May 082015

Title: Rhapsody in Ass Major – Chapter 61
Co-Conspirator: TumblrMaverikLoki
Fandom: Dragon Age
Characters: Artemis Hawke , Anton Hawke , Carver Hawke , Aveline , Merrill , Varric , Anders , Cullen
Rating: T (L2 N0 S0 V2 D0)
Warnings: Demons, blood magic, MAGE RIGHTS
Notes: A serial killer in Kirkwall. Conversations on the nature of magic and Kinloch Hold.

"Another embrium?" Aveline asked, smiling over her tea at whom she considered one of the least objectionable Hawkes. "I think the Knight-Captain might be serious, Anton."

Anton glanced at the aforementioned flower, which his mother had insisted on displaying on the mantel. The petals were starting to get a bit droopy, but no one had taken them down yet. "Serious? He can't be. I never take anything serious, and I take him."

Aveline made a face only to drown the look in tea. "All right, I won't pry," she said. "I'm sure I can ply your brothers for answers later."

"You're welcome to try, but I doubt you'll get any," Anton with a smirk, toying with his own cup. "Nothing useful, anyway."

Aveline's cup clinked against its saucer as she laid it down. "Say," she said, toying with the handle, "if someone wanted to pass some work your way…"

"Oh, so you weren't just here to admire my pretty flowers and prettier face?"

"I've got a thorn in my side inventing trouble and scaring people. A templar. Emeric. You don't know him, but he knows you." Aveline sounded like if she heard the Hawke name one more time, she'd strangle someone.

"Shit, is this about my brothers?" Anton asked, taking another sip of tea. He'd just talk to Cullen. Everything would be fine. "Bethy again?"

"No, no. Nothing like that," she was quick to say. "He wants your help, and some sort of official sanction."

"Official sanction?" Anton looked completely confused.

"For his 'investigation'." Aveline made finger quotes. "He's convinced that every random murder in the past few years is connected, and he won't be quiet."

"So, you want me to smooth this over? Check his work, reassure him he's imagining it?" Anton dipped a biscuit in his tea and chewed it thoughtfully. "What if he's not imagining it?"

"If it leads to something, I'll pick it up. Right now, he's just distracting my men. He's in the Gallows. Do what you can. I just can't do any more than I've done."

"Which is why you bring it to me, the non-magical master of the subtle arts."

"Thanks again, Anton. I'd say I'd try not to make a habit of this, but we both know it's too late for that."

"It's been too late for that since I bought your way into the city with a quick hand and a charming smile. And for what? Not even a kiss on the cheek!" Anton knew she wasn't interested, and he wasn't really either, but they danced the dance, all the same, because it was good to see her smile, even if she did usually end up socking him one.

"Of course I didn't kiss you! What were you, then, twelve?" Aveline teased, smiling slyly at him.

"I was a grown man! Twenty fucking three!" Anton complained, jabbing the biscuit at her.

"And look at you now!" Aveline said, snatching the biscuit from his fingers and dipping it in her own tea. "All grown up and giving me gifts! You keep on like this, and I'll start thinking you care."

Anton just laughed. He was starting to like Kirkwall. After all, where else could a man like him have been good friends with the captain of the guard, for this many years? Of course, just maybe he was trying not to make too much trouble for her. Can't go around pissing off your friends and expect to keep them.

Brothers, on the other hand, were made to be pissed off, especially if one of those brothers happened to be Carver.

"Sure," he was muttering, "let's bring two mages into the Gallows. There's nothing to see here."

"Say it a little louder, why don't you?" Artemis snapped over his shoulder. His hands were doing that twitching thing like they wished the staff at his back were actually a broom handle.

"Oh, it's a lovely day, isn't it?" Merrill trilled. "The sunlight looks so pretty against the statuary." She arched her neck back to look about her and accidentally stepped on Carver's toes.

"The… slave statues?" Artie pointed out.

Anton shook his head. Maybe bringing these three hadn't been the best idea. At least if he looked up, he could almost see Cullen's office from this angle.

