and not too terribly memorable. With the exception of Tilly Rutten, of course, who couldn't help but be memorable in everything she said and did. She had so much force of personality, it spilled over on those standing next to her, like a carelessly poured mug of ale.

When just about all the food and drink was gone, and only Lucas Rutten, with the appetite of a growing boy, still checked the serving platters for more chunks of cheese and slices of smoked ham, the commander turned to Varel and looked up at him with a calm gaze. "I think we can safely call an end to the proceedings now, seneschal."

Varel nodded. He had no difficulty in declaring the ceremony over, and the mingling and chatting came to a natural end, particularly since there was no food left. It would probably have been difficult to tear the late Lord Guy away from the remaining jug of wine drink, but none of those present were heavy drinkers -- in fact, Varel had overheard Tilly Rutten ask Tione for tea for herself and young Lucas -- and they just put down their glasses, said something nervous and complimentary about the Vigil's hospitality, made their formal farewells in the direction of the commander, and drifted off to collect their guards.

Lady Tanna was the last to leave, and Varel escorted her outside, leaving the commander with his wardens and his guards for the time being. He walked along with Tanna across the courtyard, which was bustling as usual by now, and down into the bailey, where the remains of the pyres still smoked sullenly, watched by a couple of men who looked equally sullen. Waiting for a fire to burn itself out was a dull job, but someone had to do it. Varel had heard that at some of the larger city chantries, in Denerim, for instance, they actually put the funeral pyres out rather than wait, because they were short of time and space and people to do the waiting and watching. He supposed the custom would come to Amaranthine, too, but it didn't suit his notions of propriety at all.

Beyond the outer gate, in the field under the tree, the trestle table that Varel had ordered set up was empty of all but crumbs, and the templars had already departed. Godfrey Norrell was shouting for one of his guards, who was apparently off relieving himself behind a hayrick. Varel scowled. "I don't care if your guards aren't country raised," he said to Godfrey. "They should at least have common sense. If he pissed on the hay, you're reimbursing the Vigil for it. Keep your men in better order."

"That hay should have been taken in a long time ago," Tilly Rutten said. "It's just sheer luck for you we've only had the one really heavy rain. If it starts moldering out here in the field, a bit of guard piss will be the least of your problems."

"Right," Godfrey said. "So really, seneschal, no need to make a fuss--"

Tilly Rutten turned on her heel to give him a withering look. "And you should be ashamed of yourself, Twofaced Norrell, bringing a silly creature like that with you. He couldn't defend you against a blade of grass, let alone he doesn't know to be careful with the hay."

"Er," Godfrey said.

One guard came up to Varel and looked embarrassed. "Begging your pardon, ser," he said, "but what about little Gizel and her mule?" He glanced at Tilly Rutten and Godfrey Norrell, whose argument was slowly fading as they moved away, and then back at Varel. "Th' mule pissed behind the tree," he added.

"I suppose you've heard about Gorthwait," Varel said, and the guard nodded. "How many people did he bring with him here? There were two of you with the mule..."

"Yes, me and Darrel there. But it was just us and the nurse. Gorthwait was cheap, that's why he came here with the priest and the templars, didn't want to hire more men afore he'd gotten the money he was owed after Bann Esmerelle." The guard scratched the back of his neck. "Least, that's what we thought."

The templars were long gone, and the other nobles were leaving now, travelling in a group for safety. The little girl was still with her nurse inside the keep, and sending them back to Amaranthine with just these two guards for protection, on a very placid mule, would be tantamount to sending out an invitation to every bandit in the arling. Gorthwait Packton might have been too cheap to hire more guards, but his daughter's mourning clothes were worth a king's ransom, with all that lace dyed mourning grey and seed pearls stitched along every hem.

"The Vigil will send a troop of guards with you," Varel said. "Has the mule been watered? There's a stream at the end of the field."

"I'll be seeing to that," the guard said. "We'll just wait out here, then."

Varel stayed long enough to see the last of the nobles off down the road, and Gorthwait Packton's two guards seated on one of the benches. The mule grazed idly under the tree, and it all looked very idyllic, except for the crumbs. When he went back inside the walls, he met Vendel and a couple of other men in the bailey. "Seneschal." Vendel saluted. "Captain Garevel says we can bring the table and benches back inside the keep now."

Varel nodded. "Just leave the bench that Gizel Packton's guards are sitting on, for the time being." Vendel nodded, and Varel waved the men on.

When he returned to the great hall, all the crumb-covered plates and dirty glasses were gone, and Tione and another maid were busy moving the urns of greenery into places where they wouldn't actually be in the way of daily business, while a third maid walked behind them and swept the floor. There'd be leaves everywhere, Varel judged, until those thin branches wilted so much they'd have to be thrown out, but there was no denying that they brightened the place up a bit.

All the wardens had left, except for the commander, who stood at the far end of the room and listened to Garevel trying to have an argument with him. Garevel caught sight of Varel and waved him over. "Tell the commander he needs to take his guards with him when he goes to meet with members of a family that's already tried to kill him twice," he said.

"I don't think there's much left of that family to meet with," Varel said frankly. He addressed himself to his commander. "Of course, you should have guards with you when you meet the petitioners who come to ask you for guardianship of Gizel and temporary rule of Amaranthine, but I doubt any of them will be feeling very murderous, so it will mostly be for show."

"Gizel Packton and her nurse are still waiting to be dealt with," Garevel said.

"That little girl is barely two years old," the commander said. "I should think the best way to deal with her is to put her in more comfortable clothes and let her take a nap."

Varel looked at Garevel. "Do you really think the commander needs guards to see a small child?"

Garevel reddened a little, but he looked more angry than embarrassed. "That nurse of hers is apparently Gorthwait Packton's bastard half-sister. I don't know how much family feeling she has and neither do you."

"I'll go and find out for you," Varel said. "Just wait here, please, commander."

He strode off to the side room where Maverlies had taken the girl and her nurse. Just as he put his hand to the door, it opened from the inside and a maid slipped out, giving him a relieved smile. "Seneschal! I was just coming to find someone." She glanced back over her shoulder. "She's getting fairly, well, she's a bit difficult to deal with, to be honest. She's got herself all worked up and no mistake, got me a bit worried."

Varel frowned. "The child is fussing? I suppose it's been a difficult day for her."

"No, no, ser." The maid flapped her hands. "Not the child, the nurse. Thinks she's a prisoner here, she does."

"Then I'd better tell her that she's not," Varel said and walked into the room.

The child was sleeping on a couch, and the nurse standing by her side. When Varel came in, she drew herself up and turned towards him, putting herself between him and Gizel's sleeping form. "So you've come to finish it? Well, you'll have to go through me to get to this precious little dear!"

Varel looked consideringly at her. She did look a bit like Gorthwait, dark-haired and slope-shouldered. "I came to tell you that the ceremony is over," he said. "We'll be sending guards from the Vigil along to bring you and Gizel back to Amaranthine, since Gorthwait only hired the two. The other nobles have already left."

"Yes, and then you'll toss us off a cliff along the way," the nurse said bitterly. "Or lead us into a secluded clearing somewhere our bones will never be found!"

"Er, no," Varel said. The nurse was flushed, her eyes bright with combativeness and unshed tears, and he had no idea what to do with her. "You'll be back in Amaranthine in time for dinner."

"Dinner!" She tried something that might have been intended as a scornful laugh, but was cut off by a gulp and a cough. "Do you deny that you killed my brother right before my eyes? Right before the eyes of his innocent child?"

"Your brother tried to kill my commander, who is also the arl of Amaranthine and his liege lord," Varel said. "If he didn't want his child to see violence done, he shouldn't have brought her with him when he planned to pull a knife in the middle of a funeral."

"She's all that's left of the family," the nurse said, and now the tears began to spill down her face in a slow trickle. "I'll defend her to the death!"

"That won't be necessary," Varel said. "I'll have the maid bring you some water. And a basin, so you can wash your face. Just let us know when you feel ready to leave, and we'll arrange that guard for you."

Looking past the nurse, he saw that Gizel Packton was awake now, staring at him soundlessly with wide eyes. Varel felt deeply grateful that she wasn't screaming, and he hoped that she was too sleepy or too young to understand what it meant that she'd just woken up in a strange place with people talking in loud voices about violence and death. He tried the effect of a small smile, and her eyebrows twitched, as if that puzzled her.

Varel left the room again. Outside, he found the two guards, the maid, Garevel, and the commander. He looked at the maid first. "Get some tea," he said. "And a ewer of water and a basin. Then go in and sit with her again."

"Is the child upset?" the commander asked.

Varel snorted. "No. The child was the calmest person in there. The nurse thinks we're going to kill them both and bury their bones in the woods, or something like that."

"Was she violent?" Garevel leaned forward as if straining against an invisible leash.

"She's more overwrought than anything else," Varel said. "And because I'm the one who took a sword to Gorthwait, she wasn't best pleased to see me, of all people, come in to talk to her." He looked at Garevel. "Get some men ready to go back to Amaranthine with her. The mule and Packton's guards are waiting outside the walls."

"Choose some solid, dependable, friendly people," the commander said. "It's presumably far too late for the Vigil to make a good impression on that woman, but at least we can try not to make matters worse."

The maid came back with the requested ewer and basin, which Varel thought she must have purloined from a room nearby, to be that fast about it. He opened the door for her, since her hands were full, and there was a cry of "Gizel, no!" from inside. A small blur in mourning grey went past him at about knee-height.

The nurse came rushing up to the door to try to catch her charge, and barely kept from colliding with the maid. When she saw Garevel reaching for his sword, in response to the shout and the fast movement, she let out a loud wail. Varel glared at him. If there was one thing the Vigil didn't need, it was a report that their captain of the guard had drawn his weapon on a two-year-old.

Meanwhile, the commander had dropped to his knees and stretched out both arms to catch hold of Gizel Packton. She came to a halt when his hands grasped her shoulders and stood there staring at him, eyes wide and serious. Then she reached out and yanked at the copper braid falling forward over his shoulder.

"Ow," the commander said calmly. "Don't pull people's hair. You know better than that."

Gizel considered this. "Pretty," she said after a moment.

"Thank you." The commander stood up, lifting Gizel as he did, and settled her on his hip. His robes still looked immaculate, but her mourning dress was getting decidedly crumpled, and the lace along the back was beginning to sag. "All the same, don't pull people's hair."

The nurse froze in the doorway and stared fixedly at Gizel in the commander's arms. "No," she said carefully, "that's right. Don't pull people's hair." She looked as though she'd rather scream, Don't pull the arl's hair!, and Varel had to give her credit for having finally discovered a bit of restraint.

"I think you had better take her," the commander said, handing Gizel over to the nurse. Trying to, anyway, because she clung to her new playmate -- not to his hair, at least, but her hands clenched in the fabric of his robe and managed to rip loose the one ornamental ribbon sewn there.

"Gizel!" the nurse scolded as soon as she had the child in her arms. "Be careful with other people and their things! Look what you did!"

Gizel looked under her lashes and said something that sounded like, "Di'n't mean to."

"You should still apologize," the commander said, as placid as if he had his hair pulled and his robes ripped by small children every day. "It's proper to apologize for accidents you've caused, as well as harmful things you've done on purpose. And give me back that ribbon, if you please."

"No," Gizel said, clutching it. Her next few words were unintelligible, at least to Varel, who didn't spend a lot of time around small children and had very little practice in trying to understand what they said.

Whatever it was, though, it made the nurse just about flatten herself against the wall at that, clutching the little girl to her chest. "Gizel! Don't talk like that!" She stared at the commander. "I'm so sorry, m'lord! She doesn't know you're the arl!"

The commander still had his eyes on Gizel. "There's no reason why she should know. Give me the ribbon, Gizel."

"No," Gizel said again, but she sounded a lot less determined.

"Yes." Varel hadn't known the commander's voice could be so kind. The firmness was no surprise, though. "You don't pull people's hair and take their ribbons, do you?"

"Nooooo," Gizel said. She kicked out one foot, apparently just so she could look at her own booted toes. Then, without looking at the commander, she stretched out one hand and dropped the ribbon, which he caught deftly. She said something very quiet into her nurse's shoulder that might have been, "I'm sorry."

"Thank you." The commander tucked the ribbon away. Varel hadn't known the robes had pockets. "Did you get any food?" he asked. "I don't know if anyone thought to serve you."

The nurse shook her head.

"There's tea on the way," Varel said. "I'll get the maids to bring you something to eat, too, and something for the child."

"Captain Garevel," the commander said, "please assemble a suitable guard and tell them to wait in the courtyard until Lady Gizel and her attendant are ready to leave."

"Yes, commander." Garevel eyed the commander as if he wished he could call the honor guard back, but settled for looking at Varel in a meaningful way before he went off. Varel knew that the look meant Garevel had now placed the responsibility for the commander's protection in his hands. Completely unnecessary, because the commander was all too capable when it came to protecting himself, that much was clear.

And also completely unnecessary, Varel admitted to himself, because he'd do whatever it took to keep the commander safe, regardless.

"You can rest in that room for as long as you need, of course," the commander said, his eyes on Gizel rather than the nurse; she was struggling silently to get down. "Tell the maids if there's something you must have for the child's use, and let us know when the two of you are ready to leave."

"Your two guards and the mule are waiting just outside the gate," Varel added. He spotted the maid again, carrying a tray. "Just keep in mind that you want to leave early enough to get back to Amaranthine at a sensible hour. Here's your tea."

It took them an hour to get Gizel and the nurse out of the keep and on the road back to Amaranthine. By that time, the great hall was mostly restored to its old self, the pyres were beds of smoldering ashes, and the area outside the gate had been cleared of trestle tables, benches, and half-eaten pieces of bread, though the grass was still trampled and the ground scuffed up. When Gizel was put on her mule, she looked around and asked for her papa. Varel tried not to wince as she was led away, shrieking.

"That nurse is bound to tell her the wicked people of Vigil's Keep killed her papa," Garevel said darkly.

"Well, we did kill him," the commander said, watching the group of people going down the road. "And I'll apologize for that once she's old enough to understand more of it. Perhaps I can appoint a guardian for the girl who doesn't think everyone here is irredeemable."

Varel considered the distant relatives who were left on Bann Esmerelle's side, and the remains of the Packton clan. "Not a soapbubble's chance in the Void, commander, begging your pardon," he said. "Just don't let Godfrey Norrell have her."

They trudged back up to the keep, passing the fire guards, who had found a bench somewhere and were sitting and watching, though they leapt to their feet as the commander passed. He waved them down again.

The wardens had come out into the courtyard, looking considerably less neat and more relaxed as they crowded around the well, discussing some object that Sigrun had brought with her -- no, two objects, Varel saw, one of the darkspawn swords and a small, ornamental glass globe. Wade had come out from his forge to say disdainful things about the sword, and Nathaniel Howe was tossing the glass globe from hand to hand. Varel hoped he realized that if he broke it, he would be buying a new one.

Anders caught sight of them and smiled brightly. "All gone at last? Let's never do that again. Templars make the worst guests, and funerals are bad for the complexion. Not to mention getting assassinated, I hear that really ruins all your attempts at skin care."

"I shall want to talk to you all after dinner, as we leave for the Blackmarsh tomorrow morning," the commander said. He sounded more Orlesian than usual; Varel figured he had to be tired. "Until then, do try to stay out of trouble."

"You wound me," Anders said, clutching a dramatic hand to his chest. "I never get in trouble."

"Hah," Oghren said. "You just run away and leave us to deal with it. Or hide behind a pillar, the way you did that time in Kal'Hirol."

"Yes, I know, so silly of me," Anders said. "Much better to put the healer in front. I should charge in the way you do, so I could get killed first thing. I'm sure the rest of you could handle the fights just fine without me."

"Now you've upset him," Sigrun said reproachfully. "He'll never set any bushes on fire for me if he's this cranky."

The commander just shook his head and moved on, and Varel and Garevel went after him, of course. Once they were back in the great hall, the commander looked at them both. "Thank you for your service today. I believe the Vigil acquitted herself tolerably well. Captain, please inform the men that they have my gratitude and approval."

Garevel nodded. "Yes, commander. Is there anything else?"

"Not at the moment," the commander said. He turned to Varel. "Seneschal, we have some business to go over. Your office would be best."

"Of course," Varel said, pacing his stride to the commander's brisk, firm tread as they went on their way and Garevel went on his. He would follow this man to the ends of the world, Varel reflected, but all he was called on to do was follow him around the Vigil. It was a peculiar pleasure to him to see that the commander had no trouble navigating the passages and finding the shortest route to the hallway that held both their offices, passing his own door and going straight to Varel's.

Since the room got the afternoon sun, it was flooded with light and quite warm; Varel almost never bothered to have the fire lit, regardless of season or weather, though he suspected he might change his mind in the depths of winter, to drive the damp out. The commander walked into the room, went up to the table, and turned to Varel. Varel noticed that when Gizel had torn the ribbon off his robe, the seam hidden underneath had been ripped apart, just a tiny bit, and he could glimpse the commander's skin. The idea of the commander, always so neat and tidy even after hours of fighting darkspawn, being reduced to rags by a small child made Varel cough to hide a chuckle.

"I forgot to look for expensive clothes on most of them," the commander said. "Though it seems to me that little Gizel was wearing half the yearly rents of the arling."

Varel nodded. "Gorthwait must have spent every coin he had on getting that dress made, and so fast." A very rushed job, it must have been; no wonder the lace had already started to sag in places.

"And she'll have outgrown it by next year." The commander tipped his head very slightly to one side. "If the remaining smugglers had turned to Gorthwait Packton for support, they might turn to Lady Gizel's guardian next. All the more reason to appoint someone who is honest, honorable, and loyal." He watched Varel thoughtfully. "And you think such a person will be difficult to find among her remaining relatives."

"Bloody near impossible, commander, if you want my opinion." Varel shook his head. "Those families aren't known for what you might call moral rectitude. One of Bann Esmerelle's cousins talked to me at the funeral. Godfrey Norrell?"

"The one you said shouldn't have her. I assume you mean he's not a fit guardian."

Varel nodded. "I think if he had the care of Lady Gizel, she'd have an accident. But he's incompetent enough that it might not be a fatal one, at least not at first."

The commander's lips thinned. "I can safely promise you that he will not be given the opportunity to try. I must give this some more thought." He took a step closer to Varel. "In the meantime, seneschal, I would like to take the opportunity to thank you for stepping in to save my life. Again."

"There's no need to thank me for that," Varel said. "That's what I'm here for, and any soldier of the Vigil would have been happy to do the same." He looked down at the commander, who was close enough now that his lovely face was tilted up, close enough that Varel really noticed how short and slight the commander was. "Besides," he added truthfully, "near as I can tell, commander, you saved your own life. I just made Gorthwait's death happen a little faster."

"Nevertheless," the commander said, putting a hand on Varel's arm, right where the crossbow bolt had pierced him some days earlier. "I very much appreciate what you did. This was an incident that I feel calls for a reward."

Varel closed his eyes and swallowed. The hand on his arm felt like a brand. He knew how the commander had rewarded him last time. He wanted, deeply and passionately, to feel the commander's mouth on his cock again; wanted it so much, he could barely breathe.

"No," he said and took a step backwards, feeling the commander's hand slip from his arm. Varel opened his eyes. "Don't, commander." He met the commander's clear grey eyes with an effort. "You're not a reward to be handed over."

The commander blinked slowly, as if the broken eye contact gave him time to think. "I didn't say who the reward was for," he said quietly. Then he met Varel's eyes again. "If you've decided that you don't desire me after all, seneschal, of course there is nothing more to be said. I apologize. I will not touch you again."

He headed for the door, as if all their business together was done, and as if they'd had a substantial discussion which was now over. Varel silently blessed his own long legs as two strides got him to the door ahead of the commander, and he spun around and leaned back, blocking the doorknob. "Wait," he said. "Wait, please, commander. That's not what I meant."

The commander looked up at him. "Move, seneschal," he said, in a voice so cold that Varel thought he was only a breath away from being frozen where he stood.

It was time for a little Fereldan frankness.

"I want you," Varel said. "Quite a lot. But not like this, commander. I don't want it to be a reward or a, a treat for an old man. If that's what you-- If that's the only way-- We'd better just work together, then. There's no need for you to consider a reward when I'm just doing my job."

The commander looked up at him, and the icy cold warmed a tiny little bit, turned cool and analytical instead. "Why not?" he said. "If you do desire me, I see no reason why I shouldn't reward myself in a manner we both enjoy."

Varel was utterly taken aback, and glad to have the support of the door at his back. He didn't know what to say. Apparently Fereldan frankness was no match for Orlesian roundaboutation, always provided that he'd heard and understood correctly. "Reward yourself," he said weakly. "But commander, you can't mean-- I'm no one's idea of a reward."

"You have a distressing habit of underestimating yourself," the commander said. "I would say you're quite a substantial reward, Varel." His eyes were still cool, and his voice perfectly steady. "But it's for you to decide what you want. Perhaps you've decided that I'm too Orlesian for you, or too elven, or--"

"I want you," Varel said again. "You're beautiful, commander, young and beautiful and clever and charming." And as he said it, and felt again how true it was, he wondered why he was trying to talk this beautiful and charming young man out of sucking his cock, when anyone with a grain of sense would be trying to talk the commander into it. "You could have anyone you wanted."

"I thought I had made it clear, at this point, what I want. And with whom."

"Well." Varel tried to get his thoughts in order. The commander was still very close, and despite the coldness of his manner, he was more enticing than ever, particularly with that tiny rip in his robe. It was difficult for Varel to maintain his rationality. "But," he said, giving up on sense and simply asking for what he wanted, "will you let me touch you in return, then?"

Because he did want that, wanted it very much. To see the commander's body bared for him to touch and taste, to suck him into the same dizzy pleasure that he'd given Varel.

To kiss him. That seemed like such a small thing, and at the same time, it loomed huge and inconceivable, something that could never be between them.

The commander took a small step back, and the temperature in the room dropped. "No," he said, and his voice was so flat that for the first time, Varel really did hear an echo of Edwer's Tranquil tone. "That would not be convenient."

"I see," he said, shaking his head ruefully. He should have known. This wasn't about the commander's desires at all. Or rather, it was about the commander's lack of desire. "I'm too Fereldan for you, then. Too human." And too old and too ugly, very likely, to get to kiss and caress this exquisite being. Oh, he really should have known. The commander might talk about rewards, might pretend that he truly wanted to put his mouth on Varel's cock as much as Varel wanted to feel it there, but if he didn't want to be touched himself, Varel could only take that to mean that the commander's body would betray his lack of physical interest in the proceedings.

"That's not it," the commander said. "You're free to reject my offer of what we both want, but--" For the first time in Varel's memory, the commander left a sentence unfinished only to rush on to the next one. "And of course you're free to construe my reasons as you like, even if you are in error. Now, seneschal, please let me out of the room."

"Yes, of course." Varel stopped leaning on the door, even though it felt like the only thing keeping him upright, and stepped aside. To block the commander's way with his own body seemed like a childish thing to do, an impulse he regretted. His size had been to his advantage many times, but it would be shameful for him to use that advantage here. "I wish you would tell me your reasons, though."

Because he didn't know what the commander thought, or why the commander said Varel was wrong for thinking what he did, and for two people who had only recently started to go beyond what could be considered professional interaction, they'd managed to get themselves into a fine tangle in a short time.

The commander looked up, hand stilling in the act of reaching for the doorknob. "I can't," he said. The words were as coldly spoken as everything else the commander had said, but they felt raw for all that.

Varel nodded. "Because you don't trust me." And perhaps that was what the commander couldn't say to him, and why the commander didn't want to be touched. Perhaps this was more important than looks or age or nationality. "I should have known, commander. When you thought I had written lies about you to the chantry. But I don't understand why." He was well away from the door now, and it was the commander's own choice to stay and listen to him. "If there's anything I've done to make you doubt my loyalty, either to the Vigil or to you personally, I wish you'd let me know what it is."

That was far more important than any touching between them, any questions about whose mouth would go where. Varel couldn't bear the thought that the commander might find him untrustworthy.

"No," the commander said. He turned, and now they had changed places, the commander with his back against the door and Varel inside the room. "You've given me no reason to doubt your integrity. You may be the most honest and honorable man I know, Varel." Back to his name again, not his title, and Varel knew it shouldn't matter, but he felt a little warmer inside. He thought the commander's voice was warmer, too. A little. "I apologize again for the misunderstanding, and for what must have seemed to you like an unwarranted leap to unlikely conclusions."

"I just couldn't understand it," Varel said. "I still can't. I thought, after what you told me that day, that you'd come to trust me at least a little." Which was only right and proper, because an arl should be able to have complete faith in his seneschal. "Did you regret what you'd said to me?"

"In a way," the commander said. "Normally, I prefer not to share any personal information. It surprised me that I confided in you so easily. Perhaps it's in your nature to invite confidences, but it's not in mine to give them."

Varel couldn't keep a corner of his mouth from turning up at that. "I had noticed, commander."

"I did not expect myself to tell you about my near-miss with Tranquility." The commander looked down, lashes like dark copper fans against his cheeks, but then he met Varel's eyes again. "When I found that you were writing to the chantry so soon afterwards, I could not stop myself from thinking that you had decided to use my words against me. I knew that there were other reasons for you to need to send a letter to the chantry, and that I should be able to trust you. But I trusted my fellow apprentices in the circle, and I foolishly trusted the templars to be reasonable."

And that had not gone well, Varel realized. Trust in these matters led to betrayal. The commander had opened up a little, and expected to be betrayed as a result.

"I would never do that to you, commander," he said. "And I would rather have your trust than anything else." He looked at the commander and tried to see beyond all those irresistible little details, the long lashes, the inviting curve of the mouth. The ripped robe, the neat braid slightly disarranged by Gizel's yanking fingers. The startling beauty, which was difficult not to see.

The robe showed the commander to be a mage; the pointed ears and other features showed him to be an elf. Varel looked again. He saw a tired young man, seemingly more worn out by this day at the Vigil than he'd be by an afternoon hunting darkspawn through the woods. The commander stood straight-backed and determined for all that, and his steady gaze on Varel did not hesitate. "I'm taking the wardens to the Blackmarsh tomorrow," he said, in such an abrupt change of subject that Varel had to repeat the words to himself silently to be sure he had them right.

"Yes, commander, so I've been given to understand," he said. He half-sat on the edge of the table, even though it wasn't the polite thing to do in the company of his arl, because the difference in height between them was beginning to wear on him.

"Aura is right." The commander seemingly shouldered yet another invisible burden, and stood all the straighter for it. "I must find out what has happened to Kristoff, and why he thought the Blackmarsh so important."

"They say it's an eerie place," Varel offered. "He could have heard all manner of stories about it from the soldiers, but I've no more idea than you do why he decided to go there."

"When I come back," and the commander's eyes on him were not cold, now, but something else that Varel could hardly name, "we will talk about this. You're right to ask, but I can't bring myself to answer you now, Varel. Give me some days to gather my courage."

"I'll give you anything you want," Varel said, startled. And he certainly would never have described the commander as lacking in courage. "Commander, you don't-- You don't owe me anything. You can keep all your private business private, and I'll try not to get involved in what's nothing to do with me."

"It's too late for that now," the commander said in a matter-of-fact tone of voice. "I'm making myself your business, Varel. I would like to have considerably to do with you, if you'll have me."

"Yes," Varel said. There was no thought involved in that spontaneous answer, but when he did pause to consider what he had just said, he couldn't imagine answering no. He wasn't entirely sure what he had just said yes to, and he knew that involving himself with his commander was a great folly, besides the fact that involving himself with someone so beautiful and young was likely something he'd come to regret in a very short time. And still. "Yes."

"Please don't move," the commander said, taking a step closer. He braced his hand on the table, close to where Varel was gripping the edge of it, and leaned in, rising on his toes, to brush his lips against Varel's mouth.

Varel didn't let go of the table to take the commander in his arms and crush him close and kiss him breathless, much as he wanted to. He clenched his fingers on the table's edge, hard, and hoped it was more durable than the stair railing down in the bailey. All he let himself do was answer that soft kiss, giving back gentle pressure for gentle pressure.

The commander drew back enough to look at him. Varel met that steady gaze with his own. Then the commander kissed him again, more firmly. No parts of their bodies were touching except for their mouths, and that touch was so sweet and so hot, Varel felt dizzy with it. The commander's mouth was nothing like ice. This kiss was slow and lingering, and it tasted like a promise. Varel was old enough to know that promises in kisses might never be redeemed, but he also knew that what he himself was promising, vowing, swearing with every soft, clinging caress, he was also ready to fulfil whenever the commander wanted.

The kiss ended, and the sound of the commander's bootheels settling down on the floor again seemed unnaturally loud.

"When I come back," the commander said, "we will have a great deal to discuss." He sounded as cool and collected as ever, but his lips were a tiny bit redder. Varel wanted to kiss him again. He wanted to strip away those tiresome robes, comb out that braid with his fingers, have the commander naked and untidy in his arms.

"Yes," he said again, keeping his hands on the table. "I look forward to that discussion, commander." And he could have used some ice now. His body was slow to kindle, but he felt the rising heat, for all that. Varel cleared his throat. "How long do you anticipate being gone? I'll speak to Mistress Hansa about getting provisions ready."

"About a week," the commander said, "or a little more than that, depending on what we find and the state of the roads. Nathaniel says he can hunt for fresh meat, but it would be preferrable to eat something in addition to skewered rabbit."

"Mistress Hansa would agree with you there," Varel said. She wouldn't be able to keep the commander fed to her satisfaction while he was away, but she'd do her best, and Varel wouldn't put it past her to include some items marked FOR THE COMMANDER ONLY. Not that that would stop Oghren from eating them. "I'll speak to her," he said again.

"Good." The commander nodded, once. "Let her know we leave tomorrow after breakfast." He gave Varel another slow, thoughtful look, and while it wasn't warm, neither was it cold.

Then he left the room, and Varel drew a deep breath and straightened up where he sat, because he would not sag down and give in to daydreams. He had work to do. Varel got to his feet and looked over the table that served him as a desk, and saw nothing that was in need of immediate attention. He rolled his shoulders, settling himself back into the usual order of things, or trying to, and headed out himself, taking the stairs and turns that led down towards the kitchen.

With every step, he remembered the commander's mouth, until he had to stop and shake himself lest he tumble headlong down the narrow staircase. He could not indulge in that memory now, as sweet as it was. He could not walk into Mistress Hansa's kitchen as dizzy with kisses as a boy after his first grown-up harvest fair. Varel pinched the back of his hand. This was not at all suitable for the seneschal of Vigil's Keep.

When he stepped into the kitchen and Hansa caught sight of him, she came towards him with a raised ladle in her hand. "Those templars!" she said, looking as if she were about to smack him. "You never told me we'd have templars to deal with!"

"I didn't know," Varel said with a wary eye on the ladle. "None of us were expecting the templars."

"Hmph." Hansa wasn't mollified by that. "Bad enough that I suddenly had to feed ten more people on short notice. Those templars ate everything we had and asked for more. I was going to make a cheese pie with the leftovers. Leftovers! Hah!"

She went on like that for quite a while, and Varel nodded and shook his head and made listening noises where it seemed appropriate. Hansa was a very good cook, and she also had an ability to adapt and improvise that had let her handle this situation with comparative ease. If she felt the need to rant a bit about it afterwards, well, it was no hardship for Varel to listen.

When she wound down a bit, he said, "Thank you for the work you did." She huffed, but he could tell she was pleased. "Now, the wardens are going to the Blackmarsh tomorrow, and they'll need to bring rations for their trip. They'll hunt for meat, but they need other things to eat, too."

"They're leaving tomorrow?" Hansa sucked in air between her teeth. "As if I didn't have enough to do here, with everything that's gone on today! The commander's a nice boy, yes, but he can be downright thoughtless at times, and you're welcome to tell him I said that! How long will they be gone?"

Varel considered the probabilities. "The commander says not much more than a week, but my guess is at least ten days. Ordinary soldiers' rations would do, I'd think, but if you want to send along something else, they're not likely to say no."

"Ten days." Hansa looked exasperated. "I suppose they're leaving at dawn, at that."

"No, after breakfast," Varel said. "You don't think they'd set out without one of your good breakfasts, do you?"

"That's a little better," she said grudgingly, and spun around on her heel. "Lebbeth, fire up that oven again! We've baking to do. And me in the middle of dinner preparations."

"I'll just leave you to your work, then," Varel said.

"Soldiers' rations," Hansa muttered. "I'm not feeding our arl ordinary soldiers' rations." She sniffed. "He won't eat them. Last time he went out with them other wardens, I swear he lost weight. And that Oghren came back fatter, I don't know how he does it."

Varel was beginning to think that his fanciful idea of separately labelled food for the commander might not have been so fanciful after all. He backed up slowly until he could slip out the door without being noticed, then walked slowly towards the great hall, turning the day's events over in his head as he went, and wondering what he might have forgotten.

The great hall looked tidy enough, although the leaves on the green branches were beginning to wilt already. Sigrun lay on her belly on the dais, to one side of the throne, and read a book, chuckling to herself. The position didn't look that comfortable to Varel, but she seemed happy enough. Oghren wasn't there, for once, but Nathaniel Howe and Anders had found the chessboard and were setting out the pieces. "You're doing that wrong," Nathaniel said. "The rooks go here--"

"That's not how we played in the circle," Anders said.

"It's chess," Nathaniel said. "It doesn't have different rules depending on where you are!"

"Of course it does," Anders said. "Everything has different rules depending on where you are. Or depending on who you are. Isn't that right, seneschal?"

Varel lifted his hands in a warding-off gesture. "I never really learned to play chess, myself," he said.

Sigrun rolled off the dais with a thump. "Ooh, I know this game," she said. "My friend Varlan taught me. But we only had rocks with marks scratched in them. Is this what the pieces really look like? They're so cute!" She picked one up and cooed at it.

"I don't suppose you want to play with me," Nathaniel said.

"Say you will," Anders said. "Our little Nathaniel needs someone to play with." He'd kept his eyes on Varel, and now he went on, "And what manly feats of derring-do are you off to perform now, seneschal? You already took care of your daily deed of saving the commander from an assassin, after all."

"That was great!" Sigrun said. "It looked like you'd practiced it, the two of you." She wrinkled her brow. "Did you practice it? You never come to the training yard with us."

"No," Varel said. "I was just lucky to be close enough to do something, but the commander would have been fine without my help. And it was my fault, since I'd just let Gorthwait Packton in through the gate."

"I don't think it can be called your fault that he was mad enough to try to assassinate the arl of Amaranthine in front of half the nobility of the arling, the arl's honor guard, ten templars, a priest, and his own baby daughter." Anders shook his head. "And a bunch of Grey Wardens who just stood around and looked useless, while our heroic seneschal Varel swung his mighty sword. Too bad you couldn't accidentally hit some of the templars while you were at it."

"Wow." Sigrun set the chesspiece down on the board again with a click. She looked at Anders. "It really annoys you that we didn't get to help Elyon, doesn't it? Don't tease the seneschal just because he has a bigger sword than you and knows what to do with it."

There was a brief pause.

"You did that on purpose!" Anders said accusingly. "You're trying to distract me from feeling guilty by impugning my manhood. Besides," he added, "I'm pretty sure my staff is longer than his sword."

Varel shook his head. "This is worse than the soldier barracks on payday," he said.

"You could always measure them and see," Sigrun suggested.

"No," Varel said firmly. "There will be no measuring."

"At least that's something to be grateful for," Nathaniel Howe said. "Sigrun, do you want to play or not? If you don't, I'll put the board away again."

"Because you don't want to play with the mage," Anders said. "This is just another instance of blatant discrimination against those of us who were born with magic."

"Yes," Nathaniel said, "or it could be that I don't want to play against people who want to make up their own rules as they go along and say they always did it that way in the circle. You did that the other night when you were playing cards with Oghren, too."

"Oh, fine." Anders hitched himself up to sit on the edge of the dais and picked up Sigrun's discarded book. "I didn't really want to play anyway. I'll just sit here and brood and pretend to be you."

Varel was very grateful that he wasn't the one who had to deal with the wardens on a daily basis. He didn't know how the commander managed it. If they'd been recruits of his, he suspected he'd have set them to hard physical training just to make them too tired and out of breath to talk. He left them to their chess-playing, or possibly just more squabbling, and went out to see if the pyres had burned down yet.

The inner courtyard was busy, with customers at every shop and people standing around and talking in little groups. Varel walked slowly across the stones, trying to listen to everyone without looking at anyone. It sounded to him as though the story on everybody's lips was the assassination attempt on the commander during the funeral, which was really no surprise. The funeral would have been gossip-fodder for days just by itself, and the added drama of Gorthwait Packton's desperate and ultimately futile attempt on the commander's life had ensured that no one would be talking about anything else for weeks, instead.

People were giving Varel little sidelong glances, too, presumably because they knew he'd been right there and seen it all as it happened. But it wasn't until he reached the inner gate that someone came up to him and asked directly, "So is it true?"

It was Voldrik Glavonak, with stone dust on the knees of his trousers and a sheaf of architectural plans tucked under his arm. Varel stopped to talk to him. "I'd say that depends on what you've heard."

"My brother was looking out the window of that new workshop of his. He says one of the humans who came to the funeral went crazy, but you cut him down before he could lay a finger on the commander. Good work, I say."

"It wasn't quite like that," Varel said. "One of the men who came here went after the commander with a knife because his wife was one of the conspirators who died. The commander froze him with an ice spell."

"Huh." Voldrik Glavonak rubbed at his chin. "And that brother of mine just imagined you and your sword, did he? Because that's not what it sounded like to me."

"No, I was there," Varel said. "And so was my sword. But that man wouldn't have been able to lay a finger on the commander in any case."

"The commander's a lot tougher than he looks, I'll give him that," Voldrik said. "Good thing, too. Listen, seneschal, my men and I are nearly done with the repairs to the walls that we were contracted for, and fixing up the sides of that platform out there won't take long. But take a look at this." He nodded Varel over to where one lone block of granite still stood, apparently doing duty as a table, and spread the plans out on top of it.

These were Voldrik's own plans, Varel saw, drawn up by the dwarf while he worked and adjusted to show where repairs had been made and reinforcements added. "Have you sketched out the deep cellars as well?" Varel asked. "We could use a copy of that here."

"Yes, but never mind the cellars now," Voldrik said, stabbing a stubby finger at a part of the drawing. "Look here. This wall is like a surfacer joke -- you people are much too fond of using wood, up here. It's like you never even noticed that it rots after a few centuries. And having a wall with a lot of wood mixed in is just asking for someone to set it on fire. You know what the darkspawn are like."

At this point, sadly, Varel knew a great deal more about what the darkspawn were like than he'd ever imagined he would. Their fondness for setting things on fire was only one part of it. "You want to replace all of this with stone," he said. "Do we even have that much stone?"

"We can get it easily enough, if there's money for it," Voldrik said. "And if you let me build this right, the way dwarves would have built it to start with, an ogre could throw himself at the wall for days and it wouldn't budge."

"Hmm," Varel said. He studied the drawing, then went over to the gate and stepped through it so he could look from the outside, comparing the wall on paper with the wall in reality. Then he checked the inside again, and then the drawing. "Won't that block the steps up to the guard tower post?"

"We'll set new steps along the edge here," Voldrik said. "And this'll make sure the guards in the tower don't fall down on the heads of the enemy."

Varel nodded. He could definitely see the advantages of that, and while he didn't expect ogres to come and throw themselves at the wall in question in any quantity, he also knew that with the amount of darkspawn they were seeing in the arling, anything could happen. At least they were safe from being attacked from the inside, for the time being. "So you need more stone for this?" he asked. "Or more money?"

"Both," Voldrik said bluntly. He held up a hand before Varel could speak. "I added in the work on the platform for free, but this is a different matter. The 'spawn are out there and we both know it. These walls were built to stop human armies. You need a little bit extra to make the Vigil safe against those beasties. Another twenty sovereigns, and I can make a wall that darkspawn claws would shatter against."

Varel did some hasty calculations in his head. "I don't carry that kind of money on me," he said. He didn't think anyone did, really. It wasn't pocket change. "Why don't you come with me up to see Mistress Woolsey, and we'll see how much we can get you."

"Her," Voldrik snorted. "I'd have better luck getting money out of this stone right here."

"Just wait here while I check on a few things," Varel said. "I'll be back in a moment."

He went through the inner gate and looked down into the bailey. The pyres had burned out, and some men were busy shovelling the ashes into buckets and carrying them away. Varel didn't know where, and he didn't really care, as long as it was well away from him. Maverlies stood down there, pointing and directing, and he trusted her arrangements. Next to her was Samuel, with a wheelbarrow full of neatly cut squares of turf. Varel nodded. That burned and ashy ground would be cleaned up and covered over by next time he saw it, and while it wouldn't look untouched, neither would it be a big blackened eyesore.

Mistress Woolsey hadn't been at the funeral. In fact, he hadn't seen her for a couple of days, since he'd talked to her about finding a housekeeper for the Vigil. She hadn't been at meals, nor had he heard the brisk clatter of her shoes along the hallways. Varel frowned and turned back to the courtyard.

"It's about time for dinner," Voldrik said. "I'll come in with you, and we can talk to the mistress of the moneybags after we're fed."

"Yes," Varel said slowly. He went inside next to Voldrik, and going through the great hall, they acquired the company of Sigrun, Anders, and Nathaniel Howe.

Anders still carried the book in one hand, and was trying to talk to Sigrun about it. "But this is pornography," he said. "I didn't think nice dwarven girls read stuff like this."

Sigrun looked more amused than anything. "Before I left the Deep Roads, I'd only read one book in my life," she said. "I'm going to read everything on those shelves back there. Well, maybe not the one that's just mabari breeding records."

"I don't think you should let your innocent mind be corrupted by a thing like this," Anders said. "There's no telling what kind of damage it could do to you. Better let me keep it."

Sigrun chuckled. "You're reading the bit with the lady of the house and the bodyguards, aren't you?"

"But that's the Tale of Three Castles!" Nathaniel Howe said. "It's a classic! People have been reading it for generations!"

"I can't say I'm surprised," Anders said. "This is the Tale of Three Castles? Best argument for literacy that I've seen in a long time. Is there an illustrated edition?"

They weren't the only ones heading for the dining hall; as they got closer, they fell in with a larger group, and all went in and seated themselves together. Dinner was a thick soup of sausage and onion and barley and a couple of things Varel couldn't identify, at least not when they'd been thoroughy boiled. There was plenty of bread to go with the soup, and crumbs went flying as the wardens went on arguing about literature all through the meal.

Woolsey didn't come in while Varel was there, and neither did the commander. He was starting to feel a little concerned, although Woolsey was certainly a woman who was well able to take care of herself. When he finished his bowl of soup, he sat back in his chair and waited for Voldrik to be done. He let his eyes run over the people who were present, checking them against an invisible tally in his head, staff and soldiers, wardens and workers. Dworkin Glavonak and his apprentices, all of whom still seemed to have the requisite number of limbs and appendages. Maverlies, and the men with her, who'd scrubbed the soot from their hands but were still filthy with it above the wrist, glimpsed under carelessly rolled-down shirt-sleeves. Dorith the laundress, and Varel had to remember to speak with her about whether she was interested in becoming the Vigil's new housekeeper, as Woolsey had suggested, but first he had to find Woolsey herself.

"You ready, seneschal?" Voldrik asked next to him. "Doesn't look like she's here, so I suppose we'd better go find her."

Varel nodded, and they walked out in the middle of a spirited discussion of whether Lady Lucinda's relationship with her husband was a symbolic retelling of the second Exalted March or just an excuse to write a lot of cuckolding scenes. The way Anders talked about the book, Varel was starting to get the feeling that he ought to take a look at it himself; he'd never been much for reading, not for fun, but then it had never occurred to him that there were books that were a lot more interesting than treatises on military tactics and those records of mabari breeding that Sigrun refused to touch.

Going by how worked-up Nathaniel Howe was getting, there might be a thing or two in the Howe library that warranted a second look.

Varel let Voldrik set the pace. The dwarf strode on resolutely, but his legs were so much shorter, Varel had to shorten his own stride by a fair amount. They reached Woolsey's office just as the commander came around the corner from the opposite direction. He had changed out of his torn robe, going back to his favorite grey-and-tan, and his hair was in a neatly combed-back ponytail.

"Commander," Varel said neutrally.

"You missed dinner, commander," Voldrik said. "There's probably some soup left for you, but I need to have a word first. Your seneschal's promised me more money for the walls, but your word probably carries more weight with that Mistress Woolsey of yours."

"More money?" The commander lifted one eyebrow. "I thought the eighty sovereigns were the end of it. Not to mention the granite."

"Oh, I've got everything rebuilt that Dworkin and the darkspawn made a mess of, don't you worry about that," Voldrik said. "But that wall by the gate needs some improvements, or it'll fall the first time a genlock sneezes on it. Just look here."

Voldrik still carried the plans with him, and now he spread them out against Varel's chestplate, as though Varel were a conveniently placed block of granite, and stabbed a demonstrative finger at his projected changes.

"I didn't promise you more money," Varel said. "I said we'd talk to Mistress Woolsey to see what the Vigil can afford."

Voldrik looked up at him. "If you tell me the Vigil can afford to have her soldiers torn limb from limb while she's overrun by darkspawn again, I'm not about to believe you. Look, commander," he turned his head sideways instead, "if there's one thing dwarves know, it's how to build to keep the 'spawn out. Whoever constructed that wall probably wasn't thinking it would be defended by wardens one day." He made a very dwarven noise in his throat. "Wood. Hah."

"Very likely not," the commander said. He looked up at Varel calmly. "Do you agree that this would benefit the Vigil, seneschal?"

"Yes," Varel said, because truth be told, he'd been a mite concerned about that wall for several years. Darkspawn weren't the only ones who could set fire to things, after all. "As long as we can afford it, yes."

The door to Mistress Woolsey's office opened, and she stood there looking at them with her hands on her hips. "I'd ask you to be more quiet," she said, "but you aren't disturbing my work any longer. Commander, I've finished the new payroll."

"Already?" Varel couldn't keep from exclaiming. "You must have been working day and night to manage that."

Woolsey barely even looked at him. "Yes. I apologize for not attending the funeral earlier today. I understand there was some disturbance."

"Disturbance! Hah," Voldrik said. "If that's what you call it when some half-crazed human noble draws a weapon on your commander. You're lucky he's fast with his spells and the seneschal here is fast with his sword."

"I trust you are unharmed, commander." Woolsey looked the commander up and down, as if checking for bandages.

"Entirely, yes." The commander shifted his stance fractionally, and somehow seemed to carry himself even straighter, though Varel would not have thought that to be possible. "Thank you for your extraordinarily hard work, Mistress Woolsey. Does this mean that payments to the senior keep staff and the wardens will not be suspended after all?"

She nodded. "Yes. We can proceed as before, although I will need to speak with Captain Garevel about the most convenient arrangement for paying the Vigil's soldiers."

"Excellent," the commander said. "I'm sure you can come to an agreement."

"About my money," Voldrik said. "Not to rush you or anything, but the sooner I get it, the sooner I can get to work on ogre-proofing the Vigil."

Mistress Woolsey looked unmoved. "Isn't that what you have been doing with the money we've given you already?"

"Master Voldrik wishes to improve this wall." Now it was the commander who tapped his fingers against the architectural drawings that Voldrik still held up against Varel. Since Varel was fully armored, the touch of the commander's hand wasn't anything like intimate; he could barely feel it. "Does the Vigil have twenty royals to spare for that? Sovereigns, as you call them. Otherwise, I believe you can take the money out of my personal funds, now that it isn't needed to pay the soldiers."

"As you wish, commander," Mistress Woolsey said. She looked at Voldrik. "Step into my office, and you'll get your money. I trust this will be the last of it."

"Of course," Voldrik said, rolling up the plans and tucking them under his arm again. He followed Woolsey back into the room, but Varel stayed where he was, in the hallway, looking at the commander.

"You should take Woolsey down to dinner, commander," he said. "I haven't seen her in days. She's probably been working so hard, she's forgotten to eat properly."

The commander's eyes gleamed with something that Varel was learning to interpret as amusement. "Very subtle, Varel," he said. The faint Orlesian burr in his voice came through when he said Varel's name, with the emphasis ever so slightly on the second syllable rather than the first. "But you're probably right about Mistress Woolsey. I'll accompany her down to the dining hall, and we will both get dinner."

"Very good, commander," Varel said, trying for something of the commander's own matter-of-fact tone.

Woolsey and Voldrik came out again, Voldrik jingling a coin purse and looking very pleased with himself. The commander took Woolsey with him towards the dining hall, talking about the payroll as they went; she countered with the question of repaying the crown for what Rullens had embezzled, over what time period this might be done, and where the money would come from. Although Varel was quite interested in that subject, too, he walked with Voldrik back to the courtyard instead, and then continued down into the bailey, resuming his interrupted tour around the outside of the Vigil.

The wheelbarrow full of cut-up turf stood abandoned next to the fire-scarred ground that marked the place where the burned-out pyres had been. Varel was pleased to see that most of the ashes were gone now, and when the men went back to work tomorrow, it wouldn't take them long to restore the ground.

He went down and looked outside the outer gate again, though he didn't expect anything to have changed since earlier in the afternoon. The grass was still flattened, and the legs of the trestle table and benches had left marks in the ground, but some good solid rain would erase most traces of how the area here had been used.

Varel frowned thoughtfully. Of course, they really had to get that hay in before any of the good solid rain came along. He didn't know why the haystack had been left for so long. The fields nearest to the Vigil were normally farmed by people coming up from the riverside settlements -- the same people who hadn't been by to deliver any fish to Mistress Hansa, the same people Samuel said had quarrelled with Rendon Howe. It would seem as if he needed to go down that way to find out what was going on.

Turning back, Varel strolled slowly across the bailey and up the wooden steps to the platform by the inner gate, pausing halfway to inspect the cracked railing. It wobbled when he touched it, and he thought it was fortunate that none of the people who'd come for the funeral had leaned too heavily on it and pitched sideways as a result. The Vigil really needed a carpenter, but unless one could be found very shortly, someone who at least knew a carpentry hammer from a warhammer would have to mend the railing.

Back in the courtyard, he turned right, and went into the soldiers' yard, where some of the men were strolling about after dinner, or sitting on the benches that had been outside the outer wall this morning, now arranged along the side of the officers' quarters to catch the last of the sun. Varel nodded to them as he passed, taking a turn into the kitchen garden to make sure the celeriac wasn't staging a revolt. Then he went back and tracked down Garevel, and they spent the evening talking over the day's events.

Garevel was mostly concerned with how to improve security for the Vigil, and what he could have done to avoid the situation with Gorthwait Packton. Varel was only too happy to discuss that, because the question of how to keep the commander safe from assassins was starting to weigh rather heavily on his mind. He knew, rationally, that Gorthwait's attack hadn't been a continuation of the nobles' conspiracy, but only the result of a man losing all common sense when he lost his wife, but at the same time, Varel also knew that just assuming the commander was safe now was to invite trouble.

The commander did enough to court trouble on his own initiative, after all. They could at least try to protect him from dangers he hadn't actively invited.

The events of the day had given them a great deal to talk over. Varel wanted to know how the gossip went among the soldiers, too, so they sat outside for as long as the late-summer mosquitoes would let them, and Varel listened as much as he talked, though he mostly just heard stray phrases commenting on how annoying the templars had been.

"They're all very impressed with you," Garevel said. "There's a lot of them want you to teach them how to be that fast with a two-hander."

Varel shrugged. "Practice," he said. "I can't teach that. They just have to keep doing it."

When the air grew too cool and the mosquitoes too friendly, they moved inside, and Garevel sent one of the soldiers around to the kitchen for a pot of tea. They didn't sit up late, though. As soon as Varel had finished his second mug of tea, he said good night, and went back to the keep, glancing up on the way to see that the night was clear and the stars were out. So the haystack wouldn't rain away before morning.

No one stopped him to talk on his way back to his room, and he purposefully avoided the great hall, knowing the wardens would likely be there. Varel wanted some time to himself. He went to bed, because he might as well, and lay there stretched out with his arms folded under his head, staring at the ceiling and thinking about the commander.

The commander had kissed him. The commander seemed to want him.

Varel would have liked to be rational about that, considering the situation from all angles, thinking about whether it was really likely, and whether it was really a good idea. But he couldn't think past the memory of the commander's mouth, those soft lips against his own. The scent of the commander's hair.

Staring at the ceiling became staring at the insides of his eyelids, and he fell asleep bemused but happy.
14
He woke up early out of a dream that involved the commander and those sweet little noises; his hand was already on his cock and he was stroking himself, dream morphing into fantasy as he imagined what other noises the commander might make. When Varel came it was sharp and sudden, and he lay in his bed feeling both satisfied and oddly empty. Varel got up and cleaned himself off, but only cursorily, since he was planning to wash up more thoroughly after the morning drill. He dressed and armored himself with the ease of long practice and went out to the soldiers' yard, where he took his usual place at the back.

The soldiers kept looking sidelong at him, particularly the younger, newer ones, and while they didn't shove him towards the front, they definitely left the way open for him. Varel stayed where he was.

The familiar movements limbered him up, and he felt comfortable and warm in his skin by the time Garevel said, "Let's have some demonstration bouts, show you lot the proper use of a two-hander. Varel, if you don't mind, come up here."

Varel glared a bit, but he came up and fought two easy bouts, one against a new recruit with dual weapons, who was much too used to relying on being faster than his opponents, and one against Vendel, who wielded a very energetic sword and shield, but lacked precision. Then he looked at Garevel and mouthed, "Breakfast."

"Last bout!" Garevel said. "Let me show you how it's done."