"What did Aveline say this prick looked like?" Carver was not convinced this was a good idea. He was convinced this was a bad idea, even. None of his siblings ever had proper, well-thought out ideas. Especially Cormac, who thankfully had not been invited on this little outing. Cormac who'd been exploding templars, before Carver was even born, and couldn't help but piss off everything he talked to, except that stupid Warden in the cellar. But, no, this was another one of Anton's 'fly by the seat of your pants until you fall out of the sky' plans. How had he survived so long in this family? He asked himself that regularly.

"About like that, actually." Anton pointed to the middle-aged man in platemail with the hair that hung into the top of his wide gorget. Which, Anton thought, was such a poor design, but if most of your opponents were mages, he didn't suppose the plate helped much, anyway. Maybe he'd get Cullen an amulet. Something attractive and deflective.

"Captain Aveline tells me you've been giving her a hard time…" Anton grinned, holding out his hand. "Anton Hawke. At your service. And really, if you're going to be giving Aveline a hard time, it should be the fun kind, don't you think?"

"I asked her for reliable assistance, and she sends me someone who speaks of her like meat." Emeric radiated disapproval, but shook the hand anyway. "For the last few years, I have been investigating the deaths of Ninette, Mharen, and the other women. I believe I finally have a suspect! A man called Gascard du Puis."

"Really? That's his name?" Anton's eyebrows arched up in amusement.

"It's Orlesian. I believe he is descended from nobility." Emeric looked distinctly bitter, as he went on. "When I became convinced of his guilt, I went to the city guard and demanded that they do something. The guards raided his mansion and found nothing. They were forced to apologise, and I was reprimanded."

Anton refrained from adjusting his trousers at the thought of Cullen reprimanding anyone. But, then, Knight-Captain. He should have figured that would come up eventually.

"Meredith forbade me from continuing my investigation, but she didn't say I couldn't seek outside help." Emeric gestured across the group before him.

Oh, Meredith. Well, that was less fun.

"Were you the only person investigating these murders?" Artemis asked, eyes narrowing, hand still bouncing against his thigh.

"Yes, unfortunately," said Emeric, his expression and tone long-suffering. "The Templar order believes this is a matter for the city guard. And the city guard… well. They rejected my evidence and dismissed the murders as isolated incidents." Long-suffering tone turned resentful as he spat, "They don't care, either."

"Well, now, that's a little unfair, don't you think?" Anton cut in, still smiling amiably. "Sounds like the guard have done all they can, and then Aveline sent us to you to do what they couldn't. I'd say somebody cares at least a little. Don't you think?" He turned to shrug at his brothers and Merrill.

"Ooh, I care!" said Merrill brightly, raising her hand.

"See?" said Anton.

"Women are dying out there!" Emeric snapped. "Could we maybe take this a bit more seriously?"

"Trust me," sighed Carver, "this is about as serious as he gets. I suggest you run with it."

Artemis and Anton traded a look. "All right," said Artie, "why don't you tell us about this… du Puis?"

"Demons," Varric grumbled, launching bolt after bolt into the advancing shades. "You know what? I don't even care about the murders, this guy's summoning demons to protect his house. That's it. That's enough. I don't care if he's upstairs sleeping like a baby, I'm stabbing him in the neck."

"Well, we should probably figure out if he's actually guilty, first, so Emeric knows if he can stop looking for a killer. He did seem pretty convinced this guy was the one, though, and reading his notes, it's… not a bad conclusion." Anton found himself dismayed, as he so often was, that demons did not have junk that one could kick them in. It would have made everything so much easier. "There's some loose ends, sure, but even if this guy's not the killer, he knows something. He's much too involved. Keeps showing up at terribly suspicious times and places."

"Or he's being framed," Varric pointed out. "Still going to kill him. Demons."

"Demons, alone," Carver argued, slicing through walls of nightmare blackness, "are not a reason to kill someone. Demons trying to eat us, on the other hand, probably is."

"You know what, Carver?" Artemis said as he knocked a pair of shades back with a ripple of magic. "Next time someone needs to go into the Fade, I'm volunteering you. Then you can tell me what you think about demons."

"I just said demons eating us is a bad thing!"

Artemis brandished his staff at his youngest brother between demons. "Do I need to force push you down these stairs too?"

"All right, boys, play nice," drawled Varric, his smile tighter than usual. "You can have a slap-fight when we're done killing the things trying to kill us."