So Varel found himself facing Garevel in the cleared space in the middle of the yard, with all the soldiers watching. He eyed his old friend with a certain measure of annoyance; Garevel just grinned and attacked, swinging low.

Garevel was a good, solid fighter, very strong. Varel wondered, as he sidestepped that first quick rush, if it would be better for the soldiers' morale to have Garevel come out of this bout with a clear victory. Garevel was the one who taught them and presumably the one they looked to for an example.

But perhaps Varel didn't have the skill to arrange his own careful loss, or perhaps it just wasn't in him to fight so deceitfully. Whatever the truth of it, they fought long and hard, Garevel's forceful swings against Varel's strength, Garevel's energy and determination against Varel's quickness and the greater reach his height gave him.

Garevel was good, and he definitely deserved his position as captain of the guard on fighting ability alone, though that wasn't why he was the one in command; he was where he was because he could organize and lead as well as fight. Varel had been guard captain long before, and some of the oldest soldiers likely remembered that. Back then, he had been confident of his ability to outfight any man under his command, but this was many years later and Garevel was young and strong, an opponent that would make anyone think twice.

In the end, they didn't stop because either of them won, but because the soldiers around them drew back to provide a clear path for the commander and his wardens, marching up to stand at the very edge of the practice space they fought in. Varel and Garevel glanced at each other and lowered their weapons.

"Good morning, commander," Garevel said, more than a little out of breath. He returned his sword to its usual place on his back and stood with his legs spread wide, chest heaving. "We're demonstrating fighting techniques, and how men with two-handers can face off against each other."

"So I see," the commander said. "You're setting a good example for the soldiers of the Vigil. But I think your men could use some breakfast now, and I want a word with you and Varel before I leave."

Garevel clapped his hands. "You heard the commander!" He turned back to the commander and the wardens as the men began to disperse. "I could send a company along with you to the Blackmarsh, commander."

The commander shook his head. "This is warden business."

Oghren cackled. "'Sides, they wouldn't last long," he said. He gave them both a considering look. "The two of you aren't bad, though." Walking up to Varel, he said, "Hey, can I look at that sword of yours?"

"No," the commander said just as Varel set it point-first in front of Oghren. It was longer than the dwarf was tall. "We're on our way, Oghren. Perhaps you'd all better wait for me at the gate."

"Sheesh, there's no need to get your magical smallclothes in a twist," Oghren grumbled. "All right, then. But I'll want a proper look when we get back," he added, looking up at Varel. "This is a good weapon."

"Yes, it is," Varel agreed, his hand cradling the familiar long hilt as he held the sword steady, watching the wardens move away in an untidy, chattering group.

The commander looked at Garevel and Varel. "Varel and I spoke earlier about beginning an investigation into what happened to the men of the Vigil who went to Highever," he said, and Varel nodded. "Do it. Carefully. And Captain Garevel, thank you for suggesting the names of those Varel will talk to."

"Best of luck in the Blackmarsh, commander," Varel said.

"Be careful," Garevel added, brows drawing together. "Lots of rumors of darkspawn in that area, and Kristoff never came back. If you took some--"

"No, captain," the commander said firmly. "We'll be back in a week, ten days at most." He didn't say anything else, but his eyes met Varel's for a moment before he turned and walked away. Varel was glad he had the sword to steady himself against. That swift look was anything but cold.

"I'll go in and get cleaned up," he said to Garevel. "That was a good bout."

Garevel nodded. "We should do that more often," he said. "I don't get enough of a challenge, training this lot up. They've a long way to go before they're anywhere near your level."

Varel stopped by the bathing room to scrub up, though he didn't take the time for a full bath; the water was cold at this hour, anyway. He put on a clean shirt under the armor and went to get himself some breakfast, turning over in his mind all the things he had to do before the commander and his wardens came back again. Varel knew he had to keep his thoughts on the work in front of him. What would happen when the commander came back again... well, he couldn't know that, but he could certainly waste a lot of time thinking about it.

Breakfast was plain porridge, and Varel suspected that Hansa was still annoyed with him because of the templar situation the day before, so he didn't go into the kitchen to see if he could get anything on top of his porridge to make it less plain. It wasn't until he was nearly finished with his bowl that Lebbeth came into the dining hall, caught sight of him and hurried over. "Mistress Hansa meant this for you!" he said, plunking down a small bowl of sugar-dusted apple slices by Varel's elbow. "For saving the commander yesterday."

"I didn't--" Varel sighed, but not very loudly. "Thank you."

He was about to start in on this unexpected breakfast-time dessert when he caught sight of Dorith the laundress. Varel picked the bowl up and went to join her.

"Good morning," she said uncertainly.

"Morning." Varel offered her some apple slices, but she shook her head. "I was talking to Mistress Woolsey the other day about how the Vigil needs a proper housekeeper, and your name came up. Would you be interested in taking over the position, if one of your laundrymaids is ready to become head laundress in your place?"

"Me?" Dorith went wide-eyed. "But, I mean, I never thought..." She drew a deep breath and visibly collected herself. "It's an honor to be asked," she said, "but I never thought of it actually happening. I like it better where I am. Ser. The younger girls aren't ready, neither."

"I see." Varel took an apple slice for himself. "The Vigil does need a housekeeper. Seems there's no one in the keep who can take over after Mistress Davila."

"Well, there's my sister," Dorith said hesitantly. "She -- she's not a lady, not like Mistress Davila was, but she's been housekeeper to a family in Highever, only they lost so much in the Blight, they couldn't keep her on, so now she's in Amaranthine, mending people's linens and trying to find summat better."

"Give me her name and direction," Varel said, "and I'll talk to her."

Dorith nodded. "She's never worked in a place this big," she said. "But she's a hard worker and she's honest and careful."

Any careful and hard-working sister of Dorith's had to be an improvement over their present situation, Varel thought. And if she'd worked as a housekeeper before, even in a smaller home, she'd be nice enough in her speech and habits. The Vigil needed a hard worker more than it needed a proper lady. The keep wasn't ruled by a noble family any more, and the wardens valued industry over refinement, or so it seemed to Varel. He wanted the best for the Vigil, always, and he wanted her to run smoothly and well for the wardens. For the commander.

Varel went on talking to Dorith while he finished his apples, getting to hear a bit more about her sister, as well as finding out how things were with the laundry staff. After a while, she relaxed enough to tell him that they might need to take on additional staff for the heavy laundry days, when all the soldiers turned in their dirty socks at once, or when everyone in the keep needed clean sheets. "Don't you get people in from the village down the river?" Varel said.

"Yes," Dorith said, "but no one's been by from there for a while."

Varel frowned. Here was yet another matter where the river farmers' absence was felt. No one had been by to deliver fish; no one had been by to earn coin by helping to wash sheets. He really had to get down there himself to find out what had happened. He could do that on the way to Amaranthine to talk to Dorith's sister. Maybe he'd better do those things first, and start talking to the soldiers Garevel had named for him once he got back. But if he went to Amaranthine, he ought to look into the matter of a carpenter, too.

He put his empty bowls away and took his leave of Dorith, and strode off, heading out of the keep. The great hall, when he passed through it, seemed very empty and quiet without the wardens there. Anders's cat was curled up on the throne, asleep. Varel chuckled and left it there.

Outside, everything looked to be in order. Voldrik was giving orders to a group of workers about what type of stone blocks he needed for the wall improvements; Varel was happy to see that the dwarf wasn't wasting any time in getting the work started. It was a clear day, with small clouds moving fast across the sky, though down on the ground there was only a gentle breeze to be felt.

Varel went into the soldiers' yard and hunted down Garevel, who was in his office, swearing over the old muster rolls. "I thought you'd stopped using those," Varel said. "Now that Woolsey's made a new payroll, you don't need them, do you?"

"I'd like to have a correct list of the soldiers under my command," Garevel snarled. "For my own use. What do you want?"

"I'm going down to the river farmers, and then into Amaranthine," Varel said. "I'll come back tomorrow."

Garevel straightened up. "I'll have some men ready to go with you," he said. "You shouldn't go alone."

"I'm not the commander," Varel pointed out. "I don't need--"

"No, you're not the commander, but I'm the one who'd have to explain it to the commander if you ended up dead on the road," Garevel said. "A group of soldiers is less likely to be attacked than a lone traveler, you know that."

"I'll be staying there overnight," Varel said. "Two nights, most probably. I can't afford to pay for rooms for a bunch of soldiers." That wasn't entirely true. He probably could afford it, but it wasn't how he'd choose to spend his money.

"Tell them to bunk in with the city guards," Garevel said. "Aidan owes us a favor. Just make it clear he doesn't have to make room for you in the guards' dormitory, if you want something fancier for yourself."

"All right," Varel said. "Have them wait for me down by the front gate. I just need to have a word with Samuel before I leave."

Varel checked the kitchen garden, but it was empty, so he went into the bailey, where Samuel was working with the men from yesterday to spread out the pieces of turf from the wheelbarrow onto the scorched ground where the pyres had been. Varel went over and tapped Samuel on the shoulder, and Samuel backed away, waving at the men to keep working. "What can I do for you, seneschal?" he asked with a grin.

"I was hoping you remembered the name of the carpentry workshop that the Vigil's old carpenter came from," Varel said. "I'm going into Amaranthine today, and the Vigil does need a new carpenter."

"She sure does," the groundskeeper agreed. "I've been trying to fix things up, best I can, but there's plenty of stuff needs more than just a couple of nails and hoping for the best."

"Yes," Varel said, without looking back over his shoulder at the broken railing. "The workshop?"

"Dimber and Sons," Samuel said promptly. "Ol' Dimber, now, she died not that long ago, but they kept the name, far as I know. They're right past the main gates, not far from the stairs down to the market, or at least that's where they used to be."

A group of four soldiers were waiting for Varel at the gate, all of them well-armed and wearing the new silverite armor, which looked remarkably shiny. Varel supposed he'd better not lead them into a fight and get that new armor dented. He thought he could have done with a less fancy-looking escort, but then, all the men probably wanted a chance to wear the new armor, and they did need to get used to it. As soon as Master Wade was done, this was what every soldier in the keep would look like, and that day wasn't far off.

From just outside the gate, Varel could hear shouted commands, and a familiar-sounding thwock. He stepped outside to see that straw targets had been set up along the wall, just as he'd suggested, and Maverlies was showing a handful of soldiers how to handle the heavy longbows in the old Avvar style. She gave him a brisk, business-like nod when she saw him watching. Varel hoped the target-shooting would go better here than what he'd seen in the practice yard inside the Vigil. It would be good if they could rebuild the Vigil's team of trained archers, but he'd rather have no archers than archers who hit the wrong target, particularly in combat, when the wrong target was likely someone on the same side.

Varel led his small escort down the road and turned right, towards the closest of the riverside farms. The farmhouses weren't gathered into a village, but neither were they completely separate and spread out; they were mostly within shouting distance of each other, at least if you had a good carrying voice, with the lands they farmed stretching out in long narrow strips behind the buildings, and the river in front. Varel had never quite worked out how leadership in this very loosely organized community was determined, but he knew that when he turned up, someone would come to speak to him.

At least, that had been his experience on earlier visits. When Varel came to the first house, it looked empty, and no one answered his knock, so he went on to the second. No one answered there, either. There was no response to his knock, and the door was locked. One of the soldiers with him said, "We could just break the door down, ser. They're on Vigil land, they ought to--"

Varel pinned the soldier in place with a look. That was Arbar, one of the newer men, taken on in the past couple of years, which meant he'd been a hand-picked choice in Rendon Howe's later days, and apparently someone who had taken the lessons of that time a little too much to heart. "No," he said. "I'm here to talk to people, not break into their homes. There's a subtle difference that you'd do well to learn."

Walking on to the third house, he met an old woman who sat on a rickety stool in a sunny patch by an outbuilding and tied little bundles of sage and silverleaf to hang up for drying. She looked up as he came and gave him a grin with a few missing teeth. "Morning," she said.

Varel nodded back. "Good morning. Need a hand with that?"

He sat down on the ground next to her, stripped off the gloves of his armor, and picked up a few silverleaf pieces, arranging them by the stems for the old woman to tie together. It had been many years since he'd arranged herbs for drying, and it took him a little while before the hand motions came back to him. Meanwhile, his soldiers stood in an awkward, shuffle-footed group a bit to the side.

"Can't imagine you're here to help with the chores," the old woman said after a while, watching him critically.

"No," Varel agreed. "I'm here because no one from the riverside farms has come up to the keep in a long time. There's no fish delivered, and no one hiring on for extra coin in the laundry. We've even got a few haystacks still standing, untouched."

"Well, I'll tell you," the old woman said, looking at the bundle of herbs in her hands now. "There's none of us wanted to come up to the Vigil 'fore we knew if this new arl would be th' same as the old one. Rendon Howe was mortal bad, but we've seen Orlesians before, too. We don't got more people to lose."

Varel's hands stilled. "You lost people?"

She looked at him sharply. "We did. And we didn't know if it would be wise to... Tennyrate, we sent a message when that feller Jordin passed through."

Jordin was the man who never came back with a reply from the chantry. He hadn't come back at all, Varel realized, though since Mother Disa and her templars had come in response, Jordin must at least have delivered that message to the right person. "Was this just a couple of days ago?" Varel asked. "Because Jordin is still in Amaranthine."

At least, he'd better still be in Amaranthine, so Varel could have the pleasure of tracking him down and telling him he'd never work for the Vigil again. Unreliable messengers had no place there. Varel wasn't unreasonable, and he hadn't expected the messengers to return ahead of those they brought the messages to, this time, but Jordin should have come with the priest and the templars.

The old women went on tying string around the stems, her gnarled hands moving strong and steady, although a couple of fingers were twisted and bent. "Last time people went up to the Vigil, they didn't come back," she said. "They went to complain to Howe and they just disappeared. When we heard he was dead, and you was back to being seneschal, we worked the fields like always, but then them wardens came, and this new arl." Again her eyes flashed towards him. "You're a good man, we know that. But an Orlesian?"

"He's a Grey Warden," Varel said slowly. "He's not a-- Well, he is an Orlesian, but the Vigil and the arling belong to the wardens now, not to Orlais. You can trust him."

She made a non-committal sound between her remaining teeth. "And now he wants fish, does he?"

"He's never had Mistress Hansa's fish soup," Varel said. "But those of us who have, well, we surely miss it." He put another small bundle of silverleaf on her lap, ready to be tied. "And I'd like to know about these people of yours who disappeared. Because there were prisoners held in the Vigil that we none of us knew about until the commander came."

This time her eyes held a painful spark of hope. "They's alive?"

"No." Varel shook his head. "Those who were alive ran off, the commander said -- they'd have come back here, surely, if they were your people. But some good people died there in Rendon Howe's cellars, and I'm trying to find out who they all were."

The old woman looked at him thoughtfully. She wasn't anyone he'd seen here before, at least not to talk to. Varel thought she might have been in the background, listening, when he'd been by on some errand or other. She didn't seem like the leader of this or any other community.

It came to him then, watching her twisted hands tie another knot, that she was here talking to him because she wasn't a leader, or the pillar of her community, or important in any way. She was expendable, by her own judgment or someone else's, and if he and his shiny silverite soldiers dragged her off to the keep, the other river farmers wouldn't be weakened by her loss as they debated whether to stay or flee.

The idea sickened him. This was what living with Rendon Howe and his cruel whims had done to people. The inhabitants of the Vigil had recovered faster, probably because they were most of them younger and stronger and living right there with Varel and Garevel to give them a good talking-to if they needed it, there with the commander as a living example before their eyes, so they knew he was nothing like what they feared.

There'd be some more talkings-to in the future, Varel knew, thinking darkly about the soldier who had suggested just breaking into the cottage when no one answered the door.

In any case, as close as they lived, these people still only had rumors to go on, and clearly the rumors they'd heard hadn't been good. One might think if messengers like Jordin came by here, they'd have a few good things to say about their new arl, or at least they wouldn't have any bad ones. But maybe Jordin had been one of those who hated Orlesians just for being Orlesians, and spread Lord Guy's seditious talk without even stopping to think if it could be true.

"You -- you still have the bodies, then? For us to look at, like?"

"No," Varel said again. He felt cruel, but they couldn't have left the bodies unburned. Particularly not the ones that had been tainted. "I'm sorry. But we have descriptions, from before they were burned. If someone comes up to the keep and asks for me in a couple of days, we can go over the list together."

The old woman didn't sigh, quite, but her next breath was a little deeper than it might otherwise have been. "We'll send someone," she said. "To have a talk about it."

"That would be good." Varel stood up slowly. "I'll be away in Amaranthine for the next couple of days, coming back the day after tomorrow, most likely. After that, just come in and ask for me."

"Mmhm." She picked up the next bundle of herbs and turned it over in her bony fingers. "So, this new arl of ours. What's he like, then?"

Varel thought about it. He considered the commander's straight back and steady voice, his startling beauty, his quiet determination, his fearless calm in the face of adversity, his fleeting smile, his patience with a small child who pulled his hair.

The commander knew nothing about rural Ferelden and the everyday life of his farmers, but he walked the roads of the arling to keep them safe. He had a dry sense of humor and no taste for ostentation. He was a stranger here, but Varel could not see that he had tried to remake the Vigil to follow some Orlesian fashion. In fact, for a young man transplanted into a new country where people distrusted him before they even saw him, he was remarkably careless of his own wants and comforts. When he asked for something, it was for the benefit of his wardens.

"He's a good man," he said finally. "You can rely on him."

She made another hmm-ing noise, and while it didn't express complete belief, neither was it complete disbelief. Maybe the river farmers would come and see for themselves, and form their own opinion that wasn't entirely colored by whatever malicious gossip had trickled down their way. That was all Varel could ask for, really.

He put one last bundle of sage on her lap and made his farewells, collected the soldiers with a single look, and began to make his way back to the Amaranthine road. There was a well-trodden path leading up to the road here, going past well-tended hazelnut groves at first, then through a thin belt of wild wood and brush. They crossed a ditch, choked-up with grass, on a plank that had been worn smooth by many passing feet, and came out on the road.

It was a proper road, too, not just a set of wheel-ruts and a bit of good will. Many things could be said about Rendon Howe, most of them negative, but Varel couldn't deny that the man had done some good things for Amaranthine, such as his insistence on maintaining the arling's roads to a high standard. Of course the road between the Vigil and the city of Amaranthine was the best-kept of them all, but the roads throughout the arling were all good ones. Though apparently full of bandits and darkspawn and dragons, at least if Anders's testimony could be believed.

Varel set a good pace at first, stretching his legs. The way from the Vigil to Amaranthine was very pretty, with some of the finest views in the arling along the route, but all he wanted was to get where he was going. If he were guiding a newcomer, he might have chosen to take the coast road, to show off the way the sea embraced the arling, but this last stretch of the Pilgrim's Path was more direct, and went along a high ridge for the most part, offering views both down towards the sea, to the right, and of the Plains and its tidy fields, to the left.

When they passed through more densely wooded areas, both Varel and his soldiers half-expected an attack, an ambush of the kind they'd heard described all too often, but perhaps the bandits were still asleep, or off robbing some more profitable target. Varel and his men passed unmolested on their way. The weather held fine, too, with only a few thin clouds overhead and the sun shining through them. Varel could almost believe he was out walking for the pleasure of it.

Here and there they saw signs, though, that all was not as it should be. A fine view of the Plains included the sight of a burned-out farmstead. In a peaceful clearing, the ground was churned up and dark with odd stains, and a couple of trees lay overturned and splintered.

"But there's been no thunderstorm," one of the soldiers said, confused. "What did this?"

"I should think the commander did it," Varel said. He had seen firsthand the commander's affinity for lightning bolts, and the destructive power those lightning bolts wielded.

The soldiers looked at the fallen trees, and more than one of them was a little wide-eyed. "Oh."

"Don't touch that," Varel said sharply as one of the soldiers drew close to the odd stains and bent down to poke at the darkened earth, which was ash-dark, Varel saw now, just as the ground in the bailey had been where the pyres had stood. "They fought darkspawn here. Look, you can see where there's a piece of the armor left. You'll not want to risk catching the taint."

"No, ser," was the fervent reply. The brave soldiers of Vigil's Keep, his escort and protection, drew together in a nervous huddle at the far end of the clearing. After a moment, the boldest one asked, "Ser? Why don't the wardens catch the taint? They fight darkspawn all the time."

"You know I can't tell you that," Varel said. "If you want to know warden secrets, ask one of them and see if he'll tell you. Or you could always join them."

The soldiers looked more ready to run. "I'd rather be an armsman of the Vigil," the boldest one managed, and Varel had to give credit for a good answer. "B-but maybe we shouldn't linger here, then. Ser."

"No," Varel agreed, and they walked on. As they went, he thought perhaps he could get the wardens, any one of the wardens, to teach the soldiers a little about fighting darkspawn. He should have done that a long time ago. The attack on the keep where all the Orlesian wardens had either fallen or been taken prisoner ought to have been a lesson to him, showing that the Vigil's soldiers had to be prepared to face darkspawn as well as human attackers. Particularly these days. Particularly if they were in service to the wardens.

It was pure luck that no one had contracted the taint during that battle. Those who had come closest and been most at risk had died of their wounds instead, so perhaps luck was the wrong word to use, Varel considered. In any case, it seemed more than likely that the soldiers would encounter darkspawn, and having a few basic precautions dinned into their heads couldn't hurt. Personally, Varel thought that if if belonged to the darkspawn, don't stick it in your mouth didn't even need to be said, but long years had taught him never to underestimate the stupidity and bravado of the average young soldier.

It would probably be best to ask Sigrun to speak to the men. Not only did the dwarves fight the darkspawn, but she'd actually been in this Legion of the Dead of theirs, which was dedicated to doing nothing else. As far as Varel could tell, from the stories the Glavonak brothers had told him, the legionnaires were like wardens in everything except actually being wardens, and it only stood to reason that they had to be a little more careful in battle against the darkspawn than the wardens were, or they'd lose too many fighters to the taint to be the effective force that Varel knew they were.

They stopped for a rest in the middle of the day, and Varel made sure everyone was drinking properly; the day wasn't that hot, but they were walking briskly enough, and wearing full armor, and he would certainly not be less considerate of his own men than he'd been of the templars the day before. When they started walking again, he moderated his pace a little.

Varel and his escort made it all the way to Amaranthine unmolested, and sighted the city gates in the late afternoon. The area just outside the gates, which had been rather run-down the last time Varel had seen it, was much worse now, crowded with refugees from the countryside and their livestock, and some rather seedy-looking characters who were probably trying to profiteer from the situation, buying up farm deeds cheap and offering to take cows and sheep off people's hands for a small sum.

At the gates, they were stopped by an eager city guard who asked them seriously if they were coming to the city to take refuge, or were affiliated with the smugglers, and began to search their packs for contraband. Varel was just checking the position of the sun in the sky, to see if he had any time left in the day to start on his errands, when Constable Aidan came striding over. "Not you again," he said to the guard, who flushed and dropped Varel's water skin. "This is the seneschal of Vigil's Keep. He's not a smuggler."

They greeted each other as the guard slunk away. Varel had been acquainted with Aidan for several years, and he knew the man to be reliable, if not his first choice for a drinking partner. "Are you still having problems with smugglers?" he asked. "I heard that the commander and his wardens took care of that for you."

"They did," Aidan said. He looked like a man who was always squinting into the sun, even on overcast days. That was probably useful in his line of work; it helped to hide what he was thinking. "Cleaned out the leaders of the smuggling ring, as easy as you please. What we're dealing with now is those who are trying to take over what's left of the organization."

"I see," Varel said. Just as he'd thought. Those would be the ones that had tried to get Gorthwait's support, probably. "But I'm surprised you're keeping such a close watch here on goods coming into the city. I thought the smugglers were mostly bringing in luxury goods from other countries, by water, not smuggling anything out of the country."

"The smuggling trade goes both ways," Aidan said. "Fereldan wool is worth a lot in the Anderfels, they say." He dropped his voice. "But you're right. I'd be on the docks, but the last orders we had from Bann Esmerelle were to man the gates and keep the refugees out. Now she's gone, we've got no new orders at all."

"If Godfrey Norrell comes along and claims to be the new ruler of Amaranthine, he's lying," Varel said, "so don't follow any orders he might cook up."

"I'd as soon not work for Twofaced Norrell," Aidan agreed.

"Do you have room in your guard barracks for these men of mine?" Varel tilted his head at the soldiers. "We'll just be staying for two nights. I've some business to take care of here in Amaranthine, but it shouldn't take too long."

"Of course," Aidan said. "We'll find beds for them, and for you, too, if you like."

"I don't know about that," Varel said. He'd been looking forward to a night or two at the Crown and Lion, where they had excellent brandy, probably smuggled, and a careful listener could find out all the gossip in the arling. "I've other plans for myself, but this isn't the time to travel alone."

"No." Aidan stared morosely at one of his guards arguing with a farmer about a cow. "Even if we let them in, there's not enough room in the city," he said. "There's no work for them, and there's nowhere to keep all these blighted cows."

"That man there," one of Varel's soldiers offered with a jerk of the head, "is offering to stall cattle cheap, for anyone who gets into the city."

Varel wasn't sure how he'd managed to get such painfully naive soldiers for his escort. Maybe Garevel had sent them with him to toughen them up a little. He wasn't sure if a couple of nights in the barracks in Amaranthine would really help, though.

"No," he said. "He gets the money and the cows, and those farmers never see either one again. I'll wager there's a lot of sausage for sale in Amaranthine right now, but we'll likely have a cheese shortage next year, if this keeps up." He looked at Aidan. "I know Bann Esmerelle valued city concerns more. But the countryside's coming to you, here in Amaranthine. If I were you, I'd try to do something about that."

Aidan looked unhappy. "No one even knows who rules the city right now. But if the arl sent some direct orders, we'd follow those."

Varel nodded and hesitated for all of a heartbeat before he said, "Consider me a direct order. Find a place to stall the cattle, and put the refugees to work taking care of their own livestock." He looked back at the untidy sprawl of tents and lean-tos that was growing outside the city walls. "Think of this as a military camp," he said. "Make sure there's water and proper sanitation. These are the arling's people, even if they've been driven to come here rather than stay on their farms. We owe them our protection."

"Easy for you to say." Aidan grimaced. "They're not clamoring for that protection at your walls."

"Not yet," Varel said. Now that he'd seen the situation outside Amaranthine, he was actually a little surprised at that, himself. But the Vigil, as mighty as its walls were, was just a fortress, not a city. No one would come there to try to start a new life, only to seek shelter in a short-term emergency. Amaranthine also had its harbor and the possibility for anyone who came there to keep traveling. A lot of Fereldan refugees had taken that way out during the Blight, and to the people who crowded Amaranthine's walls today, it probably seemed that the situation was still just as dire.

Varel left his soldiers behind with orders to help out at the gates, and strode into the city. Inside the city walls, Amaranthine was much as it had always been, a rich city with high towers and well-paved streets. The stonework here might not live up to Voldrik Glavonak's exacting standards, but it looked well enough to Varel.

Amaranthine was a port city, built on the cliffs right by the water, so the well-paved streets turned into well-kept steps here and there, to accommodate the way the buildings had been set onto a less than flat surface. Varel admired how neatly it was done; despite all the differing levels, the city still looked deliberate and well-organized, at least along its main streets.

He chose the shortest way to where he was going, passing the entrance to the market with no more than a look. The Crown and Lion inn was just at the dividing line between the bustle of the mercantile district and the more elegant residential section. The nobles complained about that, or so Varel had heard; the inn had a very mixed clientele, though it was respectable enough, certainly nothing like the dockside taverns where you'd be lucky to come out with the same number of fingers and ears that you had going in.

At this hour, the inn's common room was almost empty, with only a couple of men in one corner arguing about what one of them had said to his girl, and what he ought to have said to his girl instead, and what he'd say to his girl the next time he saw her, and how he'd better make sure she didn't have the pitchfork handy when he did. Varel had no trouble renting one of their smaller, cheaper rooms for the next couple of nights.

"Haven't seen that commander of yours in a while now," the innkeeper said. "Is it true he had Bann Esmerelle killed?" He didn't sound very alarmed by the possibility.

"She tried to assassinate him," Varel said. "Along with Lady Liza Packton, Lord Guy, and a few others. They all died in the attempt. We had the funerals yesterday."

The innkeeper whistled between his teeth, not loud enough to disturb the other customers. "You'll have to tell me all about that! Over a mug of ale, of course."

"I'd be happy to," Varel said. "But it was a long walk to get here, and I wouldn't mind resting my feet a bit first." He could feel that long walk from the Vigil to the city in his calves, now. "Do you still serve dinner after the chantry rings double bells?"

"That we do," the innkeeper said. "You go look at your room a bit. Or the insides of you eyelids," he added with a chuckle. "I'll be here all night."

Varel went up the stairs, intent on getting back to his room and resting a little before he had to tell the story of the funeral at the Vigil, the assassination attempt, and the resultant extra corpse. On the landing above the stairs, he ran into a waitress, who somehow managed to keep her tray of empty mugs and bottles balanced even as the two of them staggered a couple of sideways steps. "Sorry, ser," she said cheerfully.

"My fault," Varel said. He dropped a few silvers on her tray. "I'm the one who's very sorry. Could you arrange for me to get a bit of warm water and a basin in my room, the small one back there with the green curtains, first thing tomorrow morning? Just enough for a wash and shave."

"Of course, ser!"

The room he'd rented for the night wasn't one of the big, fancy ones with a couch and a table and a lot of extra space, though it was still considerably more pleasant than whatever the guard barracks would have offered. Varel doubted very much that Aidan housed his men with velvet curtains and fancy decorative cushions, nor a bed wide enough for three, though it wasn't as whimsical as his own bed back at the Vigil, which had bedposts carved with dogs' heads. It was a comfortable enough bed, at any rate, as he found when he stretched out on it, intending a short rest before he went back downstairs to find himself some dinner.

Closing his eyes was definitely a mistake, as Varel discovered when he was woken up again by the distant sound of the chantry bells. He'd meant to plan out his errands for tomorrow, not take a nap. Varel sat up and sent two of the cushions to the floor as he swung his legs over the edge of the bed. He got himself properly armored and armed again, which was probably excessive for getting dinner at an inn, and rubbed a hand over his head, deciding his hair didn't stick up too much in the back. At least, he couldn't see it.

Varel went out and paused at the landing above the stairs to look the taproom over. It was a great deal more crowded than when he'd come in before, filled with people eating and drinking and shouting and laughing. Going down to join the crowd, Varel caught the innkeeper's eye, and was gestured to a small table off to one side, not that far from the bar. He seated himself, propping his sword up against the wall behind him, and it didn't take long before the waitress came by with a bowl of stew, a chunk of bread, and a mug of ale.

The bread wasn't as good as what Mistress Hansa usually served, but the stew was rich with meat -- more of those poor cows, Varel guessed, sold cheap all over town. He sopped up the gravy with the bread and washed it all down with ale, sweeter and lighter than the Vigil's.

Once he was finished eating, he leaned back in his chair and took a good look at the clientele. Not too shabby, and Varel thought the inn must be doing well, with all these artisans and shopkeepers coming in to spend their earnings on ale and smuggled brandy. He saw a group of off-duty city guards in one corner, eating stew with every sign of relish, and a couple of dignified merchants discussing trade routes over brandy. Amaranthine looked to be doing decently well, despite the unrest in the arling.

The waitress came by with a jug. "Let me top that up for you," she said, filling his mug to the brim. Varel thanked her, and a moment later, the innkeeper came out from behind the bar and settled into the free chair at Varel's little table. Varel saluted him with the ale mug.

"Everything all right here?" The man grinned, and Varel tried to remember what his name was. Rolv, Ralph... Roffel, that was it. "I hope you've got a good story to tell me! Seems you've had a bit of excitement out at the Vigil, isn't that right?"

"We've had that all right," Varel said and settled more comfortably into his chair, and started to explain how Bann Esmerelle had broken her sworn oaths and come with her co-conspirators prepared to murder the new arl in his own home, all over the memory of Rendon Howe, judged a traitor and condemned by the queen herself.

It was a good story, if he said so himself. And it had the virtue of being true, too.

"You don't say!" Roffel took a long swallow from his own mug of ale. "I never would have picked her for the type to get sentimental about a dead man."

"Nor did we," Varel said dryly. "And I think she was more upset that the new arl wasn't going to be good to her the way the old arl was good to her, letting her do as she pleased here in the city." Truthfully, she'd let the smugglers do as they pleased, setting her city guards to pointless checks rather than letting them handle the matter properly, but that might not be the best thing to bring up with Roffel, who made a tidy profit from selling smuggled liquor.

"And she got all them nobles to follow her." Roffel shook his head. "Well, everyone knew how Lord Guy felt about Orlesians. Don't reckon it was difficult to talk him into it."

"No," Varel agreed. "He thought the commander was here to take over the country for the empress, by the way he talked, and it didn't matter to him that the commander kept his lands safe by killing bandits and darkspawn."

"Mm," Roffel said. He glanced at Varel, trying to make it look casual. "He's not, is he? Taking us over for the empress?"

Varel laughed. He did it deliberately, tipping his head back a little more than he might have in the ordinary way of things, making sure the sound was loud enough to carry. "You think we'd stand for that at the Vigil?"

"Don't suppose you would." Roffel relaxed a bit in his chair. "People put a lot of trust in you, Varel. Common folk know your name and your reputation. If you say the new arl is a good man, they'll listen, even if he is an Orlesian."

"And an elf, and a mage?" Varel cradled his ale mug in both hands. "Revered Mother Leanna and a good part of the chantry is speaking up against magic, even though the commander came here and cleaned out that group of blood mages that was making trouble in the city."

Roffel shuddered, and the shudder looked genuine enough. "And glad I was to hear that," he said. "Blood magic right here in Amaranthine!"

"City's got troubles enough," Varel nodded.

"It's not what we're used to," Roffel said more somberly, "an arl that's a mage. And an elf," he added, more as an afterthought, "but then, he's an Orlesian." Varel wasn't sure just what that meant, because it had never seemed to him that Orlais had more elves than anywhere else, but he gestured for Roffel to continue. "I reckon the nobles might be upset that he's a warden. I heard from Albert down in the marketplace that his wife told him a story about how the wardens conspired against the king once."

Varel nodded. He'd heard that story several times, both from Rendon Howe in his anti-warden moods and from the Orlesian wardens, who weren't shy about sharing their views on the fate of the wardens in Ferelden. "That's how they got banished, couple hundred years ago. That was when the leader of the wardens was a Fereldan noble, though. She's the one who got the wardens involved in politics. Seems that some nobles always want to run things their own way," he said, ruthlessly sacrificing Sophia Dryden's reputation to further his own ends.

"That they do." Anyone who'd lived for years under Bann Esmerelle would know about that, let alone that the Crown and Lion had a lot of noble guests at times.

"King Maric asked the wardens to come back to Ferelden," Varel went on. "And after the Blight was ended, King Alistair decided Ferelden had to rebuild the order again, seeing as he was a warden himself before he was crowned. Commander's working on it, but the wardens still need more people, more Fereldan wardens."

"Mm," Roffel said. "There's still darkspawn everywhere, they say. I thought the Blight was over once the leader was dead, that archdemon that Angharad Cousland killed."

"Should have been," Varel said. He felt like shuddering, too. He'd seen the start of the Blight at Ostagar, and then he'd been imprisoned, and when he came back out, instead of finding the Blight properly ended, the way people said it had been, he saw darkspawn raiding his Amaranthine and acting as if Angharad Cousland's sacrifice never happened. "Seems it's just here in Amaranthine the darkspawn haven't disappeared back underground, and the commander and the wardens are trying to find them and kill them."

"Well, they'd better hurry," Roffel said. "Things aren't good in Amaranthine now."

"No more they are." Varel shook his head. "We need more wardens. And I could wish the nobles helped the commander and worked with him to protect their people, instead of coming up with ridiculous plots to kill him."

"There was a second plot, then?" Roffel tilted his head. "You said you only had the funeral for Bann Esmerelle and the others yesterday."

"That we did," Varel said. "And no, I suppose it wasn't a plot, the second time. Gorthwait Packton, Liza Packton's husband? He turned grief-crazed and tried to stab the commander, right there by the pyres. With his own daughter looking on and all."

"No!" Roffel leaned forward over the table. "That meek little man? Always looked like the kind who'd cross the street if a dog barked at him, that one."

Varel told that story as well as he could, playing up Gorthwait Packton's treachery and the commander's self-defence, trying to minimize his own part. "He just broke into pieces," he ended.

Roffel's eyes went unerringly to the wall behind Varel, and the weapon leaning there. "You hit him with that sword?" he said. "I hope you've cleaned it since then."

"Of course I've cleaned it," Varel said. "It's not dripping dead noble all over your floor." The idea that he'd leave his weapon dirty was absurd. "And I hope the rest of the nobles in Amaranthine have decided to support the commander now. They could do a lot for the arling if they stopped thinking only about themselves."

"I don't suppose that will happen," Roffel said. "I mean to say, that's what they do, nobles. But probably they'll at least mind their own business now."

"The arling is their business." Varel lifted his ale mug and found to his surprise that it was empty.

Roffel tipped his head this way and that. "Yeee-es," he agreed. "Long as they don't look too closely into some corners. But rightly speaking, the arling is our business, isn't it? Ask the Merchant's Guild, the ones who actually have a business in it." He chuckled at his own joke. "And your arl's got his head screwed on straight there, anyway. The caravans are moving the way they should again. You'd have found the market a sight thinner before."

That did sound as if Mistress Woolsey's theory was at least partly right, and some people would support the arl because he protected their livelihood and kept the trade flowing. She'd be very pleased to know that. Varel tilted his empty mug to see if there was enough left for one last swig. "He's doing his best for the arling," he agreed. "I'd be happy to see the arling do its best for him, too."

"Well, we'll just have to see about that," Roffel said cheerfully. "I reckon if he can get rid of those darkspawn once and for all, people won't care if he's got the Orlesian flag tattooed on his arse."

Varel was about to say that that would explain why the commander was so reluctant to be naked around other people. He bit his tongue instead. "Let me buy you a glass of brandy," he said indistinctly.

"I won't say no to that," Roffel said, and made a complicated gesture at the bartender.

The brandy got Roffel more relaxed and talkative, and Varel settled back to listen, picking up all kinds of little snippets of information, like how meat was cheap, which he already knew, how smuggling was almost non-existent after the commander had stepped in, which made Varel wonder about the price of the brandy he had just bought, and how the wife of the missing Grey Warden Kristoff had turned up and demanded to take over his room.

"Well, she's his wife," Varel said. "I hear she was staying in the chantry before, but she'll be more comfortable here, I should think."

"Except that arl of yours walked off with the key," Roffel said. "I had to get a new lock put in."

Varel shook his head. "Let me buy you another glass of brandy," he said.

"I have to get back to work," Roffel said reluctantly. "There's just one thing I've been wondering, though. With Bann Esmerelle and Lady Liza and that sad sack Gorthwait all dead, who's ruling the city? Did the arl take that for himself?"

Varel shook his head again, to more purpose this time. "No, he didn't. There's a Packton child, Lady Gizel, she's the heir, and he'll appoint a guardian for her. She'll take over the rule of Amaranthine when she's old enough."

"Oh." Roffel had half risen out of his chair, but now he sat down again with an interested look. "Bet that Norrell-side cousin already asked for guardianship."

"Which one?" Varel said dryly. "Godfrey Norrell was at the funeral, so he's asked. Leith is probably writing a letter right now."

"Peas in a pod, those two," Roffel said. "There's not much to choose from between them."

"I don't suppose either of them would do Amaranthine much good, let alone that little girl," Varel agreed. He hadn't hesitated to tell the commander not to give little Gizel's guardianship to Godfrey Norrell, but he wouldn't have hesitated to make an equally strong case against cousin Leith. "Do people here have a favorite candidate, someone they'd rather see in power?"

"I don't think so," Roffel said. "Everyone was mostly staying busy keeping out of Bann Esmerelle's way. She wasn't loved, exactly, but she ruled with a light enough hand that people could forget her except on tax day."

That wasn't a bad encomium, really, and Bann Esmerelle could be remembered a lot worse. Was remembered a lot worse, in places. Varel thought the importers of liquor and silks and lace probably had harsher words about her, particularly now that she wasn't around to hear them, but Roffel had benefited from her agreement with the smugglers, if he hadn't been in on it himself. Varel wished he had listened more closely to Anders's talk about just what the wardens had done here in Amaranthine, but there had been so much about templars and phylacteries that Varel had just given up.

Roffel went off to his duties, trading off with the bartender, who scampered away back towards the privies like a dwarf on a mission. Varel stayed where he was, nursing the remains of his brandy for a while, and listening to people talk. He didn't hear anything that affected him, nothing about the commander or the refugees or Bann Esmerelle or the smuggling; judging by the general sound of things, not to mention the sound level, those parts of Amaranthine that could afford to come drinking here were not upset enough about anything to let it interfere with their night out.

That was good enough for him. Varel finished his drink and rose, slinging his sword back into place as he walked across the crowded taproom and headed for his room again.

Varel already knew the bed was comfortable, and after the meal and the brandy, he slept deeply enough despite the evening's nap that it took a brisk knock on the door to wake him in the morning. It was the waitress from last night, bringing him water, and Varel tipped her generously for her trouble. He washed his face, then realized he hadn't brought his razor, so he had no choice but to bristle at the world. That was the thing Varel disliked most about having his beard come in grey: he didn't mind at all going unshaven for a couple of days, but the silver was so light that it just made him look fuzzy and unwashed, or so he suspected.

The inn served porridge for breakfast, and he'd had worse, but not recently. Mistress Hansa's breakfasts had thoroughly spoilt him. Varel ate his food, though, because it was going to be a day full of errands. He nodded morning greetings to the other guests in the common room, but saved his verbal civility for later, because he'd likely need it.

Amaranthine was pleasant in the morning, quiet enough to seem orderly, though there was already a fair amount of people in the streets. Varel had no trouble finding Dimber and Sons. The carpentry workshop was just where Samuel had said it would be, not far from the south entrance gates, and there was a big, slightly faded sign on the roof, as well as a dangling model of a chair and a hammer-and-saw symbol for those who either couldn't read the sign or didn't recognize the name.

Rather than hammering and sawing, though, the sounds coming out from the roofed-over work area were those of angry shouting. "--inherited this shop, it's mine and what I say goes! Now get back to work!"

"Mam Dimber promised me!" Coming close enough to see the people arguing, Varel found that this was a muscular elf woman in a big apron, with sawdust in her hair and a hammer dangling from an apron-loop. "And she meant for you to make good on that promise, but you don't plan to, do you."

The other half of the quarrel was a burly man with shoulders that nearly made up for his gut, and a high color in his face. "I can't take an elf into partnership!" he said. "Dimber and Sons has a reputation to consider, we work for the nobles, we've been contracted by the arl--"

Varel cleared his throat. That sounded like a cue to him. "I'm in need of a carpenter," he said.

The burly man took in Varel's armor and bearing, and all but shoved the elf woman behind him as he stepped forward. "Yes, yes, of course! What can we do to help you, ser? Do you need some furniture made, perhaps?"

"No," Varel said. "Well, we might eventually, but that's not why I'm here. Vigil's Keep needs to hire on a carpenter, and since we've had business with Dimber and Sons before, I was hopeful that you could recommend someone to me."

The man's eyes went wide. "To work at the Vigil itself?"

Varel nodded. "There's more work and maintenance that needs to be done on a regular basis than contracted workers can deal with. Some of it is plain work, nothing like what you do here, but some is likely to be more complicated and need a good bit of thought as well as effort."

"I see, I see." The burly man looked as if he couldn't decide what expression to put on his face; his features moved haphazardly, as he apparently tried several on for size at once. "It would be a great honor to work directly at the keep, of course. For the new arl." One of the expressions, fleeting as it was, might have been distaste. "But Dimber and Sons is established here in Amaranthine, and we can't just move to Vigil's Keep. We have all our business here."

"You misunderstood my request," Varel said. He thought the burly man could not have been listening very carefully. "I'm not looking for Dimber and Sons to relocate. I want to hire on one single carpenter, or perhaps a carpenter and an apprentice, to become part of the Vigil staff. Perhaps you have someone here who is ready to set out on their own, or would it be better for me to look elsewhere?"

"A great honor," the burly man said again. "Although the new arl is, well, not precisely what we're used to, is he?" He chuckled, inviting Varel to join in the subtle denigration. Varel wasn't sure if the man meant elf or mage or Orlesian or all three.

"No," Varel said, re-drawing the battle lines and making it clear on which side he stood. "He is certainly quite different from Rendon Howe. I understand your concern, but there is no risk that anyone working at the Vigil now will find themselves embroiled in a treasonous plot."

The man choked on his own chuckles. "No! No, of course not, er, that's good! Not that I doubted-- I have to speak with my brothers about this. It's a major decision. Wait here, please!"

He bustled off. Varel watched him push through a door at the back of the work area, leading into the house that the front part of the shop was built off.

"They won't do it," the elf woman said. "It suits them much better to stay here, where all the nobles know how to find them. None of Mam Dimber's sons would be happy working in a fortress full of soldiers, for an arl that's an elf."

"Seems I came to the wrong place, then," Varel said.

The elf woman shrugged. "This was a good place to work when Mam Dimber was alive," she said. "She knew her craft and she valued skill and the ability to learn more than anything else. Don't know how she raised such a sorry lot of children. All they want is to boast they made a chair for Lady This and mended a window for Lord That."

That certainly wouldn't be very useful out at the Vigil. The work that needed doing there was just as likely to be a broken railing or a new espalier for the kitchen garden as a fancy piece of furniture. Even if you ended up doing some work in the arl's own chamber, which Varel devoutly hoped did not need any repairs, you'd have to go a long way to boast about it afterwards.

"What about you, then?" he said. The elf woman looked sharply at him. "If you don't get the partnership you look for here, will you set up on your own?"

"I don't have the money for that," she said. "Couldn't afford my own workshop -- not one in a decent place, that people would come to." Her shoulders slumped a bit. "And I know what this lot would say about me if I left. That I wasn't good enough to stay on here, that I wasn't right for all their best customers."

"I don't suppose you'd be interested in coming to the Vigil," Varel said.

"What?" The woman stared at him. "Me?"

"It's not what you'd call glamorous," Varel said. "And a lot of the work would be too plain for your skills, if you're ready for a partnership in a place like this. But maybe there's an apprentice here who'd like to come with you as well."

"No, I, there's not..." She shook her hair back, and Varel realized that wasn't sawdust after all, but streaks of premature white-and-grey. "Are you really saying I could come and work for the arl?"

"You wouldn't be working directly for him," Varel said cautiously. "I'm the seneschal of the Vigil, and you'd answer to me, mostly. The commander's more concerned with his work with the wardens, though of course if he needed any carpentry done, he'd turn to you."

The door in the back opened again, and the burly man returned, wiping his palms against his thighs. He smiled at Varel with every tooth he had. "I'm sorry," he said. "I wish we could help you. We'd be happy to give our expertise to anything you sent here to have repaired, of course, and if you needed someone from Dimber and Sons to come out and do some specific job, I'm sure that could be arranged."

"No," Varel said. He knew he was rushing into this, a bit, since he'd never checked back with Mistress Woolsey to find out what wages they could offer a carpenter, and perhaps it would be wiser to just contract someone for short-term repair work while she did her calculations, but he was getting more and more certain that he didn't want to offer this man and his brothers anything at all. "No, as I told you, that's not what I'm looking for."

"Don't be hasty, now," the burly man said, echoing Varel's own thoughts. "You won't find better work anywhere than what we can offer here at Dimber and Sons!"

He managed to sound both obsequious and bullying at the same time, and Varel very much disliked being toadied to, and had absolutely no tolerance whatever for being bullied. Any further negotiations with this particular 'and Son' would just result in a headache for at least one of them. All Varel wanted was to get this done. He tilted his head at the elf woman and found himself wishing, irrelevantly and stupidly, that he'd mastered the commander's trick of lifting one eyebrow. "Well?" he said.

After a very brief moment of hesitation, she broke into a smile. "Yes," she said.

Varel nodded. "Very good. When can you start?"

The burly man looked from the elf woman to Varel and back again with angry bewilderment growing in his eyes. "What?"

"I'm quitting," the woman said. "You've made it clear enough that you won't honor your mother's wishes, and I'd rather have a job where I'm wanted. I'll work out the week if you like, finish my part of--"

He glowered, brows drawing down and jaw clenching, before exploding into a yell. "You ungrateful, knife-eared wretch! You'll never find anything half as good as what you had here! No one will want to hire you when they hear you were fired from Dimber and Sons for your uppity ways and your, your-- I'm sure we'll find money missing once you're gone!"

"I'm sure you won't," Varel said. "And I've hired her. I came here to get a carpenter, as you know."

The burly man was turning an alarming shade of red. "But you can't do that!" he said. Once again, he shifted from expression to expression so fast that the grimacing only left him looking as if he were about to have an accident in his trousers. "She's not fit for that kind of work! And, and you can't have her kind working at Vigil's Keep!" He glared at the elf woman. "As for you, you can just leave right now. And don't you take our hammer with you, either!"

"Are you owed any wages?" Varel said.

The elf woman shook her head, pulling her apron over her head and shoving it, with hammer attached, at the burly man. "Payday was yesterday," she said. She clapped one arm to her chest in half a soldier's greeting. "I'm Alane."

Varel turned and led the way out of the workshop, away from the burly man, who was hissing and popping like wet wood put on the fire. Out on the street again, he stopped and looked at Alane. "I'm Varel, seneschal at the Vigil. If you can be ready to leave tomorrow morning, I'll be traveling back to the Vigil with my soldiers and you're welcome to come along."

"I'll be ready," Alane said. "City gates at the second chantry bell? Or," she caught herself, "is that too early?"

"No, we'll want to get an early start. That's well enough."

Time and place settled, Alane ran off to make her preparations, and Varel pondered as she ran whether the Vigil had all the tools she'd need ready for her use, or if he should have asked her to pick a few things up in the market before they left. He was sure they had the most basic equipment, though, the set of hammer-and-saw that everyone borrowed for those small jobs that weren't worth getting even a temporary craftsman in for, and he supposed that whatever else was needed, they could get it as they needed it.

Varel walked down towards the Amaranthine market. When he was a small boy, this market had seemed to him to hold all the things in the world, weapons and spices, food and armor and strange knick-knacks. Whispers of holy relics, almost as intriguing as the relics themselves. Things from distant cities, things from other countries, which had been almost unimaginable to him then. All of it had been full of wonder, especially since he could only dream of buying even the cheapest things.

He'd been a grown man for many years now, with money enough of his own to buy most things he wanted, and he still got a faint thrill out of whiling away an hour in the market; it pleased him to see so many different things for sale, bales of cloth and piles of early apples, leather gloves and trays of fresh-baked pies. And no doubt the darker corners offered shadier deals, but he'd leave that to the city guard to deal with, for the time being.

Varel followed the smell of grilling meat and bought himself sausages, and then, after a moment's contemplation, a small pie as well, full of meat and gravy and onions. This was probably someone's cherished cow he was eating, and he hoped Aidan would be able to put a stop to the cattle scams at the city gates, but it was also very tasty. The last time he'd tried a pie in the street, it had been all onion.

The market seemed busy, and the city calm enough even now, at nearly noon, but that calm was an odd contrast to the refugee camp building up outside the southern gates, and Varel couldn't quite bring himself to trust it. He strolled around, eating his food, exchanging nods with a guard here and a familiar merchant there. When he finished the pie, he walked off to wash his hands in the nearest fountain, and began his search for Dorith's sister.

It didn't take him long to discover that the back streets, even close to the market, were much less respectable and well-cleaned, and the guards apparently never set foot back here. Varel felt no worries for his own safety, but he didn't like seeing that the calm and order of Amaranthine was so very localized. Maybe it was because of Bann Esmerelle's death and the unsettled state of the arling in general, but Varel thought it was clear that the city needed better leadership. Aidan was a decent enough man, but he lacked initiative.

Two elf youths in ragged shirts were trying to menace a few coppers out of a beggar with only one foot; Varel cuffed them, and they went running, spitting curses all the way. The beggar tried to give Varel his coppers instead, looking even more nervous of him than he had of his assailants, but all Varel wanted was to find Dorith's sister. Between Dorith's description of where her sister could be found, and the beggar's nervous mumbling and pointing, Varel found a door that he thought might be the right one and knocked firmly.

The woman who opened looked enough like Dorith that he knew he was in the right place; she wore her hair long and pinned up, but she had the same chin and jaw. "Yes?" she said, looking up at him and squaring her shoulders, as if very large men in armor showed up at her door every day. She was neatly dressed, and considerably cleaner than the street she lived in. "You have linen that needs mending?"

"No," Varel said. "I'm the seneschal of Vigil's Keep. Your sister sent me to talk to you."

"Oh!" Her face lit up. "You're Seneschal Varel! Dorith has mentioned you in her letters. Please, come in."

Dorith's sister was called Lilian, and the room she led him into was as clean and neat as she was herself, dominated by a large table with piles of folded shirts, sheets and tablecloths. The air smelled faintly of soap. The furniture would be rented, not her own, Varel thought, but the cushions and blankets spread out to cover the shabby chairs were probably hers, as well as the few ornaments he could see, a pretty glazed bowl and a potted plant.

Varel explained his errand as concisely as he could. "Dorith said you were housekeeper to a family in Highever before," he finished. "The Vigil lost a lot of people recently in an unexpected attack. It's safe enough now, we've a dwarven mason making sure of that, and we need to get the staff back to what it was and everything working smoothly again."

"Dorith did mention, I hope," Lilian said cautiously, "that the family I worked for in Highever only had an ordinary house, and the household wasn't bigger than thirteen people. Yes?"

"She did say that. But she also said you were a hard worker and had a thorough mind, and you'd likely fit in at the Vigil." Varel had leaned his sword in a corner to be able to sit down, and it looked very much out of place in this tidy and well-organized room.

"I don't know if I could..." Then she set her jaw as well as squaring her shoulders again. "But I'd surely like to try."

Varel nodded approvingly. That was the kind of spirit he liked to see in people who came to work at the Vigil, and he considered himself lucky to have found it in both Alane and Lilian.

They went on discussing housekeeper duties at the Vigil for a while. It was all on a much larger scale than what Lilian was used to, but the essentials were the same. He thought she would get along well with Hansa and Woolsey, particularly when she could take over those duties that weren't properly theirs. Varel himself would be glad to let go of certain matters, too, and give his full attention to his own work.

Lilian told him that her previous employers had lost their money, not as a result of the Blight, but because their profitable trade with Antiva had dried up and all but vanished after the death of Fergus Cousland's Antivan wife, Oriana. Who had, Varel knew, been killed along with the rest of the people in Highever's castle by Amaranthine soldiers acting on the orders of Rendon Howe.

"I'm surprised you came here," he said. "Was it to be closer to Dorith?"

"Partly," she said. "And partly because I was thinking about going to the Free Marches if I couldn't find decent work here in Ferelden. Lots of families have made their fortune in trade there, and their households have grown large enough that they might need a housekeeper."

"Mm." The steady stream of Fereldan refugees during the Blight had probably not made the Free Marches the best place for anyone from Ferelden looking for work, Varel thought. But if Lilian fit in at the Vigil, there'd be no need for her to test this particular theory. "I'll be going back to the Vigil tomorrow," he said, "starting from the southern gates at the second chantry bell, with a guard of four soldiers as well as a carpenter I've hired on. But I realize you may not be ready to leave that soon. You can probably join a merchant caravan going south, in that case. I wouldn't really recommend travelling alone."

"That's very-- I couldn't--" Lilian got the same look on her face that Alane had, slightly overwhelmed and at the same time determined. "All the mending is finished and I have no new jobs yet. The rent's paid up for another two days. But I'm not sure I can carry all my things, and if I rent a handcart, I'd have to get it back here somehow."

"There's five of us," Varel said. "Well, six, but the carpenter likely has her own things to deal with. If what you have is only too heavy a load for one person, we can assist you with it."

"Thank you," she said. "Oh, thank you!"

She offered him tea, but Varel declined politely. He had a few more errands to take care of, and he wanted to be done before the day grew too late. Taking his sword back from its place in the corner, he settled it on his back with a sigh of relief at the familiar weight and went out into the back alleys of Amaranthine again. Everything here was the color of dried mud, whatever shade the house walls might have been painted once. He made his way back to the market, mostly by listening for it, picking out the cries of the woman with fresh vegetables and the rapid bickering and bartering over the price of a pair of ornamented wrist guards.

Varel walked through the crowds of the marketplace without getting his pockets picked, nodded to the representative of the Merchant's Guild that was lounging on the steps by his message board and reading a book, and headed back to the higher, quieter part of town, where his next errand was at the chantry.

He'd left his pack locked up in his room, but he kept his sword with him, even though he passed by the inn as he was going to the chantry. Amaranthine was a peaceful enough city, most of the time, but the ongoing darkspawn threat and the influx or refugees made it feel unsettled. Every place in the arling felt unsettled. The commander had been attacked in the Vigil itself, during a funeral. Varel was disinclined to trust in the peaceful appearance of any place, after that.

He strolled up towards the chantry at a leisurely pace. Here over Amaranthine, the afternoon sky was hazy, but the weather was quite warm, enough so that Varel appreciated the pockets of cool shade offered by the tall stone towers and the massive city wall. On the way to the chantry, he admired Amaranthine's small public garden, just a few trees and flowers set into the middle of this stony city. Kept it from looking too grim, Varel thought, which was nice.

The Amaranthine chantry, Our Lady Redeemer, was a well-kept, rich building, and Varel had always had a special weakness for its fine stained-glass windows, though now that he came walking up to the doors, he found himself more appreciative of the massive wood and iron inlays and thick bars of the door. This chantry was rich, yes, and it kept its treasures well-defended. Even if someone could bring themselves to shatter one of those beautiful windows with a well-placed rock, they were too high to climb in.

And the chantry was never empty. When Varel went in there, several townspeople were scattered on the benches, praying quietly, a templar was kneeling in a small chapel alcove to the right, and two robed sisters were tending to the rows of prayer candles. Varel breathed in. The chantry of his childhood hadn't smelled quite so much of incense, but the scent of candles and indefinable holiness was the same, and flowers just past their prime and beginning to rot in their vases.

He meant to talk to one of the sisters, but first he slipped into one of the rear benches and set his sword to one side as he bent his head and whispered a quick prayer. Before he'd gone off to Ostagar, he'd spent the whole night in prayer in the Vigil's chapel, and he hadn't been back there since; his prayers on the battlefield, and in his solitary cell, had been short and sincere, more feelings than words. Now he found himself easily falling back into the habits of a lifetime, quietly mouthing the words of the chant, only as he spoke them realizing how appropriate they were: my hearth is yours, my bread is yours, my life is yours.

Those words had always resonated with him, more than any other, prettier or more striking part of the chant. It was how he felt, first about the men who led him, then about the men he led. Everyone at the Vigil. Everyone in the arling. They were his to protect, and he belonged to them.

And now, also, to the commander.

Varel knew that his loyalty and strength would have been in the commander's service, no matter who the commander had turned out to be. But this, what he felt now, this was more than that. He was still devoted to the Vigil and to the arling of Amaranthine, and he wanted to protect every man, woman and child there, but when he thought about the commander, that calm certainty turned brighter, hotter, more intense.

The chantry of Our Lady Redeemer certainly wasn't the right place to think about why. Varel tried to clear his mind of thoughts of the commander, for the time being. He stood up, took his sword, and walked forward, intercepting a sister just as she was about to go back into the side room where the holy relics were kept. She knew nothing about Jordin, but she brought him a priest who had seen Mother Disa speaking with someone who might have been Jordin. The priest knew nothing more than that, and Mother Disa herself was out.

"Ministering to the poor," the sister said. "She has such a generous heart beneath that stern exterior of hers!"

Just as Varel turned to go, resigned, the revered mother herself came out of her private sanctum and immediately headed for them. She looked at Varel and tucked the corners of her mouth in. "Hasn't the chantry done enough for Vigil's Keep?"

Varel remembered her when she was just Leanna, the cooper's third daughter. He supposed it was impressive that she'd risen so high in the chantry without having a noble family name to lean on. But he didn't like the ungenerous piety she leaned on instead. "I'm looking for the messenger who brought the letter about the funeral," he said. "He never came back to the Vigil."

Revered Mother Leanna sniffed. "And you thought we were keeping him here?"

"I hoped someone here could tell me where he went." The idea that Jordin would still be in the chantry hadn't actually occurred to him. Jordin had never struck him as particularly devout, and the chantry would not offer any protection against Varel's wrath if he found Jordin ignoring his duties in a corner here.

"You can wait for Mother Disa to return, if you like." Revered Mother Leanna didn't look very enthusiastic about the idea. "I never spoke to the poor man myself. He may have fallen a victim to the many dangers of the road."

"I heard someone saw darkspawn at the edge of the Plains," the sister said breathlessly. That could have been fear in her voice, but to Varel, it sounded more like excitement. "Oh, Your Reverence, you don't think they killed him?"

"Perhaps he has gone to the Maker's side," Revered Mother Leanna said. "We must pray that he is safely delivered from the dangers of the Void."

"Or perhaps he's gone to the nearest tavern," Varel said. "A lot of people have been up and down that road since Jordin went out, myself included. If he fell there, someone would have found him."

"But they say the darkspawn drag people away," the sister said, dropping her voice to a sensationalist whisper, "and eat them."

"We must hope that the Maker holds his hand over Amaranthine," Revered Mother Leanna said, "since the new arl is neglecting his duties to his people."

"The commander's not neglecting the safety on the roads, if that's what you're worried about. The Vigil's got regular patrols of soldiers along all the major roads of the arling," Varel said, keeping his voice level and reasonably polite. "Would you like to see the patrol schedule?"

Revered Mother Leanna looked sour. "Farms are burning and people are suffering," she said. "And clearly the patrols aren't enough, since this poor man Jordin was eaten."

"There's no evidence that he was eaten," Varel said. "More likely he's drunk off his head somewhere in the city. Meanwhile, the commander and all the wardens are out killing darkspawn in Amaranthine's defence."

"Ooh, I'll pray for their success," the sister said, showing the same enthusiasm for this as for everything else. "And I'll pray for the Vigil's patrols!"

"Thank you," Varel said, bowing his head to her. "I know the men will be happy to hear that."

Revered Mother Leanna pinched her mouth together again. "Vigil's Keep ought to have a priest," she said. "Say what you like about the Howes, they always had a priest in their chapel, and kept a place for her at their table, in the proper manner."

"Yes, the Vigil ought to have a priest," Varel agreed. "I'm right glad to hear that you feel that way. We'd be happy to get regular services again. There'll be a formal request made, as soon as things are more settled."

Revered Mother Leanna looked even more displeased, but she nodded, one small jerky nod. "Perhaps one of our younger sisters will be ready to ascend to the full rank and responsibilities of a priest by then," she said. She eyed the sister at her side. "But I couldn't reconcile my conscience with sending anyone unwilling into such a perilous situation. Sister Lathine here has shown a keen understanding of the terrors that threaten the arling. It would be understandable if she hesitated to brave the dangers of a fortress full of magic-users and crude soldiers to spread Andraste's words."

"Oh, I would love to do that!" the sister said enthusiastically, which clearly wasn't the answer that Mother Leanna had been expecting at all. "Ooh, do you think I'll be ready? I'd work so hard!" She looked guilelessly up at Varel. "Everyone at the Vigil must be so brave! Aura told me about the wardens and the way they battle the darkspawn, and the--"

"Yes, yes," Revered Mother Leanna snapped.

The name Aura sounded familiar to Varel, and he ransacked his memory. He could hear it spoken with a faint Orlesian accent, in the commander's voice. "Aura -- you mean the warden Kristoff's wife? I heard that she was staying here at the chantry."

"She was," Revered Mother Leanna said.

"Such a lovely woman." Sister Lathine looked wistful. "She only left us a couple of days ago, because she discovered that the wife of another warden was staying at the Crown and Lion inn, and she thought they ought to be together and lend each other strength in this trying time."

"I fear that she was lured away by worldly considerations," Revered Mother Leanna said disapprovingly. "It would grieve me to think that she chose to value the physical comfort of an inn over the spiritual comforts of the chantry, but it cannot be denied that she spoke longingly of them."

"They do have very nice baths at the inn," Sister Lathine said. She looked even more wistful now, and Varel deduced that Our Lady Redeemer could perhaps do better in that respect. Judging by Lathine's accent and way of speech, she must have come from a relatively well-off family before she joined the chantry.

"I must take my leave," Varel said, before Revered Mother Leanna and Sister Lathine could get into the matter of bathing facilities and the lack thereof. "If you should happen to see Jordin," not that he thought that was likely, "please tell him to report to me as soon as possible, if he wants to keep his job."

Varel walked out of the chantry as a low-voiced discussion broke out behind him about whether a plain ewer of cold water and a washcloth was really a reasonable substitute for a hot bath. If that was Revered Mother Leanna's notion of chantry hospitality, he couldn't blame this Aura for trying the inn instead. Doubtless it was more expensive, but there'd be hot water and a brand new lock on the door.

He paused on the steps outside and considered what else he could do to find Jordin. Varel had no desire to visit every cheap tavern on the waterfront to search for his delinquent messenger. He didn't think Jordin was worth the effort, but at the same time, Jordin was one of the Vigil's men, in a way, at least until Varel fired him. Varel looked at the statue of Andraste for inspiration, but nothing came to him.

Going down towards the Crown and Lion inn again, he came across some urchins playing in the street, tossing a battered doll to each other and chanting a rhyme that sounded halfway familiar to him from his own childhood, although he seemed to remember that in his day it was an optimistic one, two, Meghren's run through instead, at least when no Orlesians were nearby. He listened to them for a few moments and then called one of them over -- a boy who could have done with either a hot bath or the diligent application of a washcloth -- and told him he could earn a few silvers by running around the dockside taverns and checking for a man named Jordin.

"An' I'll come tell you if I find him," the boy nodded. "I can do that."

"Come tell me if you don't find him, too," Varel said. "I'll pay you when you report back to me."

The boy grinned and saluted, very badly, and ran off.

Varel strolled down slowly through the town again, stopping at the guard barracks, where he left a message for the Vigil soldiers, telling them at what hour tomorrow they were leaving. Then he returned to the inn. He would have liked to have taken a mug of ale to sit outside and listen to the passers-by, but the inn kept all its business, and all its tables and chairs and mugs, indoors, even in summer. Varel tried sitting in the common room for a while, but company was thin as yet, and the air felt stuffy.

He went back to his room and opened the window, then lay on the bed with his arms behind his head. This trip to Amaranthine had gone reasonably well, he thought. The Vigil had both a housekeeper and a carpenter again. Lilian might be a little unaccustomed to the scope of her new job, but Varel thought she'd settle in well. Alane was more than qualified for hers, judging by her quarrel with her former employer, and she'd probably take on an apprentice for the simpler jobs soon enough. That was good. Trained at the Vigil had been a byword for competence in the arling once, for soldiers and house servants and artisans alike, and Maker willing, it would be again.

The air coming in through the open windown smelled of city dust and insufficiently cleaned back streets. He'd barely done anything today, just walked around Amaranthine and talked to people; all the same, Varel felt disinclined to get up and shut the window again. He shut his eyes instead, as if that would help, and thought about the commander.

If it could be called thinking, when you imagined the softness of someone's mouth, the sweet clean scent of their hair.

Closing his eyes was definitely a mistake, as Varel discovered when he was woken up again by a brisk knock on the door. "Ser! Ser, there's a boy here asking for you!"

He sat up and sent two of the cushions to the floor as he swung his legs over the edge of the bed. "I'll be right there," he called back rustily. Varel picked the cushions up again and swung his sword into place on his back; not that he thought he'd need it for talking to an errand boy and getting dinner at an inn, but he wasn't about to leave it behind here.

Outside the room, the boy stood idly swinging one arm back and forth, as though it were an entertaining toy that just happened to be attached to his shoulder. He looked up accusingly when Varel stepped through the door. "You said you'd pay me when I came back!"

"When you came back and reported to me," Varel agreed. "So tell me what you've found, and then I'll pay you."

The boy grinned. "Guards took your man," he said. "Stuck him in a cage till he sobers up. He owes a lot of money down at the Mermaid. And the Sailor's Fancy. And old Hob's."

Varel sighed and rubbed at his forehead. "Of course he does." And just how Jordin was going to pay his debts was going to become even more of a pressing problem for him once Varel had released him from all further employment at the Vigil, because they weren't going to give any messages to be delivered to a man who went off and spent money he didn't have on liquor and whores instead. Varel got out the promised silvers, then looked at the boy. "One more thing," he said.

The boy looked back, unimpressed. "You said you'd pay me!"

"I'm about to pay you, you little brat. I'm about to pay you four silvers more than I intended, and for that extra money, you'll run up to the chantry and tell them what you just told me." Varel put the coins into the boy's dirty palm. "I got the impression that the revered mother was quite worried about Jordin, so you'll be relieving her mind."

The boy made a face. "Like I'd want to be nice to her," he said. He actually tried to hand some of the pieces of silver back. Varel was impressed.

"Tell Sister Lathine, then," he said. "Or anyone up at the chantry, except the chanter, because I don't believe Jordin got drunk and the guards took him is in the chant, so she won't be able to pass the message on."

"No," the boy agreed with a snigger. He closed his hand about the coins Varel had given him. "All right, I'll do it. You can go back to sleep now, old man."

He ducked out of range of Varel's half-hearted slap and ran off, laughing. Varel locked the door to his room and went down to the common room at a more sedate pace. The room had filled up quite a lot since the last time he'd been through, crowded with people laughing and talking and complaining about their co-workers, or spouses, or personal finances. None of the complaints sounded very serious to Varel, more like the kind of cheerful grousing people liked to engage in at the end of the day with a mug of ale in their hand.

Roffel was busy tonight, so Varel ended up sharing a table with a party of merchants who'd just brought a caravan in successfully; their laughing and grumbling was all about the dangers and discomforts of travel, but they also had a few things to say about their route that Varel found particularly interesting.

"Waste of money, hiring those extra guards," one said. "I guess those rumors about trouble in the Wending Wood were just rumors, after all."

"The Wending Wood?" someone shouted from the next table. "That place is full of bandits!"

"No, darkspawn!" someone else shouted.

"I heard," a third man said with the careful enunciation of the very drunk, "I heard it was walking trees."

There was a burst of laughter at that, and a hard-eyed woman cuffed the man on the back of the head. "Trees don't walk, you fool."

"We came up that way," the merchant said, "and it was quiet as a nobleman's garden."

Varel leaned forward just enough to draw attention to himself. "The arl took a company of fighters that way a little while ago," he said. "Cleared out the trouble."

"What, all the bandits?" the hard-eyed woman said. "That was a big job."

The drunk man blinked. "What about the trees?"

"I don't know anything about walking trees," Varel said, extremely glad that no one had mentioned dragonlings. Or met any dragonlings. "But the arl wants the roads to be safe for travelers. Glad to hear it's working."

"Waste of money," the merchant muttered again, but then he waved a waitress over for more ale, so it seemed he wasn't feeling too terribly poor. "But we'll make up for it with the cotton."

"And the coronation bunting!" another of the merchants said with a cheerful, gap-toothed smile. "Genuine souvenirs from the coronation of King Alistair!" He looked optimistically at Varel. "Don't suppose you want one, ser? Certificate of authenticity included!"

"I'll pass," Varel said. "Glad to hear the roads are safe, though."

"All those extra guards and not a single bandit," the first merchant said. "Not that I wanted bandits!"

"You're lucky you didn't get darkspawn," the hard-eyed woman said. "You seen all those refugees at the gates? That's not from the Blight. We've got darkspawn right now." She looked at Varel. "Your arl better do something about that, now he's cleared the bandits off the roads."

Varel nodded. "You're right," he said, "and he will."

He spent the evening there in the common room, nursing a tankard of ale once he was done with his food, and listening a great deal more than he talked, though he was always willing to add in a few words about the Vigil's road patrols and their arl's hard work on behalf of the arling. The darkspawn couldn't be argued away, though, and Varel didn't even try. Swords made better arguments against darkspawn than words.

When his ale finally ran out, he didn't feel like getting another one. The merchants had moved on, and the conversation in the common room now was about ale-brewing in one corner, and the unexpectedly low price of meat in another, from what Varel could hear. He already knew about the meat, and he didn't really care much about the ale. Varel considered trying to turn the talk towards darkspawn, or refugees, or Bann Esmerelle, to get a clearer idea of how the feelings ran in Amaranthine about those topics, but then again, the fact that no one was talking about those things at the moment was a sign in itself. It seemed Amaranthine was worried about the darkspawn, concerned about the refugees, and didn't care much about the bann.

Varel pushed his empty tankard away and got to his feet, and threaded his way out between the tables, heading for the stairs in the back. Once again, he nearly collided with a waitress, who was trying to manage the steps with two full trays and bad shoes.

He dodged around her, got up on the landing, and was just about to head down the back hallway when he heard a woman's voice say, "I'm tired of hearing about the wardens and their duty."

Varel stopped and turned around, leaning one shoulder against the wall. He saw two women facing each other inside a half-open door, one a brunette in simple clothing, the other a blonde whose dress suggested better finances and possibly greater pretensions. "Then you should not have married a warden," the blonde said, a faint hint of Orlais in her voice. "You must have known how important duty is to them, and how important their duty is to the world."

The brunette scoffed. "That's not what I got married for. Keenan made it sound like respectable, steady work. I thought we were going to stay in Jader and start a family."

"It's very difficult for Grey Wardens to have children," the blonde said slowly. "Did Keenan not mention that? Kristoff warned me before we were married. He said we might never have children of our own, but I don't care about that."

This must be Aura, then, Varel deduced. The pious woman who had made such an impression on Sister Lathine; Kristoff's wife, who wrote concerned letters to the commander.

And the name Keenan was familiar, too. One of the wardens who had disappeared after the attack on the Vigil, if Varel remembered rightly, taken by the darkspawn, which generally did not end well for anyone.

"No, he ruddy well did not mention that," the brunette said. Her face twisted. "I thought it was me, that I couldn't... He never said it was a warden thing."

"Perhaps he thought you knew," Aura said, "but it is not common knowledge, I would have thought."

"Keenan talked about his duty to the wardens, but he never explained exactly what that meant. He never even asked me before he said we had to come here to Amaranthine, just when I was settled down in our place in Jader. Had the kitchen garden planted and everything. And now I'm here." Her dismissive gesture took in the room, the inn, the city. "Back in Ferelden again."

"Yes," Aura said, looking around. "This inn must be an uncomfortable place for you to live. Could you not be closer to your husband when you came here? Surely quarters for married couples could have been arranged at the Vigil."

"Oh, yes," the brunette said. "Yes, Keenan said that was all taken care of, one more thing I had no say in. He thought I would live with him in some poky little room in that big fortress in the middle of nowhere. At least the city has people. And shops."

"But all of them are people you don't know," Aura said, "and none of them your husband. How could you prefer being here to being with him?"

"He thought he could make all my decisions for me, and I was tired of it. Tired of being treated as some kind of auxiliary warden, when I thought I was his wife." Her voice was low, quiet and collected. "And if I'd been living there with him, I'd be dead now, wouldn't I, same as him."

That seemed fairly likely to Varel, not that he was about to offer his opinion. He stood very still where he was, in the shadow of a bookcase, and listened as Aura said, "I am sorry. I didn't mean to remind you of his tragic fate."

The brunette made a sound, the kind of snort that usually meant someone was pushing their tears away. "Oh, to the Void with it. I wish he had just talked to me. It's too late now."

Aura came closer and put a hand on her arm. "I have upset you. Please, come and sit down. It comforts me to be among my husband's things while I wait."

"Wait for that polite elf to bring you condoleances," the brunette said, turning inward grief into outward hardness, "like he did for me. You can't think your Kristoff's still alive."

"I won't give up on him," Aura said, her voice breathy and soulful. "Not until I know for certain." She went on more steadily, "And Commander Andras is thorough as well as polite. I do not like him, but I know he will search for Kristoff until he finds the truth."

"Why don't you like him?" the brunette said. "I thought you felt nothing but respect and admiration for the wardens, unlike me. He's polite, you say he's thorough, he's pretty enough to look at, if you like elves."

"Well, he is a mage," Aura said. Her tone made it very clear how she felt about mages. "And there were rumors about a scandal of some sort when he was younger."

"Really," the brunette said, sounding more interested than bothered by this. "What kind of scandal? He didn't look very scandalous to me. Prim little thing."

Well, she was right about that, Varel thought. The commander did look prim and proper, and nothing about his appearance or the way he carried himself in public suggested anything scandalous or outrageous.

"I don't know for certain," Aura said. "I should not talk about this. If there has been sexual misconduct in his past, I am sure there is none now. But the thought makes me uncomfortable."

"The thought that he might have had sex at some point? People do that, you know. Even mages and Grey Wardens." The brunette's voice grew momentarily louder. "You're blushing. I'll just shut the door. You're unreal, you are. Tell me, did you and Kristoff even share a bed?"

The door closed on those words, so Varel never heard the answer to the question. He was starting to think, like the brunette obviously did, that this Aura might be a little too spiritual for her own good. At the same time, he shared the suspicion that Kristoff was dead, because the man would likely have heard about the attack on the Vigil by now, and returned to find out the fates of his fellows, if it had been at all possible.

And most of all, as he made his way back to his room, Varel wondered what those rumors mentioned might be, and what kind of sexual misconduct would create a lingering scandal that even a woman like Aura mentioned. She didn't seem like the kind of person who sought out gossip about other people's intimate affairs. And even Keenan's dark-haired widow, who did seem like the kind of person who appreciated a bit of gossip about misadventuring libertines, thought the commander was too proper to be convincing in the role. Varel wondered if the commander had once offered to someone else what he had apparently offered to Varel, and if the resultant misunderstanding was a scandal in and of itself. The Maker knew the commander's mouth was difficult to resist.

Varel unlocked the door to his room and stepped inside. He wasn't thinking about the commander's mouth on his cock. He was thinking about the commander's kisses.

There was no point in idle speculation; he wouldn't find out anything just standing here, he wasn't about to go back and knock on Aura's door and ask her for clarification, and whatever the commander wished to tell him, well, that conversation was in the future and wouldn't come any sooner for Varel fretting about it. He stripped himself resolutely, cleaned his teeth, and went to bed.

Varel slept well enough, but all the extra sleep over the past two days caught up with him, and he woke even earlier than his usual hour, when the first chantry bell sounded and the staff of the inn began to move about. Someone outside his window did something noisy with a bucket, someone else called out in the distance. He got up and splashed some water on his face, and dressed enough for modesty before he headed for the privy.

There was only staff about in the inn, no other guests, either on Varel's first short trip from his room or on his second, when he had sword and armor on and was ready for another day of lengthy walking. Breakfast wasn't done yet, the waitress told him, sleepy-eyed, but she brought him fruit and cheese and yesterday's bread and a bit of cold meat. Probably better than the porridge the inn's cook hadn't gotten around to, Varel thought.

He settled his bill with Roffel and managed not to wince at the cost of the brandy. Not as bad as it could have been. "Are you sure you won't stay longer?" Roffel asked, probably angling for another evening of brandy and gossip. "We can hold the room for you."

"I'm sure," Varel said. "I need to get back to the Vigil. I'll stop by the next time I'm in the city." Not that he knew when that might be. He didn't make a habit of going into Amaranthine on his days off, the way he knew some of the younger men did. Spending all his free time walking held little appeal for him. Most of the soldiers at the Vigil went a short distance inland instead, where a small village had a simple alehouse supported almost entirely on soldiers' wages.

The river farmers had never tried anything of that sort, even though they were closer, and they had to know that selling ale to soldiers was a sure way to make money. Varel guessed that they probably didn't want to deal with drunk soldiers, and the trouble drunk soldiers invariably made, sooner or later.

He left the inn and stepped out into a hazy morning, still decently cool but with the promise of heat to come. The city was in an early bustle, and as Varel walked towards the market he saw men and women carrying things, setting things out, sweeping the steps in front of their house or store. Down in the market, the fruit and vegetable sellers were already busy. Others were slower to set up their wares, but one market stall at least beckoned with a display of weapons and trinkets. Varel walked faster, both to discourage pickpockets and so he wouldn't be tempted to stop and browse. He didn't need anything, and he never knew what to do with things once he had them, and usually ended up giving them away.

Dimber and Sons, when he passed it, wasn't open yet. Varel strode past without a second look. He came up to the city walls, which never failed to make him feel small. Varel loyally thought that the Vigil had the best walls in the arling, particularly after Voldrik Glavonak had worked to strengthen them, but the walls of Amaranthine looked both solid and impressive to him. The gates were open, and well manned. This gap in the walls was like a deep shaft of cool air, where the sun never reached.

Varel nodded to the nearest guard. "Constable Aidan around?"

The guard nodded back. "He went to post some men to keep order at the well over there," she said. "Ought to be back soon."

Since Varel had no interest in seeing the well for himself, even if he was pleased to hear that Aidan was taking measures to take care of the growing refugee population, he stayed where he was, settling one shoulder comfortably against the wall and watching the morning traffic of workers and wagons. The guards were still as diligent about checking for smuggled goods as they had been the day before, but Varel saw that they had also set up a separate checkpoint for those who came seeking shelter, and the guard there did a lot of gesturing and pointing and explaining.

Aidan came walking up, already a little sweaty from whatever he had been doing over at the well. "Morning," he said when he saw Varel. "Your men will be right here."

"I'm early, I know," Varel said. "There's one thing I want to talk about." Aiden managed to look a bit more cautious without actually changing his facial expression. "You've a man called Jordin locked up for making a drunken nuisance of himself, I hear. Owes money in a lot of places, too."

"Tried to hit my guards," Aidan said. "Is he one of yours?"

"He was a messenger from the Vigil," Varel said, "but we didn't employ him to come to Amaranthine and get drunk and try to start fights. I'd appreciate it if you could let him know that he needs to find another job."

"I'll take care of that," Aidan said with a small half-smile that hinted he'd be more than pleased to do it.

Alane came up pushing a hand-cart, a small one, piled high with what Varel guessed was most or all of her belongings. She nodded a greeting to Varel and settled down to wait next to him. Out of her workman's apron, she wore clothes that were very plain, but clean and unpatched, and the rolled-up sleeves of her shirt showed well-muscled arms. Varel wondered how long it would be before the first optimistic soldier out at the Vigil challenged her to an arm-wrestling contest. They had at least stopped asking Dorith, once they realized that the laundress could pick them up and wring them out and hang them to dry.

When the second chantry bell rang, Varel's soldier escort appeared in good order. He did his usual check: yes, they still had their weapons and armor, and they had no visible wounds. Not that he would have expected them to get in a fight here. He looked for Lilian, and saw her hurrying up, slightly hampered by a large basket, with two bundles tied on her back. "I apologize for being tardy," she said, although the strokes of the bell had barely faded from the air.

"This is Lilian, the Vigil's new housekeeper," Varel said, "and Alane, the new carpenter. Someone take that basket before she drops it."

One of the soldiers plucked the basket from Lilian's grip. "We'll just put it on the cart here," he said, "and the elf can push it for you."

Varel sighed. It was the same man who'd suggested breaking down the door of the river farmers' cottage. "Put everything on the cart," Varel said, "if you can make it fit. We'll all take turns with it. You can start, Arbar."

"Yesser," Arbar muttered. "But ser, the elf is right there." He didn't even sound resentful, just confused.

"The Vigil's new carpenter is right there," Varel corrected.

"And I wasn't hired to freight goods for anyone," Alane said, mildly enough. She managed to wedge Lilian's basket into a small gap, and gestured for her to put the bundles on top, tying them to the cart rather than tying them to herself. "Is this going to be a problem?" Alane looked from Varel to Arbar.

"For him, possibly," Varel said, "but that's nothing for you to be concerned about. I assure you that's not how you'll be treated at the Vigil. Let's get going."

Alane looked a bit thoughtful, and Varel wouldn't blame her for wondering if she'd been a bit too hasty in accepting his offer of a job. She came along easily enough, though, and he trusted that actually being at the Vigil would show her that Varel was right in his assurance. He was pleased to see that the women started talking to each other as they walked along, getting to know each other, and most of the soldiers joined in after a while, talking about what the Vigil was like from their perspective. Only Arbar stayed quiet, even after he was replaced on cart-pushing duty. Varel kept an eye on him. He didn't know why Garevel had sent this particular man along, and he wasn't best pleased with him. Arbar seemed to have all the undesirable qualities that Varel thought Rendon Howe would have approved.

The morning grew hotter as they went along, and it was a relief when the road was shaded by trees. Varel kept an eye on the others, particularly the women he'd just hired, who were presumably not used to this kind of walk at this kind of pace. Everyone seemed to be doing well, though, keeping up their easy conversation and trading off at pushing the cart almost before Varel could nod at them that it was time.

At first, close to Amaranthine, they met several others on the road, mostly farmers bringing in goods; heading up the ridge, they had to move out of the way for a merchant caravan, which reported safe travels all the way from Denerim, although something on this last stretch of the Pilgrim's Path had the mules spooked. After that, they met no one, and the road was quiet. The smoking farmhouse in the distance, when they passed that stretch, had burned out, and barely a bird chirped in among the trees.

They had gone about two thirds of the way to the Vigil when they were attacked. The road passed through an open stretch of grassland, with a slope down towards the Plains on one side and an outcropping of rock hiding the view of the sea on the other, and just where the open land gave way to woods again, a small band of darkspawn lay in wait, imperfectly concealed by the bushes.

Varel's sword was in his hands without a thought, and he moved forward, taking point. "'Ware their blood!" he said. "Alane, Lilian, back up. Marjen, guard them. Arbar, to your left!"

"I see them," Arbar said, and the darkspawn came charging in.

It was only a small group, thankfully, and none of them emissaries. Darkspawn magic would have been troublesome for them to handle. Varel had vivid memories of the kind of havoc an emissary's fireball could wreak on an unsuspecting line of soldiers, and these men weren't trained to stand against magic-users on their own. Plain fighters, though, they could handle. At least fighters as sorry as these. The darkspawn had aggression on their side, but no discipline and little skill, and they squinted uncomfortably in the bright midday light. Varel cut down a genlock without any difficulty, and then faced off against a larger, stronger hurlock in better armor, who put up a bit of a fight, but didn't have the technique to back up its optimistic charge against him.

In this encounter, it became obvious why Arbar was with them. He might be a walking example of soldierly brutality and prejudice, but he was an excellent fighter, far more skilled than any of the others, laying about himself with sword and shield in a quick, efficient manner. Between them, he and Varel made short work of their attackers, both the genlocks that made up the bulk of the group and the two hurlocks who appeared to be its leaders. Though Arbar and Varel had never fought together before, they fell into an easy rhythm, with the great arcs of Varel's sword and the shorter stabs of Arbar's weapon pressing the darkspawn back and whittling them down -- quite literally, Varel noted as an arm went flying.

Fighting changed his perception of time and his awareness of his body. Varel felt utterly present, every moment sharp and clear, and he moved without hesitation through air that seemed to buoy him up and drag his enemies down into slowness. Practice bouts would sometimes let him approach this state, but he never entered it fully unless he was fighting in earnest, facing an enemy rather than a friend.

When the last enemy fell before them, they turned back towards their companions. Alane and Lilian stood backed up against a broad tree-trunk, with the cart shielding them on one side, and Alane had her hammer out, though with its comparatively short reach, Varel suspected it would not make a very good weapon against darkspawn with swords. The other soldiers were fanned out around them in a loose half-circle.

Only one genlock had made it past Varel and Arbar, and it lay dead at Marjen's feet. "Good work," Varel said, and he nodded at Arbar, because it was undeniable that the man had fought very well. "Is anyone injured?" The soldiers just stared at him blankly, still caught up in the tension of the attack and the fight, and he resolved to keep a close eye on them. "Don't touch the--"

From behind a tiny bush that Varel would have sworn could not hide a rabbit, a shriek blurred into motion, screaming defiance as it flung itself in a whirl of long black limbs at the soldiers and the women behind them. The soldiers were so taken aback by its sudden appearance, and by the shrill scream, that they stood frozen in place. Before the shriek could leap on Lilian, Varel swung his sword in a sharp upwards sweep, and caught it over what passed for its hip, knocking it to the ground.

Arbar jumped forward, dropping his shield, and used both hands to drive his sword down and cut its head off. Blood gushed out, then stilled.

As if a great rushing noise had suddenly stopped, Varel could hear his own breaths again, and Lilian's quiet sobbing. She stood pressed up against Alane, both of them staring at the headless shriek with intense revulsion. "Is it dead?" she said.

"It's dead," Varel confirmed, as if anything could live with its head a good foot away from its body. "Don't touch the bodies. Get stout branches from that deadfall over there and push them together, then we'll burn them."

"They don't deserve that," Arbar said, echoing the feelings of many soldiers Varel had heard before, mostly at Ostagar. Burning the darkspawn was like honoring them, and no one wanted to give these creatures any honor.

"No," Varel agreed. "But they'll spread the taint in the land if we leave them to rot. Nothing grows right on tainted ground. Clean your face," he added, because that last spray of blood had gone straight up.

Most of the soldiers at the Vigil came from farmer stock, and they understood the necessity of protecting the land and keeping it fertile. They worked with Varel to move the darkspawn bodies into a pile without touching them, while Lilian and Alane shifted the cart out of the way to a sensible distance, and gathered smaller dry branches to make sure the fire would be easily started.

Alane lit the fire, once everything was ready, and they all stood and watched it catch and burn. The smoke was dark and greasy, and though there was almost no wind, everyone carefully stood to the lee, trying to get as little burning darkspawn stench as they could on themselves.

"Might as well sit down," Varel said after a while, and nodded at a few boulders pushing up at the foot of the higher rocks that blocked their view of the sea. "We'll have to wait until the fire's burned down, make sure we got everything, and put the embers out."

This had added several hours to their trip, he realized, and they had no food, either. That had been careless of him, setting out without proper preparations. At least they carried water. Perhaps if another caravan came past, they could buy something to eat.

"We have to stay here?" Lilian said uncertainly. "With that smell?"

Varel nodded. It was a dreary business, but they couldn't just walk away from it. As much as he was grateful that the darkspawn hadn't included any emissaries in this group, he wished even more fervently that one of his own companions was a mage, someone who could start a fire that burned fast and hot, then put it out cleanly. After all, magic was meant to serve man, he thought with a quiet snort, and surely nothing served man as much as the destruction of darkspawn.

At first everyone was quiet and worried, and kept looking over at the fire, but gradually they began to talk, although Varel noted that Arbar hung back a bit from the group. When Alane produced a deck of cards from her handcart, he relented enough to join the game with the rest of the soldiers. Only Lilian and Varel abstained. She fell asleep leaning back against the rocks, and he sat quietly keeping watch on the fire, to make sure it burned only what was wanted, and on the card game, to see that no one took a loss too seriously.

Many rounds of cards later, something moved on the road in among the trees, and Varel snapped upright, ready for another attack. It turned out to be a couple of caravan guards, though, scouting cautiously ahead to find out the source of that dark smoke. One of them recognized Varel, and waved to bring the wagons on ahead. This was a small caravan, not more than three wagons and a couple of pack animals. All the mules shied away from the fire and the darkspawn stench, even with guards at their heads.

The guards and merchants were friendly enough, particularly when they realized that the soldiers from Vigil's Keep had cleared the road of a pack of darkspawn that would likely have attacked them otherwise. They offered bread and dried meat, and wouldn't even take any money for it. One man did attempt to sell a skin of wine to one of the soldiers, but Varel put a stop to that. Sitting around and waiting and playing cards was no doubt boring, but for one or more of the soldiers to get drunk as well would not improve anything. Varel had no intention of dealing with the troubles that could arise from that.

Waving goodbye to the caravan as it moved on, Varel and his men continued to sit and do nothing while the fire burned itself down. A large part of being a soldier, Varel reflected, was the ability to wait and wait and wait, and to be prepared all the time for the moment when the waiting was over. He thought this would do his men nothing but good, but he was sorry it had to happen when they were escorting Alane and Lilian. The women bore up uncomplainingly, though, and Alane managed to win enough at cards that the soldiers finally suggested arm-wrestling instead.

That was sooner than Varel had expected, and he left them to it, going over to check on the fire, which was burning low now. He added another couple of dry branches to make the remaining flames spread out to one side, where he could still make out something that looked like a foot in a leather boot. Arbar came up next to him, using a stick to poke the foot deeper into the fire. "Smells like shit, ser," he said.

Varel nodded. "That they do, living or dead."

"The fire's dying down. We could leave now, be back at the Vigil in a couple of hours."

Varel's brows drew together. "Do you make a habit of questioning your orders?" That might be one more reason why Garevel had sent the man, just to get him out from underfoot for a couple of days. "I'll explain it to you, since you have trouble understanding it on your own. We're not leaving a fire while it's still burning. And we're not leaving while any part of those darkspawn remains unburned. Plenty of ways the taint can spread. Travellers come through here, and might get curious enough to poke around. If an animal is hungry enough, it might even try eating darkspawn flesh."

"Eat those creatures?" Arbar looked revolted. "Can't believe even carrion eaters are that stupid."

Varel heard them before he saw them, the next group to come along the road, also from the direction of the Vigil. Armor clanged, booted feet marched steadily, voices exchanged cheerful comments, and when the patrol from Vigil's Keep came out from the woods and onto the open ground, Varel greeted them with an unsurprised nod. "You're a welcome sight," he said.

The patrol leader, one of the older and steadier soldiers, took in the fire and the smoke and the interrupted card game. "Darkspawn, ser?"

Varel nodded. "Stay here and watch the fire," he said. "If there's anything left of them after it goes out, start another fire on top. I'll send out more men from the Vigil as soon as we get there. We're bringing back a new housekeeper and carpenter, and they didn't hire on to watch darkspawn burn."

"No, ser." The patrol leader saluted. "We'll take care of it, ser."

There wasn't much to pack up, only the playing cards and the remains of the food that the caravan had given them. Soon enough, Varel's little group was on the move again, following the road at a steady pace. Varel kept wanting to give the order to move faster, but then he reminded himself that he had Lilian and Alane and the handcart to consider. As he had already told the patrol leader, they hadn't hired on to watch darkspawn burn, and they hadn't hired on for a forced march, either.

The darkspawn attack had kept them seated and in the shade for the hottest part of the day, which was a small blessing to go with its considerable inconveniences, but the afternoon was hot enough. The women were sensibly dressed for the weather, but the soldiers in armor looked just a trifle uncomfortable when the road had long sunny stretches. Conversation between them all was easy now, though there wasn't much of it, just a comment here and there about the road, the occasional view, the way someone's boot chafed.

Varel considered the presence of darkspawn on the biggest and most well-travelled road in the arling. He'd really believed that the Vigil's patrols, and the wardens' less formal but quite frequent outings, were enough to keep the roads reasonably safe. To see that the darkspawn were this active, and in the middle of a sunny day, no less, was an unpleasant surprise. He couldn't blame the people of Amaranthine for being concerned. He was concerned. The commander needed to stop this somehow.

In the meantime, there was no way to create more soldiers and wardens out of thin air, but perhaps they could change the patrol schedule a bit.

More hours for soldiers on the road would mean fewer hours for soldiers somewhere else, though. Varel knew that Garevel had planned out the patrol schedule as carefully as he knew how. The Vigil needed her guards, and the soldiers needed their arms practice. But they had to stop the darkspawn. Amaranthine was a rich and prosperous arling, with its trade and its fishing and its cattle, and relatively little touched by the Blight, being so far north. Varel had spent most of the Blight imprisoned, but he'd heard his guards talking, and the ones who secretly sympathized with him had talked to him. It seemed to him that the danger from darkspawn, here in Amaranthine, might be greater now that the Blight was ended. There was something wrong in the way the darkspawn kept on coming to the surface and following some plan of their own. The darkspawn, without an archdemon to lead them, should not be capable of having a plan.

At least that's what all the old stories claimed. Varel resolved to ask the commander about it. A Grey Warden should know, if anyone did.

Closer to the Vigil, they had to wait while two women and three dogs drove a flock of sheep over the road. Both Lilian and Arbar leaned against the handcart for support during the wait, so Varel went over and offered them water. Lilian drank gratefully, but Arbar shook his head; he had a waterskin of his own that sloshed reassuringly.

The homely smell of sheep drove out the last memory of the smell of burning darkspawn from Varel's nose. They met no one else for the rest of the way, although he raised his hand in silent greeting when they passed the path that led down through the nut orchards, in case the river farmers were watching them from farther down.

Outside the Vigil, Maverlies was in charge of another archery training session, and they halted in the road until they were certain everyone had seen them and lowered their bows. Varel hoped the soldiers had learned to shoot at least in the general direction they aimed, but he wasn't willing to take chances, particularly not with Lilian and Alane, who wore no armor. Maverlies called out a greeting, and they all moved up to the gate.

"I know you said... I didn't think it would be so big," Lilian said nervously.

"That's what she said," two of the soldiers chorused, and Lilian looked less nervous as she glared at them.

"You won't have anything to do with these louts," Varel said, cuffing the nearest soldier on the back of the head, "or with these outer parts of the Vigil. That's for Captain Garevel and his sergeants and the groundskeeper to deal with. And Master Voldrik, currently." Coming into the bailey, he saw that Voldrik and his assigned men were already hard at work, setting out what they needed to change and reinforce the wall. "And me," he added as he got a closer look. "Wait here, please."

Varel strode over to Master Voldrik and asked him if access to the watch tower would be blocked from now until the building was completed, because that was not acceptable. The dwarf gesticulated with his roll of ever-present architectural plans. "I can't have your soldiers running around here, getting in the way. This work needs precision."

"And the Vigil needs her defenses," Varel said. "That tower isn't just ornamental. We fought a darkspawn band on the road to Amaranthine, a couple of hours from here. The Vigil needs strong walls, yes, but those walls have to be manned. You can block off the tower when you start building, not before."

Voldrik scowled. "I didn't realize the 'spawn came so close," he said. "You'll have your guards."

At least dwarves could be counted on to take the darkspawn menace seriously. They wouldn't panic, but they understood necessary precautions. Varel approved: he had noticed both at Ostagar and later that most people would react strongly and fearfully at first, and then grow reckless in a disturbingly short span of time.

He went back and collected his small company, and led them across the bailey, then stopped at the stairs and considered the handcart. Now that the old carpenter's shed was full of Herren and Wade's wares, Alane couldn't very well set up shop there. Varel tried to remember where the actual carpenter had done his work, back when the Vigil had a carpenter. Finally he shrugged and led Alane and the others over to a small house close by that was full of old dog cages and equipment. It still smelled faintly of dog when he got the door open, although it hadn't been used for many years.

"Leave the cart here," Varel said, "and just bring your most necessary personal things for the time being." Lilian got her bundles, and Alane made up a bundle of her own with a swift efficiency that Varel could have wished on most soldiers.

He locked up the building again, and they went up the stairs and into the courtyard, which was busy as usual. Varel dismissed the soldiers, and asked them to tell Garevel that Varel would be coming to speak with him later. They saluted and went off to the right, where the gates to the soldiers' courtyard stood open.

"Could I see my sister now?" Lilian asked. "Or do you have immediate plans for us?"

"No, that sounds like an excellent idea," Varel said. He couldn't very well hand the pair of them over to the housekeeper, after all. But now he was back in the Vigil, where he didn't have to do everything for himself; that was a relief. Varel waved over the nearest unoccupied workman and told him to help Lilian with her bundles and basket and take her to Dorith. Then he turned to Alane.

"I don't have a sister here," she said, deadpan.

"I'm sure we can find you someone's sister," Varel said, as if bandying words with a fellow soldier, and she guffawed. "It's been a long time since the Vigil had a carpenter, but I'll take you to see what's left of the workshop, and the private quarters, so you can start setting things up the way you want."

"The sleeping quarters are part of the workshop?" she asked.

"No, but close by." Varel strode off, adjusting his step the way he would for the commander. Alane still moved briskly, despite the long walk, and he barely had to slow down along the way. The old carpentry workshop was inside the Vigil proper, though it opened onto one of the narrow airwell courtyards, those oddly angled spaces that had been left open when the Vigil had expanded.

Varel opened the door, and as soon as he took a step over the threshhold, a wave of dust rose up to meet him. Alane, just behind him, sneezed. "A lot of tools are still here," she said, and Varel thought she sounded pleased at that, though it was hard to tell when the words were so thickened with sneezing.

"I'll send a couple of people tomorrow to help you clean this out," Varel said. He backed out again before he could start sneezing, too. "The living quarters are over here. There's no connecting door. The old carpenter used to complain about that in the winter."

"I won't complain," Alane said, and her voice was still thick, but she sounded sincere. Varel, too, would have preferred it this way, without sawdust getting in his bedding.

This door was locked, and as Varel unlocked it, he wondered if anyone had been in here since the old carpenter died. The air didn't smell bad, though, just still and stale, and the dust wasn't nearly as heavy here as in the carpentry shop. It was a simple room, with a bed, a table and a chair. The bed had been stripped down, and the floor was bare. There were no proper windows, just long rectangular openings high on the same wall as the door, with shutters on the outside. Varel stepped back and stretched up an arm to see if he could reach them, and shoved them open. On the inside, the openings were covered with thick, bubbly glass panes, and the room became a lot lighter.

Varel considered the room, now that he could see it better. "That's good furniture," he said. "The carpenter probably made it for himself. I don't think the new housekeeper is ready for her duties yet, but one of the maids will come help you get this fixed up. Here's the key. I'll see you at dinner."

Alane looked a bit overwhelmed, but she nodded, and Varel left her setting her bundle on the table and starting to go through the contents. He headed for the outside of the Vigil again, but by a different route, going down to the kitchens. As he'd hoped, he met a maid along the way, Tione, and asked her to help the Vigil's new carpenter with bedding and bedclothes, and directions to bathing rooms and latrines and the dining hall. "Yes, ser," Tione said. "What about the laundry? And the way back out," she added, dimpling.

"Whatever you think will be useful," Varel said. Alane wasn't a dwarf, and he didn't want to add the new carpenter to the people who kept taking wrong turns and getting lost in the Vigil's winding hallways. "We have a new housekeeper as well, but she's not settled in yet. You'll meet her later, but this needs doing right now."

Tione curtsied and ran off, and Varel continued to the kitchen, where he looked in cautiously to find out if Hansa was still in a temper about the templars eating her fancy food. Lebbeth saw him first and offered a cautious grin from behind a mound of chopped leeks. Hansa came out from behind the door of a small back storage room, carrying three stacked pots, with the handle of something sticking out of the topmost one. "Back again already, are you?" she said. "You missed lunch."

"I know," Varel said. "I came to tell you that I've hired a new housekeeper for the Vigil, as well as a carpenter. So there'll be two more people to feed, both for dinner today and from now on, but you won't have any more extra duties to take care of."

"Well, and that's welcome news," Hansa said. "It's about time. Two more won't hardly make a difference, unless you think they eat like templars."

"I shouldn't think so," Varel said.

"Who is this new housekeeper?" Hansa set the pots down on the kitchen table with a loud clatter. "Some fine lady down on her luck? It's to be hoped the Vigil won't be too rough for her, then, all wardens and soldiers."

"No, she's Dorith's sister. Worked as a housekeeper for a family in Highever before. She'll fit in here well enough, seems like to me." Varel saw no need to mention that the work Lilian had done before had been on a smaller scale. The Vigil wasn't so different from any other ordinary household, except that it was so much bigger. Either Lilian would fit in here and take well to the work, or she wouldn't. "We'll meet with her tomorrow, you and I and Woolsey, to go over what we've been doing and what her duties will be, so nothing gets overlooked."

Hansa nodded. "After breakfast? The girls here can take care of the cleanup, I'm sure. And Lebbeth, you'll get started on lunch for the soldiers." Lebbeth chopped an emphatic yes. "Well, then." Hansa reached out and took an apple from a bowl and shoved it into Varel's hand. "Don't be late for dinner, now."

The apple was crisp and tart, another of this year's early harvest, and Varel munched it appreciatively as he went out the back kitchen door and across the kitchen garden. Between the apple now, and the bread and dried meat from the caravan earlier, he thought he'd last comfortably until dinnertime, though he hoped that dinner would be something he was happy to eat a lot of. All this walking had certainly given him an appetite.17

In the soldiers' yard, when Varel stepped out into it, a line of men were drilling with two-handers, under Garevel's supervision, swinging and turning and thrusting with increasing precision. Varel nodded his approval. Those simple motions had to be so well-practised that the body did them of its own accord, because in battle, there would be no time to think about the next move before doing it. Not if you wanted to live to fight again.

Garevel saw him, and shouted out an instruction for the men to keep it up as he strode over. "The men said you encountered darkspawn on the road, coming back."

"That we did. Just at the clearing past the turnoff for Littleman's Cove." Varel frowned. "I don't like this," he said. "The darkspawn are acting wrong."

"Everything about them is wrong," Garevel snarled. "But I know what you mean. They should have retreated underground a long time ago. The rest of the country is at peace and rebuilding, but here in Amaranthine, it's as if the Blight is starting over again." He stopped short. "It's not, is it?"

"The Archdemon is dead," Varel said. "Angharad Cousland gave her life to make sure of that. And the head's still on display in Denerim," he added. He'd have burned that entire carcass, if it had been left to him, but Varel knew people wanted to see the enemy and know that it was dead. Not so different from putting a traitor's head on a pike over the city gates, except that dead traitors couldn't spread the Blight sickness.

"We'll have to go over the patrol schedule," Garevel said, and Varel nodded. "And talk to the commander, as soon as he gets back." He rubbed at his forehead. "He told us he killed those creatures in the dwarven ruins under the Knotwood Hills, broodmothers, the ones that give birth to the darkspawn. But there are more darkspawn coming all the time."

"Yes," Varel agreed glumly. They had to be coming from somewhere, and something had to be driving them up on the surface. And it was the wardens' responsibility to stop them, but it wasn't as if Varel and Garevel and the soldiers of Vigil's Keep could just stand by and do nothing. The whole arling was in trouble, and the whole arling needed to work together. "And we'll get Sigrun to talk to the men," he said. "The Legion of the Dead must know how to avoid the taint."

Garevel huffed and nodded. "That's good, but you should be there, too," he said. "You and the men who came back from Ostagar with you. All of you are living proof that humans can fight darkspawn, here in the ordinary human lands, and live."

"I'm not sure reminding people of Ostagar helps with that," Varel said. Nearly everyone in that ill-fated battle had died there, after all.

"They'll need reminding that humans can fight darkspawn and live to tell the tale," Garevel said. "A lot of people died at Ostagar, but you can stand there and look alive, can't you?"

Varel had eaten the apple core and all, and now he tossed the stem over his shoulder. "I can do that," he agreed. "I should probably get to my office. We can look at the patrol schedule later, when you're free."