"To be fair," Merrill said, vines twisting around her, "it seems like there's always something trying to kill us."

"Well, we do keep volunteering to do shit like pursue murderers into their lairs," Anton pointed out.

"I would like to point out that you volunteered us for this, Anton." Carver sliced through something that felt different, as the shades and their nightmare clouds began to disperse. "Is that a rage demon? That's a rage demon. Anton? Right in the face, when we get out of this."

"Please, not the face. I need this face. Punch me in the stomach, instead." Anton was glad he'd worn the fire-resistant boots, as he leapt onto the demon's back, still slicing and stabbing.

"What is it with you Hawkes and having preferred places to get hit?" Varric asked. "Most people prefer not to get hit at all."

"He's right, you know." Merrill slammed her staff against the ground. "Jump!"

Anton saw it coming and threw himself onto Carver, rolling them out of the way as the earth rose up and slammed into the demon. "Shit, Merrill, a little more warning, if you're going to do that?"

"I got distracted!" she complained, doing it again.

"And to answer the question," Anton heaved himself to his feet, "it's because I can either let him punch me, or he'll come do it while I'm sleeping."

Varric cursed, backing away to get a shot at a demon who was getting too friendly. With a curl of his fist, Artemis pulled the demon towards him and away from Varric. The bolt landed between its eyes. Well, where the eyes would be if it had any, anyway.

"What does it say about me that I'm the only brother you don't punch, Carver?" Artemis said, kicking the last demon to make sure it was dead before it disintegrated into ashes. The house was echoingly silent without the monsters roaring and flinging themselves every which way.

"It says that I can blame most of the stupid things you do on Cormac," Carver replied, wiping dust off his rump, "who I would much rather punch."

Artie didn't have the heart to tell him just how many bad ideas had been his own. "That seems fair. Keep punching Cormac. He's bedding the healer."

Floorboards creaked under their feet as they made their upstairs and deeper into the house. They peeked behind doors into empty rooms, overturned furniture to look for more clues.

Carver kicked at a chest in one corner. "Clothes?" he said. "Women's clothes? Gee, that's not suspicious."

"Maybe Gascard just likes to feel pretty," Artemis said, shrugging as he pulled out a dress by the embroidered sleeve. He looked up to see Anton biting back a smirk. "What?" His eyes narrowed and then popped wide. "Oh Maker. No. Anton, whatever rumours you've heard were false."

"Like what, that mint green is your colour?"

Artemis stuffed the dress back into the chest, cheeks burning.

"Did I miss something?" Merrill asked, blinking up at the brothers. "Was it dirty? Ooh, I bet it was dirty if it's making Artie blush."

"I got something, here." Varric held up a couple of letters he'd found stuck between books. "Looks like this guy is trading… wild animals, maybe? For some kind of artefacts? Man, I hope we didn't sell him anything. I don't want people looking at me like that. And, ah…" Varric squinted at the second one. "Something about missing mages from Starkhaven. First Enchanter doesn't seem real thrilled he's asking."

"Missing mages and artefacts?" Anton blinked. "I don't know what's going on, but I'm not sure I like it. I'm getting a creepy Old Gods feeling about this, especially with the demons in the hall."

"I've heard some rumours about cultists in the mountains." Carver shrugged. "Something about Dumat, I don't know. I don't listen to that shit, but the fruit lady at the market was talking to the butcher about it."

"Oh, that's great. Archdemon-worshipping loonies from the hills." Varric shook his head. "Dead archdemon, even. I'm liking this guy less and less."

And then a scream cut through the conversation. "Help me! Please!"

"Oh, that's a murderer." Varric ran into the hall, and the rest of them followed.

In the next room, a mage stood over a woman kneeling on the floor, still sobbing and shrieking, as seemed appropriate to the situation. "He's gone mad!" she cried out, as Carver appeared in the doorway.

"You're not… You're not him." The mage looked terribly confused as people filed into the room, arranging themselves to best bring him down. "Shit! I… I know what this looks like, but I didn't hurt her."

"Do I look like an idiot?" Carver asked.

"Don't answer that." Varric loaded Bianca with another bolt, and hung back, waiting.