"Be a crime to sit indoors on a day like this," Garevel said. "You could take over the training here, and I'll join in the group. Unless you're too tired." He belatedly seemed to remember that Varel had just walked from Amaranthine, and fought darkspawn along the way.

"Better if we do it together," Varel said "in case I'm overcome by fatigue. You can pick me up when I fall."

Garevel snorted. "You never fall."

Varel could feel both the long walk and the fight in his body, that was true, but going through the familiar motions of a drill was relaxing, if anything. This was what he missed most about not being captain any more, though he wouldn't have given up his position as seneschal for anything. Training others, building their skills and seeing them improve -- it gave him a deep sense of satisfaction. He liked correcting this woman's grip and that man's posture and seeing the direct results in the way they moved. With every swing and every thrust, he was improving their chances to survive and succeed. Building their strength meant building the Vigil's strength.

The Vigil still needed more soldiers. More soldiers, and more wardens. Sometimes it was hard to remember, with the courtyards seemingly full and the market busy, but Varel knew that Garevel had simply shut down a couple of soldiers' dormitories and one entire barrack, and inside the keep, the rooms once assigned to the Orlesian wardens echoed emptily.

They needed more men. They needed to be stronger. The darkspawn attack on the Vigil had made them vulnerable, and the commander wasn't getting the support from the arling that he and the wardens both needed and deserved.

Varel slowed his breathing before he could get too annoyed and move too fast for the soldiers following his movements. Slow and steady was the only way to go, but he did pick up the pace a little towards the end, just to see who could keep up with him. Garevel, of course, that was no surprise, but several of the soldiers did better than he had thought they would.

Varel nodded to them, and then called a halt to the exercise before anyone who couldn't keep up accidentally damaged anyone else. Learning to use a two-hander could be a hazard to the surroundings. Varel still remembered his own first wild swings, and his youthful conviction that as long as he was strong enough to wield his weapon, he was invulnerable. It hadn't taken him that long to learn, though, that he wasn't, and neither was everything around him.

With sweat beading along his hairline, Garevel secured his own weapon and barked orders at the soldiers to do likewise. He picked two of the group to lead the others in weapons care, and made it clear he expected to see all of them polishing and sharpening the next time he looked. As they saluted and trooped off, Garevel turned to Varel and clapped him on the shoulder. "Seems you're over that feeble old man nonsense," he said, "between this and the fighting demonstration we did before you left. You could run these children into the ground, Varel."

"They'll get better," Varel said. "They're improving already." He couldn't deny, though, that even after the day he'd had, they had not entirely been able to keep pace with him. "But I'm not sure that fellow with the teeth should be using a two-hander at all. He'd be better off with sword and shield."

"Yes," Garevel agreed, "and so I've tried to tell him. He says he's already spent so much time with the two-hander and he's getting good and doesn't want to start over."

Varel snorted. "You've set a difficult example for the men," he said. "They all want to be like you, and use a two-hander because you do. It was the same when I was captain of the guard," he said before Garevel could, "but under Rullens, all new recruits were convinced they'd make great sword-and-shield warriors."

"He hit them over the head and told them to use the weapons he chose for them," Garevel said. "I think he had a point."

"Just don't hit them too hard." Varel enjoyed the feeling of his sword-hilt in his hands, the way his palms and fingers curved so naturally around it, but now he reluctantly slung the weapon on his back again. "I'm off to get cleaned up before dinner. We can go over the patrol schedule and the assigned guard duty tomorrow."

"Fair enough," Garevel said. "But it doesn't look like you have time for a bath." He nodded to where Lebbeth was coming across the yard with a huge pot in his arms.

"Andraste's arse." Varel realized the hour was much later than he'd thought, and his stomach rumbled. "I meant to--" Then he remembered. "Lilian! Oh, Blight it."

"Who?" Garevel looked around.

"New housekeeper," Varel said. "I should have shown her to her room, and helped her get set up, and instead I came out here once I had the carpenter settled. But she's been with her sister, Dorith, so at least I didn't leave her standing about in the courtyard."

"It's high time we got a replacement for Davila," Garevel said and got to his feet. "I'll come inside for dinner, so I get to meet her. And the carpenter, too."

They gathered up all the papers on the trestle table and put them away in Garevel's poky little office, which he almost never used, and had a very quick wash-up in a splash of water, which was a far cry from the leisurely bath Varel had hoped for. Then they went round the longer, front way, because trying to slip in through the kitchen just at dinnertime wouldn't be popular with Mistress Hansa. Leaving the soldiers' yard, they met a lot of soldiers coming into it, heading for their dinner. Trade was still brisk at Herren and Wade's shopfront, whereas Edwer was starting to shut down for the evening, packing away potions and price lists. Varel led the way up the steps and into the main building.

The great hall was empty, with just the fire in the big fire pit burning very low, and Varel frowned. The wardens hadn't been part of life at the Vigil that long, certainly not this particular set of wardens, but things were very quiet when they were gone, without Sigrun browsing the bookshelves and Anders and Nathaniel Howe squabbling by the fire and Oghren--

Well, truthfully, Varel didn't miss Oghren being sick in a corner. He thought he could live without that. But the great hall was quiet, and the fire in the firepit seemed entirely wasteful, particularly given the season. It went against the grain with him to leave a fire unwatched, but they'd already decided, he and Garevel, that guards in the great hall were a waste of manpower when they were needed elsewhere.

But with no guards, no people at all in the hall, and late-summer heat, the fire wasn't just unwatched but unwanted, and there was no reason to leave it burning all day and night as if it was the chantry's sacred flame. Varel wasn't sure when the ashes had last been cleared out, either. He realized that this would fall under the housekeeper's duties from now on, and his frown fell away. It would be a great relief, in many ways, to have all the indoors work at the Vigil properly attended to again.

Passing the firepit, Varel looked up at the ceiling for the first time in many years, and winced at how soot-blackened it was. That would have to wait for later. It was no worse than in any other lord's great hall, and probably a great deal better than many of them, but he thought it would not look well if old soot flakes fell down into the hair, or worse still, the food of those who were coming to meet the commander. The commander being who he was, he wouldn't be able to laugh it off with a reference to old Fereldan traditions; it would seem as if he disrespected both his guests and the fortress and country he lived in.

"Later," Varel said and stretched his legs to move faster.

"What will be later?" Garevel matched his pace. "Whatever it is, it had better be after dinner."

As they made their way down stairs and hallways, Varel explained that the ceiling of the great hall needed to be scrubbed clean of a layer of soot. Garevel just laughed and reminded him of all the times they'd seen the soot break free and fall like black snow, both here and in other places. Firepits might be old-fashioned, and not to be seen in newer houses, but in an old fortress like this they were only to be expected.

"Yes, but people won't laugh it off when their host is Orlesian," Varel said. "Remember the chevaliers at Larrenden, and the mud."

As Varel had thought, Garevel was familiar with the story, and scowled in response. "Ruined everyone's finest clothing for fun, and laughed about it. Said it would all have been rags in Orlais. Well, we can't have that, you're right. We're lucky Lord Guy didn't come out of the first oathtaking with a stain on his shirt and use it to rally even more people against the commander."

Varel nodded. The incident at Larrenden had been pivotal, as ridiculous as it seemed, to bring people to join the rebels. Orlesians making fun of Fereldan customs and Fereldan clothing, Orlesians treating Fereldan nobles badly -- there was no question of how people would react to anything resembling that, and if the commander tried to laugh it off when soot fell on his guests, that was not going to turn out well. Better to get Alane to fix the ladders, so everything could be safely cleaned.

The dining hall was full of people when they got there, and the absence of the wardens didn't feel as noticeable here, with so many others talking and laughing. Varel spotted Dorith and Lilian and made his way over to them. They were both cheerful and calm, and Lilian looked as if she'd recovered from the trip and from seeing the darkspawn. "Do you want to take over the room the former housekeeper lived in," Varel asked, "or would you rather be close to your sister?"

It didn't surprise Varel to hear that Lilian preferred to be close to her sister, and he had no difficulties in assigning her a suitable room. He was looking forward to being rid of these duties, though. Once Lilian was settled into her role as housekeeper, she would be the one who decided where anyone coming to the keep would be staying, the one who made sure rooms were clean and aired out, the one who dealt with the maids so they knew where to bring water and clean bedding.

Just then, Tione and Alane came in, apparently on excellent terms, and Varel busied himself with introducing Lilian and Alane to several of the people they'd be working with in the future. He thought it was just as well the wardens were away for the time being, or the women would have had another lot of names and faces to learn all at once.

"Sit down and eat," Garevel said eventually, after Varel had made sure there was a meeting arranged for tomorrow with Woolsey and Hansa and Lilian, and himself, of course. "You won't get everything done tonight, and your pork slices will get cold."

That was true enough, and Varel only spared a glance to make sure that the newcomers were both settled and had food before he gave his attention to his own plate. It was a good thing he liked leeks, since Hansa had apparently put them in everything today.

While he ate, Varel went over in his head everything that needed to be done now. Once Lilian was settled into her work as housekeeper, in would make things much easier for him and for Woolsey and Hansa, as well as others at the Vigil, but in the short term, it meant more work for them as they had to make sure she had her duties clear and was equipped with everything she needed.

Varel put his knife down and intercepted Alane before she could leave the dining hall again, Tione at her side. "Tomorrow morning," he said, "start going through the carpentry workshop to see what's there and usable, and what needs to be bought or made. I'll come see you a bit later in the day to talk about some simple repairs that need doing."

Alane nodded. Varel sat down again, and found that both pork and leeks were, in fact, cold now.

"Fine-looking woman, this Lilian," Garevel said in a low voice. "And she's not married, is she?"

Varel shrugged. "I never asked," he said. "Doesn't seem that way." He took a closer look at Garevel. "I'm sure she'll tell you."

"And you hired an elf for a carpenter," Garevel went on. "Looks like she could wrestle bears, that one." He pushed his plate away. "Rendon Howe would never have agreed to it."

"No," Varel said. Rendon Howe had been very clear on his views of where elves stood in relation to him, which was at the opposite end of the social hierarchy, and also preferably as far away as possible. The few elves working at the Vigil were all outdoor staff, and Varel suspected the only reason Samuel had risen to the position of groundskeeper was that Rendon Howe had considered it an unimportant job, and his wife had never taken any interest in having a garden.

If she had, Varel had no doubt the Vigil would have had what she considered a proper gardener, a human gardener, and Samuel would be pulling weeds in a dark corner somewhere.

"Well, he's not here to see it," Garevel said. "And I suppose the commander will approve. About the patrol schedule--"

"Tomorrow," Varel said. "I'm not making a new patrol schedule over dinner. I'll see you about it tomorrow, after I see Hansa and Woolsey and Lilian, and after I talk to Alane."

Garevel snorted. "Sounds to me like you'll have a busy day."

Varel couldn't argue with that, but right then the scullions unexpectedly brought in baked apples for dessert, so he was distracted from his plans and concerns. They sat long in the dining hall, even after the apples were gone and the dishes scraped clean and removed, talking about nothing much, and Varel was deeply amused to see that Garevel kept stealing looks at Lilian over Varel's shoulder for as long as she was there.

He made his habitual turn of the grounds, managed to keep out of the way of anyone who might fancy they had business with him, and went to bed early.

The next day began in a reassuringly routine way, with the morning drill, a quick bath, and porridge for breakfast. Plain porridge, so Varel suspected his days of fancy little treats were indeed over, until Hansa forgave him for the templars, or he managed to save the commander's life again. He supposed he could live without pats of butter or chopped apples on his porridge, as long as it meant that the commander could also live without regular attacks from assassins.

Of course, now that the commander was away from the Vigil and off in the Blackmarsh, dealing with whatever had ensnared Kristoff, he was presumably getting himself into the kind of danger that had little to do with assassins, and wasn't anything that Varel could try to protect him against. Varel wrenched his thoughts forcibly away from that path, because he knew the commander was quite capable of protecting himself, was probably the most dangerous man Varel had ever met, despite his unassuming appearance.

Worrying about what might be happening in the Blackmarsh wouldn't get any work done here at the Vigil. Varel finished his porridge and went to get the keys to the housekeeper's room. Lilian was already waiting outside, Woolsey and Hansa joined them shortly, and they all settled down to go over the duties of a housekeeper at the Vigil, what the three of them had taken on themselves, what the maids had been doing to keep things in order, and what Lilian's responsibilities would be. It was a long list, and Varel was pleased to see that Lilian looked resolute rather than overwhelmed. She asked sensible questions, too.

He could tell that Woolsey was cautiously pleased with his choice, and Hansa more openly so. They'd help Lilian get the initial assistance she needed, or at any rate not hinder her as she learned to create her own schedules and routines along with the maids. That was the next step, and Woolsey undertook to bring Lilian to the maids' room and introduce her to her closest staff. Hansa had to get back to the kitchen, and Varel turned all the appropriate keys over to Lilian, and went to see Alane.

Loud clattering and a certain amount of swearing was coming from inside the carpentry workshop. Varel poked his head in cautiously to see Alane, sleeves rolled up, in the middle of a cloud of dust. When she heard him come in, she turned around and sneezed. "Seneschal," she said. "This hasn't been used in a while."

Varel nodded. "It's been upwards of fifteen years since the Vigil had a real carpenter," he said. "Are the tools still good to be used?"

"Most of them," Alane said. "And there's some wood back here that's decent, but there's also stuff that's been badly stored, and warped. I hope you weren't counting on having anything made from that."

"I didn't even know it was there," Varel said. "Maybe there's something you can use to fix the railing outside."

"I'd better get a look at it first," Alane said, and they went down to the courtyard. It was a clear day, even hotter than the day before, and the few clouds were low on the horizon and looked far away. The steady clanking of Wade's hammer echoed around the stone walls, and a couple of people from the nearest village were already browsing Yuriah's wares.

Varel led Alane through the inner gate and gestured at the right-hand railing along the stairs leading up to the platform. "I think the wood must have dried out," he said. "You can see where it's cracked, and the slats are working loose, and I don't think I gripped it all that hard."

Alane shot him a look of startled amusement. "Looks like you're quite strong," she said. "You weren't really trying to break it, were you?"

It would probably be better, Varel thought, not to mention that he'd broken the railing because he'd been having some very suggestive thoughts about his commander -- thoughts that had seemed entirely inappropriate then, and that he hadn't really given himself the time to revisit since the commander had kissed him.

And this wasn't the time to revisit them, either. Much as he wanted to. "No," Varel said. "It was an accident." He put a hand on the railing and jiggled it slightly, feeling it move in his hand. The sensation of rough wood reminded him of how he'd gripped it then, angry and aroused, and he firmly told himself not to let his thoughts go in that direction again. "Master Voldrik's having most of this rebuilt in stone instead, as you can see, but we could still do with a railing, and that would have to be wood. You'd better talk to him about the best way to make it all fit together. That's him, with the big roll of plans, down there."

"I don't suppose there's a lot of dwarves at the Vigil I could get him mixed up with," Alane said.

"Well, there's his brother," Varel said. "And Oghren, but it's impossible to get Oghren mixed up with anyone else."

"If you say so." Alane sounded unconvinced, but that was presumably because she hadn't seen, heard, or smelled Oghren yet. "I'll be off to talk to him right now, then."

"He doesn't think much of anything done in wood," Varel remembered to say. "Don't take it personally. I noticed you left the dining hall early last night. You missed the baked apples for dessert."

Now Alane just looked startled, not amused. "The kitchen here serves dessert to elves?"

"The kitchen here doesn't serve dessert all that often," Varel said truthfully, "but whatever's served in the dining hall is meant for everybody there. The soldiers might get plainer fare, but right now, the only person who gets fancier food is the commander. Who is an elf," he added, as if she might have forgotten.

"I do like baked apples," Alane said. Then she shrugged. "Maybe some other time, then. Does the Vigil have its own fruit orchards?"

"No," Varel said, "but the next village does, and they deliver here. We just have a few quince trees bound up in the sunniest spot by the kitchen wall. The former lady here was very fond of quince jelly."

"Isn't that terribly bitter?" Alane made a face. "A friend of mine tried to eat a quince once, and he said it tasted awful."

"It's different when they're cooked," Varel said. "The lady was a bitter person, though, so I reckon it suited her just fine." He shared a fleeting smile with Alane, then sobered. "I've business with the captain of the guard, here in the soldiers' yard. If you need assistance in carrying things out from the workshop, after you've come to an agreement with Voldrik, just talk to the sergeant there." He nodded towards Maverlies, who had conveniently come out into the courtyard and stood talking to Herren. "She'll find workmen for you."

Varel waited to see Alane nod acknowledgement, and then he went to find Garevel, who turned out to be eager enough to work at the new schedules that he set aside the business he was occupied with and gave Varel, and the patrols, his full attention.

Coming up with a new schedule took them the rest of the morning. They worked at a trestle table Garevel had set up in the shade of a wall, which was much more pleasant than sitting indoors, even if they had to weight the corners of some papers with their gloves to keep them from fluttering away in the breeze.

As Varel had suspected, the patrol schedule was already tight, and the only way to get more patrols on the road would be to either cut down on the Vigil's guards, or let the men get their training on patrol rather than in the practice yard. "And I don't like that idea," Garevel said. "We won't do the arling any favors by sending out our newest recruits half-trained to die against darkspawn or bandits. We need more experienced men, but they won't get experienced unless they live long enough."

The number of guards assigned to key points in the Vigil's defenses was the same as always, and neither Varel nor Garevel favored the idea of cutting down on the gate guards or the tower lookouts. They had already removed some of the guards from positions inside the Vigil, the ones that were just ornamental, strictly speaking, and whose presence had done little except make the Howes feel important.

"Let's just hope Voldrik is right about those barrier doors," Varel said, "and that the Vigil won't be attacked from the inside again."

Garevel groaned. "No. No, it won't be. And if we are, I will personally take that dwarf and stuff him head-first into the maw of the largest ogre I can find."

"You might be too busy for that," Varel said. He tapped a finger against the paper in front of him, willing the numbers to grow. They didn't. "We can't cancel their free days and tell them they have to patrol instead. They won't stand for that, and I wouldn't expect them to."

"It might come to that," Garevel said. "If the darkspawn keep coming closer and closer to places with more people -- it's bad enough that they burn an isolated farmhouse, and what if it's a whole village next time? Commander's orders are to keep the roads open and the people as safe as we can, but we just don't have the men we need. Haven't had the time to think about recruitment either."

"Maybe we should," Varel said. "Times like this, people want to sign up if it means they get a weapon in their hands."

"And half of them won't know which end is which," Garevel said. "Mind you, that sheepherder fellow the commander decided to be lenient with is shaping up well."

Varel had to think for a moment before he remembered the incident: a young sheep farmer stealing grain to feed his family, and the commander's unexpected decision to recruit him into the Vigil's forces rather than punish him for the theft. "That's good," he said, "but I don't think we can consider that as a long-term recruitment strategy. We don't have enough grain."

"Fellow ought to have been hanged," Garevel said, though without any real heat to it. "But he wasn't, and now he's on his way to being a good soldier, so I won't say anything more about that."

They shuffled the patrols around some more, trying different solutions for patrolling and guarding and training that would somehow create either more time or more soldiers, and finally settled on a solution that wasn't much better than the schedule they already had, but at least no worse than that, either. It did let them put a few more patrols on the road.

"You'll tell the men, then," Varel said.

"Of course I will." Garevel eyed him. "They'll want to know everyone's day off is safe. And when was the last time you had a day off?"

Varel shrugged. "I had some easy days while I was recovering from being shot in the arm."

"You were working about as much as you always do," Garevel said. "And you were shot in the arm." He reached out and prodded Varel's forearm, which had very little effect through the armor. "But that seems to have healed up well."

"It wasn't that much of an injury," Varel said, "and I got a lot of healing. Barely noticed it after a couple of days." He glanced up at the sun. "I'll take some time off right now, if you like, and sit here until it's time for lunch."

Garevel looked unimpressed, as well he might, since he barely had the time to tidy the papers away before the food arrived. Varel, watching the procession of scullions with pots, thought there had to be a better way; there was a kitchen in one of the closed buildings, and as soon as Lebbeth took over as a full-time cook for the soldiers, Varel would ask him to move his work out there.

He went into the mess hall and ate with the soldiers, listening with half an ear to the way they groused about this and were enthusiastic about that; near as he could tell, the main concern was who had gotten to try out the new armor and who hadn't. Maybe, Varel reflected as he crunched down on a carrot, the Vigil ought to start sending patrols out in the new armor, to make it more visible, to make the soldiers more visible, and to increase enthusiasm about patrolling, at least for a while, and make it seem like more of a reward and less of a chore.

Suggesting that to Garevel got a distracted nod, and then a thoughtful look, so Varel left the matter in the captain's hands and took himself off after lunch, intending to get a good look at Voldrik's planned wall reinforcements, and the revetment around the platform in the bailey. However, when he came out through the inner gate, he saw that the dwarf and his workers were still on their break.

Varel meant to leave them to it and come back later, but when he looked down past them towards the outer gate, he saw that the gate guards there were talking to a couple of people. One was the old woman Varel had bundled herbs with a few days ago, and the other was a wiry fellow who might be her son. The river farmers had come.

He strode off down the bailey to meet the old woman and the younger man, who was unfamiliar to Varel, not someone he'd met in the village before. The old woman was leaning on his arm, and her walk was slow and hobbling, but her eyes were bright as she greeted him. "So I don't suppose you told them we were coming," she said. She sounded quite different from when Varel had met her earlier, her speech clearer and her words coming easily. "Your guards there questioned us as if we'd come to murder the arl in his bed."

"I didn't know for certain you were coming," Varel said, "though I hoped you would. We've had assassins here trying for the arl, so we've learned to be cautious about who we let inside the walls."

"If those assassins looked anything like me, they can't have been very good," she said. And it was true that she still looked like the same age-bent old woman, although she sounded much sharper, now, as if she'd been disguising her self before to seem as harmless as possible. "I'm Carla, and this is my son Vidar. We came here hoping to find out what happened to the people from our village who went missing."

"Sounds like it was nothing good," Vidar said. He had a curt, low-voiced way of speaking, but he didn't look unfriendly, just very reserved.

"No," Varel agreed. "Would you come with me up to my office? I've lists there of the people who were found imprisoned in the Vigil's cellars. We've been wondering for a good while now how to find out who they were."

On the way up there, he asked one of the maids for tea. River farmer visitors wouldn't normally rate that kind of reception, and he was fairly sure the request for tea would turn into one of Hansa's special herbal tisanes along the way, but Varel liked those better, truth be told. And this was likely to be a tense and unhappy meeting, so he really thought having something on hand to sip and be calmed down by would be a good idea.

He took one of the longer ways around to his office, rather than going through the great hall, which would serve no purpose other than to intimidate Carla and Vidar, even when it was empty. That wasn't his objective today. Carla had trouble with the stairs after a while, and Varel slowed down so she could take her time, and offered his assistance at the end, though she just shook her head and kept her grip on Vidar's arm.

They barely had time to step inside Varel's office when the maid came with a teapot and mugs on a tray. Mistress Hansa must have had water on the boil. Varel poured for all three of them. As he had suspected, it was a tisane, the kind he liked best. They sat down, and Varel brought out the lists.

What followed was a painful hour, as Carla and Vidar put names to several of the hitherto nameless list items -- such as man, about forty, thinning brown hair, missing lower front teeth, or man, about twenty-five, short blond hair, six holes for earrings in the right ear -- and turned them into people. "He'd been to Rivain," Vidar said. "Did it on a bet. I don't suppose you have their things left."

Varel shook his head. "Not that I know of. They didn't have anything on them when they were found." Those things might be in one of the many unlabelled crates somewhere in the Vigil's cellars, or they might have been shared out, or sold off, or destroyed. There were no records that he'd been able to find. The untidiness of it grated at him, but it was unimportant compared to finally being able to identify those nameless prisoners, or at least many of them. "Tell me," he said, "why were these people, your people, imprisoned? There's no records, nothing to show why it happened."

"The arl said we owed him more in taxes," Vidar said. "That paying some in goods and work, like we've always done, didn't count any more, that he needed coin."

"Like we have that kind of coin," Carla said with quiet bitterness. It had the tired, practised ring of an argument chewed over many times.

"So people went up here to see if they could reason with him, and they never came back." Vidar gave Varel a dark look. "And fools that we were, we sent more, to ask what had happened, and those people never came back, either."

"Then we stopped asking," Carla said. "Some of his bully-boy soldiers came down and hammered on our doors, took every copper we had and broke one of Saskia's windows that her da spent so much on. We worried about our houses, because we couldn't pay what they said we had to, but then the arl went off to Denerim and never came back."

Vidar grimaced. "Good riddance."

When Carla and Vidar hesitated over one description, which was a bit too vague for them to say yes or no, Varel sent for one of the soldiers who had been responsible for collecting the bodies and making these lists. She didn't look too happy about having to think back on that again, particularly not with the two river farmers looking at her as if she'd killed those people herself, but she did remember the particular person they wanted to know more about. "Sort of wavy hair, yes," she said. "And eyebrows that only went halfway, like." She gestured with one thumb at her own face to illustrate.

"That sounds like him," Vidar said bitterly. "That's all of them, then. All the ones we wondered about. All the ones we lost."

Varel wrote down the names on the list. "Thank you," he said. "We wondered, too. Rendon Howe had much to answer for."

"And now there's a new arl." Vidar turned his tea mug this way and that. "You say he's a good man, and I hope you're right." He looked up at the soldier, who stood by the door and waited to be dismissed. "What do you say, eh? What's this new arl like?"

"Void-bedamned scary," she said at once. Varel blinked. "Looks like a small pretty elf who wouldn't hurt a fly, and then he just," she made a gesture as though calling up magic. "Tough but fair, I'd say, and he works hard, he's not one of your namby-pamby Orlesians like my ma told me about."

Carla made a thoughtful noise. "You think he'd like some good Fereldan fish?"

The soldier shrugged. "Don't know, do I? But I surely would."

She left when Varel dismissed her, grinning insouciantly, and Carla and Vidar only stayed long enough to finish their mugs of tisane. Varel walked them down all the stairs of the Vigil, moderating his pace to Carla's cautious hobble, and when she hesitated on the last steps down to the bailey, he caught her and swung her down to the ground, steadying her until he was sure she had her balance.

Carla looked up at him with a wry smile. "Thank you," she said. "My, you're a strong one."

Varel shook his head. "Mistress, you weigh less than my sword does."

The sound of vigorous hammering filled the bailey, as Alane was busy fixing the railing. Varel saw Carla and Vidar off, and hoped it wouldn't be long before fish deliveries to the kitchen resumed. He walked slowly back towards the Vigil's entrance, turning things over in his mind. It was good to get matters cleared up with the river farmers, and although it was lowering to find out that so many of them had suffered in those secret cells, it was at least something to have so many of the nameless prisoners identified at last. Varel resigned himself to the fact that he probably never would have the names of every last one. Rendon Howe was gone, and those special bully-boys of his with him, the soldiers who had found particular favor with him because they'd been happy to execute his more unpleasant orders.

There was too much Varel didn't know, from the time he'd spent as a prisoner, and it nagged at him like a pebble in his boot every time he came across the results of things that had happened when he wasn't there to see them done. All he could do now was try to discover the things Rendon Howe had ordered that still had repercussions, that would have an effect on the commander's rule of the Vigil and the arling.

He went inside, back to his office, and caught up on the small daily business that had accumulated while he was in Amaranthine. The next thing for him to do was to find a good way to talk to those soldiers Garevel had pointed out to him, the ones who had gone to Highever and come back again, the ones who would likely hate talking to him about it. It needed to be done, for all that they'd balk at it and Varel would hate it himself.

Maybe he could get them to understand that he didn't blame them, and that he wasn't trying to shame those who had fallen there, that leaving them to silence and letting their fates vanish into obscurity would be a greater shame.

The next day saw the beginning of a process that would go on for several more, and the Vigil turning into a whirlwind of dust and soap, as Lilian and the maids began to clean it seemingly from top to bottom. "I'm sorry to be causing such a ruckus," Lilian said, when Varel met her at lunch. "I've just always found that the best way to get to know a place is to give it a good thorough cleaning."

Varel was pleased with this sign that she was working to settle in, and pleased, as well, with the signs he saw that many small daily tasks were still being taken care of, rather than neglected while the maids were busy with dustrags and brooms. Both Lilian and Alane seemed to have slotted right into their positions at the Vigil, taking up some much-needed duties. And watching them here in the dining hall, Varel saw that Alane was already fast friends with Tione, while Lilian talked easily to her sister and to Woolsey, of all people, and oversaw the maids with a firm eye. It seemed they would fit in well both as workers and in their off-duty hours.

When Varel left the dining hall, it was with the intention of going down to the soldiers' yard and making himself busy there, perhaps to look over some training schedules while he kept an eye open for the men he needed to talk to. But he never even made it out of the Vigil before he met Garevel, who came storming into the entrance hall with a scowl on his face, took Varel by the arm, and pulled him to one side, even though they were the only ones present.

"That fool Arbar is tainted," Garevel spat. "Black lines coming up his arm already, and his eyes look a bit wrong. I thought you would take good care of them, Varel!"

That was deeply unwelcome news, as well as unsettling. Those men had been under his command. "I warned them," Varel said, thinking back on it. "More than once. And after the fight, I asked them if anyone was hurt. Arbar never said anything." He looked at Garevel's face, anger overlying deep concern. "How bad is it already?"

"It's bad," Garevel said. He shook himself, as if trying to shrug of something heavy and uncomfortable. "You can all but see it moving. Varel, I'm not sure he'll live out the day."

"It'll be more merciful if we," Varel began slowly, and then he stopped, struck by a new idea. "It might be possible," he said, thinking it out as he spoke, "to perform a Joining. I've heard that it can save those who have been tainted, sometimes." And he had enough magicked ingredients for one more dose, though he'd need the commander's assistance to make more after that. "But he might not want to attempt it."

"Reckon he wants to live," Garevel said, "same as everyone else. Can you do that?" He eyed Varel. "Put him through the Joining, just you on your own? You're not a warden."

"They trusted me with some of their secrets," Varel said, wondering if he were about to abuse that trust. "Not all of them, of course, but some. This one time, I could do it, if Arbar consents to it."

"But can you do that?" Garevel said again, changing his inflection a bit. "You're not a warden, maybe you shouldn't recruit for them."

That was a good point. The commander needed more wardens, yes, but from the discussions Varel had overheard between him and Sigrun, he'd already turned down one volunteer that he thought was unsuitable. He might have his own standards that Varel knew nothing about. And Arbar would not have been Varel's first choice for warden, either, a rough man who seemed to embody all the more dubious qualities of Howe's reign.

"I can't just let him die," Varel said reluctantly. "He might not want it, and it might not-- Well, could be it's too late for him." Being weakened by the taint already, Arbar might be more likely to die in the Joining than have his life saved by it, though being strong and hale was no guarantee, either. He could still see poor Mhairi choking and dying at his feet. "But I'll ask him. Can you have some men carry him up to the infirmary?"

"I already did that." Garevel grimaced. "They put up a fuss about touching him, had to get a stretcher. He should be up there already." He turned as Varel started to move, and fell into step beside him, going just as fast. "I don't want to hear whatever warden stuff you're about to tell him," he said, "but if he chooses to die instead, I ought to be the one to end it for him. Stupid bastard."

That was Garevel for you, Varel thought. Stubborn and angry and loyal to a fault, demanding everything of the soldiers under his command and giving all he had in return, even when the only thing left for him to offer was a quick death. They hurried through the Vigil, waving other people off when they tried to stop them for questions. The infirmary was tended, in Anders's absence, by the herbalist who had been their only recourse before. She met them outside the door, wringing her hands nervously. "He looks mortal bad," she said, glancing from one of them to the other. "I, I don't think there's anything I can do."

"Wait here with the captain," Varel said and went inside.

Arbar lay on one of the beds, which had been pulled away some distance from the others, though the infirmary had no more patients at the moment. His upper body was bare, and Varel could see the dark splotches and lines of the taint crawling slowly across his skin. Sweaty and pale, he was a disturbing contrast to the vigorous man who had fought at Varel's side. The infection had taken him quickly. At the sound of Varel's footsteps, he opened his eyes. "I don't feel so good," he said.

"No," Varel agreed. "That's why I'm here to talk to you. You have the darkspawn taint, and it's killing you." He couldn't help saying, "Didn't you listen when I warned you?"

"It was just a small scratch," Arbar muttered. "I didn't even notice it then."

Varel could believe that. A soldier couldn't stop in the middle of battle to check on every possible tiny scrape and cut, nor would the darkspawn politely lower their weapons and wait until he was done. And once the taint had hold of a person, well. He looked at the bruise-like spots coming up on Arbar's shoulder. "There's just the one chance I can offer you," Varel said, "and it's not much of one, I'll tell you that at once. If you agree to take the Joining, it might save your life. Then you'd be a warden, not a soldier of the Vigil any more, and you'd answer directly to the commander. It might not work, and then you'll die, same as if you don't take it. The captain's here to help you on your way if you say no."

"Never figured I'd serve under an elf," Arbar said. His mouth twisted. "Never figured a tiny scratch would matter this much, neither. Right, do it, then." He looked up at Varel, and his eyes were still surprisingly clear, though Garevel had been right, there was something in them that spoke of the tainted wrongness taking hold. "Suppose I'll hate it, but there might as well be something useful coming from this ugly mess." He laughed, or perhaps coughed. "That's what my ma used to call me. Ugly mess."

He was certainly that at the moment, with the taint wrecking his body, but Varel had seen him regularly for a couple of days, and then he'd just been an ordinary man with an average face, neither handsome nor revolting. Could be his mother had been talking about what was on the inside, or it could be that she just wasn't kind to her children. Varel was mostly concerned that he might be landing the commander with this fellow, an unsought recruit who had no interest in being a warden, and would clearly balk at taking orders from an elf.

Arbar might not live through the Joining, though, and Varel knew that the longer he waited, the smaller the man's chances became. He sighed. "I'll be right back," he said and went for the door. The herbalist had gone off somewhere, but Garevel paced outside, and Varel nodded to him. "He said yes. I need to go get some things. If you can stay a bit longer, I'd be grateful if you kept people out of the infirmary until I come back."

"At least the wardens might get a decent fighter out of this," Garevel said. "I wasn't looking forward to losing him, especially not by my own hand, but you'd better hurry, unless you want him to die all the same."

No one knew that better than Varel, now that he'd seen Arbar, and he did hurry, going to a small, out-of-the-way storage room in the hallway behind the great hall and unlocking the chest there to get out the Joining chalice and the one remaining vial of the dark liquid that would perhaps save Arbar's life, and change it irrevocably, if so.

Going back, scattering maids with dustrags as he went, Varel wondered if the chalice itself was really necessary, or if it just made the ritual look better. It gave a bit of heavy silver elegance to the crude act of drinking magicked darkspawn blood.

Garevel was still waiting outside the infirmary door, a stern and immovable guard, and Varel nodded to him before going back inside. The air in the infirmary usually smelled like elfroot and soap, but now there was an unpleasant tang to it, sweat and decay. Arbar looked worse, just in this short time Varel had been gone, and Varel strode over to a workbench and mixed up the dose for him, taking extreme care not to spill anything or get it on his skin.

"Do you still say yes to this?" he asked Arbar, who had pushed himself up on one elbow and was watching Varel, his face already so twisted and glazed over with sweat and pain that it was hard to read any expression on it. Arbar nodded, though, so Varel recited the words he had been taught to speak at this moment, and then helped Arbar to hold the chalice and tilt it to his lips.

Arbar's eyes rolled back and he slumped onto the bed again, his body going limp. Then his legs jerked, his arms, all of his limbs together, and he went limp again. Varel checked that he was still breathing. It was done now, for better or for worse, and Arbar would wake up again in his own time.

It was hard to imagine the commander going through this, though of course he must have. The Joining ritual was a terrible risk, which Varel wasn't really surprised the commander had taken, and it involved a complete loss of control, which went entirely counter to everything Varel knew about the man. But as secret as the Joining was, of course no one would have told the commander back then that he'd end up on the ground, twitching and flailing and losing consciousness, while others watched to see if he would live or die.

And if the alternative, for him, had been Tranquillity, he might well have agreed to it all the same.

Varel gathered up the empty vial and the chalice again and went outside. Garevel looked tensely at him. "Well?"

"He'll be a warden," Varel said.

"Then he's not my soldier any longer." Garevel's shoulders went down a bit. "I suppose with no wardens at the Vigil, you'd better take charge of him, until the commander gets back here."

Varel shook his head, because what he'd just done to Arbar had put Arbar outside the formal authority of either of them. Still, the man couldn't be left entirely to his own devices, so Varel thought he had better come up with something. "We'll see how much rest he needs," he said, "to recover from this. After that, he'll need something to do until the commander gets here. Might be the best thing if he can keep training with the soldiers, but I'll ask Lilian to make up a room for him with the other wardens."

As they started to walk off, the herbalist came scurrying up, and Varel told her to keep an eye on Arbar until he woke up, and not to worry if it took some time. She nodded, and hovered in a way that made it look as though she wanted to say something more. Varel very much preferred people who would just say what was on their mind, without having to be encouraged into it, because he rarely had the time to do any encouraging, nor the interest. The herbalist's job had been vitally important before the commander arrived and Anders took over the infirmary, though, and it was still important, because those two couldn't heal everyone, particularly when they weren't even there.

So Varel nodded to Garevel to go on and turned to the herbalist, waiting. Just when he had resigned himself to actually having to ask what she wanted, she drew herself up in a very weak imitation of the commander and said, "Ah, seneschal, there's... I'm not certain who I should talk to about this?"

"Then you should very probably talk to me," Varel said. "Is there a problem with the infirmary?"

"Not a problem, precisely," she said. "But we're running low on healing herbs, to be honest. I'm not being wasteful!" she added quickly. "But that warden, Anders, he has been teaching me new ways to make healing poultices and potions, and his are so much better. They do use up more elfroot, though."

"In that case, we should get more," Varel said. The herbalist's face lit up, as if she had been expecting him to say no. "The Vigil needs a good supply, and in times like these, I can't imagine any potion will be wasted." He looked thoughtfully at her. "You do have the authority to order the supplies you need, don't you?" It had never even occurred to him that she might not. For the herbalist not to be able to acquire elfroot at will just did not make any sense.

"We have an arrangement," she said. "The Vigil does, I mean, with a regular supplier. And it's worked perfectly well so far! But it seems the quality isn't quite what the warden is used to."

"We'll have to make a new arrangement, then," Varel said. "When the
wardens come back from the Blackmarsh, talk to Anders and decide between you what you're going to need, and how much. Tell him to talk to the commander. I will, too."

She looked half relieved and half apprehensive. "Yes, seneschal."

"The commander will say yes to your proposal," Varel said. He was not normally in the habit of making promises on behalf of others, but this was nothing so much as common sense. Healing herbs were surprisingly cheap for the effect they had, and even had the Vigil been extremely short of money, basic healing supplies were not anyone's first choice to save coppers on, particularly not in a time when darkspawn roamed the land.

His words had the effect of making the herbalist look calmer and more cheerful, though, and that was really his main aim. He repeated his reassurances a few more times, and then he left her to sit with Arbar and headed down towards the soldiers' yard. He had business there, he knew, even though after what had just transpired, he felt very little urge to track down reluctant men and have difficult conversations with them. It needed to be done, all the same, and he had told the commander he would do it.

He still put it off for some time, going to see Garevel and reworking the patrol schedule with him yet again, because of course it had to be changed and adjusted now that Arbar was off the soldier roster. Then Garevel brought up his plans for how he meant to train the soldiers over the next few weeks, and Varel found himself agreeing in a vague kind of way to doing some more work with those who used two-handed weapons.

"And I didn't tell you before," Garevel said, "because he's the kind who'd rather start a fight with himself than talk about it, but Arbar's one of the men who came back from Highever. Since he's a warden now, the commander can deal with that when he comes back."

It was very tempting to think that he could leave the entire business to the commander and let him winkle all the information out of Arbar, but Varel knew that Arbar had enough to adjust to with becoming a warden, and the commander would probably have enough to deal with, getting used to a warden like Arbar. Besides, it seemed unlikely that Arbar had knowledge of what had become of everyone during the Highever attack. He had been a relatively new soldier then, and no one would have taken the time to tell him any more than he needed to know.

So Varel went out into the yard and called one man over to help him set things up for the first of the training sessions he'd agreed to hold. There wasn't much that needed to be set up, truthfully, because they'd all have their own weapons and what they needed was enough room to swing them, but this way Varel had a good reason for talking to the man, one of those that Garevel had pointed out to him during that lunch several days ago, and they had decent privacy when Varel said, "You could help me with something."

"Thought I was already helping you with something, ser," the man said. He stuffed some of the straw dummy's guts back in place.

"This isn't an order," Varel said. "It's a question. You know the Vigil's records aren't what they should be, and we're working on setting that right. I want to find out who went to Highever last year and didn't come back." The man's face shut down. "We owe it to the Vigil's soldiers to know what became of them."

The man punched the next section of straw back in place with more force than necessary. "You want to write down the names of people who followed a traitor and ended up dead? Ser."

Varel moved the next straw dummy into place, making sure they were set up with more space between them than was used for sword-and-shield practice. "Everyone who went to Highever followed orders," he said. "And from what I overheard my guards saying, Rendon Howe told some of his men that the Couslands had allied themselves with Orlais, and would betray Ferelden." He'd tried to tell Varel that, too, when Varel had come storming in to demand an explanation for that heinous deed.

"He said that." The man spat on the ground. "Not t'me, I just heard it from, from someone else. We shouldn't have believed it. Some didn't."

Varel certainly hadn't, but then, he'd seen and heard more than the men in the barracks when it came to the Couslands, and he knew more than most of them about Howe. He'd never doubted which of them was more likely to betray the other.

That wasn't the point here, though.

"You should have been able to trust him," Varel said. "Rendon Howe betrayed his own men, too." He felt a slow wash of anger rise up along his spine. All of it had been wrong, and there was no honor to salvage from the disaster now that it was over and done with, but Varel felt no compunction about placing all the blame on Rendon Howe. He was dead; he could take it. Varel had to deal with the living. "I just want to know who fell there, and if they got a proper pyre. It wouldn't be right for us here at the Vigil to pretend those men never existed."

"I don't want to remember," the man said. "Th' newer recruits, they think they're clean as a chantry window on Summerday morning compared to us poor sods who took orders from the old arl. Better for everyone in the barracks if we just forget it."

"You wouldn't be telling them," Varel said, "you'd be telling me. All I want to know is the fate of those who didn't come back. It's not on you if they died, or if anyone deserted. I doubt the commander will track anyone down for it. Just knowing will be enough."

"So you say." The man hawked, turned his head, and spat again, but to Varel it seemed more like a play for time than an expression of contempt. "I'll tell you the ones I saw go down," he said. "I'll tell you what I saw with my own eyes. That's all, and then I won't talk about this again, do you hear?"

"That'll be fine," Varel said. "I told you this wasn't an order." He eyed the man's stance, the look in his eyes, and went with a gamble. "Tell me or don't tell me, but watch how you speak. It's not an order, but you don't give orders to me, either, private."

That got him a faint chuckle. "No, ser," the man said, sounding a bit less tense.

He gave Varel a short list of names, and Varel committed them to memory. This one had fallen by the front gates, that one had been cut down by a Highever knight right before the man's eyes, and so on. "Thank you," Varel said. "This will help."

The man nodded. "Word of advice? Ser? Don't talk to Jermyn about this. He can't afford to lose any more teeth."

"Duly noted," Varel said gravely. "Now we'll just move this dummy to line up with the others, about there."

That had seemed like a difficult conversation to him, but as it turned out, it was one of the easier. Over the next couple of days, Varel found a way to talk to all the men Garevel had pointed out to him, one by one. The first one refused point-blank to say anything about it, sitting in resentful silence and polishing up the new armor with such vigor that Varel wondered if the metal would wear thin before it was even used. The second broke into slow, awkward tears, and Varel thanked Andraste that they were taking inventory of a distant stockroom, well away from curious eyes. When the crying was over, and they were both pretending it hadn't happened, Varel did get a few names out of that man as well, including that of a soldier who had been chosen to stay and garrison Highever afterwards, but just vanished before he could take up his duties.

Deserted, probably, Varel reckoned, and since he thought the ones who had stayed at Highever had mostly been killed by Fergus Cousland's returning forces, that desertion might have kept the man alive.

The third man Varel started to talk to bared his teeth and tried to hit him, and Varel bruised his knuckles punching him out. They weren't as private as they could have been, either, just off to one side of the practice field. Fortunately, Garevel was the first one to reach them. "For the love of the Maker, what do you-- Oh."

The man began to stir, and Varel wrestled him to his feet, locking his arms behind his back. "Fool," he said in the man's ear, and then, a bit more loudly, "I'm giving you two days locked up for being drunk on duty and taking a swing at me, and then we'll say no more about that." He felt the man relax a bit, and added, "The rest is between you and your captain."

"Disgraceful," Garevel said. "Throwing a punch at the seneschal of the Vigil!" Then he spoiled the effect a bit by adding, "Don't you know any better? He's ten times the fighter you'll ever be. I swear, none of you have the brains of a mabari puppy."

Varel dragged the man off and wondered if he might not as well talk to Jermyn, after all. Couldn't be any worse.

It didn't take Arbar long to recover, even as far gone with the taint as he'd been when he'd taken the Joining, and he moved into the new room that Lilian set up for him, trained with his old fellows among the soldiers, and managed to get six meals in a day by eating both in the barracks and in the keep's dining hall, arriving early for one and late for the other. Varel didn't know about it until Tione came in one day with Alane, rather late, stared at Arbar and said, "You're here, too? How can you be eating again?"

Arbar flushed a dull red. "'M hungry," he said.

"Wardens eat a lot," Varel said, once the situation was explained to him. "Especially new wardens, when they're adjusting to the change." He sat down next to Arbar and pushed the basket of fresh bread closer to him. "If the commander and the other wardens were here, they'd do a better job of telling you what to expect."

Arbar bit into a piece of bread. "Mm," he said indistinctly. He swallowed and looked at Varel. "I feel fine now. I'm just hungry."

"There's more to being a warden than eating like one, I'm told," Varel said. "But they'll be back soon."

"I might not fit as a warden," Arbar said. "Could just go back to being a soldier, same as before."

Varel shook his head. "You're a warden now. The commander will decide what to do with you."

"Might not want me." Arbar took a big bite of the bread. "Didn't exactly volunteer, did I?"

"No, you didn't," Varel said. "That's on me, and if the commander has anything to say about it, he'll say it to me, not to you." And Varel had to admit he wasn't looking forward to that, not if the commander should happen to take exception to what Varel had done, not now when it might upset whatever tentative thing was growing between them, but it was done and couldn't be undone. Couldn't have been left undone, either, so Varel would just have to accept whatever came of it.

"Don't see how an elf got to be commander," Arbar said, still bread-muffled and sounding more puzzled than anything else. "That young for it, too. And, I mean, he's an elf."

"You could take it up with the First Warden," Varel said. "Or the warden-commander of Orlais, or the empress and her diplomats. But he was your arl before, and he's your arl and commander now, and you'd do well to remember that."

"I know," Arbar said. He took another piece of bread. "But he's an elf. Those people, are they so high and fancy, they've even got elves for jobs like this?"

Varel rubbed at his forehead. "The wardens take everyone," he said, "prince or commoner, and they make no difference between humans and elves and dwarves. Everyone's just a warden, afterwards. And the commander's the one who's in charge of your sorry arse now, just as he was before."

"I know," Arbar said again. He didn't sound upset about it, exactly, more a bit dazed. Maybe the Joining had rattled him more than he'd admit, for all he said he was fine now. "Elves get all the shit jobs."

Varel smacked Arbar on the back of the head, though not too hard, since the man had been dying just a couple of days ago. "Mind your tongue," he said. "He's the arl of Amaranthine and the Commander of the Grey in Ferelden. Those are honorable positions, and you will show them, and the man who holds them, proper respect."

"The elf who holds them," Arbar muttered. "Suppose I'll have to get used to that. Never thought my life would go this way, I tell you." He paused with the bread halfway to his mouth and ducked his head at Varel. "Erm. Ser."

"You don't answer to me any more," Varel said. "Nor to the captain. It's a short chain of command for you until the commander gets more wardens recruited." Arbar's eyes widened with sudden realization, and Varel lifted a hand before that realization could make it into words. "That doesn't mean you get to give any orders while they're away, any more than a new recruit can turn the barracks upside down just because everyone else has the day off. If you decide to ignore all of us and just sleep and eat for a couple of days, that's your headache, but you've no authority of your own to abuse, so don't even try it."

"Training's all right," Arbar said after a while, "but they don't look at me the same any more, down in the barracks."

"Well, you're not the same," Varel said. "You got the choice to live or die, and that's more than most folks get."

Arbar bit into his bread. "Not complaining," he said. "But really, an elf." Varel glared at him, and he chewed on in silence.

The wardens came back in early afternoon, twelve days after they'd left, when Varel was standing at the main gate with Voldrik, discussing the best way to keep that gate barred, and the inner gate after that. The gates were the weak point in the Vigil's defences, now that the half-timbered side wall was getting the reinforcement Voldrik had recommended. Not all that weak, though, since the outer gate was made of thick, iron-bound planks, and Varel was explaining that they couldn't just replace it with a metal one unless Voldrik wanted to talk Wade into making such a thing, free of charge and in no time, and then he saw the small group coming up the road.

He did a headcount before he did anything else, and they were all there. Sigrun and Anders were talking, Nathaniel Howe and Oghren were stomping along in silence, and the commander was his upright and immaculate self, with no sign about him that he'd just spent a week and a half going to a ghost-story marsh and back again.

Whatever had happened to them in the marsh, it hadn't left any marks that Varel could spot at first sight. None of them appeared to be wounded. Sigrun was more energetic than usual, if that was even possible. She was the first to reach them, bouncing up to say, "All those stories about the marsh, and no one ever mentioned the ghost dragon!"

Varel stared blankly at her. "Ghost dragon."

"I told you," Anders said, "that kind of thing is just too unlikely, doesn't make for a good story. Not even with a dashing mage saving the impetuous dwarf who has no common sense at all and just rushes in with her daggers."

"Pff, I would have been fine," Sigrun said. She socked Anders in the arm. "And I already said thank you ten times. Twenty times. Besides, I'm dead already. We really should have made that other guy join, then there'd be two of us!"

"There was a legionnaire in the Blackmarsh?" Voldrik sounded disbelieving.

Sigrun shook her head, and the commander came up to join them. He was clean and tidy, with his hair back in a practical-looking braid, but now that he was up close, Varel could see that he had two tiny scorch marks near the hem of his robe. "No, there wasn't a legionnaire in the Blackmarsh," he said.

"He was a spirit," Sigrun said. "So I guess he wasn't really dead, but he was in a dead body."

The others joined them as well. Oghren took advantage of the stop to drink from his flask. Nathaniel Howe said, "He could have been useful. He was already a warden, in a way."

"No. The body had been." The commander turned his head and looked at him. "And I knew Kristoff. I'm not having his dead body walking around with us."

Varel couldn't imagine that anyone at the Vigil would have reacted favorably to a walking corpse, especially not one they had seen not that long before as a living man. He hadn't known Kristoff particularly well, beyond recognizing the man when they met in the hallways, and he was quite certain that he would have found it a disconcerting sight, to say the least. Nor did he see how a corpse could walk around and perform warden duties. Dead was dead, and undead were not known for being helpful.

He also thought, having seen Aura, that she would not have taken well to her husband's body walking around without her husband being actually in it.

"Just imagine the smell," Anders said cheerfully. "Probably worse than Oghren." A metal boot kicked his ankle. "Ow!"

"But we need more wardens," Nathaniel Howe said. "There are too few of us."

Varel cleared his throat. "About that," he said. "Commander. One of the soldiers was tainted during a darkspawn ambush a few days ago, and I administered the Joining to him to see if it would keep him alive."

The commander's clear eyes fastened on him. "You administered the Joining," he said. His voice was very level, and gave no hint of his feelings on the matter.

Varel met those clear eyes with a look of his own, as steady as he could make it. "Yes, commander."

"You can do that?" Anders said, sounding honestly surprised. More than Garevel had, even. "I thought you needed a mage to," he glanced at Voldrik, "do mage-y warden-y things first."

"Better beat it," Oghren said to Voldrik, not unkindly. "Think they're about to have it out right here."

"Warden business is no concern of mine," Voldrik said. "We'll talk more about the gate later, seneschal." He walked back inside the bailey with his ever-present sheaf of plans tucked under his arm, and Varel resolved to avoid him for as long as possible.

"There was enough left for one more Joining," Varel said when Voldrik had gone. "And the taint was moving too fast to allow for waiting for your return. I know I've likely overstepped my authority, commander, but I couldn't leave the man to die. Particularly when he was infected while in my company."

"Darkspawn attacked the Vigil again?" Nathaniel Howe said tensely. "I thought the underground passages had been safely shut."

"We were ambushed on our way from Amaranthine," Varel said. "It wasn't a very large group of darkspawn, but one of the soldiers with me was unfortunate enough to take a small injury."

"So you recruited the weakest of your soldiers? The one that got hurt? That's not going to help the wardens much," Oghren said.

Varel shook his head. "The man is a good fighter. The others with us barely had the opportunity to raise their blades to the darkspawn." He met the commander's eyes again. "I take full responsibility for this. I went to Amaranthine to hire a new carpenter and a housekeeper, and the men were with me, under my command."

"We will speak more about this," the commander said. "But not here and now. Sigrun, Nathaniel, when you've cleaned up, find our new warden and tell him what he can expect. Oghren, help Anders unpack the things we brought back from the Blackmarsh." His eyes went back to Varel. "I will see you in your office shortly, seneschal."

"Yes, commander." There was no other reply possible, and Varel followed the wardens through the gate and across the bailey. Sigrun was enthusiastic at the prospect of gaining a new warden, and not having to be the greenest of them any more, though Varel had never gotten the impression that seniority by a few weeks counted for much in the wardens. The others were all still full of their experiences in the Blackmarsh, and traded comments Varel had little hope of understanding.

His own mind ran on the decision he had made in letting Arbar take the Joining, and how the commander felt about that. When he parted from the wardens and started to make his way to his office, he had no more distractions in the form of Anders talking about wolves and werewolves and the taint, and Oghren trying not to drop the large toy horse he carried under one arm. The Blackmarsh didn't sound at all like the kind of place where one could buy toys for a child, so it looked a little odd. Varel went up the quieter back stairs, wondering if he might have lost whatever portion he had of the commander's trust by the decision he'd made.

A few reports waited in his office, most of them to do with the harvesting and delivery of goods; it seemed the Vigil would be well-supplied with cabbages very shortly, and with the smell of farting not too long after that, Varel suspected. One badly-scribbled note told him that the river farmers had provided some fish, for the first time in a long time, and that was a cheering thought. Varel began to make notes of taxes owed and taxes paid, to bring to Woolsey for final calculation.19

The door opened and the commander came in. He wore his blue robes now, and Varel wondered if the grey and tan ones would be successfully mended, or if those scorch marks had meant the end for them.

"Seneschal." The commander walked over to the table and pulled out a chair. "I believe you have a number of things to report on." He sat down, robes falling neatly about his ankles. "You hired new staff for the Vigil in Amaranthine?"

"I did," Varel said. "A new housekeeper, Lilian, who is the sister of our head laundress Dorith, and a carpenter, Alane, who used to work for Dimber and Sons. I also spoke to Revered Mother Leanna at the chantry about sending us a priest," he added, keeping a cautious eye on the commander. "She wasn't very enthusiastic about the idea, but there's a sister there who might do for us when she gets to advance in rank and take on those duties."

"And she'll want to bring templars with her, no doubt," the commander said. "Anders won't be happy about that, and I don't suppose he's the only one with opinions on the matter, either. Mistress Hansa certainly had plenty of things to say about the templars who came here."

"She did indeed," Varel agreed. He hadn't realized she'd brought her complaints to the commander as well.

"If it cannot be avoided, they must work for their keep. The Vigil's tithe to the chantry is quite sufficient without adding the housing and feeding of a detachment of templars."

"The idea doesn't seem to bother you that much," Varel said. He looked at the commander's face, wondering if he could really have lost all ability to read its tiny shifts of expression in just a few days. "I would have expected you to object to the idea, and to have protested more when Mother Disa brought templars to the funeral."

That got him an entirely unreadable look. "I grew up watched by templars, seneschal. Objecting to their presence was rather like objecting to the presence of the air. But I would rather not have them here, if that can be arranged, and as I said, I imagine Anders will feel very strongly about the issue."

"Yes," Varel agreed. Strongly and loudly and in a great many words. "The soldiers wouldn't like it, either." The commander raised an eyebrow a tiny bit at him. "They'd feel the chantry was saying the Vigil couldn't protect her own priest, as if the garrison here wasn't enough. So as long as you emphasized their loyalty and devotion, not to mention their sufficiency in this matter, you'd have the whole Vigil on your side in the matter."

"That is certainly useful to know," the commander said. "Now tell me about this darkspawn ambush."

"It was when we were on our way back from Amaranthine," Varel explained again. "Not far past the turn-off for Littleman's Cove. A group of genlocks, led by two hurlocks, not the ordinary kind, but the bigger ones with better armor."

"We call them alphas," the commander said neutrally. "You had brought enough soldiers to deal with your attackers, then."

"Three of my men defended Lilian and Alane," Varel said. "Arbar was the fourth, and he is quite a skilled fighter. Brought down one of those hurlocks practically by himself."

"I see." The commander didn't look impressed by this feat, but then, Varel would not have expected that. "And in that encounter, he suffered an injury."

"I didn't notice it," Varel admitted. "He might not have, either. Says he didn't." And nothing in Arbar's behavior either during or after the fight had hinted at it. He hadn't shifted in discomfort, or even scratched himself anywhere. "It wasn't until two days after that Garevel told me the taint was in him and moving fast."

"So you decided to make him a warden."

"Yes." Varel shifted in his chair so that he faced the commander fully. "I know I've overstepped the bounds of the trust the wardens placed in me. I apologize, commander. But I couldn't just let him die like that, when there was something I could do."

The commander still gave no sign of his feelings. "Do you think he'll make a good warden, then?"

Varel shrugged. "I don't know what makes a good warden." It was certainly impossible to judge, by the collection of wardens the commander had gathered, which traits they had been recruited for and possibly had in common. "He's a good fighter, but he's got the bad habits of the people who served Howe without a second thought, from what I've seen. And he might not take well to elves in authority."

"How charming," the commander said dryly. "I suppose I can always send him to Jader if he becomes a problem here."

"I wouldn't put him in charge of anything," Varel said, considering Arbar as he might have considered any other soldier. "Not the way he is now. But he's more than just an ordinary soldier, or he could be."

"I had better talk to him and judge for myself, then," the commander said. He lifted his eyes to Varel, a steady and weighty look, and Varel braced himself. "It's unheard of for someone who is not a warden to know as much of the Joining as you do, and to administer the Joining on their own authority, without the decision of another warden." The commander's voice was cool, but not as coldly cutting as Varel knew it could be. "But you were granted this trust by the previous wardens here, whose judgment in this matter I will not fault, and I'm the one who provided you with the means to do what you did, choosing to leave the last of the enchanted preparation in your care rather than destroying it. Because of that, you had the opportunity to use it. It could be argued that I bear the responsibility here."

"No," Varel said immediately. "Commander, you can't take the blame for this."

The commander actually smiled at that, one of those brief flashes of amusement that lit his face and then was gone again. "It may not be a question of blame," he said. "I haven't even spoken to this new warden myself, yet. Your Arbar may not be such a bad choice after all." He tilted his head slightly, and his copper braid slid forward over his shoulder. "And we have other matters to discuss between the two of us. Varel," he said, accent on the second syllable, and it should be Orlesian and wrong, but Varel thought his name had never sounded so well as when the commander said it.

"Yes," Varel agreed, as stolidly as he could, which was not very much, at that moment.

"Unless you have changed your mind, of course."

"Don't be daft," Varel said. "Commander."

The commander met his eyes. "I will endeavor not to," he said. At that moment, his beauty was nothing short of breathtaking. At least, Varel's lungs seemed to have stopped working. "Though perhaps we should not have this conversation tonight. I have a number of things to deal with."

Varel nodded. That was most certainly true, and the burden he had added with Arbar could only be a small part of the whole. He struggled for a change of subject, because it was either that or grab the commander by his braid and pull him close. "Kristoff's dead, then?"

The commander's nod was small and precise. "Killed by the darkspawn. A deliberate death, to lure us to the Blackmarsh, though our arrival was later than they must have assumed it would be." His mouth drew tight. "A plan of the Mother's, it seems -- one of the two rival darkspawn leaders."

"I never heard of the darkspawn having leaders with plans before," Varel said. Everyone agreed they were as stupid as a field planted with rocks. "Other than the Archdemon."

"No," the commander said, "they don't. Except that here in Amaranthine, it seems they do. The situation is not at all what one would expect. And I find it unclear what this Mother wants, if she does want something, the way the darkspawn known as the Architect apparently wants Grey Wardens to perform experiments on." Varel made a protesting sound, because it only took those words for him to imagine the commander strapped down and struggling, in darkspawn hands, and that was not a happy thought. "Matters were much less complicated when it could merely be assumed that all darkspawn wanted us dead."

"Yes, I'm sure that was downright restful by comparison," Varel said. "But commander, seems to me it doesn't matter if they want to make this complicated, as long as you still want them dead."

"There is that, of course," the commander said. Both his voice and his eyes were as level as before, but something about him seemed to have lightened. "A policy which has a great deal to recommend it."

Varel himself was greatly in favor of any policy that involved killing darkspawn, and the question of whether they wanted to kill the commander, experiment on him, or use him for some other nefarious purpose could wait until they were safely dead. "I'd like to borrow Sigrun later," he said, "to talk to the soldiers about how to fight darkspawn without getting infected by the taint. Seems to me the Legion of the Dead must work hard at that."

"So one would assume." The commander nodded. "Is there any other urgent matter that I need to know about?"

"Not urgent, no," Varel said. "The infirmary needs more and better-quality healing herbs, and probably supplies in general. I reckon Anders will talk to you about that, but I gave the herbalist my word that I would do so as well."

"They may have whatever they like," the commander said, in a tone of voice that confirmed to Varel that he'd been right in his reassurances to the herbalist. "While I'm pleased to hear that this isn't an urgent matter, I should prefer to keep it that way."

"That would be best," Varel agreed. A sudden shortage of healing herbs would be an extremely bad thing. "I'll tell her to order as much as she needs." He frowned a little. "Really, she should have done that without asking me. I'm starting to wonder if Rendon Howe skimped on the healing supplies."

"Would he really be likely to?" the commander asked dispassionately. "It was my impression that he lived here himself. Although he does sound like the kind of man who would have reserved the best things for himself."

"He didn't live here in the months before he was killed," Varel said. "He was in Denerim, with mages on hand to heal him, I've heard. Not that it did him any good in the end." Rumors of what had truly happened to Rendon Howe had been a confused tangle, particularly when they'd come to Varel filtered through his jailers, half of whom had wanted to release him at once. It had taken some time for official confirmation to arrive, in the form of a letter from the offices of the newly-crowned king. The letter had not specifically mentioned how Rendon Howe had met his Maker.

"The reports received in Orlais said that Angharad Cousland killed him." The commander gave a tiny, one-shouldered shrug. "Though after she struck the blow that ended the Blight, it would not surprise me if every righteous deed in Ferelden were attributed to her."

"It might well be true, though," Varel said judicially. "Some of our gossip here said the same thing, and that was before the Battle of Denerim. And she had good reason to do it. But to return to the subject at hand, commander, I've told the herbalist to order as much elfroot as she pleases. She'd have to fill every room at the Vigil for that to deplete our coffers."

"It is always preferrable," the commander said, "when necessary things are also cheap. I'll speak to Anders." He indicated the papers on the table with a flick on one finger. "Are these the results of the investigation you meant to begin while we were in the Blackmarsh?"

"No," Varel said. "I keep those lists separated from other Vigil business, so they don't accidentally end up in the wrong pile of paper." Not that he thought it would have any particularly dire results if any of those lists ended up in Woolsey's hands, which was the most likely accident that might happen; when it came to the matter of the river farmer prisoners, he would have to confer with her in any event, to balance taxes unpaid with restitution owed. But he had promised the soldiers he'd talked to about Highever that he would keep their information as private as possible.

"You make such sensible decisions, Varel." The commander probably wasn't mocking him, Varel decided after a moment, even though there was a faint trace of something that might be humor in the words. It sounded more as if the commander actually approved.

So Varel just said, "I've made good progress on identifying our nameless prisoners, and started talking to some of the men who went to Highever, but you don't need to deal with that right now."

"Then I'll write to Aura," the commander said, with quite another undertone in his voice, "and hope that the letter does not drag her out of the chantry to visit me personally."

"She's not at the chantry any longer," Varel said. "She's moved to the Crown and Lion. I saw her there when I was in Amaranthine. Not to speak to," he added when the commander looked at him. "She was spending her time there with the widow of another of the wardens -- brown-haired woman, very angular face."

"Nida," the commander said. "I would not have expected those two to get along."

"They seemed very different," Varel agreed, "but right now there are things they have in common." Such as being warden widows in a strange land, even if one of them wasn't confirmed in that status yet. "You'd rather not tell Aura in person of her husband's death?"

"No," the commander said, then drew himself up, "but you're right, that would be the proper thing to do, so I suppose I had better see to it." That wasn't what Varel had meant, but it wasn't his place to argue with it. Especially not when he had to agree with the statement that it was, indeed, the proper thing to do. "I'll go tomorrow."

That, he did argue with. "But commander, you just came back."

"I'll take Arbar with me. It will be an opportunity to get to know him a little better." The commander stood up, but when Varel started to push his chair back to rise as well, stopped him with a hand on his shoulder. "Don't," he said, "or I can't reach." He leaned in and brushed his lips very gently against Varel's, a commonplace and casual gesture, as if a light kiss was become an ordinary thing between them, at parting, and Varel was still reeling when the commander slipped out of the room.

The commander wasn't at dinner that night, but all the wardens were there, with Arbar in their midst looking a bit overwhelmed, as Sigrun talked to him on one side and Anders on the other. Varel served himself fish soup and hoped that Mistress Hansa had sent some to the commander, wherever he was, because her fish soup was something special and it had been far too long since she'd made it. Everyone was eating with enthusiasm, including Sigrun and Anders, though it didn't seem to stop the flood of talk.

Varel tried to listen in without being too obvious about it, as the wardens were all around one end of the table, a little apart from everyone else. From what he could make out, Anders was explaining the history of the Grey Wardens in Ferelden, with some input from Nathaniel Howe now and then, and Sigrun was talking about the Orlesian wardens who'd come to the Vigil and their tragic fate, which Arbar had seen considerably more of than she had. "I was here," he said finally, getting a word in edgewise. "I was in the barracks."

"Oh!" Sigrun said. "Of course you were. I forgot about that. Did you see the commander coming in and saving the Vigil, then?"

"I just got a glimpse when they were coming in," Arbar said. "Thought it was that big strong fighter with the winged helmet who was the commander, not the tiny elf in purple robes."

"You didn't expect a mage with that kind of authority?" Anders said, leaning forward. "I'd say the commander is a shining example of how mages can and do handle responsibility without being constantly supervised by--"

"Didn't expect an elf," Arbar said. "I suppose Orlais was trying to make a point there, like Ferelden is their dirty outhouse and they're sending a servant to clean it up."

That was a more sophisticated bit of political reasoning than Varel would have expected from Arbar, who had clearly been turning the elves-get-all-the-shit-jobs argument over in his head since last time and refining it. The surprise Varel felt at hearing this new version was the main reason why he didn't just walk over and break the man's nose. Well, that and the fact that Oghren had put a hand like the head of a stubby-fingered battering ram on Arbar's chest and pushed him hard against the back of the chair. "Don't go badmouthing the commander, son," he said. "Not when you couldn't even beat his little finger in a fight."

"How about, don't do it at all," Anders suggested. "The wardens sent him, and the wardens don't care if you're human or elf or dwarf, or if you're a mage, any more than they care if you're, oh, I don't know, going bald." As Arbar was, not so coincidentally.

"Course they do," Arbar said, and Varel was a little impressed that he kept talking even with Oghren's breath in his face. Maybe he was used to tavern brawls where everyone smelled like that. "Wardens is people, right? Same people they was before they got to be wardens, so it stands to reason they think the same way."

"Being a warden changes a person," Nathaniel Howe said quietly. "It gives you a different idea of what's important and what isn't. You're not worth more, among the wardens, because of what you were before you joined, and you're not worth less, either."

"Like the Legion of the Dead," Sigrun said, pleased. "Except we didn't get any elves there. Or any outhouses."

"Please don't tell me what you had instead," Anders said, and Sigrun grinned brightly at him and began to explain how underground sanitation worked for people who lived on the move in darkspawn-infested tunnels, until Anders shoved his soup bowl away forcefully enough to make a little of the broth slop over. "Not at dinner."

"Sorry!" Sigrun grinned even more brightly at him. "I guess you never had a dinner break next to a dead bronto while someone had the runs on the other side of it."

"No, and if I have any choice about it, I never will," Anders said. He turned to Arbar and pointed at him with a still-dripping spoon. "Don't tell me this is going to be a problem for you. You could have been dead now, you know. Following the commander's orders has to be a better alternative."

"They're not unreasonable orders," Sigrun said in a reassuring tone of voice. "He's very good at keeping us all alive. Even me, and I'm dead."

"Excuse me, I'm the one who kept you alive when you decided to take on a ghost dragon by yourself," Anders said. He added to Arbar, "That was not on the commander's orders."

Arbar shook his head, a look on his face of stolid disbelief. "Ghost dragon."

"Let me tell you," Oghren said. "You're not going to believe this one, but they'll back me up that every word is true."

Varel very much wanted to hear the story, too, but Anders and Nathaniel Howe were still arguing over where they'd found a particular piece of dragon bone when one of the scullions came in and whisked Varel's empty soup bowl away and told him Mistress Hansa would like a word with him.

He would have to ask the commander about what had really happened, later. And the idea of having a later with the commander cheered Varel enough that he smiled to himself as he walked over to the kitchen. It smelled more pungently of fish and celery than the soup had, and Hansa sat at one end of her worktable with a frown on her face. "This can't be right," she said when she saw him.

"What can't be right?" Varel asked, walking over to sit across the corner from her. "The soup certainly was. Better than ever."

She brushed that off with an impatient gesture. "I got a message from the commander to let that Arbar have all the food he wants, as if I've ever starved a warden in the Vigil, or anyone else, for that matter, and he sent the soup back. Said he wasn't hungry, if you can believe that." She glared at him, as if Varel was personally responsible for the commander's eating habits. "And the maids won't argue with him. If my knees didn't hate the stairs, I'd go myself."

That would be a scene worth seeing, Varel thought, Hansa scolding the commander for not eating his soup. She'd be right, too. Long past his Joining, of course the commander didn't have the same cravings that made Arbar chew his way through any basket of bread placed in front of him, but he was still a warden, and he ought to eat like one. Probably it was the prospect of speaking to Aura rather than writing to her that had left the commander feeling disinclined towards food, since she seemed to unsettle him an unexpected amount, but an errand in the morning was no good reason not to have dinner the night before. "Seems to me you take care not to starve any of us, and I'm sure the commander knows that," Varel said. "Surely if you send one of the maids again--"

"I told you, they won't argue with him when he just says no thank you." Hansa patted Varel's arm. "You could do it, though."

"You want me to carry soup to the commander," Varel said.

"Yes," Hansa said, completely undaunted by his tone of voice. "Figure he can't say no to you as easily as he can to one of the girls."

The commander did have to eat, and Varel didn't feel it was below his dignity to tramp around the Vigil with a bowl of soup, although once the thought had come to him, he couldn't help but picture Anders coaxing that little tabby of his with a bowl of cream. Despite that, he said, "Give me the tray, then."

Hansa looked approvingly at him, and Varel wondered if this meant he'd be back to getting jam on his bread and butter on his porridge again, or if that was contingent on returning with a scraped-clean bowl and the commander's compliments to the cook. There was, in fact, a tray waiting, with a bit of bread wrapped in a napkin and a fancy spoon, though not one of the bear ones. Hansa filled a plain bowl with steaming hot soup and set it by the spoon, then pushed the tray over to Varel. "He's in his office," she said, "or he was the last time anyone saw him."

At a nod from Hansa, a scullion held the door open, and Varel set off on his errand. He went a little slower than his usual pace, unwilling to let the soup spill over the edges of the bowl, but it didn't take him long to reach the door to the commander's office. The door was closed, and Varel balanced the tray in one hand and knocked, then went in. "Sorry, commander," he said. "I couldn't quite hear you through the door."

The commander, seated at his desk, looked up. "That would be because I didn't say anything." He eyed the tray that Varel set down in front of him. "Surely this isn't part of your regular duties, seneschal. I've informed the maids that I will come down to the kitchen later, if I require food."

"You do require food, commander," Varel said. There was no if about it. "This is Mistress Hansa's fish soup, a favorite with everyone in the Vigil. The river farmers finally started sending us fish again, after they were here a couple of days ago and told me about how the old arl had treated them."

"And how had he treated them?" the commander asked, a polite follow-up question.

"Badly. I'll tell you about it while you have your dinner. Do you mind if I sit down, commander?" He unslung his sword and leaned it in a corner.

"No," the commander said with a tiny, crooked quirk of the mouth, "I suppose I don't." He picked up his spoon, and Varel started to explain about the river farmers.

By the time Varel had finished talking, the commander had finished eating. Varel was pleased to see that most of the soup was gone. "So nearly all the prisoners have been identified by now, as I said before," he finished, "though I think the river farmers are still leery of trusting the Vigil."

"That is hardly surprising," the commander said. "We will have to take care not to give them cause to distrust us again. This was excellent soup."

"Mistress Hansa will be right pleased to hear that," Varel said.

The commander put the spoon down. "Have you made any progress in speaking to any of the soldiers who went to Highever?" he asked. "You mentioned that you had lists."

"Yes." Varel hadn't brought any papers with him, but then he had a feeling that his careless scribbles wouldn't have been of much use to the commander, even if he had. "Some progress, commander. The men don't like to speak of it much, and some of them are more resistant to the idea than others," to say the least, "but they've told me a few things."

"I've been informed," the commander said, "that one man attacked you a little while ago. I take it that was related."

"Tried to hit me when I asked him a question, the poor fool," Varel said, shaking his head. "They really don't like to speak of it much. But I reckon a night in a cell cooled that hot head of his."

The commander nodded. "I must ask, though," he said. "Do you have any particular goal in mind, any specific amount of information, or any information about specific soldiers, that you hope to see before it becomes useful to write to Highever?"

"No," Varel admitted. "It just seems to me that the more we know beforehand, the better questions we can ask in the letter. Then we can put together whatever answers we get with the things the men have already told us, and that way we'll get a more complete account." He took a small piece of the commander's bread and started to tear it into even smaller pieces, more for something to do with his fingers than because he was hungry. "The letter to Highever won't be easy to write, and I don't know what kind of response we can expect."

"They may not want to be helpful to Amaranthine soldiers," the commander said. "From what I understand, they have every reason not to be." He had a thoughtful look in his eyes. "Perhaps we could make it more of a request from the wardens. The wardens have no quarrel with Highever, and we honor Angharad Cousland and her sacrifice more than words can say."

"It could work," Varel said. "Or it could not. I don't think Fergus Cousland has any love for the wardens, either. Respect, yes, but it would be hard to feel any kindness towards the people who took his sister away and made her end up as dead as the rest of his family."

The commander pushed the tray aside, putting the bread out of Varel's reach. "She saved us all," he said.

"She did," Varel agreed. His only memories of Angharad Cousland were of a coltish girl not long past childhood who had hit Thomas Howe with a stick for some slight or other, and it had been a surprise when he was released from his cell to find that not only was the Blight ended, but she was the one who had led the fight, and given her life in ensuring that the archdemon fell. Remembering her as that girl, though, it was easy for him to imagine that to Fergus Cousland, she was his lost little sister rather than the hero of the Blight.

"It seems more plausible to me that Fergus Cousland would wish to do a favor for the wardens of Ferelden, rather than the soldiers of Amaranthine," the commander said, "and a letter from the Vigil must needs be on behalf of one or the other, unless you think to make it your personal request."

"No, no," Varel said hastily."I never knew the family, and the people I did have an acquaintance with at the castle are dead. Their captain of the guard was a good man," he added.

"Did anyone come back here from Denerim?" the commander asked, seemingly having followed his own thoughts in some unspoken direction. "Rendon Howe must have brought loyal men there, not just taken over the soldiers and staff that the previous arl of Denerim left behind."

"He brought most of the men who had been with him at Highever," Varel said, "though he left some to guard the castle." At the commander's look, he went on, "No, I don't know how many were left in Highever, and if they were all killed by returning Cousland loyalists, or if any deserted and vanished. That's one thing I would like to find out more about. Many of the men who marched off with Rendon Howe were the worst the Vigil had to offer, but they were still our men."

"You have a remarkably tidy mind, seneschal," the commander said, "and a great dislike of loose ends. I believe most people would be content to let the sins of the past be left in their own disorder and forgotten."

"Yes," Varel said, because he knew it was true. Slowly, he said, "If you give the order for me to cease this investigation, of course I would be honor-bound to obey."

The commander shook his head, braid coiling like a copper snake against the dusty blue of his robe. "You've convinced me of the importance of this," he said, "and I see no reason not to continue, unless it leads to too many soldiers spending their nights locked up for attempting to assault you, which would be inconvenient."

"Very," Varel agreed, pleased by the lightness of the commander's tone of voice.

"Tomorrow," the commander went on, "I will go to Amaranthine and tell Aura of her husband's death, and I will bring this Arbar of yours, who looks at me as if I were a cat who has learned to speak."

Varel winced. "I trust you're bringing someone else as well, commander." Of course Arbar wouldn't actually rebel against or attack the commander in any way, Varel was entirely sure of that, but he was quite capable of being insubordinate and offensive without even thinking about it, let alone what he could manage on purpose. "Or that will be a very long walk."

"I'm not getting to know him for the pleasure of his conversation," the commander said dryly. "My meeting with Aura should be a distraction from whatever Arbar has to say for himself."

"I don't doubt it will be," Varel said. "Commander, I overheard some of what she said to the other warden widow at the inn. Seems to me she doesn't like you much."

"Oh, no," the commander said, "she doesn't. My continued existence goes against her religious convictions, and my authority even more so. She knows Kristoff respected me, but since I failed him so badly, I doubt she feels any respect herself."

"Surely you didn't fail Kristoff," Varel said, startled. "You said the darkspawn had already killed him, in the Blackmarsh."

The commander was getting that look on his face again, the non-look, the lack of expression, the mask-like calm that made him resemble nothing so much as a talking statue. "He may still have been alive when I arrived at the Vigil. If I had gone to the Blackmarsh then, instead of putting it off in the belief that Kristoff could take care of himself, perhaps I could have saved his life."

Varel shook his head. "Didn't you say the darkspawn killed Kristoff to lure you to the Blackmarsh?"

"That's what they told me," the commander said. "But if the darkspawn can talk, it seems to me that they can also lie. And Aura will have no reason to believe either them or me." His face was stark, stripped to beauty and stone. "She'll ask me if I could not have saved him by going earlier, being as loyal to him as he always was to me, and I cannot honestly tell her that her question is unwarranted. Perhaps I could have."

"Perhaps," Varel agreed, "and perhaps not. Leaving aside the question of whether the darkspawn lied to you or not, commander, you have to make decisions when you're in charge, and sometimes people die as a result. This can't be the first time it's happened."

"No." The commander was so still, Varel would have fidgeted for him, if he thought that would have helped. "Nor should you need to tell me these things, as if I were a young man just recently promoted."

"You are a young man," Varel said, "no matter when you were promoted. Look, commander, you know as well as I do that the decisions you made when you came here can't be unmade now. I'm sorry your friend is dead."

"I wouldn't have called him a friend, exactly," the commander said. "But it could be I did him a disservice in thinking he could not be." He looked at Varel, and though his face was still a mask, his eyes said a great deal. "You're right. I did what I did, and what cannot be undone must be accepted."

It wasn't quite what Varel had been aiming for, but he figured it was as good as he was going to get. "In that case, commander," he said, "I'll take your tray back down."

"Wait," the commander said, rising from behind his desk and walking around it. "Tomorrow evening, after I return from Amaranthine, I will come and speak with you, Varel."

"Surely you don't mean to walk to Amaranthine and back in one day," Varel said, startled. Especially the day after returning from over a week in the Blackmarsh. The commander seemed tireless, but there had to be limits to what that slender frame could bear, even if the mind driving it never stopped.

"I suppose it depends on how my meeting with Aura goes," the commander said thoughtfully, "and whether Arbar is quite recovered from his Joining. As soon as I can, then." He leaned in and kissed a still-sitting Varel very lightly, as if this were so normal between them now, it could be just a gesture made in passing, something casual and unstudied. "If that would suit you."

And Varel wanted things to be easy between them. He wanted this frank discussion of all matters pertaining to their work together, and he wanted the commander to feel comfortable with him, certainly not pressured or driven into any poorly considered action. Above all, he didn't want the commander to believe that what lay between them was a question that needed to be settled in order for Varel to do his job properly, because nothing could be further from the truth. Even these light kisses felt like promises made, and the commander should not feel any emotional obligation towards him.

None of these rational, calm and sensible thoughts could explain why Varel looked at the commander's veiled eyes and slightly parted lips and reached out and pulled him close and kissed him like lightning, fierce and hard, and then like the subsequent roll of thunder, dark and intense and bone-shaking.

He couldn't have put it into words, because there were no words. He just wanted, and he had to convey this all-consuming want to the commander, using his mouth even if he couldn't speak of it. What he felt was much more than mere lust, but he couldn't be so casual as to pretend there was no lust present.

The commander kissed him back. He tasted like fish soup and desire, and he kissed Varel back, unreservedly. Maker, but he felt good to hold, even through the awkwardness of armor, small but strong, twisted sideways across Varel's thighs and with one hand coming up to grip tightly at the back of Varel's neck, as if he thought that Varel would actually let him go unless he held on.

Varel's blood beat hot, but he knew that he did have to let the commander go. After just one more kiss. This was sweeter and more intense than anything he could have dreamed, and the commander fit so perfectly into his arms that Varel couldn't remember what it was like not to hold him, and still he knew he had to let go.

After one more kiss. A slow tangle of tongues, shared breath, the rasp of Varel's stubble over the commander's fine, smooth skin.

He drew back and let his embrace grow slack, although his arms were still around the commander. "Yes," he said, voice deeper than usual and a little unsteady. "Yes, that would suit me."

The commander got to his feet, and the robe at once fell into immaculate folds about him. His hair looked untouched, too, the braid still just as neat. But his lips were redder than usual, plump with blood, and under the smooth drape of the thin, summer-weight robe Varel could see the tiny, tight points of his nipples, drawn up and hard.

That was almost enough for Varel to reach out again, but he stopped himself. He wouldn't call the commander skittish, precisely, and certainly the commander had initiated what lay between them through actions a great deal more forward and intimately physical than this, but it seemed best, all the same, to let the commander set the pace.

Mostly.

"Good." It was the commander's usual tone of voice, calm and level. Varel could glimpse something else in his eyes, though, something a great deal hotter. He drew a breath as if to say something, then went back around the desk instead, as straight-backed and tensely graceful as ever. "I think perhaps it would be best if you left now, Varel," he said. "There are things that must be explained," a slight hesitation on that word, almost imperceptible, "before we go any further, and your presence tempts me to attempt to forgo that explanation."

Varel couldn't think of himself as very tempting, but he did know that if he stayed in the same room as the commander, there would be more kissing, and it was unlikely matters would stop there, once started. He had no idea what could possibly need to be explained, at this point, beyond the simple practical questions of where and how to touch, which usually answered themselves, but it didn't matter. If the commander wanted time, then he would give the commander time. He breathed slowly until he could rise without doing himself an injury, grateful for once for the discomfort of armor that enforced carefulness if not chastity, and picked up the tray again as he stood. "I'll see you when your business in Amaranthine is done, commander," he said and walked out.

He went back down to the kitchen, set the tray on the worktable, and told Hansa in a steady voice that the commander had called her soup excellent. Her already red cheeks flushed deeper with pleasure. "There's more left, if you think he wants it," she said.

Varel shook his head. "I don't think so," he said. Not that he'd asked, because serving food wasn't something he normally did, and so the associated questions didn't come naturally to him, but surely the commander would have said. "He's going to Amaranthine tomorrow," he added, "so don't plan anything special for lunch or dinner."

Hansa got a determined gleam in her eyes. "I'll do him something nice to eat on the road," she said, "if he won't stay put for proper cooking."

Varel didn't have the heart to say that Arbar would probably get to eat most of it, whatever it turned out to be. He just nodded and took himself off, walking his usual evening round through the Vigil and then outside it. It was a balmy evening, and plenty of others were taking the air outside, too. Soldiers strolled around in small groups, swapping idle gossip. Wade was still at his anvil, but Herren had closed the shop down and was just leaning against the stone table, watching his partner.

The air had grown cool enough to be soothing, and Varel drew in deep, grateful breaths. He felt very aware of his body, all of it, from the top of his head to the soles of his feet, and very aware of the absence of the commander's body next to him, as if in that short time of holding and kissing, the commander's presence had become so close and natural that being without him, now, was rather like being without his sword. Of course he could manage perfectly well, but he also couldn't forget for a moment that something was missing.

Varel knew that standing still would only give him time to indulge in pointless longings. He could yearn for the commander once he was safely shut away in his own room, but out here, he needed to go about his business and be the seneschal of the Vigil, not a man so foolishly dazed by his desires that he couldn't put one foot in front of the other. So he did put one foot in front of the other, walking at a measured pace over the courtyard, up on the inner battlements, pacing their length, down again, out into the bailey, all the way around its width rather than simply across, out through the outer gate to look at the road and the fields, in again with a nod to the guards, back across the bailey with an extra turn to one side to look at the place where the funeral pyres had been, up to the stairs, one foot on the first step, which was solid stone now rather than wood.

He stopped there, his attention caught by the railing under his hand. Varel knew Alane had fixed it, he'd seen her working at it, but he hadn't realized that she'd put more effort into it than such a simple task would seem to require. The previous steps and the railing that went alongside of them had always been very plain, just wood barely treated, a clear signal that this was part of a working fortress, not the elegant entrance to an arl's residence.

And the railing was still plain, that much hadn't changed; the new one wasn't any more elaborate than the old one had been, but now both sides were sanded to silk, so smooth to look at that Varel took his glove off and stroked the new right-hand railing top with his bare hand, letting his palm feel the softness. There'd be no splinters coming from this. Even the posts that held the railing up had been treated, not to the same smoothness, but they no longer looked as if they'd just been roughly sawn off and nailed together, either.

The railing was steady now -- Varel pushed cautiously against it, and it felt as though it could bear quite a bit of pressure and weight before it would break. Well-fitted to the stone steps, then, and both railing and steps looked neat and cared-for without being in any way fancy. Varel nodded his approval. Alane and Voldrik had worked together to create something that was both solid and suitable, and it felt like a sign that Alane was a good choice for the Vigil.

Varel went up the steps and turned right into the soldiers' yard, which also had plenty of people strolling around, or sitting on benches having a smoke and swapping stories. He didn't go inside anywhere, or stop to talk to anyone, just continued to the practice yard to see how it was set up. The straw dummies were moved all the way to one side, the open space ready for next day's morning drill. Groundskeeper Samuel was off to one side, tugging up a tiny hazel shoot that had decided to try to root itself in one corner. He raised a hand in greeting, and Varel nodded, but didn't walk over to talk. Samuel had his own rounds, looking at the Vigil's grounds from a slightly different perspective, and it pleased Varel to see that someone else was also going over all the working spaces, fixing little things here and there, smoothing out little uneven spots.

Rather like the sanding of a piece of wood, Varel thought. They were all making sure, in their own way, that the Vigil would run smoothly.

He walked into the kitchen garden, rich with herbs and produce at this time of year, and went over to the wall that held the sun longest, to see how the quinces there were doing. This was Samuel's business, properly speaking, the care of these short and gnarled trees, but Varel thought he would bring Alane here one day and show her, unless Tione found the time to do it first.

The corner of the garden given over to herbs smelled rich and fragrant now at dusk, and Varel stood there and breathed for a short while, grounding himself in all the familiar smells. He picked one tiny leaf from a half-dried coil of mint that had clearly seen better days, and crushed it between the fingers of his ungloved hands, breathing deep as he went back out. Mint was bracing, and it put a new spring in his step.

Crossing the soldiers' yard again, he saw Garevel and nodded to him, but didn't stop. Varel knew he wasn't fit company for anyone tonight. He was sure enough of himself that he knew he wouldn't start talking about the commander, but he also knew that he would be thinking about the commander, no matter what he was talking about. Whatever anyone said to him, he doubted he'd listen very well.

But it was not that long past dinner, and entirely too early for him to retire to his room and imagine that he would have any chance of sleeping. Instead he went inside, and chose the way through the great hall, where he found the talked-about copy of the Tale of Three Castles lying abandoned on a side table. Varel picked it up and brought it along as he went up to the higher battlements, finding a comfortably out-of-the-way spot and settling down there to watch the sun slowly setting over Amaranthine.

While it was still light enough to read, he opened up the book he had brought with him, curious to see if Anders's claims about its pornographic nature were true. Varel wasn't much of a reader, though, and he got bored after the first few pages, although he thought, judging by the rather suggestive descriptions of Lady Lucinda's clothing and figure, that things might get racier later on. Someone ought to notice the cleavage and the heaving bosom.

A story about the exploits of a scantily dressed noblewoman did little to distract Varel from his own yearnings for a beautiful elf who never showed any skin if he could help it. That one glimpse, down in the bathing room, of the commander's bare arm and shoulder, the commander's slender ankles, was an image that Varel treasured, and in the warm glow of memory, the view of even that small amount of naked flesh was tenderly erotic. Varel knew the weight of the commander's body against his own, now, the heat of his kisses, and it was all too easy to imagine the softness of that bare skin. Those thoughts were far more alluring to him than whatever the fictional Lucinda might get up to with, if he remembered Sigrun's comments aright, her husband's bodyguards. And probably several more people after them, Varel reflected, looking at the thickness of the book.

He read on more for something to do than out of any real interest, and finally stopped when he realized that his eyes were taking in the shape of the words, but his mind had no idea what they said. Varel put the book down and looked out over the Vigil instead, seeing guards in all the right places, the right banners flying, everything in order and just as it should be. Well, they still needed more soldiers to build up the garrison to its former strength, and a priest, so the chapel could be opened up, and it would be good if darkspawn weren't stalking through the arling, destroying or tainting whatever came in their way. But under the rule of the wardens, under the softly-spoken orders of the commander, the Vigil was regaining a lot of her lost strength.

That was something to be pleased with. Varel watched his beloved fortress for a while longer, as the air slowly cooled around him, and then he picked up his abandoned book and brought it with him inside.

He slept well that night, and rose early the next morning, early enough to have some tea down in the kitchen with the scullions before they got started on breakfast and he went off to morning drill. It looked to be a nice clear day, with just a few fluffy, indolent clouds drifting overhead. Varel had breakfast with the soldiers afterwards, sharing the plain porridge of the mess hall and a comfortable silence with Garevel, who wasn't what you'd call garrulous early in the day.

"I heard the commander is going to Amaranthine," Garevel said finally, as they put their spoons down in empty bowls. "Any chance he'll take a detachment of guards with him?"

"I shouldn't think so," Varel said frankly. "But he's bringing Arbar, says he wants to get to know him better."

Garevel snorted. "Decent fighter and a bit of a thick bastard," he said. "Doesn't take a whole trip to Amaranthine to figure that out."

"No," Varel agreed, because he'd made his judgment about Arbar's intelligence and personal ethics just down the road outside that river farmer house, when Arbar had suggested breaking the door down. Not the suggestion of a very honorable man, nor the suggestion of a very bright one, to think that Varel was someone who would go along with it. He pushed his bowl aside and got to his feet when Garevel did. "You still want me to take that two-hander training session this afternoon?"

Garevel nodded. "I'll be busy with Maverlies," he said, "and I know you like to teach." He glanced at Varel, sharpening into proper wakefulness at last. "Unless you don't have the time?"

"I'll make time," Varel said. He did like teaching, as they both well knew, and there was a restlessness under his skin that he couldn't admit to, sparked by copper hair and kisses like fire. The simple physical activity of swinging a sword would be good for him.

He left the mess hall and walked briskly across the soldiers' yard, but stopped just past the gate into the main courtyard to consider the best place to start his work for the day. It was a complete coincidence that he stood there long enough to see the commander coming out of the keep with Arbar at his side, the commander in grey and tan again with no signs of the scorch marks, and Arbar wearing better armor than he probably had in his life, judging by the incredulous way he kept staring down at it. They didn't speak to him, either one, just nodded a greeting, and the commander lifted his eyes and gave Varel a look that he felt down to his toes. Then they went through the inner gate and disappeared down the bailey.

Varel breathed slowly, deep breaths, one after the other. He was no eager young man to be led around by his cock, and he had work to do.

And for the rest of the day, work he did. He swapped reports of goods received and taxes paid with Woolsey, and tore through the small amount of paperwork his office could provide him with, such as the badly spelled reports of the latest patrol to come back after two days on the road, and the even more badly spelled letter they'd brought with them from one of the outlying farms, saying their usual delivery of leeks would be late because of darkspawn. Varel decided he had better send a verbal message back with the next patrol, and take care they made it very clear that the Vigil would not be accepting leeks that the darkspawn had been anywhere near.

The leeks would probably be too tainted to harvest, if that were the case, but then the farmers shouldn't even try touching them, let alone palming them off on the Vigil.

He checked on Alane and made sure she was settling in and had work to do. Varel had no wish to leave anyone idle, but he could see, coming into the carpentry workshop, which had been thoroughly cleaned and well-lit, that that wasn't going to be a problem. Apparently everyone at the Vigil had been waiting eagerly for a carpenter to appear, and now Alane had a pile of smaller things that needed mending, and a list of larger things, such as beds and doors, that she ought to go work on, and she greeted him with every sign of relief, saying, "They all want their whatever-it-is taken care of right away, of course. You must be the proper person to tell me if any of this is really urgent."

"Probably none of it is," Varel said, and spent an hour with her explaining how the various people making the requests slotted into the Vigil's hierarchy, who she needed to listen to, and the extent of her own authority when it came to selecting jobs to be done now and jobs that could wait for later. "And of course it depends on what they ask," he summed up. "A bed to sleep in is more important than a closet door that doesn't shut properly, and a chair in the dining hall gets more use by more people than a small table in someone's room."

Alane nodded. "Like how everyone uses those steps up from the bailey."

"That they do. You and Master Voldrik did fine work with that." Varel nodded. "I reckon what you're seeing here is years of people not wanting to bother me with requesting a carpenter for small repairs, and if they haven't done that, it's probably not an urgent thing at all. Now, if Lilian finds something amiss when she's going over the rooms of the Vigil, or if Mistress Hansa wants anything done in the kitchen, or if Samuel the groundskeeper has something on the outside that needs attending to, those are the things that are really important."

"Or if the arl breaks his desk," she said with a faint smile. "Or if you tell me to do anything, seneschal, ser."

"Of course you should always do the things I tell you to do," Varel said solemnly, appreciating the wry, amused look he got in return. "And what I tell you now is, don't let anyone talk you into believing that their wobbly bedside table that they've been propping up with the end piece of an old crate since last Satinalia is any kind of urgent matter."

"Unless it's the arl," she said.

"Unless it's the arl," Varel agreed. "But he hasn't been here long enough to wear out any furniture."

Tione came bouncing into the workshop, but as soon as she saw Varel, she drew herself up short and stood just inside the door, barely shifting a little from foot to foot. "Sorry, ser," she said. "I didn't mean to interrupt."

"Don't tell me your bedside table is wobbly," Varel said, and next to him, Alane made a small sound of amusement. "Or are you here on an errand from Mistress Lilian?"

"Neither one, ser," Tione said. "I just came to ask Alane to go to lunch. I can wait if you're busy."

"No, I believe we're done," Varel said, pleased at this confirmation that Alane and Tione had grown rapidly close. He supposed with Tione relatively new to the Vigil, too, she enjoyed playing the more experienced guide. "And I could do with some lunch as well."

He went with them to the dining hall, and ended up seated next to Woolsey, who picked up their conversation about harvest-season taxes as if there hadn't been a break of several hours in the middle, and they spent the meal discussing how much foodstuff the Vigil was likely to need, and if there was a point to selling the surplus, or if they could count on the garrison growing to its former size again, with a number of additional soldier mouths to feed as a result. Not to mention that there needed to be more Grey Wardens, and feeding one warden was like feeding two regular people.

"We had better discuss this with the commander as well," Woolsey said, folding a piece of late-season lettuce around some shredded meat. "He may have recruitment plans that we're not aware of."

Varel nodded. "Might be best," he said. "I want the Vigil to have all the soldiers she can afford, but if we take on more than she can afford, that won't turn out well." He dropped his voice. "And there's the money to be repaid, too."

"Indeed." Woolsey split open one of the smaller rolls of bread and began to spread butter on it. "We had better not discuss that here. But if there's a grain surplus to be sold, for instance, that would speed up the process."

"I imagine it would," Varel said. "But only if we can be sure that the men of the Vigil won't need the food."

As they couldn't settle the matter without knowing what the commander's plans were, they left it there, and Varel ate the other half of Woolsey's roll when she abandoned it to go back to her office. It occurred to him that the meal had been unusually quiet, and when he looked around, he saw that the wardens were spread out among the other residents of the Vigil, for once, instead of being a noticeably talkative group. Sigrun sat with Dorith and Lilian, Oghren discussed something with Dworkin Glavonak, Anders was surrounded by maids and explaining something to them that apparently had to do with elbows, judging by the gestures.

And Nathaniel Howe wasn't there at all, but Varel saw him in the courtyard later, walking with Maverlies and carrying an assortment of cheap, brightly colored ribbons. Varel figured they had both eaten in the mess hall with the soldiers, but he was confused enough by the ribbons to follow them down across the bailey and through the outer gate, where they used the ribbons to mark off sections of the straw targets for archery practice.

That made sense. Varel watched as Nathaniel Howe easily shot one arrow into the exact center of each small square of the grid he had created, and Maverlies shook her head and pointed to the next target instead, which was divided into considerably fewer squares. The archers Maverlies was training must have improved a great deal if they were ready even for that, but Varel suspected she was completely right in telling Nathaniel Howe that his chosen level of difficulty was much too high for the Vigil's soldiers.

He left them to it and went back up to the training yard, where a group of soldiers were waiting for him, some of them setting up training dummies on one side of the yard in the pattern Varel had taught them last time. That was well thought-of, and as a reward, he drove them relentlessly through a series of exercises that would make them better, faster, stronger.

Garevel came and joined them halfway through, and the soldiers who might have flagged at that point were pushed into additional effort by his presence and energy. He and Varel ended the session with another demonstration bout, keeping their movements slow this time and calling out to the onlookers just how they were using the moves that Varel had drilled them in earlier. Because it was a demonstration, rather than sparring practice, neither of them ended up winner or loser, and they stepped back from the last careful exchange of blows grinning widely and dripping with sweat.

"So this is how you're busy with Maverlies," Varel said as they all headed for the bathing rooms together. "I saw her outside before, with Nathaniel Howe. Looks like the archery training is starting to pay off."

"You like to teach, Varel," Garevel said again, as he had before. "You're good at it, too. I'm starting to think this lot will make decent fighters after all."

"Of course they will," Varel said, landing an encouraging clap on a passing shoulder and making the man in question stagger a little. "They're soldiers of the Vigil."

Once they were in their bathtubs and scrubbing away, Garevel admitted that he'd known Maverlies was busy with the archery instruction this afternoon, though he did intend to spend time with her later and go over the new schedule for archery practice."She says they're not nearly as hopeless anymore, and she'd better be right about that."

Varel scrubbed down his back with a long-handled brush. "You don't have to trick me into leading practice sessions," he said. "You're right, I do like it, and it's good for me to do that kind of work as well. Might as well make it a regular thing."

Those of the soldiers who were in a position to overhear him looked cheerful at the thought, which made him even more certain that this was a good decision. Garevel nodded. "Might as well. Will this hour work for you, a few times a week?"

Clean again, Varel didn't bother with armor, telling one of the soldiers to carry it up to his room and hang it on the armor stand there. He did still bring his sword as he went down to Garevel's small, poky office in the barracks and helped him shuffle around the various times for various training drills until they came up with something that would fit the time and space and people they had, at least for now. Varel was the one who usually didn't know from one day to the next quite where he'd be or what he'd be doing, but he resolved to try his best to make this work with his other duties, whatever they turned out to consist of.

He spent the rest of the beautiful afternoon in his office, opening the windows to give the illusion of being outside as he went over the results he had from all the people he'd talked to about the nameless prisoners in the cellars, and about the Vigil soldiers who went to Highever.

After his conversation with Hansa and Samuel, and the painful talk with Carla and Vidar, Varel thought he was as close as he might get to putting names to most of the people who'd died down in the cellars, and after he'd spent a long time comparing lists of actual, criminal prisoners, descriptions of the bodies burned, and the scribbles he'd managed during his interviews with people, he decided that he'd reached a point where he'd better stop. He had done his best, and dragged up painful memories for people in the process, and managed to bring some closure to the river farmers, even though it wasn't the happy kind.

Varel was very unhappy himself with the knowledge that fellow Ostagar veterans, soldiers he'd led into battle, had ended up in cells deep below the earth while he sat safely locked away above them. Admittedly, he'd been waiting to be executed, but it had still turned out to be a safer place than trapped in the bowels of the earth, dying of madness and starvation and taint. After all they had been through together, all that they had survived, for them to die like that in the Vigil, the very place above all others that should have protected them--

He didn't like to think about that. Varel had believed that he was leading them back to safety, that he was the only one who risked Rendon Howe's wrath. He had never questioned that he'd done right in bringing them home. It was only now, a year later, that he realized just how wrong he'd been. The Vigil hadn't been a safe place for all of them. Not for any of them, really.

After he'd been released from the dungeon, he'd hoped and believed that the ones who weren't at the Vigil any longer had deserted -- and that was all kinds of wrong, thinking that desertion would have been a reasonable choice for anyone. He simply hadn't given the matter enough of his attention, too caught up in trying to deal with all the pressing, immediate matters that were right there in front of him. The Vigil had been directionless and confused, and he had done his best to pull all the ragged threads together, to present the Orlesian wardens with a functioning fortress, or as close to one as he could manage.

And he'd overlooked things, left some matters unquestioned and unattended.

By the time the dinner hour came around, he was in a foul mood, and gave some thought to just staying where he was and getting some bread and cheese later. The work of leading the training session earlier had left him hungry, though, and he put away his grim lists and tried to put away his grim thoughts as well. Varel locked the door to his office as he left and went down towards the dining hall, joining up with people who were going that way as well.

"Yes, but I know I put the book down on that table," Sigrun said behind him, "and now it's gone!"

"Perhaps you put it back on the shelves in the wrong place, and forgot about it," Nathaniel Howe said.

"I'm not careless with books," Sigrun huffed. "And I wouldn't forget a thing like that!"

"Someone else picked it up, then," Anders said. "I'm sure you're not the only one here with a taste for historical pornography."

"It's not pornography," Nathaniel Howe said, a growl creeping into his voice.

Varel turned around. "Do you mean that copy of the Tale of Three Castles that you left in the great hall?" Sigrun nodded long before he reached the end of the sentence. "I took it yesterday. There was no marker in it, so I thought you were done."

"I wouldn't leave a mark in a book!" Sigrun said. "Varlan told me people folded the corners sometimes, but he hadn't even written his name on the one he had. Of course, we all knew it was his anyway."

"No, a marker," Varel said. "Something left between the pages, like a piece of cloth, to show where you left off reading. Your mother," he looked at Nathaniel Howe, "had embroidered silk markers. I'll see if I can't find one."

"Embroidered silk," Sigrun said. "Just for reading? The surface sure is a fascinating place. But maybe the nobles had those in Orzammar, too, and I just never knew."

"Branka used pieces of old drawings for whatever she'd been making," Oghren rumbled. "Once when she was thinking about something else, she put the drawing on the fire and the hot coal in the book, sodding nearly burned the whole thing."

They went into the dining hall and found an empty corner of the long table. Dinner tonight was heavy on the bread and the beans, with more of the shredded meat from lunch, strongly seasoned with a mix of fresh herbs and dried spices. Anders sniffed it, then cautiously took only a little, settling down with bread and beans. "The cook in the circle tower loved to put caraway in everything," he said. "Probably got a giant shipment from the mainland once and had to use it all up. Too much caraway just makes me think I'm back there again. So tell me, seneschal, do you think the Tale of Three Castles is classic literature, or all about sex?"

"I didn't read very far yesterday," Varel said. "I don't see why it can't be both."

"It's a story about how the Alamarri tribes became unified and civilized," Nathaniel Howe snapped. "Lady Lucinda represents the tribes, and her husband--"

"A woman likes to have sex, and suddenly she's a barbarian tribe? A whole bunch of them, even," Anders said.

Sigrun frowned. "That doesn't seem right."

"Oh, you should have heard Solona Amell when she got going about this," Anders said. "It really makes me regret that I never read all those other books she went on about, if they're anything like this one."

"This Lady Lucinda does have a lot of cleavage for a symbol of the tribes," Varel said thoughtfully.

"Skinny human woman," Oghren said dismissively, "I can tell, and she's not even real. I like a woman I can smell."

"But Oghren," Sigrun said, "she'd have to stink worse than fresh bronto dung for you to even notice."

He leered at her. "I notice you, don't I?"

Sigrun looked appalled.

"Would you like the book back?" Varel said. "I barely even got started, and you probably have more of an inclination for reading than I do."

"You can have it as soon as I'm done!" Sigrun said, sniffing cautiously at her armpit. "Might have to wrestle Anders for it, though."

"No, no," Anders said, waving a piece of bread in a deprecating manner. "I'll wait my turn. There will be no wrestling. That man's arms are not to be trifled with." He gave Varel an appraising, and oddly non-lascivious, look. "Seneschal Varel Shirtless Day, I'm just saying."

"You can say it all you like," Varel said. "It won't be happening." He looked at Sigrun. "I'll fetch the book for you."

"But you should eat first," Sigrun said behind his back as he walked away. Varel thought he heard a faint, "Now look what you've done," as he went out the dining hall door.

If he were going to take his shirt off for anyone's benefit, it would certainly not be Anders's, he thought, walking back to his room. He'd left the book on his bedside table, thinking he might put himself to sleep with a few more pages, but thoughts about the commander had proved far more insistent, although not immediately soporific. Varel picked the book up and stuck it under his arm. Anders was most definitely not his type.