"N-no!" stammered the mage, who, from the ridiculous Orlesian accent, had to be Gascard. "I… I don't know why you're here, but there's a killer out there and I think he's playing us both!" He patted the air in front of him, expression desperate. "Just… just let me explain!"

"Ohh," said Artemis, flexing his fingers against his staff menacingly, "this I have to hear."

Varric nudged Anton with his elbow and leaned in. "Hey," he said, "twenty silver if he says, 'It wasn't me! It was the one-armed man!'" Anton bit back a snicker.

Gascard looked back and forth between them, throwing a nervous glance over his shoulder at the kneeling woman. Sucking in a breath, he said, "Several years ago, my sister was murdered. The bastard's now in Kirkwall, killing again. The same way he killed my sister." He turned away a moment and seemed to collect himself. "It starts with a bouquet of lilies. He sends them to each new victim. Alessa was going to be next." He looked down at the trembling woman. She shrank back as he approached. "I took her so he'd have to come to me. I was finally going to face my sister's killer, but then you showed up…"

Gascard rubbed at the bridge of his nose and blew out a sigh.

"He's lying!" Alessa said, voice choked by tears. "He hurt me!"

"I've explained this!" Gascard crouched in front of Alessa, apparently willing to turn his back on the rest of them. Brave or stupid, and Anton couldn't decide which. "I needed your blood to track you down, if he took you! It was for your protection."

"Let go of me!" Alessa scrambled to her feet and ran out of the room.

"She'll go straight to the city guard. They'll ruin everything!" Gascard gestured after her.

"Greeeeat. Blood magic." Varric sighed. "Nothing personal, Daisy."

Merrill huffed and inched closer to Carver.

"Yes, I've used blood magic and lyrium to augment my powers." Gascard said it like it was painfully obvious, as if there were no other rational choice in this situation. "I'm not proud of what I've done, but I had to. He took my sister from me!"

"Guys, I'd be pretty bent out of shape if somebody killed Bethany," Carver pointed out, "and if you think I'd be terrible, Cormac? You know how he feels about blood magic, but you know how he feels about Bethany. I mean, the chances of anyone successfully killing Beth are so small, but… If it happened…"

Artemis twisted the staff in his hands, remembering how Cormac had been in the Fade, over him. He was glad the others hadn't seen that. "I don't know what I'd do," he admitted, because he didn't. He suspected there'd be force magic involved, possibly crushing someone's insides into paste the way he had with Hadriana. But if he couldn't? If he had to find the man responsible first? "I'd probably do the exact same thing." Artie cringed and added, "Don't… don't anyone tell Fenris I said that, please."

There were some things their relationship wouldn't survive. Him using blood magic was, he suspected, one of those things.

"Tell Broody?" Varric scoffed. "I'd like to keep my organs where they are, thank you."

"Oh, so when you guys discuss blood magic, it's all right," Carver muttered. Merrill looked like she was biting her tongue.

"Carver," Artemis grated out, "we still have to go back down that staircase on the way out. It's up to you whether you'll be going down on your feet or your face."

"Anyway," Anton sighed, turning back to Gascard. "Emeric seemed convinced you were the killer."

Gascard nodded, closing his eyes. "Of course he was," he said, shrugging. "But I was trying to find the killer, just like him."

"I gotta tell you, hanging out around crime scenes with no explanation doesn't exactly put you in an entirely positive light." Anton shrugged, still not having sheathed his daggers. "Easy to see where Emeric might jump to conclusions."

"He is dedicated. I will give him that."

"So, wait, back up. You know who this guy is? The one who killed your sister?" Carver dragged the conversation back around to the point — there was a murderer, and this guy probably knew who it was.

"Yes, he's a powerful and experienced blood mage. I believe he uses the women for some ritual," Gascard explained. "The victims are attractive, healthy women, with few social ties."

"So, call me crazy but, isn't this usually the part where you tell that to the city guard, and they go arrest this ritual murderer?" Anton's face turned comically inquisitive.

"Why? I don't want him arrested. This isn't about justice. I need to be the one to bleed him dry." There was an unmistakeable rage just below the surface, there, and it bled out into the words. "Besides, they probably wouldn't even hear me out."

"Guys?" Anton looked over his shoulder. "What do we think?"

"I don't know how much of what he's saying is the truth," Artemis said, voice pitched low so that only their group could hear it. Unless Gascard had some sort of special, blood-magic hearing. "But… I don't think he's the murderer."

"So?" Varric grunted. "This is a guy who just threw a bunch of demons at us. A bolt between the eyes says we cover our asses and don't take the chance he's the real deal."

"You're just going to kill a man who only wants revenge for his sister?" Carver hissed.

"No, Junior, I'm going to kill a man who just threw demons at my face."

Artemis shook his head. "He might also be our best lead if the killer strikes again," he said. At least there was no more doubt that there was a killer. Aveline and the guards would have to intervene now.

"Merrill? You want to weigh in or are you just going to lurk by my brother and disapprove intensely?" Anton asked.

"Oh! No, I… I don't think you should kill him for being a blood mage. He has his reasons. There are always reasons… But, that woman…" Merrill looked distressed. "She looked a lot more afraid than seems to fit. If what he's saying is true, he was terribly rough with her. We need to find her, if she's next."

"Daisy's right about the lady. If she's the next target, somebody should find her and stick by her," Varric agreed.

"And you!" Merrill got louder, pointing at Gascard. "You have to stop calling demons to fight for you! Working with one or two, occasionally, is one thing, but you can't keep dragging them out to fight your battles. They'll keep asking more and more, and you won't get what you really want, before they're costing you more than you want to give them — and they're not going to ask, after a while. If you let them that far in, they're just going to take."

Carver blinked and cocked a thumb at Merrill. "She'd know."

"Keep an eye on this dickweasel, would you?" Anton muttered to Carver, as he turned back to Gascard. "These kindly gentlepersons and myself have decided to let you walk. You get any more leads, you let me know, or you go straight to Guard Captain Aveline. She knows what's going on, and she wants this guy as bad as you do. You tell her, because if you don't walk out of this, we're still stuck with the guy, you hear me?"

Gascard nodded, relief smoothing over his face. "I'm headed to Darktown," he said, making past them for the door. "If you learn anything new about the killer, find me there." Then, almost to himself, "I've a score to settle with him."

Varric watched him go and shook his head. "Well," he said, "let's hope that doesn't come back to bite us in the ass."

"I always wanted to be a templar," Cullen was explaining, stretched out in a garden chair, in the shade of a small cluster of ornamental lemon trees. "When I was young, I saw a mage manifest. The poor kid obliterated a room. I was poking toads with sticks outside, or something, and I saw it happen, through the window. And he looked so afraid. I remember his dad looked a lot like Cormac, actually. Funny thing. I don't know, I was young. He was the only Rivaini I'd ever seen, as far south as we were. But, the family was gone, the next week. Apostates, I guess. But, the Chantry taught us the templars were there to protect everyone — protect people from mages, sure, but that's all anyone remembers. The other half of that was protecting mages from everyone else."

Anders sat on the other side of a greened bronze table, a punchbowl of cold spice tea and a box of raspberry duchess cakes between them. Anders flicked his fingers to chill the tea some more, before he took another cup, and Cullen twitched.

"I failed you, because I didn't know any better, and I should have. I failed you, and then the demons came. Whatever you think of me, don't think I didn't pay for my mistakes."

Anders laughed bitterly into his tea. "What kind of demons came for you? You tell me yours, I'll tell you mine."

Eyes screwed shut, Cullen remembered those hours of torment, nightmares behind his eyes and Andraste's name on trembling lips. He remembered demons who wore Solona's face like a mask, their touch scalding hot and electric all at once.

"What kind…? Mostly… mostly desire demons."

Cullen's ears flushed pink at the memory. Desire. Of all his weaknesses, the demons had exploited that one. Thinking of Anton, Cullen wondered if, maybe, that was because desire was his greatest weakness. Not desire in the physical sense, not entirely, but an aching for something more.

"They put me in a case," he said, eyes haunted, "and tempted me with her face. I couldn't… I couldn't tell what was real after a while."