Instead of going directly back down to the dining hall, Varel took the stairs up, and went into the room where most of the Howe family's personal effects were stored. He saw signs that someone had been there, investigating a chest full of letters and leaving a spatter of candlewax on the floor. Probably Nathaniel Howe was the only one who had any interest in those letters, though Varel would have expected him to be more careful, not to mention leave less trace of his presence, so maybe he'd come with company.

Varel went to the armoire that held a lot of the late lady's possessions, a mix of finely knitted socks and tightly rolled belts, shoe buckles, jeweled combs, and the tools for every possible handicraft in existence. And, as he recalled, a pile of embroidered book markers; she'd made them herself, and embroidered a great deal more than she'd read, to be honest. He took the top one and went back downstairs.

"Here," he said, handing book and silk to Sigrun and sitting down again. His food was still there, and looked none the worse for being a few minutes cooler. Varel chewed resolutely at his bread and beans while he listened to Sigrun marvel at the fancy material of the marker and the fine stitches of the embroidery. Nathaniel Howe explained grudgingly that his mother had been devoted to fine and ladylike crafts, and probably spent more time embroidering than she did reading. Varel smiled around his beans.

The wardens finished their food and left, still talking about books and embroidery in about equal measure. They did tend to spend a lot of time as a group, Varel reflected, as mismatched as they were. He wondered if Arbar would come to be part of that group, though he couldn't imagine that the man had anything to add on the topic of Lady Lucinda; he wasn't sure if Arbar even knew how to read.

Varel chewed his way resolutely through the food on his plate, then abandoned the dining hall to go walking around the Vigil, his usual way of trying to shake everything into place. He was restless, and wished he'd worked himself harder during the afternoon's training session, for the slowness that fatigue brought. He went up on the battlements, then chose the narrow stairs up to the highest tower, where the lookout was considerably surprised to see him, but managed a passable salute.

The view was, as he already knew, incredible. From up here, he could see the river winding its way into the sea, and the distant sea itself, a dark blue-grey with red-tinged sparks from the setting sun. He could see all the neighboring fields, and the woodland beyond, and he could see the road, before it disappeared into the trees.

He knew it was ridiculous to expect the commander to come back that night. It was a very long walk to Amaranthine, and an interview with Aura was bound to be wearying. But he looked north all the same, studying the place where the road disappeared into the treeline for a good few minutes. Then he bid a gruff farewell to the lookout and climbed down all the stairs again, and went to his room and to his bed, and resolutely made himself sleep.

The next day was busy, as usual, with the inspection of Wade's latest addition to the new armors, and more sword-teaching, and a great deal of discussion with Voldrik Glavonak about the best spot to put a large pile of granite blocks so they weren't in anyone's way but still in a place that was convenient for the workers. Varel talked about a number of things with a number of people; they all had some concern or complaint, and all seemed to think he was the best person to take care of it. Which might be true enough, and at least it gave him something to do.

After lunch, he cornered Sigrun and asked her to say a few words to the Vigil's soldiers on the topic of how to fight darkspawn without getting yourself tainted.

"I can do that," she said cheerfully. "There's not much to it, though. Don't fight with your mouth open, don't get anything in your cuts, don't make your officers have to kill you because it's no fun for them."

Varel looked at her. "That's all they say to you in the legion?"

"We're already dead," Sigrun said. "Telling us to stay alive would be kind of ridiculous. I could tell stories about our worst battles? That's inspirational!"

With a bit of an effort, Varel kept to his own main concerns. "But will it keep the Vigil's people alive? They aren't legionnaire-dead, and I'd like to keep them from getting actually dead, too."

"That makes sense," Sigrun said, a little slower. "All right, I'll do my best, if you want me to. There's a lot of advice that gets passed around between legionnaires, and I guess it works, since there's still a Legion. I'll just leave out the parts about the Ancestors and the Stone and being dead."

"That's probably for the best," Varel said. He could all but guarantee that any such talk would confuse the soldiers; it confused him. "Talk to Garevel, and he'll set it up for you."

"Will do," Sigrun said. She grinned up at him. "And now I'm going to get a bit more reading in while the commander's away. Anders is totally right about that book."

She bounced away. Varel hoped she would also give some thought to what she was going to say to the soldiers, though he supposed if they heard don't get tainted enough times, it might have an effect. Particularly among those who had seen Arbar before his Joining.

He went into the kitchen to ask about the delivery of apples, to see if he could suggest baked apples again for some day in the near future, just to make certain that Alane got some. Before Varel could open his mouth to say a word about apples or any other dessert, though, one of the scullions turned around a little too fast with a bowl full of dirty water from the earlier food preparation, and the resulting collision left Varel, scullion, and floor uncomfortably wet and covered in strips of carrot-peel.

"Look what you've done!" Hansa said reproachfully. "How many times do I have to tell you to take care when you're carrying a full bowl! Doesn't matter if it's fine soup or dishwater, it's not supposed to be on the floor! Or on the seneschal."

"I'm so sorry," the scullion stammered, trying to pick bits of peel off Varel's hip.

"Use a rag to wipe them off," he said, pushing her back, "or you'll scrape your fingers on the mail." She pulled a towel from her waist and set to with a will; the towel wasn't all that dry, but then, neither was Varel. "Better get yourself dry, too, and the floor." He turned to Hansa. "I had no very urgent business here, which is just as well. I'd better go get cleaned up."

"I can polish your armor up," the scullion said. "It's my fault, and I'm that sorry!"

Varel shook his head. "I'm sure the captain has soldiers who are in turn for that duty." And who'd be a deal better at it, having more practice. "You've yourself and the floor to deal with. And Mistress Hansa."

He let her make certain that he was free of carrot peel, though, before he left the kitchen; Varel had no wish to leave a trail of little orange strips as a sign of his passing. He went up to his room and got some clean, dry clothes, then down to the bathing room, which was empty at this hour. Just as well. Varel stripped out of his armor and set it aside, dropped the clothing he'd worn underneath in a heap of water-striped linen, and had a nice hot bath.

That was a pleasant luxury in the middle of the day, without any hard training first, and he lingered in the water perhaps a little longer than strictly necessary, scrubbing at various parts of himself. Then he got up, rinsed off, dried himself, and got dressed.

Varel took his bundle of wet and dirty clothing directly to the laundry, and on the way he found a suitable soldier and gave instructions about his armor. Garevel might assign the cleaning and polishing of Varel's armor as punishment for some infraction, as training, or even as a reward, if he was feeling contrary enough; the important thing to Varel was that he would find it again, clean and shining, on the armor stand in his room.

He had a number of things to do, as always, and no reason to climb up the stairs to the highest tower, where today's assigned lookout was as surprised to see him as yesterday's had been. The view was extraordinary, and Varel enjoyed it a great deal. Particularly when nothing was on fire, and there were no other signs of darkspawn to disturb the landscape. He could see a boat on the river, and movement on it that was presumably people. Other than that, and a few birds overhead, everything was still and quiet.

Purely out of habit, Varel looked down at the road that led to the Vigil, following it with his eyes to where it disappeared into the treeline. It was empty, of course. No visitors were expected, no caravans passing by today, no patrols due in at this hour. Varel shifted to one side to get a better view, and the bemused lookout made room for him.

When he lifted his eyes to the treeline again, he saw two figures emerge from it, one burly and well-armored, the other slim and very upright in his drab robes, with hair that caught the sunlight and shone a bright polished copper.

Varel went down all the stairs again, keeping a sedate pace so as not to break his neck, because that would just be ridiculous. He passed through the great hall and nodded to the wardens, who were scattered about in their usual untidy group, taking up more space than one would think so few people could manage, particularly when two of them could just about disappear under a watching eye if they chose to make the effort.

Varel would have sworn it was just his ordinary nod, in just his ordinary manner, but nevertheless the wardens all got up and followed him, not so fast that they were treading on his heels, but in a reasonably purposeful manner. Their conversation was still circling vaguely around the same topics as the last time he'd seen them, with Anders saying he intended to learn to knit, not embroider, and Oghren saying that knitting and reading were for old women, and Sigrun offering to hit him with her book. Nathaniel Howe, unsurprisingly, said nothing.

Crossing the courtyard, trailed by arguing wardens, Varel wondered if this was what the commander's life was like all the time. They came out of the inner gate into the bailey at the same time as the commander and Arbar entered through the outer gate. At a closer range, it became obvious that they'd been in a fight; the commander was as neat as ever, but Arbar's armor bore traces of badly scraped-off blood and mud. They looked entirely at ease with each other, and much more energetic than should be possible for people who had just walked back from Amaranthine and fought whatever they came across on the road.

The commander looked up at them, one eyebrow rising just a little, and Varel realized they made an odd sort of welcoming committee, the squabbling wardens and the seneschal out of his armor. He couldn't help it, though: he smiled. And, wonder of wonders, the commander smiled back. Not a lot, but Varel could recognize that slight quirk of the mouth by now.

"Well, he didn't break him," Anders said, surveying the pair as they came up across the bailey.

Oghren hawked and spat to one side. "You thought one brand new warden would be enough to break the commander?"

"No," Anders said, leaving a pointed pause after his words. Oghren had just started to laugh, and cough, when the commander and Arbar came up the steps towards them.

"How convenient," the commander said dryly, coming to a halt on one side of the platform's neat square and looking at them all. "Seneschal, I'll be with you in a moment, I just need a word with Anders first. The rest of you, please take care of your new brother and make sure he's properly fed."

"As you say, commander," Sigrun said cheerfully and caught Arbar's arm, starting to tow him away, with Oghren and Nathaniel Howe trailing after her. Varel took a step back, unwilling to give the impression of listening in to whatever the commander had to say to Anders, but the two mages didn't actually talk. The commander held out his hand, showing a very faint golden-orange light dancing in his palm, and Anders unexpectedly grinned and nodded; a moment later, orange light of a slightly different shade ran over the commander, head to toe, so fast that if Varel had blinked, he would have missed it.

"Thank you," the commander said, nothing but calm politeness in his voice, and turned towards Varel. "Seneschal, some matters have come to light that I would discuss with you now, if you're not too tired."

"Yes," Varel said, then caught himself. That was not a proper tone of voice when other people were around, regardless of what he was actually saying. "I mean, no, I'm not too tired. That will be fine, commander."

"Your office, then," the commander said and walked in through the gate, leading the way at a brisk pace. Varel followed, slightly confused, because he would not have thought the conversation the commander had promised him to be an office matter, precisely.

Walking through the Vigil, surrounded by soldiers and wardens and maids and footmen, was hardly the place to start questioning the commander's words, though, let alone taking hold of him and dragging him into a bedroom instead. And no matter how appealing that thought was, Varel didn't particularly wish to find himself an ice sculpture if it turned out that the commander didn't share that notion. So he followed, until he had to push ahead of the commander to unlock his office door.

"I don't normally keep this locked," he said over his shoulder. "It's not as if I keep valuables or money here, like Woolsey, and my work's not a secret to anyone. But now with the Highever investigation, there's things it wouldn't be right for anyone to walk in and read, I suppose."

"That's what I came here about," the commander said, walking past Varel through the unlocked door. "I found out today that Arbar went to Highever."

As Garevel had said, before, but Varel wondered where the commander had the information. Yes, Varel had thought ever since first meeting him that Arbar was precisely the sort of soldier that Howe would have valued. It had come as no surprise to find out that he was part of the troop that went to Highever, probably specially chosen for it. Thinking about Arbar confiding this to the commander was more of a stretch, though, and so was the idea of him confiding it to anyone else, so Varel had to ask, "He told you that? Do you think he'll talk to me?"

The commander nodded. "Yes. We reached an understanding today. Killing darkspawn together is a uniquely bonding experience, particularly for wardens. I've made it clear to Arbar that he should tell you everything he knows, and although he may not enjoy that, he'll do it." That faint hint of a smile was on the commander's face again. "Without trying to hit you."

"I appreciate that," Varel said, getting out his latest lists and notes again and looking at them. He supposed that the commander had asked, then, and Arbar had answered, because very few people would even think of disobeying the commander. He had a way about him. "Maybe he can fill in a few gaps here."

"Yes," the commander said, "he probably can. I will admit that I had some doubts about this warden of yours, particularly after he began to talk about the role of elves in civilized society before we were even out of sight of the Vigil, but over the course of these two days I've managed to knock some manners into him, if not sense."

"Sense would be too much to hope for," Varel said, wincing. He was fairly certain of what Arbar's views of elves in civilized society were. "I'm sorry, commander."

"I don't believe his personal opinions can be said to be your fault, Varel." The commander leaned back against the table, half-sitting on the edge, and Varel put his sword on the rack he kept in his office for that purpose and sat on a chair next to him, papers in hand. He had to tilt his head back to look the commander in the face, which pleased him. "I would send him here now, but he does need food and rest."

"And you don't?" Varel tapped the papers between his hands into a neat little pile and laid them down on the table. "Seems to me you should eat something, too, commander."

"Perhaps I should," the commander agreed. He looked at the papers. "Is that the information you have so far about Highever? I would like to see it, but perhaps it can wait until tomorrow. Or after you have spoken with Arbar, whenever that turns out to be."

"Yes," Varel said. He looked up at the commander, at the commander's calm and lovely face and perfectly arranged hair. This businesslike talk was not at all what he had expected, after what had passed between them before. But then again, he had not expected the commander to go to Amaranthine yesterday, either. "I hope your meeting with Aura went well."

"As well as could be expected, given my errand," the commander said. His lips tightened a little. "She was deeply grieved to know for certain that her husband had perished. And she did wonder if I couldn't have saved his life, if I'd chosen to act differently."

Varel shook his head. "We can't know that, commander. None of us."

"No." The lack of expression in the commander's face and voice was as telling to Varel, now, as another man's screamingly expressed guilt would have been. He straightened up and stepped away from the table. "Perhaps I had better leave you to your work, seneschal. I'm sure Mistress Hansa has a little bread and cheese for me. We can talk later."

That was fairly clearly stated, and probably the sensible thing for Varel to do, as well as the most proper thing, was to just agree and let the commander go. There was nothing in the commander's demeanor that showed any hint of intimacy, any suggestion that he wanted a different type of communication between them, and Varel's one attempt to make the present conversation a little more personal had apparently been an abject failure.

But the commander had kissed him the night before last. The commander had looked at him only yesterday morning as if there was something between them that was well worth this promised talk, whatever it was, that kept on not happening.

"One moment, please, commander," Varel said, because he felt that he needed a little more clarity, and if that turned out to break his heart, then so be it. "Are you--" He collected his thoughts. "You said we should talk when you came back from the Blackmarsh, but then you went to Amaranthine. You said we should talk when you came back from Amaranthine, and now you're going to the kitchen. You're putting this off, commander," he tried to make himself as steady as he could, much the same way that he would have done for a sparring bout, holding all the muscles of his torso tense and aware, "and if that means you'd rather not do it at all, I wish you would say so now, rather than keep me waiting. It's not a comfortable situation."

The commander turned away, and Varel was certain, for a moment that went on forever for all that it took no time at all, like a fall on a slippery rock or the swing of a sword heading inexorably for flesh, that this was the end between them, the end of something uncertain and badly attempted. Then the commander turned back again, bright-eyed. "I am putting it off," he said, and his voice was low and steady as always. "I'm putting it off, and it's foolish of me. My trust in you is not such a frail thing."

"I'm glad to hear that," Varel said, small and ordinary words that did not even come close to expressing his feelings, because the commander trusted him after all, and said so plainly. As plainly as a court-trained Orlesian could, at any rate.

"Will you come to my rooms, Varel?" The commander tipped his head a little to one side, in that way he had. "Your office is not the ideal place for our talk."

"Of course," Varel said and stood up, feeling himself loom over the commander for a moment before the commander looked up at him intently and then moved to the door, so self-possessed and certain that not even an army of Qunari could have loomed at him with any success. Varel found that reassuring. If the commander could find the inner reserves to hold himself like that, with his usual confidence and assurance, surely Varel could not have pushed too hard and demanded too much.

Then he reflected that the commander would probably maintain the same straight-backed posture when walking to his own execution. Varel locked the door behind them with a sigh.

They didn't have far to go; despite the size of the Vigil, the living quarters in use and the offices in use were clustered in the same part of the massive edifice, because anything else was just impractical. Varel followed the commander, and it wasn't many doors and hallways later that they came to a halt outside the rooms that the commander had chosen for his own -- not Rendon Howe's grand and somewhat oppressive bedchamber, but his wife's rooms, which had the best view and the most convenient placement for someone who liked to see the sunrise.

Going inside, Varel saw that the commander had removed about half the furniture, which wasn't surprising, as the lady in question had been very fond of placing little tables wherever it took her fancy to sit and embroider, and low footstools in all the places it was most likely that the maids would trip on them. Varel hadn't been inside these rooms very often, but he was struck by how much airier they seemed, freed of the layer of heavy brown velvet that had covered everything before, and how the windows let in more light without their thick velvety drapes.

The commander locked the door behind them, and then put the key in Varel's hand. "I would not want you to feel that I'm attempting to keep you prisoner here," he said, so neutrally that Varel was forced to conclude the words held a great deal of weight. Varel tucked the key into a pocket, grateful that he was wearing a plain shirt and trousers rather than armor, which was not well-provided with pockets. "You can leave whenever you want."

"You make it sound as if I should wish to leave, commander," Varel said. Looking at the commander, all Varel wanted was to hold him.

"You may," the commander said. He stripped off his fingerless gloves in two decisive movements and dropped them on one of the few tables that remained. "I have tried to consider the easiest way of telling you this, Varel, but I believe it is better to show you." Bending down, he pulled his boots off and set them aside; they hardly had any soles to speak of, so he didn't become very much shorter. Then his hands went to the fastening of his robes.

"Commander, this is..." Varel said, not precisely protesting, but feeling surprisingly ill at ease. He had imagined stripping the commander's robes off, certainly, but this businesslike undressing was far from erotic. The commander seemed to be performing some unwanted but necessary duty.

And at Varel's words, he paused. "I wish you would call me by my name," he said. "I don't make a habit of taking my clothes off in front of men who address me by my title."

"I have to say, I'm relieved to hear that," Varel said, when what really made him feel relieved was the way that little exchange brought back a small measure of closeness between them. Not to mention the permission it gave him to do something he'd wanted for a long time. He shaped the name in his head, and then at last tasted it in his mouth. "Elyon."

The commander-- No. Elyon Andras, then, took his robe off and dropped it over the arm of the sofa, tugged off some flimsy underthings as well, and stood naked before Varel, still just as calm and straightbacked, without turning away or trying to conceal anything, though his face was so very expressionless that its masklike stillness became an expression of distress, surprisingly easy for Varel to read.

Elyon was beautiful out of his robes, well-muscled in a way the drape of cloth had very nearly concealed, finely proportioned and hairlessly sleek in the way of elves.

And he did have scars that those robes had hidden, as it turned out, but these were not the scars of battle, left by weapons that were easily identified. No, these were something different, and entirely unexpected. Varel tried to take it in. Silvery lines radiated out from Elyon's groin, up nearly to his navel and down along the right thigh, and at the center of this starburst, the lines twisted around his cock like a tangled silver-and pink ribbon of scar tissue.The trailing ends of the marks grew thinner and oddly elaborate, like fraying lace or the pattern of frost on a window. A few scars had spattered out across his right hip, though they were fainter. Varel had never seen anything like it.

He reached out, slowly and carefully, and took Elyon's hand in his. Varel sat down on the sofa, making it clear that he wasn't going anywhere, and then lifted Elyon's hand to his lips, now that this didn't mean dragging Elyon's hand up higher than his head. Elyon took a small step closer as Varel kissed the back of his hand, then turned it over and kissed the palm. "Varel," Elyon said, breath hitching a little as Varel kissed his fingertips, one by one.

Varel looked up. "Will you tell me what happened?" he said. "If you'd rather not, you don't have to." He wanted to say the commander's name again, Elyon, but it still felt strange on his tongue, for all that it slipped naturally into his thoughts.

"I do have to," Elyon said. He took another step closer and then sat down, still upright and tense, on Varel's lap, sideways across his thighs, and it was all Varel could do not to grip that slender body in a crushing embrace. Instead he kissed Elyon's palm again, and got an unexpectedly soft look for it. "You've heard Anders, haven't you, talking about how certain tricks to do with sex and magic were passed along in his circle, were... taught, though I suspect far from formally."

"Yes," Varel said, getting a hollow feeling in the pit of his stomach. "That's what it sounded like to me."

"Things were different," Elyon said, "where I come from. Or perhaps we were just foolish, experimenting on our own. My fellow apprentices and I had been sharing a dormitory for many years, and we were at an age where we thought a great deal about sex, and also believed ourselves to be indestructible. Which, as you see, was not the case."

"That was supposed to feel good?" Varel blurted.

Elyon shrugged. "With a less reckless application of power, it might have. I was injured because of that recklessness, and badly healed because of an insufficient knowledge of anatomy and an unwillingness to tell anyone what we had done."

Varel made a conscious effort not to tighten his grip too much on Elyon's hand. He could not help translating scars into blood and wounds, in the manner of a soldier, though this wound would have been very different from anything he'd seen on the battlefield. "You didn't see a healer?"

"No." Elyon turned his hand in Varel's grip, taking Varel's hand in return, and began to rub his thumb slowly across Varel's knuckles. He took a quick breath, and seemed to restart his story in a slightly different place. "I was the only one who suffered any major physical injury, and the others felt so much guilt over my solitary suffering that they became easily swayed by the words of the visiting priest, as I told you before. Many of them asked for Tranquility, because they felt their magic had led them into sin."

Varel remembered, himself, being young and hearing the then-revered mother of Amaranthine preach about the wickedness of indulging in lust. He'd been convinced she was speaking directly to him, since he could not stop thinking about sex. Back then, it would certainly not have taken the touch of healing magic to make him hard and ready, or the touch of anything, really, but he had no doubt that young men who were accustomed to using magic every day of their lives would think of a way to use it for sex as well. "I think the wanting to sin came first, though," he said, finishing his chain of thought out loud, "not the magic."

"Yes," Elyon said, "but it wasn't lust that they regretted, it was using magic because of it, and causing an injury in the process. The priest was very emphatic in saying that the use of magic for selfish purposes is a sin. Some would have it that using magic at all is a sin, or that possessing magic, whether you use it or not, is a sin." He shrugged. "This priest who preached to us was very convincing on the topic of the sinfulness of magic, and all the things it was wrong to use magic for. And my friends had seen first-hand the damage that frivolous and ill-considered use of magic could cause."

"I suppose they had," Varel said slowly. With Elyon like this, naked and close, the marks on his body did look more like scars and less like just a liberally applied silver decoration. It was difficult to see quite how extensive the injury had been. Varel didn't feel he could part Elyon's legs and inspect his cock just out of curiosity. "And so the templars assumed it was a flirtation with blood magic that caused so many of your fellows to be openly repentant sinners and ask to be branded."

"Yes," Elyon said. "They believed we were hiding something, which we were. They were just wrong about what it was."

"But if you kept this a secret," Varel said, "then it can't have been what Aura meant." Elyon raised an eyebrow. "I heard her say to the other warden widow that there were rumors about a sexual scandal involving you. Which, if you'll forgive me for saying so, is hard to imagine."

"Some part of the truth came out, of course," Elyon said. "Those who became Tranquil had no reason to lie, though they also had no interest in talking about the matter. It's a vague rumor, but it has followed me through my career in the wardens."

"The wardens care about such things?" Varel said, surprised.

"Oh, no," Elyon said. "Not at all." That was all he said; in the silence afterwards, though, was the weight of all the other people who had, over the years, cared.

Varel dared to lift a hand and run his fingertips gently down the groove of Elyon's spine. As he had thought, Elyon's skin was like silk. "Nor do I care," he said. "About your past or about your scars."

"You may," Elyon said, twisting a little so that he could look Varel straight in the eyes. "Because of this," he gestured briefly at his groin, "I cannot have an erection." Varel dropped his eyes to Elyon's cock, as if the gesture gave him permission, more than the simple fact of Elyon's nakedness had. The twists and loops of scar tissue seemed less like ornaments now and more like strangulation. "And as a result, of course, I cannot... obtain release through the usual means."

Varel felt a realization so clear that it was almost relief, and shame at that relief. Now he understood why the commander had not allowed Varel to reciprocate, during their two encounters, and why the commander had not seemed to feel the same desire for Varel as Varel did for the--

And it was Elyon, blight it all, not the commander. Elyon, naked and exposed, and honest in his nakedness. Elyon, whose cock could not get hard. Varel fastened on what seemed to him to be the most important part of what Elyon had just told him. "But you can," he said. "In some other way?"

"Yes," Elyon said, clear and short and precise. He finally dropped his eyes, lashes falling heavily, like a portcullis dropping. "I had resolved to tell you this, but I didn't anticipate that it would be so awkward."

Varel, on his part, thought it would be considerably less awkward with more kissing and closeness; Elyon was naked on his lap, but still felt as distant as when the commander gave a formal speech. Something would have to be done to put them on a more equal footing again, or this fragile balance between them would fall apart, and if there was one thing Varel did not want to see, it was Elyon retreating into the cool and remote persona of the commander again.

He brushed a kiss against the point of Elyon's shoulder, lifted him off his lap, and stood up. Varel toed his boots off, a low pair made from soft leather that didn't see much use these days but were still so worn that the side seam on the left one was beginning to give way. He untied the laces of his shirt and pulled it over his head, dropping it down on top of the commander's robe. Then his hands went to the fastening of his trousers, and he heard Elyon make a small sound when he pushed them down.

"This is from the Rebellion," Varel said, putting his trousers aside to free his hands, and gesturing at his shoulder. "I didn't get out of the way of an Orlesian sword fast enough." Elyon made a different small sound. "It's likely older than you are, this scar." He turned a bit and twisted one leg, displaying a puckered red stripe up his left calf. "And this is from Ostagar. Not the darkspawn. It's... when we were leaving, we ended up crossing land where some farmer had set traps. Probably did nothing to stop the darkspawn, but I was limping all the way back to Amaranthine." He'd been feverish, crossing the Bannorn, and still had no idea what the farming couple looked like that had let up space in their barn and dug up an old injury kit that still, wonder of wonders, worked.

"I see," Elyon said, with a faint trace of polite incomprehension in his voice.

Varel grinned. "You don't care about my scars, do you? Old or new." That was the first and the latest, with plenty in between. He sat down again, next to Elyon on the sofa, which was still upholstered in brown velvet but with blankets and throws in lighter colors spread on top. "I don't care about yours, either. But I wish you'd tell me how to bring you pleasure, because I do care about that, very much." And Elyon seemed to be resolved against the usual touch-and-find-out method, which was understandable given these circumstances; Varel had to admit that it would have given him pause to find his partner soft and seemingly unaffected. "I want to touch you," he said, because he did. "I want to see you come."

"I would be satisfied if you just allowed me to suck you, as I did before," Elyon said. "There would be no need for you to reciprocate--"

"I don't know what kind of man you think I am," Varel said, "but yes, there's need. Unless you don't want me to touch you." He left a tiny pause after those words, enough for Elyon to break in if he really wanted to, but not so long that an answer was in any way required. "But you said there was a way for you, so of course I want to know what it is."

"Internal stimulation," Elyon said, straight-backed and meeting his eyes, just as Varel had expected. "I have developed an increased sensitivity in several places, but I can only achieve orgasm through a certain spot inside the body being repeatedly touched."

Varel turned that over in his mind and tried not to grin too broadly once he figured it out. This, he could do. Of course, he supposed it was remotely possible that Elyon was talking about some spot inside his mouth, or his ear, but that didn't seem very likely. "You mean you need to be fingered," he said. "Or fucked. Which do you like best?" Elyon was so much smaller than him, he didn't want to just turn him over and plow him. Or rather, he did want that, but he wouldn't do it if Elyon said it wasn't what he preferred.

"You're so very straightforward, my Varel," Elyon said, and for the first time in Varel's experience, he looked ever so slightly flustered.

"And you're so very young," Varel said before he could think about it. He had never expected talking about sex to be the thing that finally brought out Elyon's extremely well-hidden shyness. "I was a soldier before you were even born, Elyon. We're not easily embarrassed." Oh, the name was sweet on his tongue. Now that he was growing accustomed to it, he felt like he could say it all night. Varel hoped he would get the opportunity.

Elyon looked at him, self-possessed once again. "And you may well outlive me," he said. "I don't know if you were told this, among all the other Grey Warden secrets you were made privy to, but wardens have a shortened life span, because of the way the Joining affects our bodies."

"They said something about that," Varel said slowly. He hadn't really been focused on that part when he learned about the Joining, since it had no bearing on his new duties. And he hadn't been thinking about it since then, either, though it came to him that he really should have. This beautiful elf next to him, whether he was being the commander or just plain Elyon, lived and died by the same conditions that affected every warden. Varel hunted in his memory for exactly what he had been told. A warden might have three decades after the Joining, that was it. "But I certainly won't live another thirty years."

"No, nor will I," Elyon said. He looked more untroubled at that thought than Varel would have thought he could possibly be, even if he had made his peace with the idea years ago. Even if he had truly come to think of himself as a tool of the wardens, easily replaced. "Few wardens have gone as long as that before their Calling, and I did not exactly Join yesterday."

As young as Elyon looked, as young as he probably was -- which couldn't be quite as young as he looked -- still he'd been chosen as the Commander of the Grey in Ferelden, and that should say something about his level of experience. Varel didn't think the order would send someone who was at the end of their life, no, that would be impractical, because rebuilding the wardens in Ferelden wouldn't be the work of just a year or two, and looking at Elyon, it was clear that they hadn't. But nor would they send a brand new recruit.

Elyon had been a mage apprentice, not even Harrowed yet, when he'd been offered the choice to become a warden. Probably still healing from his injury, and surrounded by friends asking for Tranquility. Joining the wardens might have seemed like a more useful way to spend his life -- but it was penance for all of that, Varel thought. According to what Elyon had said, the others asked to be made Tranquil out of guilt for what they'd done, having misused their magic and hurt someone with it. Elyon himself was the one who'd been hurt, but there was nothing to suggest he hadn't been a willing participant until that point. It sounded to Varel as if joining the Grey Wardens, who fought darkspawn and died young, was just another way to make restitution for those deeds, which Elyon might well think of as sins himself. Might have thought of as sins at the time, at least. He must have heard the priest preaching, too.

And this was a very grim subject for two men who were finally naked together.

"I'm sorry to hear that," Varel said. "But I doubt either of us is likely to die tonight, either. And that being so, I would very much like to touch you."

"Yes," Elyon said, seemingly also ready to break away from the bleak turn their conversation had taken. "I have wanted that for a considerable time." He turned towards Varel, putting a hand on Varel's chest, and raised his face, and Varel, who recognized an invitation when he saw it, kissed him.

Kissing Elyon was something Varel didn't imagine he could ever get enough of. The sweetness of it caught at his heart, but the underlying heat was what hooked him more deeply and securely. The beginnings of this kiss were soft, almost gentle; it was Elyon who pressed closer and thrust his tongue into Varel's mouth, and Varel didn't hesitate to reciprocate, drawing Elyon even closer to feel more of his skin, kissing not just his mouth but his face, his neck, the top of his bare shoulder.

He could spend a long time like this, Varel thought. Elyon's skin was so smooth under his hands, he almost worried it would snag on his sword-calluses like fine silk, but the thought didn't make him want to stop touching. No. He stroked Elyon's back and sides, feeling the steady strength of him, the way he was both soft and unyielding, a living wonder under Varel's palms. Kissing lightly along Elyon's jaw, he swept one hand up over Elyon's chest, and Elyon drew in a sharper breath when Varel's fingers trailed over his nipple. That was promising, and Varel brushed his thumb back and forth, teasing; the nipple grew tight and hard under the touch.

Varel twisted them around on the sofa, trying to lift Elyon towards him and bending his own spine uncomfortably so he could draw his tongue over the other nipple, tasting the small perfect circle of it. His hand slipped lower, feeling muscle over ribs, then the line of the waist, and then a patch of different, slippery skin that he realized belatedly had to be the beginnings of one of the scars.

Elyon's hands pushed at his shoulders, and Varel backed off. "Sorry," he said. "Would you rather--"

"I think this would go considerably better on the bed," Elyon said.

Varel looked at him, taking great pleasure in seeing those tight nipples, the lips reddened by kisses, and a faint flush in his cheeks. He was always beautiful, but most of the time, it wasn't a beauty that invited touch. Now, though, Elyon's beauty was very clearly one that had already been touched, and seemed very ready to be touched some more. All the same, Varel went on, "I'll try to avoid the scars, if you'd rather have them left alone."

"No, that doesn't matter," Elyon said, his tone so genuinely casual that it had to be honest. "I don't have much sensation there, but it's not unpleasant." He untangled himself and stood up. "Bed, Varel."

"Yes," Varel said, because really, there was not even the faintest possibility that he'd say no.

The bed was a giant fourposter, its wood age-dark and stern, and a line of bears wandered along its sides in moody procession. The posts looked bare, and Varel thought more brown velvet must have been stripped away here. Instead of a heavy velvet coverlet, the bed was made up with just fine sheets, with a few light blankets folded at the foot, where someone who slept with an open window in the summer could easily find them if the air grew too cool for comfort.

Elyon climbed onto the bed and sat in the middle, holding out a hand. He was just as imperious like this as he was when giving orders down in the great hall. But then he said, "I have spent a great deal of time imagining you with me in this bed, Varel."

"What did you imagine?" Varel asked, taking that hand and being drawn down very willingly to tangle his limbs with Elyon's. The shocking pleasure of skin, once they were stretched out close together, made him feel quite dazed. "Don't want to get things wrong, now that we're really here."

They were really here. That knowledge had a comfortable weight in his mind. Perhaps it should have been a moment for doubt and uncertainty and hesitation, but Varel couldn't doubt the reality of Elyon's smooth skin against his, and after the complicated tangle the two of them had gone through, trying to get to this point, being together in bed was wonderfully simple.

"Several different things," Elyon said. He looked very seriously at Varel. "I should like to touch you all over. There is such strength and power in you, Varel. And I have dreamt of taking you in my mouth again."

Varel groaned. "Yes, but you're ahead of me," he said. "You pleasured me twice and I barely got to touch any part of you. With my hands," he added conscentiously, since if Elyon had put his mouth on Varel's cock, it stood equally to reason that Varel, with his cock, had touched the inside of Elyon's mouth. His throat. And really, Varel's hands had been in Elyon's hair, too, caressing the curve of the skull. "Or my mouth."

That was just as important, because Varel liked to use his mouth in bed, to learn a lover with lips and tongue. He trailed his fingertips down Elyon's arm, investigating the bony outer angle of the elbow and then the thin, sensitive skin on the inside. Elyon pressed closer, and Varel took his time, brushing his thumb along the crease before trailing down the inside of the arm, stopping at the wrist. He could feel the sinews moving as Elyon turned his hand, and the veins under the skin pulsing with life.

Lifting Elyon's hand to his mouth, he kissed the inside of the wrist first, and then the palm, slightly curved like a shallow bowl for him to drop his hungry adoration into. Varel traced the lines in the palm with the very tip of his tongue, then licked up around the thumb, rubbing his tongue over the joints and then sucking at the tip, tasting nothing but skin.

Elyon was not one to lie passive and simply receive the caresses. His other arm was trapped under him, but he pressed his whole body against Varel's in slow undulations, sometimes the glide of skin against skin and sometimes just pressure. Varel shifted in response, until his thickening cock slid comfortably in the crease between Elyon's thigh and torso, and then he started in on the fingers, sucking them one by one.

"You surprised me before," Elyon said, his voice as steady as could reasonably be expected under the circumstances. "When you kissed my hand."

Varel released the ring finger from his mouth with a final lick. "You have beautiful hands," he said. Slim but strong, with long fingers and well-kept nails. His own seemed ridiculously large by comparison, scarred and creased and callused and worn. "And they taste good," he added, to see if he could tease out that quick flicker of a smile. Elyon's smile was all in his eyes, though, and those eyes were a little too warm for humor. Not that Varel minded, not when Elyon looked at him like that. He rolled them over, so that Elyon lay on his back against a pile of pillows and Varel sprawled between his spread thighs. "You're beautiful everywhere," he went on, "and I want to taste every part of you. Elyon."

He kissed the hollow of Elyon's throat and the sweet dips by the collarbones, then began to trail kisses and licks lower and lower on Elyon's chest, making a neat line down the breastbone. In this position, Elyon could use both hands to stroke Varel's shoulders, to trace his short nails across the back of Varel's neck, which was extraordinarily pleasant, to explore as far down as Varel's shoulderblades, with a bit of stretching.

Varel flicked his tongue across Elyon's left nipple, and Elyon's fingers dug abruptly into Varel's back, body hardening into a taut line of muscle and desire, so Varel did it again, and again. By the time he switched to the right nipple, Elyon was writhing under him, hands kneading Varel's shoulders in rhythmic pushes. It was a little odd, Varel couldn't deny, to lie like this and get this response and still not feel Elyon's cock press against him, hard and wanting.

But he knew the why of it, and the way Elyon moved left him in no doubt that his caresses were most eagerly received. "Varel," Elyon said, and now he was ever so slightly breathless, "you can use your teeth, just not too hard."

Varel certainly had no inclination to be rough with his beautiful young lover, or to do anything that might actually hurt. He grazed his teeth gently against the hard little peak of flesh, not biting so much as stroking with his teeth, as absurd as that sounded, and was rewarded with Elyon twisting in a wave of yes, legs drawing up to clamp against Varel's sides in an extremely suggestive way. Varel switched to the other side and got the same response there, then back again, thrilled with the uninhibited way Elyon moved against him and the strength of the reaction this touch caused.

Moving down a little, he kissed the edge of the lowest rib, the taut stomach, the hard protrusion of a hipbone. The natural thing now would have been to suck Elyon's cock, and Varel ran his tongue along it before he could really think about whether the action was a good idea or not. The flesh was entirely soft, the scars flatly smooth, thick lines against his tongue, but he could taste wetness at the tip. "Do you mind?" he said belatedly, looking up.

"No," Elyon said, sounding more collected again, "but you should know that it doesn't really affect me as much as it would another man. The sensation is... blunted."

Varel nodded. He licked the tip again, all the same, just because he liked tasting this proof of Elyon's desire, and then he trailed his kisses down lower, marvelling a bit at the smooth hairlessness of elves; Varel wondered if they weren't terribly cold in winter. He tongued Elyon's balls, and was relieved to find very little scarring here. Putting one hand on Elyon's thigh, he used the tension and trembling in the muscle as a guide to tell him which caresses pleased the most, since in this new position, Elyon could not comfortably reach his shoulders any more. Varel appreciated that Elyon's hands hadn't gripped his hair instead.

Instead, looking up, Varel saw that Elyon was touching his own nipples now, drawing the flesh up, pinching, flicking. The sight sent a jolt to Varel's balls. He licked Elyon more fervently, sucked, and then pushed against the underside of Elyon's thighs with both hands, curling him up enough that Varel could comfortably reach to lick beneath his balls and lower still.

When Varel's tongue swept over the puckered hole, Elyon made a tiny sound, for the first time since they had come together on the bed. Hearing it inflamed Varel, and he was more than happy to continue with this particular caress; Elyon kept himself meticulously clean, which Varel had never doubted, and the way his usually so carefully-controlled body began to tremble was even more erotic than the sight of him teasing his own nipples had been.

Varel licked steadily, nothing fancy, just broad strokes of his tongue. Elyon's thighs quivered in his grip. The scars didn't reach back here at all; just the one thin line of scar tissue went so deep between Elyon's thighs that it was only in this position Varel could see the end of it, as it trailed off a finger's length from where his tongue was busy. Nor could he feel much scar tissue under his hands, holding a steady grip on the backs of Elyon's thighs. It seemed the damage had all been in front, and Varel thought he would like to spend some time later exploring the insides of Elyon's thighs, tracing the unmarred skin with his tongue and finding out just how sensitive it was.

A scarred lover was nothing new. In fact, Varel wasn't sure he had ever had sex with someone who wasn't scarred, if only a little, somewhere. But the nature of Elyon's injuries was rather different, and so was the result. With permission to touch at long last, Varel would have explored Elyon's entire body down to the last crevice, slowly, with fingers and tongue, except that he couldn't bring himself to stop what he was doing, which Elyon clearly took a great deal of pleasure in.

Scars or no scars, Elyon was beautiful here, too, from Varel's extremely limited viewpoint. He had wonderful thighs, long and smooth except where the silversplash of scar tissue cut the skin, and an arse that was probably safest hidden beneath those robes of his, Varel thought, or the whole of the Vigil would do nothing but stare at it, high and tight and round and gorgeous. Spread open like this, his thighs and arse showed to uncommon advantage, and the scars, Varel thought, pulling back for a moment to consider the effect, as horrible as they were, could be considered pure silver-white and pink decoration.

Elyon twisted his upper body sideways, though he made no effort to free his thighs from Varel's grip, rather using it as a steadying point. He reached out for something, then settled back into his previous position, and put a small metal container down on the bed close by his own hip. Dwarven make, Varel identified reflexively, one of their more successful products, slowly dropping in price from unaffordable to merely ruinously expensive, a jar that wouldn't break, didn't leak even if held sideways or packed upside down, and which, despite being made of metal, wasn't heavy.

Clever people, dwarves, Varel thought, kissing the inside of Elyon's thigh, since it was right there when he turned his head. "Seems I need my hands," he said. "Will you hold your legs up like this for me?"

"Yes," Elyon said, gripping his own thighs just above the knee -- or below the knee, in this position -- and holding himself open for Varel as Varel let go of him to deal with the jar. The lid was ingeniously constructed, and had to be pressed down and twisted just so in order to open. Once it did, Varel smelled herbs, mostly elfroot, sharp and green. The contents were a cream or balm of some kind, not one he had ever used before, but he felt fairly certain that Elyon would not have given him something that was unsuitable or unsafe.

Varel stroked up a generous dollop with his index finger, rubbed it between index finger, middle finger, and thumb for a moment to get a feel for how thick it was and how it spread on skin, and then began to circle one slick fingertip around Elyon's hole, pushing a little, as he'd pushed with his tongue before, but making no effort to breach the muscle.

"When you said you were more sensitive in some places," he said, "does that mean both on the outside and the inside of the body?"

"Yes," Elyon said. His fingertips were white with tension where they dug into his own flesh. "Varel. Put your fingers inside me."

"I'm a slow man by nature," Varel said. "Methodical. I like to take my time and be thorough about things." He pushed a bit harder, and felt the muscle flex in response. Varel kissed Elyon's thigh again, for distraction, and pressed one fingertip inside, holding it there. "You do this to yourself?"

"Yes," Elyon said for the third time. "Though my fingers are," he ran out of air and had to suck in more, "rather smaller than yours." That brief gasp really didn't sound like pain.

Varel was aware that his own fingers were considerably larger than Elyon's, though. He slid his finger deeper, in a slow and steady motion, feeling how hot Elyon was inside, how closely his body clung to Varel's finger. The balm, whatever it was, tingled faintly. When Varel thought he was at the right depth, he began to press up. He felt nothing at first, and pushed a little deeper still. His finger was in all the way, the knuckles of his hand just about brushing against Elyon's skin, when he felt a firmer, rounder bump, and Elyon's body jerked when Varel rubbed at it.

"But you can't reach this with your own fingers," Varel said, looking up. No matter how Elyon contorted himself, his fingers still wouldn't go deep enough, in any position that Varel could think of. It made him wonder how Elyon had learned the best way to pleasure himself, after the injury that had taken the most immediate means of sexual satisfaction from him.

"I have an object," Elyon said, "what we would call a toy in Orlais, made for those who enjoy this type of penetration." He shuddered as Varel stroked him inside, and when Varel began to pump his finger in and out, in mimicry of fucking, a faint flush began to spread over Elyon's chest and throat. "It is not much thicker than two of your fingers, I believe, but suitably shaped and long enough that I can," another breath that was needed sooner than anticipated, "comfortably stimulate myself with it."

"I'm glad to hear that," Varel said, silently determining that Elyon would demonstrate this for him in the not too distant future. He scooped up more cream and made sure his fingers were very slick with it, then crossed index and long finger to make a wedge and began very carefully to work them both inside. Elyon tightened around the intrusion, then relaxed, and Varel's fingers slid in deep with less pressure than he had anticipated having to use. When they were all the way in, he used his thumb to stroke up under Elyon's balls. Elyon shook. "Tell me if what I do feels wrong."

"Oh, no," Elyon said. His voice was remarkably steady for someone who had two fingers pushing into his arse, but still a little faster and airier than usual. "It feels entirely right, Varel. Don't stop."

Varel turned his wrist for a better angle and worked his fingers in short thrusts, so that his fingertips kept rubbing back and forth over the spot that made Elyon squirm. "You're beautiful like this," he said, kissing Elyon's thigh and wishing there were a way to reach his mouth. Elyon was beautiful all the time, of course, but like this, naked and honest, body taut with wanting, he was exquisite, and Varel could not get enough of looking at him, seeing the tiny shifts and tensions in response to every thrust of Varel's fingers.

"I should like," Elyon said, and then bit his lip, hips pushing up; Varel kissed the inside of his thigh again in encouragement. "I should like three fingers, if you would," and now the level tone was gone from his voice, replaced by a breathy quality that Varel found very attractive. "I have often regretted," Elyon went on, trying to construct his usual sentences for all of that, "that I did not purchase a somewhat larger toy as well."

Varel wasn't certain about the wisdom of this, because Elyon was so extremely tight around his fingers, clenching steadily, but he scooped up more cream and began to tease at the rim with a third fingertip, ready to stop at the first sign of discomfort.

There was no such sign, though. Elyon lifted his hips, pushing back, and when the tip of Varel's third finger slipped inside, he gave a very quiet moan. Slowly and patiently, Varel worked all three fingers inside, finding again the depth and angle that had brought the most pleasure, very aware that the base of his fingers stretched Elyon more and more as he pushed them in, since although he could bring the tips together in an overlapping wedge, there were limits to how much he could compress the rest of his not-very-small hand.

Judging by Elyon's response, though, the pleasure was considerable. The flush on his chest and neck intensified, and when Varel began to fuck his fingers inside in a steady rhythm, Elyon spread his thighs wider, his breath coming in short gasps.

He was inexpressibly lovely, and Varel could have finger-fucked him like this all night, despite his own aching balls, just to watch the way Elyon's face had transformed from a cool mask into a display of open pleasure. Elyon's balls had drawn up tight, Varel saw, and though his cock was certainly not hard, still it had a little more heaviness to it now. Varel drove his fingers more firmly against that spot inside Elyon, and Elyon bit his lip again, teeth pressing down, and then his body arched and shuddered, the flush on his neck and chest rising in a deep wave, muscles spasming hard around Varel's fingers as his release spilled from his soft cock.

Varel gentled his thrusts, then stopped entirely when it seemed Elyon had finished and was slumping down and finally letting go of his own legs, leaving them to sprawl out on either side of Varel's shoulders. Leaning in, Varel kissed Elyon's hip, then carefully began to ease his fingers free of Elyon's body. Elyon made a soft sound of protest, and clenched down as if trying to keep Varel's fingers inside.

"I really have to move," Varel said. "I'm getting a little uncomfortable." Not that the tight grip of Elyon's body around his fingers was unpleasant in any way, no, but seeing, not to mention causing, Elyon's pleasure had left Varel himself very hard, and if he stayed lying like this, with most of his weight on his hips, he was going to start humping the bedclothes.

So he pulled out despite Elyon's wordless objection, propped himself up on his other arm, and looked around for something he could use to wipe off his hand, and Elyon's belly. He could, unfortunately, imagine Dorith's face if he used the sheet. Varel got up, though he was not best pleased to have to do it, and found a basin and ewer of water and a pile of washcloths on the vanity that had been pushed into a corner. He got his hand cleaned, and brought one dampened and one dry cloth over to the bed, sat down on the side, and began to wipe Elyon off.

The water was cool, and Elyon shivered at the touch, then sat up before Varel could get him properly dry again. "Come here," he said, taking the washcloths out of Varel's hands and putting them aside -- the dry cloth underneath the damp one, Varel was pleased to see, to protect the bedding. Elyon curved one hand in a gentle grip around Varel's cock, as if testing how hard he was, how ready. "No, perhaps it's better if you stand up again, here, and hold on to the bedpost."

Varel was extremely reluctant to move away from Elyon again, rather than closer to him, but he followed the directions of Elyon's words and hands, and was very shortly standing where he'd been instructed, with Elyon sitting on the bed in front of him. Elyon looked up, and there was a faint gleam of something in his eyes that Varel couldn't quite name, but before he had the time to consider it, Elyon tugged him closer -- by tugging on his cock, merciful Maker -- and guided Varel's cock to his lips.

This time Elyon started slowly, apparently more certain now, as he might not have been in his office, that Varel had no intention of trying to get away. Tongue at first, a thorough licking of the head, while Elyon's hand held the shaft in place. After that came leisurely, gentle suction, and Varel did put one hand on the bedpost, steadying himself. He approved of slow blowjobs, certainly, but pleasuring Elyon had wound him up a great deal, and this pace was a little more restrained than he would have preferred. Elyon sucked on just the head of Varel's cock, without using his hand to jerk the shaft at all, as if its only purpose was to aim Varel's cock correctly.

The suction intensified as Elyon started to swallow, creating long, intense pulses. Varel grunted, feeling as if Elyon was pulling something taut throughout his body, up from the soles of his feet, in from the tips of his fingers, down from the back of his neck. Then Elyon removed his hand from Varel's cock and began to suck it in deeper and deeper, adjusting his position on the bed, tilting his head, until Varel's cock sank into the shocking constriction of Elyon's throat. This time, Varel groaned out loud. Elyon caught Varel's free hand and dragged it to curve in a perfect fit around the side and back of his head, and Varel could have come just from that, because Elyon knew what it was like when Varel fucked his throat, and he wanted Varel to do it again. Yes, he could definitely have come just from that.

Could have, but didn't; Varel fought down the surge of rising pleasure, because he wanted to experience this pleasure as well, and so he thrust, just as Elyon was encouraging him to do. Elyon's mouth was wet and hot, his throat was impossibly tight, and he made those little choked noises that haunted Varel's dreams. In fact, he was noisier like this, with Varel's cock down his throat, than he was when he himself was coming.

Varel wanted to draw it out, to take his time, but he needed to come, or the urge that drove him would turn painful. He thrust down Elyon's throat, perhaps a bit more roughly than he would otherwise have done, and Elyon moaned; the vibrations rang through Varel's body, and he had a confused blur of thoughts about chantry bells and clappers and high holy days, and then he was coming himself, emptying his balls in ragged spasms.

He pulled back, trailing a last streak of white across Elyon's lips. Elyon licked it up, lapped the last traces from the sensitive head of Varel's cock, kissed it. Then Elyon's hands pulled him down, and Varel was more than happy to sink onto the bed; his knees were not entirely steady. They curled up together, a perfect fit for all that they were so different in size and build. Elyon curved into Varel's arms, head on his shoulder, and Varel raised one hand to play with his braided hair. "That was amazing," he said.

"Yes," Elyon agreed, his voice beautifully ruined. He turned his head a little and pressed a kiss against Varel's chest. "I enjoyed it very much." Varel could easily hear how the words would sound in Elyon's usual calm, unmoved tones, although Elyon's voice at present was a wreck.

The bed was very comfortable, though a great deal more firm than Varel would have expected from anything meant for the former lady of Vigil's Keep. Perhaps Elyon had chosen to strip away a few layers of feather bolsters as well as the brown velvet. Varel could have stayed like that, lying with Elyon in his arms and feeling utterly relaxed, for a long time, if Elyon's stomach hadn't growled.

Varel chuckled. "I told you you should eat something." He sat up, kissing Elyon's forehead, a little amazed at how natural the gesture was. When he swung his legs over the side of the bed, Elyon's hand wrapped around his arm, and he put his own hand on top. "I'll go down and find out what Mistress Hansa has to offer us for dinner."

"I am perfectly capable of going myself, you know," Elyon said.

"Not when you sound like that. She'll think you caught a cold in the Blackmarsh." Elyon could heal himself, of course, very thoroughly, but Varel had to admit he rather liked hearing the wreck of Elyon's voice, and fetching food for them both was a very small price to pay.

Varel tugged Elyon's hand away from his arm and kissed the palm. He was tempted to keep on kissing, to let his mouth explore parts of Elyon that he hadn't gotten to before, like the back of his neck, the curve of his spine, his thighs... the small amount of time he'd spent on Elyon's thighs felt like no time at all. And now that he was past the most immediate heat of desire, he could give Elyon's body the attention it deserved.

Varel stood up reluctantly, because licking Elyon all over would not get him fed. He found his clothes and began to drag them on, grateful that he didn't have to deal with armor. When he pulled his shirt over his head, he thought he heard a noise from Elyon, on the bed, but Elyon said nothing when Varel emerged from the cloth again and smoothed the hem down as best he could. Boots, trouser legs tucked into boot tops, and then he was ready. Varel fished the key from his pocket and unlocked the door, and was about to open it and step outside when he looked back over his shoulder.

He crossed the floor in three long strides and was halfway onto the bed, one knee sinking into it, dragging Elyon up and kissing him fiercely, because he could, he was allowed, he could do this and the only thing that could have stopped him was Elyon himself protesting the treatment. Since Elyon flung his arms about Varel's neck and kissed him back just as enthusiastically, it was some time before Varel managed to disentangle himself and head for the door again.