"Solona. She told me about finding you. You were the last one left." And there was that laugh again, at least until Anders drowned it in his tea. "She told me because she said I sounded just like you, some nights. 'You're not real. I'm not here,' I used to tell her. She was a lot younger than me — I guess not that much. Not any more, but… we were kids, then, you know? It's a lot more, then. But, she told me you said the same things to her, when she found you. I didn't have the heart to tell her it wasn't the demons that did that to me."

Anders picked apart a duchess cake with one hand, finally putting a bit of it in his mouth. He'd never talked about his Harrowing. Because you didn't. That was one of those things — you just didn't. Everyone went through their own shit, and no one ever talked about it.

"But, you know what, I wouldn't have come back, if they'd given me desire, for my Harrowing. There would have been no reason to come back. I'd have died, sure, but I'd have died with the illusion of happiness, and I'd have been fine with that, then. It wasn't even as bad as it got, and I'd have been fine with it, even then. But, no. That was what they put me up against. Despair. There was no way out, and there never would be." This time, the laugh was a little more hysterical, the cup clattering against Anders's teeth as he tried to cover it. "And faced with it? Faced with it, I could not abide it. I was a rebellious little fucker, thank the Maker. But, it was despair done up as the one dream that stayed with me, the whole time. The one thing that made me happy. I almost didn't make it. Demon nearly took me apart. I almost let it."

Cullen nibbled at his own duchess cake as he listened. Despair. He'd felt that often enough himself, especially in that cage, and he wondered why no demons had hounded him with that.

But a few of Anders's words stuck with him even after the mage had stopped talking, picking at another duchess cake. "What do you mean 'it wasn't the demons'?" he asked.

Anders's answering smile didn't reach his eyes. He paused to chew for a while, letting Cullen's question hang in the air. "Sometimes," he said, "people do evil things without demonic intervention."

And wasn't that terribly cryptic.

"How much of that did they — did we do to you?" Cullen remembered the sight of that enormous scar, and the tendrils of other, older scars behind and around it. "You asked if they told me what they did to you. I remember that. I don't remember a lot of that night, but I remember that."

"Most of it. Not all of it, by a stretch, but most of it." The next laugh was unquestionably hysterical. "Not the one on my leg, no. That… Did anyone ever tell you about how darkspawn come into being? They're born of broodmothers. You know what broodmothers have? Tentacles. They have tentacles. Some of those tentacles may be razor sharp. So, no. Not all of them. But… this one—" He tapped his chest. "Yeah. The ones around it, yeah. I told you. They told you. They thought I was a blood mage. Well, with all the blood they let out of me, I'm pretty sure I would have become one, if I hadn't been packed full of magebane. Not even on purpose. No demons required."

It wasn't quite the truth. Yes, all of those were from templars, but the one wasn't about him being a maleficar. It was about him being an abomination.

Cullen wiped a hand over his face. He wondered if Solona had scars like that or if it was just Anders. They had warned Cullen about him back in Kinloch Hold. A trouble-maker, they'd called him. Robe trash.

"That is… not what I signed up for," he murmured. Somewhere along the line he'd forgotten but, "We're supposed to look after the mages in our charge, to protect them." Even from themselves, he knew. "I am sorry, Anders. We failed you."

"Yeah, you did. Unquestionably. And now you get to be grateful we didn't fail you as badly." Anders stuffed the rest of the duchess cake into his mouth and pushed the box across the table toward Cullen. At this point, it wasn't even that he was angry, any more. Which isn't to say he wasn't angry, because he was pissed as a bereskarn covered in bees about the whole thing. But, it was about finally sitting across the table from a templar that he could say that to, because it needed to be said.

"Uldred—" Cullen started.

"Uldred failed us all. That's what happens, when people are fucking terrified, all the time. They start doing stupid shit." Anders's hand shook as he dipped his cup into the bowl for more tea. "They tell you about the time I went out the window? That's how I ended up in the hole. A hundred and something feet off the ground with a torn up couple of sheets tied to a Tevinter bookcase. Stupid, stupid shit. Don't get me wrong, I blame Uldred. I blame the fuck out of Uldred. But, I know how he got there."

Cullen bit his tongue. "I understand that," he said. "I do. Mages shouldn't be afraid of their templar guardians, and templars shouldn't abuse their station. But at the same time, people like Uldred are why the templars exist in the first place, whether his reasons were good or not." Anders opened his mouth to say something, and Cullen shook his head. "We could argue that, I'm sure, but we'd just be running in circles — as it were. I still think templars and the Circles are needed, but… changes need to be made, surely."