This time he made it outside, by dint of not looking back, and walked down the hall at a rather slower and more decorous pace than his usual, trying to school his features into calm neutrality. It wouldn't do to come into the kitchen as a man sex-dazed, fetching food for his lover. Varel wasn't certain to what degree this relationship would be a public one, but he did know that Elyon was an intensely private person, so if there was a side to err on, the cautious one would be it. Here and now, he was the seneschal of Vigil's Keep, making certain that his young commander was sufficiently fed.

And it wasn't as though that was an unfamiliar part for him to play. Varel went down the stairs, nodded a greeting to a maid, and settled into his usual brisk step again as he grew certain of who he was, at the moment, and what he was doing. The hallway outside the kitchen was empty, but he heard voices from within, and when he stepped inside he found Hansa and Lebbeth at the worktable, talking and pitting plums, while the kitchen maids did something noisy in the scullery.

"I'm sorry to bother you," he said, "but I need you to put together some bread and cheese and tea for the commander and myself, since it seems we missed dinner."

"Oh, that boy," Hansa said, in a tone of voice a cook should probably not use about her arl, and pushed the bowl of plums aside. "Of course I'll get you something. You like fresh plums, don't you?"

"I do," Varel said. "I'd appreciate it if you would give us that tisane of yours, too."

"It's really too late in the evening for the two of you to be working," Hansa said, getting out a tray and setting a plate and a napkin on it. She rummaged around for a bit and brought out some of the crusty rolls that had been fresh-baked at lunch, and cheese cut in thick slices. "Lebbeth, don't just sit there! Get the water boiling, do!"

"Oh, there won't be any more work tonight," Varel said truthfully. "I'll make sure of that."

Hansa smiled back and put two mugs on the tray, then picked the finest plums out of the bowl on the worktable and polished them up on a clean towel. It didn't take long for the water to get hot, steaming and then bubbling, and Hansa spent the time adding little dainties and decorations to the tray, until she could fill a teapot with a herbal mix she brought out from a stone jar. "He likes this one the best," she said, "though I still think an arl should have real tea."

"I reckon an arl can have what he likes," Varel said. Whatever he liked, indeed. "That's a fine meal you've put together there, Mistress Hansa." Bread and cheese, little rolled-up slices of meat, plums, a small bowl of some cooked greens from dinner, and a sprig of heartvine to make it all look fancy.

Varel picked up the tray, and Hansa shook her head. "I can send a maid with you," she said. "It's not right to have you running around serving food all the time. That's not your job."

The idea of a kitchen maid walking in on whatever waited in the bedroom upstair did not, to Varel, seem like a good one. Nor did he particularly want to explain why the commander was in his bedroom and not in either his or Varel's office, to start with. He shook his head back at Hansa. "It's not that I distrust the maids," he said, "but some matters aren't for the whole Vigil to know, at least not yet. It's no trouble for me." He nudged the teapot with his thumb to balance the tray better. "Not as if I have to do this all the time."

"True," she agreed. "Tell him he'd better be here for all his meals tomorrow! There'll be fresh cheese bread for breakfast."

"No one could resist that," Varel said. He went through the door when Lebbeth held it open for him and took the back stairs up, a shorter route and in many ways a more convenient one, though the stairs themselves were a bit narrow and steep. They got him where he wanted to go, though. He thumped his elbow against the commander's bedroom door in lieu of knocking, but then had to shift the tray into one hand all the same, to free the other up for actual door-opening.

The bedroom was much as he'd left it, with the bed a tumbled mess, and the commander's robes still lying on the sofa, though they looked as neat folded up as they did when the commander wore them. A window had been cracked open to let fresh air blow away the smell of sex, and the commander himself--

No. No, that was definitely not the commander, sitting on the edge of the bed in a thin, almost sheer white wraparound robe and with his hair freed of its braid to lie loose about his shoulders. That was Elyon. Varel heeled the door shut and set the tray on one of the few little tables that had survived Elyon's much-needed decluttering of this room. The key was still in the lock, on the inside, and Varel felt no hesitation in turning it. He left it where it was, though.

Elyon looked at the tray. "I can't possibly eat all that," he said, rose and walked over. The thin wrap clung to his body in a way the mage robes never did, and showed a great deal more of his legs. He leaned forward to pour the tisane into the two mugs, and gave Varel an excellent view of most of his bare chest.

Since Varel had seen Elyon entirely naked not that long ago, that should not have been quite such an alluring sight. The temptation to walk over and push the top of the wraparound robe aside to kiss Elyon's neck and shoulders, to pull it off entirely and investigate the length of his back and scatter more kisses over the perfect curves of his arse, should not have been so strong. Varel drove his nails into his palm to distract himself and went to take one of the mugs instead. "It's for both of us. The plums were specially chosen for me, I suspect," he said.

"They do look wonderful," Elyon agreed. He sat on the sofa and looked silently at Varel, neither ordering nor even requesting. Varel sat down next to him, much closer than he would have done before this day. Elyon didn't smile, but there was a certain lightening about his eyes and mouth that Varel had learned to look for, like a candle being lit in the next room.

Elyon ate plums and bread and cheese and greens, after all, under Varel's polite but relentless badgering. Varel himself ate quite as much, particularly of the plums, which were extremely tasty. He hoped Hansa intended to serve more of them fresh and not save the lot for drying or making preserves. Dried plums were a blessing in winter, to be sure, but fresh plums were a sign of the Maker's grace right now.

He put a plum pit on the tray, wiped his fingers on the napkin, and kissed Elyon's shoulder just where it sloped up into his neck, above the line of the wrap. Elyon leaned into him, warm and yielding. It amazed Varel that someone who was so sternly upright in every moment of his public life could become so soft in this private situation, fitting himself perfectly against Varel's body. Varel pushed Elyon's hair aside to keep kissing along the back of his neck. Remembering the pleasant scritch of Elyon's nails, he bit a little, gently but firmly.

Elyon pressed closer. He tipped his head a little forward in silent encouragement, and Varel was only too happy to oblige. He covered the back of Elyon's neck in kisses, from his hairline down to where the wrap dipped to show the beginning of his spine. Varel had to brush the fall of copper hair aside twice, and the second time, his knuckles swiped accidentally over the edge of one of Elyon's ears. Elyon shuddered. "Sorry," Varel said.

"There is nothing to be sorry for," Elyon said. He looked up at Varel, and his eyes were suggestively dark. "I should like you to do it some more."

"Really?" Varel's surprise was genuine. "I thought elves preferred not to have their ears touched." He considered why he had come to think that. "Everyone knows they charge extra for that in the brothels."

Now Elyon's eyes darkened with something that wasn't pleasure. "Of course they do," he said. "It's an extremely intimate touch, and I have no doubt many human customers, in particular, are happy to pay extra for ensuring that their partner becomes eager and willing, or at least gives every physical sign of being so."

Varel stared at Elyon, trying to make sense of what he had just been told. "And you want me to do this to you?" He could not make himself let go of Elyon, or even move away, but he did straighten up a little.

"You've never had an elf as a lover before, have you," Elyon said, not really asking. He didn't move, either, remaining tucked against Varel's side, but nevertheless there was a tiny degree of withdrawal somewhere, maybe in his face, though it didn't change, maybe in his eyes, once again safely unexpressive.

Varel didn't think Elyon was asking for, nor really wanted, details of his sexual history. The closeness implied in the word lover, which was already the only one that Varel could use to describe Elyon himself, was something else, and certainly there was nothing in Varel's past that could be termed an elven lover, as evidenced by the fact that he felt completely bewildered by this ear thing. "No," he said. "You'll have to explain this to me. I mean, if you want me to understand."

Of course he'd touch Elyon in any way that Elyon truly wanted, but he felt very uneasy with the idea that this touch was something that would make him appear to be eager and willing. It sounded far too much like feeding someone orichalcum, if not as ruinously expensive. Varel had heard rumors of expensive brothels in distant places where all the whores were fed orichalcum as a matter of course, and always reckoned it a tall tale because of the price of the rumored aphrodisiac, though he supposed it might be cheaper in regions where it didn't have to be imported, with several different import and export tariffs stacked on top.

"Elf ears are very sensitive," Elyon said. "Touching them may be a more intimate and personal act than touching the genitals, depending on the situation. Done right, this touch is extremely arousing." He gave Varel a thoughtful sideways look. "In a way, I find it rather refreshing that you didn't know this. Many humans either dislike or fetishize elf ears. Or both."

Varel considered telling Elyon that most elves, that most people of any race, did not discuss their sexual preferences and attributes in quite such a cool and analytical manner while curled up with a partner, but then he thought he had better not, given the admittedly remote possibility that Elyon might take it as a complaint and become self-conscious. There was nothing about Elyon's manner of discussing important matters that Varel would wish to see changed. Nothing at all, really, even when he was being more elliptical and oblique than Varel felt was necessary.

"I like your ears," he said instead, without going into any detail of just how much he liked them, and liked having his attention drawn to them when Elyon tilted his head to one side. Then, given what Elyon had just said, it occurred to him that this might be a very deliberate gesture rather than a casual one -- that it might be an elven form of sexual suggestiveness and invitation that he'd never understood before. "And of course I'd like to touch them."

"I should particularly like it," Elyon said in the same cool and thoughtful tone, "if you were to tug gently on the tips while you were taking my mouth. I have spent several nights imagining what that would be like."

"Oh, Maker," Varel groaned. He was spent, and he knew he was spent, but he could not help trying to picture that, Elyon alone in bed while thinking about Varel fucking his mouth and tugging on his ears, and his balls twinged painfully. "I hope you can settle for a bit of licking tonight."

He pushed Elyon's hair out of the way and ran his thumb along the outer edge of the ear, then his tongue-tip. Elyon pressed closer; Varel hadn't noticed him moving away, but he definitely came closer now. So Varel did what he had always wanted to do, and kissed a line up the side of Elyon's delicate throat and then continued along the side of his ear, all the way to the tip. That got an interesting reaction. He did it again, using his tongue. Elyon smelled very faintly of the soap he used on his hair, but he tasted like himself, warm and inviting. Varel flicked the pointed tip of the ear with his tongue, then sucked it. Elyon's hand clamped down on his thigh with ferocious strength.

"Perhaps," Elyon said, and now his voice was even raspier and more uneven than the throat-battering he'd received from Varel's cock could account for, "we should move back to the bed again."

"As you wish," Varel said agreeably. The sofa, though comfortable enough, presented some difficulties for people of such disparate height, sitting side by side, and if they were going to be lying down anyway, the bed was by far the better place for it. And although Elyon didn't care to have his youth stressed, still Varel wondered if he might not be young and resilient enough for a second bout; it would be very enjoyable to bring him to climax again.

Varel got up, gave in to an irresistible impulse, and picked Elyon up in a comfortable grip, pleased at the compact weight of him. The bed was only a few strides away, and he set Elyon down in the center of it and tried to straighten up, but Elyon had a firm grip on his shoulders and tugged him off-balance, so he went down in an ungraceful sprawl. "I like how strong you are," Elyon said, his hands wandering over Varel's shoulders and arms. "It's very appealing."

"I'm not, really," Varel said, kicking off his boots. "You're not very heavy."

"I'm an adult male, Varel." Elyon pulled Varel's shirt off with determined tugs and put it at the foot of the bed. He began to drop light kisses on Varel's shoulders and chest. "Though I wish you would not display yourself shirtless quite so often, to quite such a number of people. Sigrun and Anders spent an entire day talking about it when we were in the Blackmarsh."

"They did not," Varel said, slightly uncomfortable. "They can't have." Although they probably could have. Wardens were an extremely chatty lot. He would take care to be fully dressed and armored more often, then, though it was going to be difficult in the bathing room. Meanwhile, Elyon was playing with his chest hair, as if he found that equally as fascinating as Varel found Elyon's hairless skin. Elyon's hands were firm and certain as they stroked over Varel's chest; Elyon's mouth left only the lightest and most teasing of kisses at first, until he settled in to lick at Varel's stomach, and then lower still. He unfastened Varel's trousers and began to work them down a bit. "I'm not getting hard again tonight," Varel said with a slow groan as Elyon freed his cock and promptly started mouthing at his foreskin.

Elyon sat up between Varel's legs, his hair spilling in a smooth copper flood over his shoulder. The wraparound robe still sat perfectly on him, not even slightly mussed either by the way Varel had handled him or by the fair bit of squirming around on the bed he had done afterwards. It had to be magic, Varel thought, no matter what Anders had said. No one could remain that neat in a natural way. "Didn't you wonder," Elyon said, "about that spell Anders performed when I returned to the Vigil?"

"Not really," Varel said frankly. "I thought it was a mage thing."

"In a sense," Elyon said. "A mage regains magical ability from it. But the effects are slightly different when it is cast on someone who is not a mage. Then it... replenishes your strength." He held up his hand, and now the light that danced in his palm was a deep, warm orange, nothing like the faded wisp he had shown in the courtyard. "If you will permit me?"

Varel wasn't sure what good it would do, because even if his body wanted to respond to Elyon's use of magic, he wouldn't be capable of more, tonight. And it wasn't his strength that was lacking. But then, he didn't think it would do any harm, either -- if there was one thing he felt certain of, it was that Elyon was extremely careful with the use of magic in sexual situations. So he nodded his consent, and the orange light ran over him like a poured-out cupful of sunshine. Warm and tingling, smoothing out little tired patches that he hadn't even been aware of, making him feel extraordinarily alive and, yes, strong and peculiarly young and capable of just about anything.

Certainly capable of responding to Elyon's hand on his cock. Varel got so hard, so fast, that he was quite grateful to be lying down. He groaned. A moment ago he had believed this to be impossible, and now he was more than ready for whatever Elyon had in mind.

What Elyon had in mind, first and foremost, was apparently to free Varel from his trousers. He tugged and pulled and shoved, until Varel sat up and did his best to speed up the process. Probably it would have been easier to stand up, but Varel enjoyed the way Elyon's hands caressed his legs as the fabric was worked down, bunching and then being tugged free.

The trousers finally came loose and were dropped unceremoniously on top of the shirt. Elyon pushed Varel down flat again and stretched out on top of him, kissing his shoulder and neck and jaw and finally his mouth. "Take this off," Varel said into the kiss, tugging at the fine silk that clung to Elyon's body. He pushed it up in the back, stroking one hand up Elyon's thigh and over the high curve of his arse. That, too, made him feel peculiarly young, touching someone under their clothes, as if he hadn't been allowed access yet to the mysteries of this, or any, body.

He had, though; he knew full well what Elyon looked like naked, and he was certainly very far from being a virgin. The spell that had restored his energy and his youthful capacity hadn't removed any of his experience, after all. Varel worked his other hand in between them and unknotted the sash that held the wraparound robe closed. Elyon rolled off him and wriggled out of the sleeves, and pushed the puddle of fine silk to lie with Varel's clothes at the foot of the bed.

Varel was grateful that the bed was so extremely large, and pulled Elyon into his arms again, stroking down his back and up his spine again. Elyon's skin was more pleasant to the touch than any silk could be. What Varel wanted was to touch him everywhere, all at once; his hands were greedy for it, and he kept his touch deliberately slow, trying to keep himself from rushing, because this time with Elyon was not something to be rushed.

Of course, Elyon had his own notions. He wrapped his hand around Varel's cock again and squeezed thoughtfully. "You are quite well-endowed," he said. "I enjoyed your fingers very much, before, but now I believe I should like to feel this," he squeezed again, "inside me."

Varel couldn't stop the way his cock jerked in Elyon's grasp at those words, and that pure physical reaction made it difficult for him to sound convincing when he said, "Are you sure about that? I don't want to hurt you." Elyon was small and slight, after all, and he had been so very tight around Varel's fingers.

"I'm not frail, Varel," Elyon said. He shifted on top of Varel, rubbing all his skin against all of Varel's in a very enticing way as he reached out for the small metal jar of cream again. Varel accepted it from him and kissed him, long and lingering, as he unscrewed the jar behind Elyon's back and smeared one finger with cream.

The angle was quite different this way, with Elyon lying on him, and of course it was more of a challenge not being able to see what he was doing. Varel used his clean hand to spread Elyon's legs, so they fell on either side of his hips. He rubbed his creamed-up finger around the small hole he had exposed, feeling the way it was still slick from before. That added another heated flare to the lust he already felt, knowing that Elyon had been like this before, too, when they had been sitting together on the sofa. Knowing that Elyon had been like this because of him.

His finger slid in easily, and he began to work it in and out, taking great pleasure in the way Elyon's body felt, hot and tight but not at all resistant. Elyon bit at his jaw, then kissed him, hair falling around them in a rain of copper. The kiss was a wonder in and of itself, sweet and urgent, and it was also the perfect way for Varel to feel how Elyon responded to his touch. When he slipped in a second finger, Elyon's tongue slid insistently against his.

With the addition of a third fingertip, the angle grew awkward, and Varel's wrist began to complain. He was sorry to lose this position, because Elyon was such a sweet weight on him, but it wouldn't work any longer, so he pulled his fingers out and rolled them over, pushing his fingers back in again as soon as Elyon was on his back and Varel leaning over him; Elyon arched into the touch, taking all three fingers deep much faster than Varel had intended. When Elyon made a small sound, Varel's eyes were on his face at once, and he stilled his hand. "Was that--"

"More," Elyon said, ragged and demanding. "Oh, more, please, my Varel."

So Varel fucked him steadily with three fingers, glancing over the spot inside, but not concentrating his attention on it. There would be time enough for that. He slowed down a bit as he considered whether he could work a fourth finger in, to be absolutely certain that Elyon could take him, and Elyon, sensing the hesitation, found the open container of cream and slapped it into Varel's free hand. His eyes were all heat, dark and wanting, but as steady as ever.

Varel kissed his hip and pressed his fingers in as deep as they would go, making sure the bulk of his knuckles stretched Elyon as much as possible. It became clear that Elyon found him entirely too slow and careful, as Elyon took the cream back again and managed, contorting himself, to rub it thickly all over Varel's cock. "Stop that," Varel said with an effort, "if you're in earnest about this idea of fucking." He didn't really think this glowing rejuvenation spell had left him with the precipitate release of youth, as well as the remarkable stamina, but he also had no wish to test that theory. Elyon's hands were entirely too clever.

Shoving a pillow under Elyon's hips, Varel positioned himself, and had another moment of doubt. Elyon made a sound that was, in the wrecked rasp of his voice, very nearly a growl. When Elyon gripped him again and pulled, Varel didn't try to resist, much, though he went slower than Elyon's impatient hands were telling him to, trying to be alert for any sign of pain or discomfort for as long as he managed to keep his mind on anything other than tight and hot and oh, sweet Maker.

It took him a few thrusts to get the angle right, but Varel couldn't doubt when he did, since Elyon's fingers dug into his arms and Elyon's legs clamped to his hips. Varel braced himself on one arm, and then he used the other hand to sweep Elyon's hair aside, leaned down, and took the tip of Elyon's ear in his mouth.

Elyon went wild underneath him, squirming and rocking up to meet the thrusts, pushing for Varel to be faster. Varel was very grateful for the spell that allowed him to do this at all, but also for the years of experience, and the awareness of his previous release, that let him hold back and keep his thrusts slow and steady, even though he was balls-deep in the most desirable partner he could imagine, who wanted more of him. He mouthed Elyon's ear, nibbling along the edge, flicking it with his tongue, doing everything he could think of and keeping his attention on that, so as not to be entirely overcome by the pleasure of being inside Elyon, his cock squeezed tight, just as Elyon clung to him and squeezed his body tight on the outside.

The way Elyon's body responded was a wonder in itself, and also, very helpful. Elyon was quiet in bed; he barely ever moaned, that Varel had noticed, and after that soft growl, in fact, he hadn't made a sound. Nor was it possible, of course, to judge his physical state by his cock, otherwise the best gauge and the easiest way to tell if a man was interested in and pleased by the proceedings. But Elyon expressed himself in ways Varel couldn't misunderstand, with the way his hands clenched around Varel's arms, with the way his breath caught, with the way he arched and strained to get their physical joining to be just right.

And he was so beautiful -- Varel had to pull back from his attention to Elyon's ear for a moment just so that he could see and appreciate Elyon's face. There was no mask, now: nothing was hidden, or perhaps it was just that Varel had learned to read all those little signs that gave away what Elyon was truly feeling. There would be no way to hide that soft flush, of course, even should Elyon want to. He was panting, his mouth slightly open, and his eyes were unfocused and bright.

"So beautiful," Varel whispered in his ear, ducking down again, overcome. There was no other way to express it. "You're so beautiful." He bit Elyon's earlobe.

Elyon's hands gripped harder, and he tightened impossibly, flinging his head back, gasping for air; the ripple of fierce contractions around his cock told Varel what had happened even before he felt the wetness of Elyon's release between them. Beautiful and perfect.

After that, Varel was ready to pull back, knowing that many men did not care for prolonged internal stimulation after they'd already come, but Elyon kept clinging to him, pulling him deeper. "In me," he said, relaxed and pliant in Varel's arms but just as close as before, "I want you to spend yourself in me, Varel. I want to feel it."

Varel, who was not quiet in bed, groaned. Freed of the constraint to keep his thrusts steady and regular for the sake of Elyon's enjoyment, he moved more haphazardly at first, searching for the angle that would bring him just the stimulation he wanted. When he found it, his hips jacked forward; he barely had time to wonder if he was being too rough when Elyon's hands stroked his sides and urged him on. Varel took Elyon's mouth in a hard kiss, tongue thrusting just as his cock was thrusting, going deep.

The soft encouragement of Elyon's tongue against his own was all he needed, and he shouted his unrestrained pleasure into Elyon's mouth as he came and slumped down, wrung out, in a satisfied and impolite heap.

Elyon kissed his neck, then shoved at him until he moved. Even as tired as he was, Varel put a little extra care into pulling out, separating their bodies with a reluctant sigh and then collapsing on the bed again, aware that they were making a mess of the sheets, but unable to care about it just at that moment. All he wanted was to lie down and hold Elyon, and judging by the way Elyon fitted himself into Varel's arms, warm and close, he wasn't exactly opposed to the idea, either.

They must have drowsed off like that, or at least Varel did, only coming back to himself when Elyon squirmed free and began to wipe him down with the damp washcloth. That was both pleasant and unpleasant, since the cloth felt very cool, but he appreciated getting clean of the stickiness of sex. Then Elyon rolled into his embrace again, and Varel could not imagine life being better. He kissed Elyon's forehead, then his lips. "Did I hurt you?"

"Don't be absurd," Elyon said. "I should like it very much if you took me from behind next time, Varel. The proper angle is difficult to achieve with a toy in that position, and I find it very enjoyable."

"Ngh," Varel said eloquently. "That is, yes. But I'd appreciate it if you let me sleep first."

The next few days passed in a haze of sex. It seemed to Varel that they did nothing else, that he spent all his time in that huge bed, finally getting to explore Elyon's body as closely as he wanted, as slowly as he wanted, and being explored in return. At the same time, Varel also knew, rationally, that all the ordinary work of the Vigil was getting done, that he participated in morning drills, and taught his two-hander sessions, and took care of all the daily tasks needed to keep the Vigil running smoothly. And Elyon devoted a great deal of time to being the commander, training his wardens, dealing with paperwork and planning for the future.

The time they spent together was just as likely to be work time, too, between the seneschal and the commander. They had the opportunity to go over what Varel had learned from his talks with the river farmers, while the commander had been in the Blackmarsh. "Woolsey is recalculating their taxes," he said, "based on the work they did over the summer, and the work they should have done these last few weeks, and what they are owed for their losses."

"More than we can repay them, I should think," the commander said. "But while I deeply regret what was done to them under the previous arl, I would also be sad to lose the deliveries of fresh fish, now that those have resumed."

Varel shrugged. "We can always pay for the fish for a while," he said. "Fish is cheap."

The commander nodded briefly. "It does seem to me," he said, running a finger down the names on one of the lists Varel had handed him, "that you have resolved most of the questions about the Vigil's nameless prisoners without my involvement. Do you believe that an interview with those who disposed of the bodies would add any vital information?"

"No," Varel admitted reluctantly. "Seems to me we've come as far as we're likely to get with that." While his investigation had not cleared up everything, concerning those prisoners, he was prepared to accept that he might never get more clarity than this, and he knew the information he had gathered, as bleak as it was, had at least settled a few matters. He knew what had happened to several of his old friends who had gone to Ostagar with him. The river farmers knew what had become of those from their village who had been bold enough to complain.

"Very well." The commander apparently agreed with him. "And did you gain the knowledge you wanted from asking questions of the soldiers who went to Highever? I take it they were not all unwise enough to try to hit you."

"None of the ones I've spoken to were very cooperative," Varel said, "but only one of them tried to protest physically. The others were just reluctant to talk. But if Arbar will speak to me about this, as you've said, that will be very helpful. Does he want you to be there?"

"I think he would prefer it if I were not," the commander said. "I'll send him to you."

Arbar turned out to be an excellent source of information. He was unimaginative and stolid, and none of what he said sounded particularly dramatic, or worse yet, rehearsed. Having decided that he owed his loyalty to the wardens now, he had no hesitation in telling Varel everything he knew, and he was surprisingly good at differentiating between what he had seen himself, what he had been told by others, and what he had deduced from either of those things. Not that he had spent much time drawing conclusions about the whole experience, but that made the few he offered that much more believable. He could also name many of those who had been chosen to stay behind in Highever to hold the castle.

"Don't know what happened in Denerim, though," he said. "I didn't go there."

Varel had no reason to doubt that, either, and the records of which troops had gone to Denerim were much better and less spotty. There had been no betrayal involved, and no need for secrecy. Still, he asked, "Why not?"

"Arrow to the leg," Arbar said, gesturing at his calf. "I stayed in Highever until I was mostly healed, then I came back here. Can I go now? It's just about time for dinner. Ser."

"Tione told me you had six meals again yesterday," Varel said. "You do know that there's no need for you to sneak around between the soldiers' mess and the dining hall, don't you? No one will stop a warden from getting enough food."

"Wasn't trying to sneak around. If I'd been sneaking around," Arbar said, "she wouldn't have seen me." Varel doubted that, because Arbar was not stealthy, and Tione was very observant, but he did take the point. "I just like getting to see everyone, and eating with my old mates as well as getting to know these wardens." He looked at Varel under his brows. "If I can eat as much as I want, I don't see that it matters if I do it in two places."

"It doesn't," Varel said. The same amount of food would get consumed, either way, and he, personally, didn't care at all where Arbar had his dinner. "Go, then."

Varel himself ate in the dining hall, as usual, listening to Anders and Nathaniel Howe arguing about Lady Lucinda, which it seemed they were prepared to go on doing for years, and Sigrun laughing about something with Dorith and Lilian; he tried to pay a little more attention to that, just to be certain they weren't gossiping about the commander's sheets, but the words he caught had something to do with the bathing room, and he reasoned that as long as no one asked him to fix anything, it was probably none of his business. When Arbar came in and sat down almost shyly next to Maverlies, Varel just shook his head and shoved over the bread basket.

Two of the maids were talking about darkspawn, and Varel did think he ought to listen to that, since the wardens present were absorbed in their literature debate. It seemed to be mostly about the one girl's family going to Amaranthine for safety, since their farm was isolated and the nearest neighbors had suffered in a raid. "And now I don't know where to send the money," she said. "I hope they'll send word to me."

"Of course they will," the other girl said, patting her hand.

The scullion who came by to take Varel's empty plate told him that Mistress Hansa would like a word with him, so he went out into the kitchen and sat down by the table there instead. Hansa pushed another bowl of plums at him. "I seem to recall that you like these," she said.

"I do," Varel said and took one. He rubbed it between his fingers for a few moments just for the pleasure of seeing the purple-green skin shine before he took a bite, tasting the perfect balance between tart and sweet. "They're early this year."

"They are," Hansa agreed. "But there's other things that's late, and that's what I wanted to talk to you about."

Varel picked out the plum pit and looked around for a place to throw it away, settling on the slop bucket in the corner that was already full of carrot ends and eggshells and something covered in flour. As long as he wasn't getting spilled on him, he didn't really care what it was. "I don't reckon I can make anything ripen just by ordering it," he said.

"Course not," Hansa said. "Now stop being ridiculous, do." She raised her voice without looking. "Grace, careful with that jar!" Then she eyed Varel sternly. "There's some deliveries we haven't got yet, and we should have. Could you send some men out to the farms in the northwest?"

"It's a bit soon to start sending out soldiers to collect taxes, don't you think?" Varel said, finishing the plum with one more bite. "I don't know what it is you're waiting for, but maybe it was just slow to grow this year. The fields don't care about the date."

"I told you to stop being ridiculous," Hansa said, exasperation in her voice. "Honestly, I don't know where your mind is." Varel did know, and it made him realize he should concentrate more on this present conversation, and his present surroundings, rather than memories of soft, soft kisses and silky skin sliding against his own. This was not the time.

"My apologies, mistress. This is a busy time, as you know." Every season was a busy time at the Vigil, so that was always a safe thing to say. Varel tried to get a better grip on the conversation. "You're worried about them, then." He was reminded of the way the maid at dinner had talked about her family.

"Might just be that they don't feel the roads are safe," Hansa said, "even with the patrols. The one family at the Attwater, they used to send their oldest child, driving a wagon. I wouldn't blame them for not wanting to do that, this year."

"No," Varel said slowly. He wouldn't, either. The patrols going that way hadn't reported any particular trouble, but just the rumors of darkspawn would be enough to make people keep their young ones at home. There'd be no caravans travelling that way, so no opportunity to join with a larger group for safety. The patrols should have offered themselves as escort, Varel thought, but it could be that they hadn't even gone up to talk to anyone at the farms. "I'll have a word with Garevel."

Hansa nodded. "You do that." She rubbed the back of her wrist against her forehead. "I've heard the soldiers say it's been quiet up that way, but it probably don't seem all that quiet to the farmers. Things just look different to us."

That was true enough, Varel thought. He took a second plum, because he couldn't not, when they were right there in front of him. There were few things he liked better than the taste of a fresh plum, especially the kind called Queen's Heart, firm and delicious and with the pit nearly loose from the flesh.

Things were different here at the Vigil, and once again he wondered if they were, perhaps, growing a little too blasé about reports of darkspawn, about occasional sightings, because they'd seen darkspawn erupt from the ground at their feet, more or less, and survived that.

Most of them had survived it, at least. Some hadn't. And the farmers had the right of it; a darkspawn presence in the land was nothing to get used to, definitely not something to come to regard as normal. The Blight was over, and they should not be seeing this much darkspawn activity, he knew that much. The Orlesian wardens had been quite concerned.

The wardens now, under the commander's lead, were probably taking the sitution at least as seriously, but they did give the impression of being more frivolous. Probably the soldiers couldn't help but be affected by that, echoing a little of the wardens' attitude in their own behavior. Not that they took darkspawn lightly -- not that anyone in their right mind could take darkspawn lightly -- but they couldn't help but pick up some of the wardens' more casual approach.

It wasn't unlikely, Varel reflected, that they wanted to be a bit more like the wardens, too, because the wardens, undisciplined and slapdash and odd as they were, were also the finest fighting force anyone had ever seen. But the soldiers weren't wardens, and would do well to remember it. He wondered if Sigrun had given them a talk yet.

"Will one wagon be enough," he said, "or do you think all the farms in that area will take the opportunity to send whatever it is they're sending?"

"They'd be fools not to," she said. "Two wagons -- three, if they had a good harvest."

"Sounds like they could be their own caravan," Varel said. He shook his head when Hansa looked at him. "No, I'll get Garevel to send men out. We all of us like to eat, mistress, you know that."

"I won't ask you to run about with a tray tonight, leastwise," she said. "He's eating like a sensible person again." There was no doubting who she referred to with that simple pronoun.

"I'm glad to hear that." Varel finished his second plum. He would unhesitatingly have hand-fed the arl of Amaranthine and Commander of the Grey in Ferelden, had it been necessary, and he would have hand-fed his lover Elyon Andras with considerable pleasure, but it was not, as he himself would be the first to point out, something that he wanted to be a regular duty. "Will you let me have a mug of that tea to bring with me?"

"Surely," she said, so he got himself a mug and poured from the pot at the side of the hearth, which didn't hold tea but Mistress Hansa's special herb mixture. "But bring the mug back! My girls can't always be running after you to find out where you've put it down."

"I'll bring it back at breakfast tomorrow," Varel said.

He sipped at the herb tisane as he went around the Vigil, doing an early evening round. Everything looked to be in order. The wardens and some of the soldiers were playing a hoop-toss game in the soldiers' yard, and called out cheerfully for him to join in, but he shook his head and moved on. It was good to see soldiers and wardens socializing. Perhaps the wardens would even say something sensible about darkspawn in between tossing their hoops.

Nathaniel Howe, Varel was amused to see, got to make his tosses backwards, over one shoulder. One soldier suggested he ought to play with his eyes shut.

Varel went up to his room. Usually he would never retire at such an early hour as this, but things had become rather different over the past few days. He pushed the door open and stepped inside, then came to a full stop. A slim figure was sitting in his window, reading. Wearing that short, thin, almost see-through wraparound robe, the one of fine white silk that looked as though it was made for some frivolous Orlesian bride on her honeymoon.

Looking up, Elyon put the book aside at once. "Varel."

Varel had never had occasion to lock his bedroom door before, and the lock had rusted shut from years of disuse. Rather than trying to get it working again, he had borrowed a few things from Alane and mounted a very simple crossbar on the inside, and now he fumbled -- behind his back, because he was unwilling to take his eyes off Elyon -- until he could slide the bar into position. Then he went across the room to kiss his lover.

They were slowly growing familiar with each other, and with the best ways to please each other's bodies, and Varel was very happy to discover that Elyon was just as willing as he to experiment with positions to find out whether a different one would bring them more enjoyment. Which was, Varel supposed, how he found himself not too long afterwards lying flat on his back in his bed with Elyon's mouth on his cock, which was a curious echo of their very first encounter. Except that this time Elyon's position was reversed; he was kneeling with his legs spread very wide, knees to either side of Varel's broad chest, and Varel had two fingers deep in Elyon's arse and was licking the back of his thigh.

It seemed like a fine idea, both of them bringing the other pleasure at the same time, but Varel had to admit it was difficult to concentrate his attention on the regular thrusts of his fingers when Elyon took him in all the way, and most especially when he made those sweet little noises at the same time, both for the way it sounded and for the way it felt. Varel cursed, his fingers jerking, and Elyon apparently liked that, because he clenched tight and his entire body rippled in response. Varel cursed again, and tried to do on purpose what he had just done by accident, kissing Elyon's thigh in triumph when he managed to get another ripple and Elyon's legs trembled in his grip.

In this position, of course, Varel couldn't fuck Elyon's throat with any force and precision, nor comfortably reach to tug at his ears. Elyon really did appreciate both of those things a great deal, particularly at the same time. Just thinking about it made Varel's hips try to press up, and Elyon pushed down to meet him, taking him even deeper, though Varel would have thought that was impossible.

He drove his fingers deep in a steady rhythm, thrusts as long as those fingers could make them, and then he folded a third finger in. Elyon made another noise, the way he only ever did when his mouth was full, and he clenched so tight around Varel's fingers, Varel might have taken it for a protest, except that Elyon's hard-won release was spilling hot and wet onto his chest.

Varel didn't think he'd ever get tired of seeing that, of feeling Elyon come. And one clear disadvantage of this position was that he didn't get to watch Elyon's face, to see those bright eyes grow hazy and that finely-cut mouth turn slack with pleasure. There was nothing quite so beautiful, he thought, as seeing that. Seeing it and knowing he had made it happen made his chest feel tight and his belly hot.

When Elyon recovered enough to begin sucking him harder again, Varel groaned. Elyon pressed down deep, making a noise that vibrated around Varel's cock, and Varel's hips tried to leave the bed. Usually, he got a little more warning than this from his own body, but this time Elyon's mouth just ripped the pleasure right out of him and he was coming before he was even aware of it, the physical sensation arriving in a stumbling mess after the actual event.

He did feel Elyon drawing back, though, and kissing his cock sweetly before pulling free of Varel's fingers and squirming around to begin licking his chest clean. Varel lifted his cream-free hand, which seemed unaccountably heavy, and stroked Elyon's hair. "I should like it," Elyon said into his chest, "if you put your fingers back inside me for a while."

Varel had no objections to that. He pressed two fingers back inside Elyon's slick hole, and Elyon gave a contented little sigh. Varel tipped his head back and kissed him.

It was Varel's intention to get up in just another moment and clean them up more thoroughly, but he found it difficult to give up the warmth, the closeness, the kisses, the sweet weight of Elyon on him and the heat of Elyon's body around his fingers. Elyon wasn't the only one who liked that. They fell asleep with the sky still light outside.

As a result, they woke up very early, and Varel wondered how he had survived so many years without having this. Falling asleep tangled up with a lover was sweet, but waking up together was better, despite the sour sleep breath and, this time, a near-cramp in one wrist. His bed, which had suited him fine for a long time, was not quite big enough for this, even though Elyon was short and slight and liked to sleep draped on top of Varel, like a cat. The bed in Elyon's room provided a great deal more room for whatever they chose to do.

Once they'd managed to separate, Elyon pulled on his robes and went downstairs to have a bath, and Varel did not go with him, knowing that a naked and wet Elyon would tempt him into acts that they did not, despite the early hour, have time for. Not in the bathing room, at any rate. Instead, Varel washed himself with the water in the ewer, and was pleased to find that Elyon had heated it a little before he left. Washing in cold water was a habit, but that didn't make it a pleasure.

Clean and dressed, armed and armored, Varel walked along the familiar hallways and staircases of the Vigil. He stopped by the great hall, which was empty at this hour, and saw that the heavy vases from the oathtaking ceremony had finally been cleared away, and all the little alcoves, holding books and memorial suits of armor so old that Varel sincerely hoped no one would ever get the idea to wear them, were once again fully accessible.

Anders's tabby with the ridiculous name lay curled up on the throne in comfortable nose-to-tail sleep. No one else ever seemed to use that throne these days, and Varel gave some thought to whether it would be worth the labor and expense to have it replaced with another chair that suited Elyon better, one that he could actually use, one that wouldn't make him look like a child trying to assume adult dignities.

No, Varel decided, better to keep the throne and the dais as they were, standing unused in the background, a reminder of authority not currently exercised -- certainly not the way Rendon Howe had exercised it -- but easily enough assumed if need be. If one removed the cat. Ser Pounce-a-lot did detract somewhat from the picture Varel's mind was trying to paint.

He left the great hall behind and went outside, nodding to the guards, who had the slightly slumped stance of men who are expecting to be relieved at any moment so they can go off and sleep; when they saw Varel, though, they became immediately more upright and alert. The same held true for the guards outside in the courtyard, and the ones up on the walls, when Varel tilted his head back to look at them. He would have to tell Garevel that they should both do random rounds, turning up at the middle or beginning or end of any given guard shift. Varel didn't think any time was a good time for a guard to slack off, but this was a particularly bad time, so shortly after two assassination attempts on the commander and with the darkspawn threat hanging over the arling.

The air was pleasantly cool at this hour, and Varel walked across the courtyard and out onto the platform just outside the gate, looking at the state of Voldrik Glavonak's latest, and hopefully last, building project. It seemed close to done, which was a surprise, but a good one. The dwarf and his assigned workers must have been maintaining a hard pace.

Varel went down into the bailey and took a turn around it, since he hadn't been there the night before. Everything was in place, the turf was taking hold over the burned areas, and Dworkin Glavonak hadn't blown up his workshop.

Going up among the buildings to his right, where the ground began to rise with the first few slopes of what would become the steep cliffside at the Vigil's back, Varel was surprised to find Anders, crouching down and poking one long finger into the soil. It was unexpected to see the mage awake at this hour, and even more unexpected to find him here.

Anders looked up and offered him a half-hearted smile. "I didn't think anyone ever came back here."

"They don't, much," Varel said. "So what are you doing here?"

"Oh, I just thought perhaps I could claim a little spot here for growing elfroot," Anders said. "Quiet and out of the way, so there'd be no risk of the soldiers putting their big armored feet all over it. Or the maids. Not that the maids have big feet, of course, they're all dainty visions of loveliness, but they do get everywhere."

"Bloody stupid idea, if you ask me," Varel said, then hastily added, "Pardon my Orlesian. But this is about as far as you can get from the infirmary. If you talk to Samuel, he can find you something much better. There's a corner of the kitchen garden..." He let his voice trail off while he thought about what would be the most convenient doorway for a person coming from, or going into, the infirmary.

"But that's for food," Anders protested. "If you already had a herb garden for healing plants, that would be one thing."

"A working fortress needs a well-stocked infirmary as well as a well-stocked kitchen," Varel said, stretching down a hand to haul Anders to his feet. "Talk to Samuel. If he says this is the best place, of course you can have it."

Varel very much doubted he would, though. There were many places that would be much better in every way. In fact, the infirmary was close by one of the old, unused battlements, an open space that had become built-in and obsolete when another layer was added to the Vigil. If Alane built some boxes, Samuel could find good dirt for them, and Anders would be able to grow the herbs he needed practically outside the infirmary door.

It was always a surprise to Varel to see how tall Anders was; once the mage was on his feet, they were very nearly face to face, although he'd been a fairly light weight to pull upright. They walked side by side down across the bailey, and Varel thought about going down to the outer gate to make certain that the guards there weren't asleep with their eyes open, but he turned up towards the Vigil instead, matching his stride to Anders's. He'd like to have a quick drink of water before morning drill, so when they went into the courtyard, Varel headed for the well and tossed the bucket down with a splash.

"Oh, that does sound like a good idea," Anders said, though Varel hadn't spoken a word about it. He stood waiting while Varel winched the full bucket up, and then they both drank from their cupped hands. The water in the courtyard spring was cold even in summer, and in winter, it felt as if it could crack a person's teeth.

Varel didn't drink so much it would slosh uncomfortably in his stomach during the drill; he wanted the water more as a way to feel fresh and awake than to slake his thirst. When they had both finished, he nodded to Anders and went into the soldiers' yard, where men were slowly starting to assemble for morning drill, though most of them still looked sleepy and a little disorganized, some with helmets tucked under their arms and hair on end. They moved slowly into the training yard. One fellow ducked behind a bush to piss, and nearly got it all over his feet when Varel grabbed him by the ear and sent him off to the proper facilities.

"Does anyone else here want to train in a yard that smells of piss?" he asked the remaining soldiers, and they shook their heads hurriedly.

Morning drill that day was brisk and fast, and Varel tried to see from Garevel's face if it meant he was in a good mood or a bad one; he always looked a little cranky, regardless. It did mean that Varel was warm and comfortable in his body by the time the drill wrapped up, feeling ready for whatever the day might bring. He fell into step with Garevel afterwards, heading for the mess hall to have breakfast with the soldiers.

"You want something," Garevel said grumpily. A bad mood, then. "I hope it's plain porridge, because that's what you'll get here."

"Porridge is a fine thing for a fighting man in the morning," Varel said, and tried not to think regretfully about the plums he could have taken from the bowl in the kitchen. "Yes, I do need to have a word with you. Mistress Hansa tells me there have been no deliveries of taxes-in-kind from the Attwater farms, so it's probably best to send a small troop out that way to fetch things in. Don't know about you, but I don't want to get porridge for every meal."

Garevel snorted, pushing the door open a little too hard. "As if you would. She likes you too well for that." The chair scraped against the floor as he pulled it out.

Varel sat down on the end of the bench that stood along the long side of the table, across the corner from Garevel. "Did you sleep badly?"

Garevel sat down with a thump. "Yes." He ladled porridge into his bowl and gave Varel a sour look. "And you look entirely too happy. You like it that much, taking early-morning walks with that skinny blond mage?"

Varel was startled into a laugh. "No," he said, knowing the surprise was right there in his voice. "And I don't reckon he's up at that hour ordinarily. He wanted a place to grow elfroots. I have to remember to mention that to Samuel."

"Oh, he wants a special garden, does he," Garevel said and spooned some porridge into his mouth. Then he thought about it, and Varel could see him arriving at the proper conclusion even through porridge and ill-humor. "For the infirmary?"

"Yes." Varel thought the porridge was quite well cooked that morning; at least his portion had no unpleasant lumps or burned bits. "Seems we might get a better kind of healing poultice out of this, or a potion, maybe, so the herbalist says."

"Might be a good thing," Garevel admitted. He ate in silence for a while, and Varel was content to do the same. When breakfast was almost over, and some of the soldiers at the far end of the hall had already left, Garevel put his spoon down. "I'll get Maverlies to take some men out Attwater way," he said. "Do they need to bring wagons?"

Varel shrugged. "Either that, or make two trips so they can escort people and wagons back again." He could tell from the crinkling of Garevel's brow how that sounded. While the farms by the Attwater weren't too terribly far away, neither were they next-door close, and two trips, with the loading and the unloading, would make for a very long day, or maybe most of one day and part of the next, if there was a hitch in any part of the proceedings.

"Maverlies!" Garevel waved a hand, realized he still held the spoon in it, and put the spoon down before waving again. "Go with Varel and do what he tells you. And get it done in one day." He stood up, making the chair legs rasp against the flagstones of the floor yet again, and strode off in the middle of Maverlies's yesser.

She looked after him with one raised eyebrow. "He's having a cheerful morning, isn't he?"

"Seems that way," Varel said and stood up himself. "Come outside with me, and I'll explain what it is that needs doing."

They went out into the soldiers' yard, where the sun had already warmed the air into a comfortable temperature. Maverlies crossed her arms and looked expectantly at Varel. "Well? I hope you're not about to arrange another funeral."

"No one's dead that I've noticed," Varel said. He propped one shoulder against a sunny wall. "Mistress Hansa is concerned about the farms out by the Attwater. They should have made their first harvest-time deliveries by now. Take three wagons and enough men for loading and unloading, and go out there and find out why you're saving them the trip."

Maverlies nodded slowly, her brows drawing together. "Do you think it's darkspawn trouble?"

"I haven't heard of any raids that high up on the ridge," Varel said. "Most likely they just don't have people to spare, and don't want to send their children when the roads aren't safe. But you'd better be prepared, all the same."

"Of course." Maverlies knew how to salute properly, and she could inflect the gesture with both easiness and respect at the same time.

Knowing that the matter was as good as settled now that it was in Maverlies's capable hands, Varel turned his attention to the next thing that needed doing. He walked around the outside of the Vigil until he found Samuel, who was in the kitchen garden, doing something to the quince trees that Varel didn't even pretend to understand. "Good morning, groundskeeper," he said, and Samuel shot him an amused glance at the formality. "I could use your advice about something."

Samuel nodded. "And what kind of something might that be?"

"The mage Anders wants to grow elfroot," Varel said.

That made Samuel chuckle. "There's no help needed with that," he said. "Grows like a weed, elfroot. We've probably got a patch about somewhere that I've missed."

"Yes, and I'd like for there not to be more," Varel said. "The infirmary needs a reliable supply, but I'd rather not have him planting it in places that would be inconvenient for the herbalist and in the way of the soldiers."

"What did you have in mind?" Samuel said. "I've seen that look on your face before. Seems to me you already have a plan."

"I do, but I'm no gardener," Varel said. "If elfroot is so easy to grow, though, that makes me think this idea of mine could be a good one. It would be most convenient for the infirmary, and least in the way of anything, if he could grow it in big boxes of some kind in the dead space off the infirmary hallway."

"That could work," Samuel said slowly. "There's enough light there for elfroot, and there'd be no risk of it getting mixed up with anything else and being trampled on or cut down." Which was a large part of what Varel wanted to avoid; Anders might feel that his chosen corner of the bailey was out of the way and private, but the whole bailey was scythed regularly, for one thing. "And there's a drain in the corner, too."

That drain hadn't been added for the convenience of future gardeners, of course, but to make sure that the winter rains didn't flood the hallway. Water had to go somewhere. Now the drain would be doubly convenient, though. "He'd have to carry up water," Varel mused, "but if we set up a rain butt, he might not have to carry quite so much."

"You'll want dirt, then," Samuel said. "Elfroot will grow in just about anything, Maker bless it, but if this is for the infirmary, I can make sure it grows twice as fast."

"They'll appreciate that," Varel said. "But before the dirt, we need the boxes to put it in. Come with me to talk to Alane, explain to her what's needed. I reckon she's more used to building chairs than boxes for planting elfroot in. If it's convenient for you to come now," he added.

"Oh, yes, that won't be a problem." Samuel patted the nearest quince tree in an affectionate manner, as if to reassure it that he would be back, and went with Varel into the Vigil.

Up at the carpentry workshop, Alane was sitting on a chair outside the door, tapping with a mallet at the wooden plugs that held a drawer together. When they were as flush with the surface as the mallet could get them, she began to scrape at the remaining unevenness with a flat-bladed tool Varel had never seen before. He cleared his throat, and she looked up and made a face that was at least half embarrassed, before sliding into a smile. "Yes, it's for a bedside table," she said, gesturing at the small drawer. "Mine."

"Didn't think the old carpenter had one," Samuel said.

"He didn't." Alane set the drawer aside and stood up. "Don't know how he managed. I had to build something to put the candle on at night. What can I help you with, seneschal?"

"We need some boxes built," Varel said, "big open containers that the healers can plant elfroot in. Useful rather than fancy. Groundskeeper Samuel can explain better than I what's needed."

Listening to the two of them, Varel reflected that he would never have thought this to be such a technical matter. Samuel gestured, Alane gestured back, and soon enough they went into the workshop to find something to sketch on, to make it clear they were talking about the same thing. Varel shook his head in acceptance and resignation, and went to the stairs and the nearest route up to the infirmary.

He was fortunate enough to find both Anders and the herbalist there, one of them winding bandages and the other grinding something in a mortar. The door was open, so Varel knocked on the doorjamb to draw their attention.

The herbalist dropped her pestle. "Seneschal! Do, do you need our assistance?"

"Yes," Varel said, which made the herbalist look worried and Anders sceptical. "Not concerning my health," he clarified. "I've spoken to the groundskeeper about the best place for you to grow your own elfroot -- you do still want that?"

"Of course we still want that," Anders said. "Andraste's blessed sandal straps, I only talked to you about that this morning. Will he let me have a little corner somewhere?"

"You don't need a little corner," Varel said, and watched Anders's eyebrows tilt uncertainly. "You need a space in the fresh air as close to this infirmary as you can get it. That way, anyone working here can get fresh ingredients quickly and easily." And they wouldn't be in the way of anyone else, although Varel decided not to say that.

"I suppose we could try the windowsills here," the herbalist said, sounding nearly as squashed as the substances in her mortar. "Though they aren't very..."

"There's plenty of space just down the hall," Varel said. "Come with me and I'll show you."

Anders blinked, but the herbalist shone up. She'd been here for a few years, and she knew the Vigil reasonably well. "Oh, you mean the old battlement! That would be perfect, if you're sure it's all right? Of course you are," she went on with hardly a pause, "or you wouldn't have suggested it. That is what you're suggesting, isn't it?"

"Yes," Varel said patiently. "Samuel and Alane are in the carpentry workshop right now, planning how to build boxes for you to grow herbs in. One of you, at least, had better come with me there, and tell them how many boxes you need and if you have any other special requirements."

"I'll come with you," Anders said, "and you can show me this space you're talking about on the way."

He put the bandages down and strode outside, and turned in what he assumed was the right direction. Varel stopped him with a hand on his arm. "We're going the other way."

"But the battlements are out there," Anders said. "Admittedly, I don't think that's the one spot in the Vigil where our little elfroot cultivation will be least in the way, but I'm prepared to take your word for it."

"No, I reckon it would be terribly in the way there," Varel said. "We were talking about the old battlement, this way." He led Anders the few steps necessary down the hallway. The door out was small, and a little inconveniently low for men as tall as Varel and Anders, but Varel was pleased to find that it swung open easily enough. Outside was a long narrow space surrounded by stone walls, and only a few high windows looking down.

"I had no idea this existed," Anders said, craning his neck to see better. Varel stepped aside so that Anders could duck his head and go outside. It was no wonder that Anders had missed the existence of this little open space, well-hidden as it was. "Does it get any sunlight at all?"

"Some," Varel said, "but only during the summer. It'll come round that corner at about noon. But Samuel tells me elfroot does well under almost any conditions, so it should be enough. You'd better discuss that with him, though. I'm no gardener."

He looked down the wall and saw that he'd remembered correctly about the drain. There wasn't much of a slope towards it, but it was enough to keep rain, or any other spilled water, from leaking into the keep. Varel thought there would be plenty of room here for Anders and the herbalist to grow anything they liked, or at least anything that didn't need a lot of direct sunlight all year round.

Anders came back inside, grinning hugely. "This is perfect," he declared. "You're starting to worry me, seneschal. It hasn't even been a day, and you've found the ideal place for healing herbs, and arranged for the carpenter to build boxes to grow them in. What would you do if I said I wanted a pony?"

"Nothing," Varel said dryly. "Better ask Oghren if he'll let you play with that toy one of his."

"I really don't want to play with Oghren's toys," Anders said, with an inflection in his voice that made Varel wonder if Anders, too, was familiar with the merchandise that certain Orlesian merchants sold for private enjoyment. "Honestly, this is like getting a Satinalia gift out of season. The infirmary will be much better stocked."

Varel nodded, and turned to lead the way as they headed down to the carpentry workshop. "The soldiers of the Vigil will appreciate that," he said. "And I don't doubt the wardens will, too."

Down by the workshop, Alane and Samuel had dragged a selection of planks and pieces of wood outside, and were turning them over and discussing intently the merits of planter boxes raised on legs, versus standing on benches made for the purpose. "Benches would be fantastic," Anders broke in at once. "Or one bench, at any rate, with a shelf for tools." He glanced at Samuel. "Are there any gardening tools I can use, or should I get my own?"

"Might want to get your own small trowel," Samuel said, "or you'll be sharing it with the kitchen garden, and that could get downright inconvenient at times."

"Definitely," Anders agreed. "If I'll be growing things up by the infirmary, I'll need tools that will stay there." He turned to Alane. "Just the one shelf," he said coaxingly.

Alane shook her head. "I can't promise you that the boxes would never leak onto those tools of yours," she said. "Particularly when Samuel just told me they need holes in the bottom."

"They'll only leak if he overwaters," Samuel said, but Alane went on talking over him.

"Wouldn't it be better if I built you a workbench instead?"

The expression on Anders's face was hard to describe, and almost embarrassing to behold. "It's my nameday," he said fervently. "Must be."

"I'll just leave you to it," Varel said.

He made his way to his office, and found a small pile of papers outside the door, which was a very pointed reminder that he normally did not keep his office locked. It would be better, Varel thought, picking the papers up and letting himself in, to lock any sensitive material into a box or drawer instead. That way the maids could refill his lamp, too, when necessary, and lay a fire in the fireplace come winter.

He rather expected that he'd be done with the need to lock things away long before then, but to make it more of a certainty, he sat down with his lists and notes, including everything he had from Arbar, and began again to sketch out letters to Highever and Denerim, asking about the fates of the Vigil's soldiers. It helped to be able to make his queries more specific, asking about men who might have fallen by the gates, and so on.

Those who had stayed on at Highever after the assault would have burned the bodies of their fallen comrades, or so Varel assumed. He hoped that they had also given a decent pyre to the dead of Highever, if for no other reason than that staying in a castle full of corpses would grow extremely unpleasant in a very short time. Bodies did not, as he had pointed out to the commander before, keep indefinitely.

Most of all, he hoped that they had made a record of it, and that the Highever forces under Fergus Cousland who had reclaimed the castle hadn't destroyed this record. That those forces had also kept track of the occupying Amaranthine soldiers they'd killed and, one hoped, burned. Which was, Varel realized, a lot to hope for. There would have been no reason for them to do that. The closer he came to his goal, the more he began to suspect that it could not be reached.

Varel gathered up his sketched-out letters, old and new versions, and went down the hall to the commander's office. He knocked on the door and actually got an answer, although he couldn't make out the words of it, so he hoped it wasn't go away, and pushed the door open. The commander looked up from a giant tome that covered most of his desk, and his eyes softened into an almost-smile as he saw Varel.

"Yes, seneschal?" he said, a clear signal that he was keeping matters between them professional during this meeting.

That seemed like a sensible choice to Varel. Any deliberate reminder that they had woken up naked together in the same bed that morning would have distracted them both quite severely from the work that needed doing. As it was, Varel did his level best to ignore his commander's sleek hair, braided back while still wet, and the drying curls at his temples, and the way his robes covered so much of him but still left the smooth slope of his neck bare, particularly with his hair swept back like this, and the way his hands looked even more fine-boned and narrow when emerging from tight sleeves, and--

And he was doing a fine job of distracting himself, all the same. Varel cleared his throat. "Thought you might want to have a say about this, commander," he said, holding up the papers in his hand. "I've drafted letters for us to send to Highever and Denerim, now that we've gathered all the information we're likely to get here."

"Yes, you had better let me see that," the commander said and stood up. "It will be more convenient for us to work in your office, unless you, too, have a volume of ancient and unpleasant history taking up all the available space."

"I don't believe I do," Varel said, stepping backwards instead of forwards, and holding the door open for the commander to step through. "Doesn't really seem as if it would help with keeping the Vigil running." The nearest he'd come to studying ancient history in years was his attempt to read about the adventures of Lady Lucinda, and while he wouldn't classify that as unpleasant, it didn't seem like proper history, either.

"No," the commander agreed, coming out into the hallway and turning at once towards Varel's office. "My hope is that there will be something in the older records that can offer a hint about places where there was a connection between the Deep Roads and the surface, or places where there were mining projects that were later abandoned. The darkspawn have disturbingly easy access to large parts of Amaranthine, and this Mother must have her headquarters somewhere."

"I doubt she's called Mother because she's a priest," Varel said. "Does that mean she's a broodmother?" He'd heard Sigrun tell stories about the broodmothers of Kal'Hirol, stories that had made the hairs on his arms stand on end.

"Very likely," the commander said. "The darkspawn should be growing fewer in number, but they're not, and becoming less bold, but that, they're certainly not." He halted outside the door to Varel's office. "But the darkspawn are my concern, not yours. Show me these letters, then."

"Seems to me the darkspawn are everyone's concern," Varel said, letting them both in, "particularly now." He had a momentary impulse to leave the door ajar, but that would be absurd. Shut but not locked, just as it would be during any other meeting. The commander sat down and Varel took the chair next to him, close but not too close, and frustratingly aware of the exact distance. "This is what I have." He put out the drafts, the first one and the one he'd just done, in front of the commander.

"The darkspawn are everyone's concern," the commander said. "I should have said that they are my responsibility." He began to go over the letters. "The questions for Denerim seem clear enough. Perhaps the best thing we can do is to send the letter to King Alistair's administration, rather than to an unknown steward or seneschal who ought to exist but whose name we don't know. They'll know at the palace who the best person is to give us the answers we request."

"That's a good idea," Varel said. "We're on good terms with the king's officials." He rubbed at his forehead as a thought struck him. "At least, until they find out that the Vigil has been defrauding the crown."

"That wasn't us," the commander said calmly. "That was primarily the previous captain of the guard, which I believe Mistress Woolsey will make extremely clear when she writes her report. Of course the crown will find out, and they'll find out because we begin to repay them, which ought to count in our favor, if anything. But it's true that we ought to coordinate this letter with Mistress Woolsey's projected reimbursement plan." He set it aside and pulled the letter to Highever closer. "This, I believe, is the main problem."

"Yes," Varel said glumly. He had tried to phrase his questions as simply and clearly as possible, but he knew that to anyone who had no reason to look favorably on the Vigil, they would sound like demands. "I don't think anyone at Highever will be inclined to help us, and even if they were, likely they can't. There's no reason for them to have kept records."

"I'm glad to hear you say that," the commander said. "I was not eager to be the one to speak of it first." He looked thoughtfully at Varel. "But as long as you know that it may not gain you the results you want, there's no reason for the Vigil not to ask, politely. I do think it might be best for the letter to come from the wardens, though."

"Maybe." Varel considered. "But why would the wardens care? The arl of Amaranthine can say that his seneschal is concerned."

"The Commander of the Grey can say the same thing." The commander traced a finger down the paper, as if moving paragraphs about in his head. "I never expected, coming to Ferelden, that I would have to be quite so many people."

That was true enough. Mage, elf, Orlesian -- any of those would define him in the eyes of others, and he was the arl of Amaranthine, the Commander of the Grey in Ferelden, and also Varel's lover Elyon, which had quickly come to be the most important part of his identity to Varel. All of that was contained in this one slim, strong body, and Varel had to stop thinking about how much he would like to lick Elyon's shoulders. He had never imagined himself growing inattentive to his duties for this particular reason.

"I will leave it to your judgment, commander," Varel said.

"Then I will write both letters," the commander said, gathering the papers in his hands, and Varel realized to his distress that he'd added to the commmander's burden of work for what might, if looked at with sober consideration, be entirely selfish reasons. He was on the verge of protesting when the commander looked at him. "Come back to my office at lunch, and we can go down to the dining hall together. Mistress Hansa has promised me fresh bread."

"I hope there'll be enough for the rest of us as well," Varel said. "You being such a big eater and all."

"I'm sure there will be," the commander said primly. He stood up and headed for the door, then stopped and turned. "Anders mentioned at breakfast that it might be a good idea for the Vigil's infirmary to grow their own elfroot. Could you look into that?"

"That's been taken care of," Varel said. "Anders and Samuel and Alane are working on setting up a sort of herb garden in a small outdoors space just by the infirmary."

"I do wonder sometimes," the commander said after an infinitesimal pause, "what would happen if you decided to take over the country, Varel."

"You're not likely to ever find out," Varel said. "I'm fairly sure I'm not Theirin enough to even have bad dreams about that." The commander looked faintly amused, going out the door. Varel sat for a moment and looked at the space where he'd been. "And I would never want to leave you," he added quietly.

He had work to do, so he did it. A bit of concentrated effort saw his table cleared of papers, and Varel went to the window to check the angle of the sun, to see if he had time for a visit to Woolsey's office and a search through the tax records, to see what the Attwater farms had delivered last year, and how much of it. As far as Varel could recall, the hilly country was mostly good for sheep farming, but they wouldn't be delivering three wagonloads of wool to the Vigil's kitchen. He racked his brain for what else was produced in that region. The land wouldn't yield much more than would keep the farmers fed through the winter, he thought. Perhaps they had fruit orchards.

Standing at the window, he was distracted by the sight of the wardens down in the training yard. Sigrun was still trying to teach Nathaniel Howe the art of fighting with two daggers, and he was getting better at it, growing faster on his feet, not just quick with his hands. Varel nodded approvingly as she ran him through the same footwork drill over and over. The ability to keep still, steady and balanced in every situation was an important one for an archer, but if he wanted to be able to switch to blades in close combat, he had to be quick and agile.

Sigrun called out something to Oghren, who was sitting on one of the benches that kept being dragged around the Vigil; this one was against the wall, in the sun, and looked like a very cosy perch. Oghren shook his head, but when she persisted, he got up, rolled his shoulders, took the haft of his ax in both hands, and proceeded to demolish the nearest training dummy in a quick and methodical manner, much like Mistress Hansa chopping up an onion.

Varel winced, because that dummy would never be good for anything again, but he also admired Oghren's form. Maybe he could spar against the dwarf himself later -- he remembered that he had promised to grant a closer look at his sword, some time ago, and there was no better way to do that than by using it.

He was definitely not setting Oghren loose on his two-hander students, though. They needed all the arms and legs they had.

The wardens checked the sun, too, and just then Lebbeth came out from the kitchen garden and continued towards the barracks, carrying a large pot. Two other scullions hurried after him, similarly encumbered. Varel shook his head thoughtfully. It really was hight time to open up the kitchen in the soldiers' yard, because all this lugging pots back and forth could not possibly be efficient, and the kitchen inside the Vigil got very busy at mealtimes. Maker willing, their numbers would only be growing from here on, and the benefits of preparing all the meals in one place were beginning to be outweighed by the considerable inconvenience.

Varel left his office and went down the hall again, knocking on the commander's door just as before. This time the answer from inside was clearer, and he stepped inside to see the commander sprinkling sand on his signature. The huge tome had been pushed to one side, one of its corners sticking out over the edge of the desk. "Is it time already?" he said, looking up at Varel. "Perhaps it would be simpler for me to fetch some bread from the kitchen later. I do need to get back to my reading."

"You need to eat, commander," Varel said. "I'll arrange to have those letters sent after lunch, when we can be sure the ink is dry."

"It doesn't take that long for ink to dry," the commander said, but he stood up and came around the desk. There was not a trace of ink on his hands. It seemed he wore his hair braided these days more often than not, and Varel appreciated that; he loved to see that copper hair spilling loose, most especially over a pillow, but precisely because he loved it, it was a sight he'd rather have reserved for private hours between them. The commander was enough of a distraction merely by existing.

They went outside, and the commander locked the door before they continued down the hallway. Varel was prepared to take the long way around, but the commander led him down the narrow servants' stairs, where fortunately they did not meet anyone. The dining hall was already crowded with people, and the commander's entrance created something of a stir, as everyone tried to guess where he wanted to sit so they could get out of his way.

"You should come here more often," Varel said once they were settled. The commander looked at him. "If people were more used to seeing you among everyone here, there'd be less of a fuss." He pushed a plate over in front of the commander, treating him like any other fellow eater. "The Howes had their meals by themselves. None of them would ever have eaten with the servants."

"I thought Fereldan custom was for everyone to eat together at a single long table," the commander said.

Varel nodded. "In most smaller households, they still do that," he said. "And some of the nobility have maintained the custom, but not many. Bann Eddelbrek keeps it up, but he's considered old-fashioned for it."

The wardens came in, all of them together and slightly breathless, as if they'd run part of the way; Varel saw that the group had collected Anders and Arbar as well. "Look, it's Elyon!" Sigrun said delightedly. "You should eat with us more often, commander!" She plunked herself down across the table from Varel and reached for the bread with frank enjoyment.

"As I said," Varel murmured. He sat back and enjoyed his own fresh bread and listened as Sigrun talked about the recent practice session and Anders waxed eloquent on the subject of growing elfroot. Apparently both Alane and Samuel had taken to the idea, and he would soon have all the boxes and all the dirt that he could possibly want.

"And I was just thinking, we could use the darkest corner to grow deep mushrooms!" he said.

Sigrun and Oghren both turned to look at him, and began to talk at the same time, then each waved for the other to continue, then each re-started at the same time again. Oghren won out due to greater volume. "There's a whole cellar down there!" he boomed, pointing unerringly down and at an angle. "Y'don't grow sodding deep mushrooms up here in the fresh air if there's a better place for them, skirt-boy."

"I bet he doesn't call you that," Anders said with a quick sideways look at the commander before turning back to Oghren. "But I just got a garden! Right by the infirmary, too. I don't want to spread things out again and get in the way."

Varel sighed, because they were both right. It looked as if his plan to keep Anders and his projected cultivation out from underfoot was going to fail after less than a day. "You won't be in the way in the cellar," he said reluctantly. "And you wouldn't have to go down there every day, would you?"

"No?" Anders said hopefully. "Really, I'd just like to have a place for mushrooms. Then we can make our own injury kits, and I guarantee you that mine would be much better than anything you can buy in Amaranthine. Fresher, too."

"That does seem like a good idea," the commander said. "I would like the Vigil to be as self-sufficient as possible in this."

"Then we'll have to arrange it," Varel said. "Somehow." He put the bread down. "Maverlies knows the deep cellars best, after all the work she did to clear them out, but she's busy with another matter today and tomorrow. Plan out what you need, and talk to Samuel and Alane about it, because I assume mushrooms grow better if you don't just stare at the floor and hope for the best."

"Back in Orzammar, people usually had trouble getting rid of them," Oghren said. "Friend of mine found them growing on the inside of his ale cask. He said they made the flavor kind of unusual."

"They didn't grow in Dust Town," Sigrun said. "Nothing grows in Dust Town."

Nathaniel Howe, who had been silent and looking awkward for most of the conversation, now looked awkward and handed her the bread. Sigrun blinked in surprise, then grinned up at him and took a piece.

"Right!" Anders said. "I'm going to become a mushroom-grower, with a little help from my dwarven friends here. And I'll have a herb garden. And the best-stocked infirmary this side of Val Royeaux." He looked sideways at the commander. "Can I have some fancy new title to go with all these new duties?"

"Certainly," the commander said placidly, spreading butter on a crusty piece of bread. "Warden-autocrat in charge of healing, perhaps. Or master of the mushrooms."

"And a raise?" Anders said. "And more fish for my cat?"

"Sure, when that cat of yours does any of the work," Oghren said.

Varel finished his food while Oghren and Anders argued about the skills of Ser Pounce-a-lot as a physician, and excused himself before anyone could ask him for his opinion. As far as he could tell, the cat's main area of expertise lay in falling asleep in unsuitable places. He headed outside, taking a slow turn around the courtyard to let the food settle.

The soldiers were coming out of the mess hall, finished with their own lunch, and Varel picked a couple of them to give him a hand with setting things up in the training yard. Several people came to watch, not just ones who would be taking part in the training session, and Varel, who didn't particularly appreciate being after-food entertainment, set them to running around the yard, starting slow and gradually picking up the pace. Most of those who weren't there for training gave up after just a lap or two, claiming other duties, and Varel tried not to grin.

The training session went well, once it got started. They were shaping up into a decent fighting force. Varel spent a lot of time on small, repetitive movements, trying to get them all to be faster, and the soldiers had learned enough by now to understand the purpose behind it and didn't complain, or not loudly enough that he had to take note of it, at any rate.

"Good work," he said to them afterwards, when they were all dripping with sweat and in some cases leaning on each other. "You're getting better. You'll make the Vigil proud." That put smiles on their faces. "Work on your stamina more, and you'll get even more out of these exercises. When you can keep up with your captain, you'll know you're strong enough."

"Not when we can keep up with you?" someone wheezed.

"Seneschal's mostly a desk job," Varel said, thinking about those far-distant days before he became captain of the guard, before he even had an office or so much as a desk drawer to call his own. "You can do better, I know it."

Two of the soldiers collapsed on the ground at that, laughing weakly. Varel left them to their own devices and went for another slow walk, taking the time to let his body cool down after the vigorous workout; if he went straight into a bath now, he'd still be sweating when he came out again. He went twice around the bailey and was on his way up to the courtyard again when he heard the soldiers down at the outer gate challenge someone.

Varel stopped and turned to see who this new arrival was. A woman leading a mule, and a child sitting on that mule. Varel began to swear under his breath, and headed down the bailey again with long strides. Halfway, he grabbed a passing soldier and said, "Get the commander. Now."

The soldier, who happened to be Vendel, hissed a quick "Yesser!" and took off running. Varel continued towards the Packton family nurse and little Lady Gizel.

At least the child was sensibly dressed this time, in a dark, sturdy fabric that wouldn't show stains or rips, and not a scrap of lace in sight. The nurse, for her part, mostly looked as if her boots pinched her. She looked at Varel's approach, glanced back at the gate as if wondering if it was too late to change her mind and run back out, but then visibly stiffened her spine and met him with her chin raised. "Seneschal," she said.

"This is unexpected, mistress," Varel said mildly. "Lady Gizel," he added in polite greeting to the small child, who seemed more interested in the stuffed toy she held in her hand than in what was going on around her. Varel dropped his voice. "Did you drag that child here all the way from Amaranthine without a single guard?"

"We travelled with a caravan taking wool to Denerim," the nurse said. "I, I need to speak to the arl."

"And he'll want to speak to you," Varel assured her. "It's a bit of a surprise to see you here, though I'm glad to hear that you could join a caravan for protection."

"My cousin owns two of the wagons," the nurse said. "That's how we were able to get away."

"Get away," Varel said blankly. "Surely everyone is free to come and go as they please from Amaranthine."

"Oh, yes," the nurse said. "If they aren't being kept prisoner in their own home by men who want to be their guardians. Godfrey Norrell moved in six days ago, Leith came two days later, and they've done nothing but quarrel since that moment. They're scaring my poor darling out of her wits."

Varel looked at little Gizel, who did not look particularly frightened, and then at the nurse, who was, on the other hand, visibly trembling. Whatever Godfrey Norrell and cousin Leith had done, it didn't seem to have touched Gizel too closely, but clearly it had been enough to drive this woman to escape, with her charge, to the Vigil and those who had killed the child's parents, even if it had been in self-defense both times. He didn't think the nurse would have taken such a step if she hadn't truly felt that staying would be worse.

Turning back towards the inner gate, he saw the welcome sight of the commander stepping through it, halting on the platform for just a moment as he caught sight of them, and then continuing at a measured pace down the steps, with Vendel just about treading on his heels. "That sounds quite uncomfortable, of course," Varel said, returning his attention to the nurse. "What have they been saying to alarm you so?"

This nurse, Varel remembered, was very prone to interpret everything in the worst and most dramatic light. She'd thought Varel had come to kill her and little Gizel when he'd merely wanted to check how they were doing. Although Varel had just killed the child's father, the nurse's half-brother, so it hadn't been an entirely unreasonable fear.

"They don't talk to me," the nurse said. "They argue about how to rule Amaranthine, and how much everything in the house is worth, and who gets to take over Bann Esmerelle's house, and which tiny countryside farm my little darling should get sent to, and which of their trusted retainers should be in charge of her. They'd have released me from service already if they could agree on which one of them should have the authority to do it."

That seemed quite likely. Both Two-Faced Norrell and his cousin Leith would want to have their own people in charge of the little girl, and get her hidden away in some place where she might convincingly fall into a brook, or accidentally wander off into the woods and disappear. "Commander," Varel said, relieved when a copper-colored head appeared just below the level of his shoulder. "Lady Gizel and her nurse have come to visit the Vigil. Apparently there are some difficulties with the inheritance of Amaranthine."

Gizel looked up, saw the commander, and immediately stretched out her arms towards him. The commander didn't seem to mind this imperious behavior. He swung her off the mule and settled her on his hip, and she began to play with his braid. "Not pulling," she said repeatedly, while starting to work the ribbon at the end of the braid loose.

"I, I can take her," the nurse said.

"It's no trouble." The commander looked at her, and she took a step back. Varel took a small step back, too, but mainly so that he could see the commander's face better. "What difficulties did you have in Amaranthine?"

"Godfrey Norrell and Leith are each trying to claim guardianship," Varel said, because the nurse looked about ready to snatch the little girl and run, and in no fit state to answer questions.

"They don't have it," the commander said. "They have no rights whatsoever, as I understand the situation." He looked up at Varel. "Seneschal, would you please arrange for Mistress Hansa to send tea to the same room where Lady Gizel and her attendant rested after the funeral?" Then he turned his gaze back on the nurse. "I'm afraid I don't recall your name."

"Selen, m'lord," the nurse said, startled into courtesy.

Varel put Vendel in charge of figuring out what to do with the mule, and strode off himself to find a maid, but changed his mind when he came into the courtyard and went round the side of the Vigil to the kitchen entrance instead. The scullery was noisy with the sound of dishes being cleaned, still, but the kitchen itself was in a momentary lull, before the work to make dinner started. Hansa was at one of the benches along the wall, tying herbs into neat bundles to be hung up to dry.

"We have unexpected visitors," Varel said. "Little Gizel and that nurse of hers. The commander wants tea for them up in that room off the great hall where they were last time."

"Well!" Hansa tied a final knot and turned around to better give Varel the full effect of her reaction, which seemed to be a sort of unsurprised surprise. "I heard she thought the Vigil was a wicked and untrustworthy place, that nurse."

"She probably does," Varel said. "But it seems Two-Faced Norrell and his cousin Leith have moved into the Packton house in Amaranthine, each of them saying he's the child's new guardian."

"Oh." Hansa filled a kettle with water and set it to boil over the kitchen fire. "That cat of Anders's would do a better job of it. Did our arl really appoint either of them?"

"No," Varel said. "He's not best pleased with this."

"No more he should be." Mistress Hansa started to set out mugs on a tray. "That child's too young for tea." She raised her voice. "Lebbeth! Get the milk from the cold-room!" Turning to Varel again, she said, "I'll send a maid as soon as it's ready -- you go on up, now, and don't stand there cluttering my kitchen."

Varel had intended to wait, and take the tray himself, which he knew full well was not part of his duties, just because he wanted a reason to go into that room and hear more about what was happening in Amaranthine and what the commander intended to do with Gizel and her nurse. He couldn't stay in the kitchen when Hansa was all but throwing him out, though, so he went out and up, going into the great hall. He was about halfway across it when the commander came in from the other end, with Gizel still on his hip and the nurse trailing behind.

The commander showed no sign of surprise, merely said, "Get the door, if you would," walking purposefully toward the side room in a way that left no doubt about which door he meant. Varel lengthened his stride and was in time to hold the door open, letting the commander go inside, and then Selen the nurse. He hesitated, and the commander looked up from setting Gizel on the couch. "Surely the tea won't be along quite yet," he said. "Come here and sit down."

It occurred to Varel, setting his sword against the wall in an empty corner, that the commander was not accustomed to giving direct orders to his lover, any more than Varel was accustomed to taking orders from his lover, and the slight awkwardness between them was probably due to that, not to the presence of Gizel and her nurse. Varel sat down on the couch, and Gizel immediately began to try to climb him, taking a firm grip on his arm as she pulled herself upright.

"Don't put your dirty boots on the couch!" the nurse said.

"Or on the seneschal," the commander added, as Gizel clambered up on Varel's thigh. He sounded more amused than anything else, though.

The nurse made a distressed sound, reaching for the child, and Varel reminded himself that others did not have his practice in decoding tiny shifts in the commander's level voice, and the nurse was probably more prone to assume the worst, if she had to make an interpretation.

"It's no trouble," Varel said, lifting Gizel and setting her down properly again, with her short legs sticking out from the couch seat. He thought she would stay where she'd been put this time, but no sooner were his hands off her than she started scrambling up just as before, having apparently decided that he was sitting there solely for her amusement.

The commander seemed to take the same view of the matter. He ignored Varel and Gizel and turned to the nurse. "Tell me again what has been happening to drive you out on the roads in this unsettled time," he said.

Once again, the nurse launched into an explanation of how Norrell had moved in and tried to establish himself, giving orders to the Packton household as though everyone there was his to command, how Leith had clearly heard of this and turned up as soon as he could, how the Packton house was filled to overflowing and Norrell and Leith squabbled over the best rooms, how Gizel had bitten Leith and he had demanded a severe punishment in retaliation. Varel didn't catch all of it, as he was busy keeping Gizel from tumbling to the floor or hurting herself on his armor, and himself from getting a small fist in the eye or ear as she flailed her arms in protest. She was a very vigorous child.

"And I believe they mean her harm," the nurse finished. "Leith called f-for a beating, and Norrell turned all caressing and called him dear cousin and said there was no need for anything so extreme and if he could just have the child comfortably settled she'd soon learn manners, and L-Leith got an odd look in his eyes and said she'd learn much better on the distant farm he had in mind, and..."

There was a knock on the door, and a maid brought in the tea. Varel was amused to see that the tray also held a mug of milk for Gizel, several plums, some of the bread from lunch, and cheese cut in small pieces, just in case someone should happen to be hungry.

"They have no rights over her," the commander said, once they were all settled with their mugs and the nurse was trying to eat bread and cheese without looking as though she really needed to eat bread and cheese. "Nor over the Packton house. I hope there is a good inventory, in case things go missing after their visit."

Little Gizel had settled down, drinking her milk and eating a plum, although both Varel and the nurse had to stop her from wiping her plummy fingers on her dress, and on the couch. Varel handed her a napkin, which she promptly dropped on the floor. "She's too young for that," the nurse hissed, so Varel wiped the child's hands clean himself, as best he could, while the nurse held her still.

"This is clearly my fault," the commander said, and both Varel and Selen turned to look at him. "I was remiss in not appointing at least a temporary guardian for her after the events of the funeral, to avoid a situation like this."

Selen the nurse frowned, and Gizel took the opportunity to slip from her grasp and get down on the floor. She pushed a bit at the nurse's legs, then toddled over and began to push at Varel's instead; he caught her hands and turned her away before she could get her little fingers caught in the joints of his poleyns.

"Norrell and Leith will demand that you give the appointment to one of them," the nurse said. "They'll want to know as soon as possible."

"Since they are both equally unfit," the commander said, "it doesn't really matter what they want." Gizel stumbled into his legs, and he lifted her up and settled her on his lap. "I cannot go to Amaranthine to solve this matter immediately."

"No, of course not," the nurse said. "But--"

"I'll ask the housekeeper to make up a room for you. You and Lady Gizel," he bounced the little girl on his knee and made her squeak with delight, "can stay here until I can appoint a suitable guardian for her." He looked calmly at her. "Unless you would prefer to return to Amaranthine. I don't want to give you the impression that you're not free to come and go as you like."

The commander took the napkin from Selen and began to wipe Gizel's face; she looked as if she had eaten the plum not just with her mouth but also with her cheeks, her chin, and the tip of her nose. Apparently the commander was quite used to handling small children, and since he could not possibly have gotten much practice at that as a Grey Warden, it had to be a remnant of his time as a circle mage. Some children were sent to the circle at a very young age, Varel knew, though he'd never imagined any of them as young as Gizel.

"We'll be happy to stay here!" the nurse said, then added a belated, "My lord."

"Good." The commander got to his feet, lifting Gizel as he did and handing her over to the nurse. "Wait here, and the housekeeper will come to take care of you. Let her know what you require for Lady Gizel and yourself. Varel, come with me."

Varel nodded a brief farewell to the nurse and chucked Gizel under her now much cleaner chin, then slung his sword on his back and went after the commander. "She's probably right," he said, jerking his head back at the side room where the nurse waited with her charge. "Whichever of Norrell and Leith got to be in charge of the girl, there'd be an accident. Not right away, of course, but after people got used to seeing him as the new bann."

"Of course," the commander agreed. "She would not have brought the girl here unless she found the situation truly dire in the Packton house, and there was nowhere else for her to flee."

It was no surprise to Varel that they agreed on that matter. Selen the nurse had given the strong impression, last time she was here, that she believed the arl and everyone at the Vigil had it in for the Packton family, and would be happy to see Gizel as dead as her parents. But since Selen had taken Gizel and fled here to the Vigil, it had to mean that their courteous treatment of Gizel herself, and their wish to protect her by sending her home escorted by an armed guard, must have had an effect.

"You're the only one with the unquestionable authority to protect Lady Gizel," Varel said, "as absurd as that is under the circumstances. There are no close relatives left, and the distant ones would be as bad as Norrell and Leith." He considered what he had just said. "No, no one could be as bad as Norrell and Leith. But there's no one who would stand up to them, either, without the assurance that they themselves would become bann and guardian."

"Apparently this issue is more pressing than we had assumed," the commander said, and Varel winced, because he was the one who had told the commander he could wait. Varel had underestimated the greed, and the resulting brazen presumption, of both Norrell and Leith. "But it still feels less urgent, to me, than solving the problem of the darkspawn presence in Amaranthine. Perhaps I am more commander than arl in this."

"I reckon a Commander of the Grey to deal with the darkspawn is what the arling needs," Varel said. "So it's lucky for us that's just what we've got. Commander."

They slowed down as they drew closer to the housekeeper's room. The commander looked up at Varel, his gaze steady and opaque. "It would no doubt be more reassuring," he said, "if I knew precisely how this dealing with the darkspawn should be done. I've gained some clues from the old records. There is an area in the northwest of the arling that should definitely be investigated, but to go there would mean to leave the Vigil and Amaranthine unprotected for a considerable time."

Varel frowned. "Commander, you are not the only protection the fortress or the city have. You're the leader of the arling, but you're not its shield."

"No?" The commander raised one elegant eyebrow at him. "I certainly feel as though I am. Though I suppose if I were elsewhere, I could protect that part of the arling instead. There are just fewer people in the vicinity of what is apparently called the Wastes than here along the river banks and the coast."

Varel frowned more deeply. "I've lived in Amaranthine all my life," he said slowly, "and I've never heard of a place called the Wastes. Where's it supposed to be?"

The commander came to a full stop. "Perhaps it's a mistranslation," he said. "Varel, I need you to come with me and look at the map, and tell me what you can about this area. It seems that when the Tevinter imperium stretched all the way to Ferelden, they--" He caught himself up. "--did a number of things that we will go into later."

The last few steps were covered at a brisk pace. They went into the housekeeper's room to find that Lilian was there, along with three of the maids, sitting in a half-circle by the window, all of them busy with needle, thread and scissors, going over a pile of the Vigil's sheets, mending some of them and putting others aside.

The commander explained that Lady Gizel and her nurse needed a room readied for them, and that they'd probably have to stay for at least a few days. It was clear that Lilian and the maids were just as surprised as Varel had been, but Lilian said at once that of course she would see to it, and make certain that Mistress Hansa knew there were two more people to feed, and one of them a small child.

Varel thought that the housekeeper's room was a great deal more comfortable now than when it had been Mistress Davila's domain. Perhaps it was the presence of the maids that did it, working and chatting easily, but he could also see that Lilian had put her own surface stamp on the room, just as she had done with the rented room in Amaranthine, with cushions and blankets and the potted plant. Varel was far from an expert on potted plants, or any plants, really, but he could see that it was green and vigorous.

While Lilian and the commander had a short discussion about the best place to house Selen and Gizel, Varel looked idly at the piles of linen. Tione looked up from her mending to explain that the sheets that were too worn to be salvageable would go to the infirmary and be turned into bandages. That would please Anders, who seemed determined to turn the Vigil's infirmary into the finest and best-stocked and most well-run, no doubt, in the country.

Varel would have said in the arling, but he was fairly certain that there was already nothing in the rest of Amaranthine that could compare. Anders himself might have ambitions to make it the best infirmary this side of Val Royeaux, but Varel thought the best infirmary in Ferelden was a high enough goal to aspire to.

Leaving Lilian and the maids to their work again, they went back up to the commander's office without speaking. It wasn't until they were inside, with the door shut, that the commander turned to Varel with an expression that was more serious than merely calm. "I've already discussed this with my wardens," he said, "but it seems to me that I would be wise to consult you as well. You are accustomed to being in the confidence of wardens, after all."

"Yes," Varel said, thinking about it. "You know warden secrets are safe with me, commander, but don't tell me anything the wardens wouldn't want an outsider to know. It's not as if you can make me forget if you change your mind."

"This isn't a matter of warden secrets, precisely," the commander said. "We have been trying to find out where the darkspawn in the area are coming from, and where their leaders are. There are two factions of darkspawn, fighting each other as well as fighting us."

"That doesn't seem particularly clever of them," Varel said. "Not that anyone ever said darkspawn were clever." He shook his head. "No one ever said they could talk, either."

"No," the commander said. "This is an unprecedented situation." He turned to the shelves at the back of the room and pulled out a large map, spreading it on top of everything that was already lying on his desk. "You also know the arling better than my wardens do. Nathaniel has spent most of his adult life elsewhere, and Arbar is not very interested."

"I've done a fair amount of staring at maps," Varel said, "but more walking. I'll try to be of use to you, commander, if you tell me what it is you need."

"I know." The commander's swift look at him, just a quick sweep of the eyes up and down, was too fast for Varel to judge if there was humor in it, or desire, or just acknowledgement. "This is where we encountered the darkspawn who calls itself the Architect," he said, putting a finger down on a spot in the Wending Woods. "It had established itself in an abandoned mine, but the mine was also connected to the Deep Roads. The darkspawn destroyed the tunnel leading down there."

Varel bent over the map. "Isn't that where we sent both miners and stonecutters? We sent them to an area full of darkspawn?" With soldiers to protect them, yes, and everyone had, in fact, come back again as healthy as when they left, but it still sounded like a much riskier undertaking than he, not to mention the miners and stonecutters and soldiers, had believed it to be.

"Formerly full of darkspawn," the commander said. "And bandits. They're all dead or gone now. The Architect abandoned its lair and its laboratory after our confrontation there. I just wish I knew where it went."

"This is the darkspawn who wanted to experiment on you," Varel said. "The same one who sent all those darkspawn to invade the Vigil, to take the wardens and kill everybody else." He remembered that vividly enough, having come sword-against-his-throat close to being one of those everybody else, that night.

The commander nodded. "We also found most of the wardens who disappeared, here," he said. "Imprisoned, dead, dying." His face was once again the kind of expressionless that shouted his discomfort, and Varel wished he could kiss that discomfort away. Kisses would not solve the problem of the darkspawn, though. Varel felt intensely grateful that he wasn't a Grey Warden. "His experiments are not for our benefit, unsurprisingly."

"And the wardens wouldn't have been cooperative," Varel said. He hadn't known the Orlesian wardens well, or for very long, but this much he felt certain of. No wardens would be, not when it came to darkspawn.

"No." The commander shook his head once, briskly. "This," he said, putting his finger on another spot on the map, "is where the hunters fell into a chasm, finding an entrance into the Deep Roads. Darkspawn were fighting each other here, one group entrenched and defending several broodmothers, another group invading and attacking them. Sigrun was the only survivor of a group of legionnaires who were scouting the area and ran into the darkspawn."

Varel looked from one point on the map to the other. They were not close to each other. "The Deep Roads really run right underneath... everything," he said, half wanting to disbelieve it. "Here in the Woods, here at the edge of the Plains, here under the Vigil."

"According to Oghren," the commander said, "his wife wanted to reclaim the lost dwarven empire, or at least give the dwarves the chance to do so. There is a great deal of it to reclaim." He shifted the map to make the central portions lie flat. "I confess, I would much rather have dwarves underfoot than darkspawn."

"I reckon we all would." Varel thought again of the hypothetical farmer digging a well, of miners opening up a new tunnel, of the way the earth was clearly much less solid under their feet than they believed. How there were all these entrances down into strange tainted depths right here in his beloved Amaranthine. How the darkspawn could be anywhere.

How, right now, they were everywhere, popping out of the earth like mushrooms after a rainfall. There had to be more entrances than what anyone knew about. The Deep Roads and the surface world were not as cleanly separated as most people would prefer them to be.

"I have been trying to deduce where the darkspawn in the arling are coming from, and where the one called the Mother has its lair. If it is a broodmother, as the name implies, it cannot be particularly mobile, unlike the Architect."

"I wouldn't know," Varel said. "All I know abut broodmothers is that Oghren says they have a lot of nipples." He paused, remembering a naked bathing-room rant. "And Sigrun says they used to be dwarf women."

"Not just dwarf women." The commander sounded unnaturally calm. "Human, elf, even Qunari, though that is rare. They are physically changed, somehow, to give birth to darkspawn. That's how the darkspawn numbers build up."

"Oh." Varel thought about it. Then he wished he hadn't. "You mean they don't have females of their own, so they breed with us?" That sounded utterly appalling. Darkspawn were monstrous beings, creatures out of nightmare, things. The commander spoke of both the Architect and the Mother as it, and that seemed about right to Varel. He had never given any thought to their reproduction.

They had to come from somewhere, though.

"In a sense, yes," the commander said. "This is why female wardens carry a misericorde when they go into the Deep Roads."

Varel was beginning to feel deeply unsettled. The topic of darkspawn was a terrible one, to start with. The idea that darkspawn were born from changed and corrupted people was a worse one. The chantry said the first magisters had become darkspawn, when their sin had tainted them and turned them from arrogant people into twisted things. But that was a long time ago, and he supposed there couldn't have been that many of them, certainly not compared with the hordes that arose with every Blight, so of course there had to be a way for them to make more of themselves.

And of course that way was as wrongful and corrupted as the darkspawn themselves. Hearing that women were prepared to commit suicide rather than become broodmothers, although the chantry was very clear on suicide being a sin in the eyes of the Maker -- it wasn't a surprise, precisely, but a very uncomfortable notion. Any woman who joined the wardens would have to be prepared to go against that chantry doctrine.

It would certainly explain why there were so few women in the wardens. They must have the resolve needed to make an end before it was too late, otherwise a fighter recruited to stand against the enemy would instead make more of the enemy to fight.

"That's horrible," he said weakly. He could find no other words for it.

"Yes," the commander agreed. "Most things to do with the darkspawn are. Now, look here, Varel. The darkspawn come up from their underground nests where there is a suitable breach in the earth, either purposeful or accidental. I have been studying the history of Amaranthine to see where the Deep Roads might have surfaced, in the days when the dwarven empire traded with the human lands."

Varel looked at the map. Amaranthine, his familiar and beloved Amaranthine, suddenly seemed both strange to him and strangely fragile, a thin layer of human reality laid over a much darker world. He gripped the edge of the desk, just to make sure there was still some stability to be found, and tried to remember his history. "Was there even anyone here to trade with, then? I thought the dwarf empire fell long before there was a Ferelden."

"The tribes were here, weren't they?" the commander said. "But more to the point, the Tevinter Imperium was here. They spread across the surface of the lands much as the dwarves spread underneath, and there was a great deal of interconnectedness."

Even though the highway still stood witness to it, the Tevinter presence seemed even more distant, to Varel. At least he saw dwarves every day. Tevinter was very far away, geographically, and the things they'd built were part of Ferelden now, not a reminder of actual Tevinters having been here once, not to him. The commander seemed much more at ease with these concepts, as if he spent a lot of time looking back across the ages.

The world of the wardens seemed to be different from the world of what Varel thought of as ordinary people in several ways. Full of unimaginable horrors, and also full of history.

"They traded with each other?" Varel said. He understood trade.

"Yes, among other things. What I found here in this old book was that the Tevinters discovered a resource in Amaranthine that delighted them so much, they settled by it, they built on top of it, they took all that they could manage, and sold it dearly to each other, I imagine."

"What kind of resource?" Varel tried to imagine the Amaranthine of so very long ago. There'd have been woods, and fish. He didn't think the Tevinter Imperium had had any shortage of either of those things.

The commander had a gleam in his eyes, as though he'd discovered this resource himself, and was just as delighted by it as he claimed those ancient Tevinters must have been. "Dragonbone," he said. "As unlikely as it sounds, they found a place where countless dragons had died over the centuries, and the bones had piled up. Whoever first discovered this must have become quite outrageously rich."

"Dragonbone," Varel repeated. He knew that dragonbone was very rare and very, very expensive. He also knew that it was certainly not one of Amaranthine's standard exports. "Here?"

"Yes," the commander said. "Or rather, somewhere here." He put a finger down on the map.

"But there's nothing there," Varel said.

"No," the commander said, "and don't you think that's odd? No one seems to live here, or cultivate the area. Which might not be so strange if you consider that the Tevinters called it the Wastes." A tiny frown line appeared between his brows. "Or the waste land, or... I've seen this translated as desert, but there's certainly no desert in Amaranthine, even though you have all those sandy canyons."

"No," Varel said, finding a bit of firm ground to stand on, so to speak. "We have no deserts. And we don't have any place called the Wastes, either."

"I don't suppose the name would have lasted unchanged for that long," the commander said, still leaning over the map. "Or at all, evidently. But the old ruins of whatever the Tevinters built must still be possible to find. They built things to last."

"And you want to go hunting for ruins and dragonbone? In the forests of Amaranthine? Commander," Varel said helplessly. "I'm not sure this is the best use of your time. There's probably nothing left to be found, or someone would have done that already. And I don't see what this has to do with darkspawn."

"This trading outpost was connected to the Deep Roads," the commander said. "The wardens have copies of old dwarven maps, as well as later maps made over the centuries. Look." He pulled a second map from the shelves, this one a heavy roll of vellum, older than the first one. "This spot has been marked with the glyph for trade station. The maps are made on different scales, so they cannot be overlaid, but you can see here that it's roughly the same place."

"I'm sorry, commander," Varel said, "but this all seems very speculative to me, and I don't see how ancient Tevinters could be of any help to us now. But I suppose the entrance to the Deep Roads might be. You think this is where the darkspawn are coming from?"

"Yes," the commander said, still just as calm and seemingly quite unbothered by Varel's skepticism. "I think it's not at all unlikely And even if it is not," he added, "Amaranthine would benefit considerably from the rediscovery of a great deal of dragonbone. But the darkspawn are my main concern, and this is my best estimation of where the Mother might safely lair."

"Safely." Varel seized on one of the words spinning past him. It seemed as preposterous as dragonbone.

"Since broodmothers are by their nature sessile," the commander said, "safety is one of their primary concerns. Grey Wardens who can destroy a broodmother lair, conversely, strike a considerable blow for the safety of the un-tainted world." He looked down at the map. "Until another woman has the ill fortune to vanish from a human, elven, or dwarven settlement."

The thought was like a trickle of cold sweat down his back. Varel shrugged, trying to dislodge it, and in that movement he suddenly remembered that he hadn't cleaned up after the vigorous training session earlier. He felt unreasonably dirty, as if he'd been campaigning for weeks, as if all this talk of darkspawn had somehow left a layer of filth all over him. "Commander," he said. "What was it you wanted to discuss with me, really? I can't tell you anything about this area. There's nothing here." He shrugged again, but the second time felt no better than the first. "It's not the only place in Amaranthine where no one lives and no one goes, much. We're not that many people. But I still think big ruins would have been noticed."

"And darkspawn coming and going?" The commander had an edge in his voice, something that made it clearer and sharper. "That's what we have now. They are making free with this arling, moving around in it as though they have the right, and they do not." He fixed Varel with a level look. "I will stop them. We will stop them. The wardens who were here before already died trying."

And the commander would, too, Varel could see it in his eyes, if that would make it possible for others to succeed. The chill of seeing that was far beyond any trickle of cold sweat, real or imagined. It made him realize, more than anything else, that the Grey Wardens were fighting a long and bitter war with no end in sight. In the quiet days, in the times between Blights, in the years when people had no reason to know what darkspawn looked like, those tunnels under the earth were still there, and there was no way to know if they were empty, if there were ten darkspawn there, or a hundred, or a thousand, unless you wanted to go down and look.

And this was what the commander had dedicated his life to. What Elyon had dedicated his life to, because the identities weren't separable in this; if the commander gave his life, Elyon Andras couldn't exactly go home for tea. The threat of another Blight was always there, and the wardens would make certain that someone knew it. They were ready to stand between the world and the darkspawn who would taint and corrupt it. If one of them fell, another would take his place. Small wonder, then, that Elyon thought of himself as an arl-shaped tool, a commander-shaped tool, someone who was here to do the necessary work.

"I know," Varel said. "Commander, I'm sorry I couldn't be of more help."

"No matter," the commander said. The hardness in his voice and eyes disappeared beneath a layer of calm, and it wasn't even cold, but Varel felt as if a wall had gone up between them, and it didn't really matter, then, if it was a wall of ice or not. "You've given me your opinion, which is what I asked for. Please tell the wardens to come up here, or at least as many of them as you can find."

"Of course, commander," Varel said and fled, leaving the room without any attempt at the casual kiss in parting that had become an easy thing between them when they were alone.

He didn't find all the wardens conveniently gathered together, but he met Sigrun, so Varel told her that the commander wanted to see the lot of them, and left it to her to gather them up and herd them into the right place. She'd do it, unless Oghren was too drunk to move, in which case he probably wouldn't be much use in a discussion of Grey Warden strategy, anyway. Varel went past his room for something reasonably clean to wear, and then down into the bathing room, which was blessedly empty.

Master Wade must be hard at work in the courtyard today. The hot water was hot enough that Varel had to temper it with several buckets of cold, and it wasn't until he had it just to his liking that he climbed into the tub and tried to relax.

He couldn't. He kept thinking about the commander. No, about Elyon. About all of him, arl and commander, mage and Orlesian and elf and lover. All those identities were subsumed in the identity of Grey Warden, Varel realized, and it had been foolish of him to somehow think that he was involved with just a part of the man, the private one, the one who showed emotions.

There was so much to Elyon Andras, layer after layer, and all of it was passionately devoted to the warden cause. All of him, even the hot-blooded and unashamed lover in Varel's bed, even the tender young man who would kiss the corner of his mouth in passing.

And this, Varel told himself sternly, should not be a surprise. Elyon had not come to Ferelden to be warden-commander because his dedication to the wardens was so weak, after all. It was Varel who had been at fault in not realizing the extent of what he was committing himself to, going into this relationship.

Certainly this was not the first time Varel had a lover who put duty first. But it was true, he admitted to himself, that he was usually himself the one who would not hesitate to abandon personal feelings for what needed to be done. In Elyon, Varel now knew that he had met someone whose devotion to the duty he had sworn himself to was even greater.

It wasn't that Elyon had said anything specific, that any one line of their recent conversation had somehow made it clear that he would sacrfice either himself or Varel if that put an end to the darkspawn menace, but listening to Elyon the warden had brought Varel to understand that Elyon lived in a subtly different world, a world with a different time-scale, a world where darkspawn multiplied and wardens killed them, archdemons rose and wardens struck them down, and the politics and daily events of any one fortress or arling or country were just something that happened at the same time.

Varel leaned forward and began to soap up his feet. He hadn't learned anything new about the commander today. About Elyon. He'd already known that Elyon was a warden, and a dedicated one; had known in before he even met him, just from knowing that he would arrive to take up command. It was not, in any way, a surprise. And he knew what wardens did: killed darkspawn, stopped Blights, died young.

He knew that. And a warden would have to die very young for Varel to outlive him. Which Elyon seemed to think was what would happen, whether because of the taint in his blood, or because being a warden was not, on the whole, a very healthy occupation. Being just a plain soldier seemed extremely safe, by comparison. All you had to worry about was ordinary human beings coming at you with swords.

Unless there was a Blight. Or unless there were darkspawn still roaming the land, when they ought to have disappeared into the Deep Roads as soon as the archdemon fell to Angharad Cousland's sword.

Varel couldn't deny that he was troubled by that, or that he felt a strong urge to try to protect the people of Amaranthine against this unexpected and loathsome threat. Or perhaps more than just Amaranthine. Even though he had spent the greater part of the Blight locked up, he'd seen enough at Ostagar to realize that they must all stand together, every living Fereldan.

It was becoming clear to him that Grey Wardens only acknowledged one border, though: that between tainted and untainted.

Maybe, Varel thought, reaching for the brush to scrub his back, that was what bothered him. He had finally met someone whose devotion to duty was greater than his own, someone who was strong and stubborn and determined, under a veneer of calm, to do whatever it took to achieve his goals.

Maybe what bothered him was that he couldn't keep up. The world of the wardens was different to the one he lived and worked in, and the discussion this afternoon had left him unsettled, left him feeling wrong-footed, because he couldn't be of any real assistance, and they had both known it. The discussion between them hadn't gone right, and Varel had left; the commander had asked him to send the proper wardens along.

That made the scene sound more dramatic than Varel could ever imagine the commander being. They hadn't quarreled, nor had this been anything like the peculiar misunderstanding over the letter to the chantry. Varel had disagreed with the suggestion, which still seemed random and optimistic to him, that the commander could find an ancient Tevinter ruin that had somehow stood undiscovered for centuries after centuries, and that this ruin might hold the secret lair of a darkspawn leader, not to mention bones of ancient dragons. The notion was ridiculous, verging on impossible.

Ridiculously impossible things seemed to happen around the commander all the time, though.

Varel breathed in, held his breath for a count of eight, and breathed out again. One of the Ash Warriors he'd met at Ostagar had told him of the ways they had to enter the berserker state, but also of the ways to release it and let go, to return to their everyday selves. The breathing rhythms he'd described had appealed to Varel. Not that he was angry, now, but he still felt unsettled and much too prone to this awkward, time-consuming introspection.

Breathing in, holding his breath, breathing out, Varel washed himself methodically and carefully, and then stepped out of the bath, rinsed off with cold water to clear his head further, and began to towel himself dry. He was thorough about it, and even sat down on the bench to rub a corner of the cloth between his toes before he pulled on clean socks.

Once he was dressed, in shirt and trousers rather than armor, he took a quick turn past his room to rid himself of armor and sword and dirty clothing in the right places, and then went back to his office. Varel didn't think he should disturb the commander's meeting with the other wardens, and he was relieved to find that the commander had taken the time to leave the finished letters to Highever and Denerim on Varel's worktable, neatly sealed and ready to go.

He took them, and went to make arrangements to have them delivered. Even when merchant caravans didn't stop at the Vigil, the ones going south passed right by it, and the ones heading west to Highever turned off on the North Road not that far away. Waiting for one was dreary work, but easier and probably faster than setting out for Amaranthine, and with the current state of the arling, safer as well.

Coming back up the bailey after seeing the messengers to the gate, Varel ran into Voldrik Glavonak, who was looking at the front gate with a speculative gleam in his eyes. "No," Varel said, while Voldrik was still drawing breath to speak. "We don't have the money for it. And this is not the right time to take the front gate down, even if you mean to put new ones up."

Voldrik shook his head and turned his drawn-in breath into a chuckle instead. "It was just a thought I had," he said, and added grudgingly, "Your men did put a fair bit of effort into repairing what got broken in the darkspawn attack. And I suppose this gate could be worse."

"It was a lot worse," Varel said. The temporary gate of lashed-together wood hadn't been pretty, nor very reliable, probably. What they had now was much better. "It's not pure metal crafted by a dwarven smith, but it's a thick oak gate and Master Wade did all the metal fittings, and it should hold for a good while. Especially if no one assaults it from the inside."

Voldrik was, in his way, as devoted to the safety and strength of the Vigil as Varel was. "Don't you worry about that, seneschal," he said. "The way down to the Deep Roads is sealed off. If the 'spawn want to come at us here, they'll have to do it out in the open."

"Let's hope it doesn't come to that."

Varel went into the soldiers' yard to find Garevel. It turned out Garevel was busy drilling a team of sword-and-shield fighters in the practice yard, and Varel sat down to watch, careful not to smile too obviously as he listened to Garevel's snapped-out instructions. Garevel had learned from Rullens how to keep the men in line without actually swearing at them; all his sharp comments were criticism of their performance and instructions for how to do better.

Once the training session was over, the men dispersed and Garevel came over to Varel, dropping down on the bench beside him. "Might be time to put them in the new armor," he said, "as much as there is of it. Can't be saving it for a special occasion."

"I'd rather not have any special occasions when they're wriggling because the leg guards feel wrong," Varel said in agreement. "Listen, which part of the Plains is it you come from, again?"

Garevel looked slightly truculent. "Northwest. Out by Beresford. Why d'you want to know?"

Varel wished he had brought a map with him. "The commander was asking about parts of the arling that I don't know as well as I should. I thought maybe you could help him out."

"Maybe." Garevel shrugged. "There's not much up there to know about. Fields and sheep and woods, and the highway's falling down, no one uses it." He flexed his hands, took off his gloves, and did it again. "Vendel's getting some real power behind those shield bashes now."

"Good," Varel said. "It's about time." They started to go over the performance of individual soldiers, discussing how well the training was working, and how the newest recruits were beginning to fit into the garrison's fighting strength. The discussion led into an agreement that they would begin to distribute the new armor tomorrow, rather than waiting until there was enough for every single soldier at the Vigil. The armor would be handed out, simply enough, to the soldiers who were at the Vigil to wear it. Those who were out on patrol, or accompanying Maverlies to the Attwater farms, would have to wait a bit longer.

Varel and Garevel went on talking and planning out the best way to make sure the soldiers were as well-equipped as possible, deciding that Garevel had better do an inspection of their weapons as soon as possible, to see how many individual liberties had been taken and how many enchantments had been set into daggers and swords when the soldiers lined up by Edwer's m