Justice bristled under Anders's skin but not to the point of glowing. Anders hid his distraction behind another sip of tea. "We can agree on the 'changes' part," he said, which was about as diplomatic as he was going to be on the subject.

"It's a start." Cullen reached for a duchess cake and blushed as he realised what he had in his hand, with it halfway to his mouth. Damn Anton. He forced himself to eat the thing, trying to convince his mind to associate the cakes with this moment, not that one. And then he spotted the missing statue, in the line along the divide between the sitting part of the garden and the topiary. "Er, that… statue. Do you… What happened to it?"

"Let's just say you weren't the only one having fun out here, that night." Anders looked away and rubbed his face. Don't lie, but don't tell him the truth. "I guess it wasn't as well attached to the base as it should have been."

"Maker. I don't… That was a very dangerous cordial." Cullen stared at the statue base, as if trying to remember. "I could swear there was magic…"

"And, what, you thought you'd suddenly turned into a mage, while you weren't looking? Because I can promise you that you didn't. Neither did Anton. Most unmagical git in the room." Anders was actually having a bit of fun with this one, which was definitely an improvement over where they'd started. It needed to happen, but lingering on it wasn't going to help.

"Oh, I don't know if I'd say that… He's got some sparkle." Cullen smiled dreamily into the garden, tearing another half a cake for himself.

Anders smirked around a bite of cake. The man was so clearly smitten, it was almost painful. "Sparkle, huh?" he teased. He was so telling Cormac about that later.

As if summoned, Anton came racing into the garden in all his sparkling glory. Or lack thereof, Anders decided when he got a better look at him. His expression was much too grim to be sparkling.

"Well, if it isn't my favourite Warden and Knight-Captain," Anton said with a smile Anders didn't believe for a second.

Cullen's cup clattered against the table as he set it down. "And if it isn't my favourite… well, everything." His ears turned pink again as he seemed to realise what he'd just said. He picked up his tea again after all and hid his face behind it. Anders shook his head. Maker, the man was hopeless.

"I hate to be the bearer of bad news," Anton said, picking up one of the cakes, "so I'm going to put that off for a minute. Did you buy duchess cakes, Cullen? Enjoying that memory?"

Cullen turned bright red as he tried very hard not to remember. Not right now. Not in front of Anders. Not in front of anyone who wasn't Anton. Ever. Oh, Maker. What.

"No, I bought them. That's why they're raspberry." Anders to the rescue. As usual, in so many ways. "How bad is your bad news on a scale of 'lost five sovereigns to Cormac' to 'there's an archdemon rising under Kirkwall'? Which there's not. I'd have noticed."

"It's… I'd call it a pretty solid midpoint." Anton kept eating cake, hip cocked as if he could fend off whatever this was with a wall of polished sass. Finally, he finished the cake and couldn't put it off, with both of them staring at him. Licking his fingers, he crouched in front of Cullen's chair, taking Cullen's hands in his own. "You need to hear this from me."

Anders set his cup down, clattering it against the table as he tried to still his hand. No, it might not be an archdemon, but this was serious. He'd made that face. He'd said some very similar words, countless times. His tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth, watching.

"Anton?" Cullen said, thumbs tracing familiar calluses along Anton's palms. "What is it?" He couldn't remember the last time he saw Anton without a smile, real or not.

"It's Ser Emeric," Anton said, eyes intent on Cullen's, making sure he heard. "He's been killed."

Cullen's hands stilled in Anton's. Ser Emeric, the older templar who'd offered him advice what seemed like an age ago. Advice that was fairly sound, considering Anton was still here with him. Emeric had suggested the orchids.

"What happened?" Cullen asked in his Knight-Captain voice. Emeric was hardly the first friend he'd lost, painful as that was, and memories of Kinloch Hold were still raw in his mind.

"I don't know how much you knew about it, but he was investigating a series of murders — women, white lilies…"

"Of course! I brought him straight to Meredith, when he showed me the evidence. And she said it wasn't our concern, but the concern of the guard. He never spoke of it again, so I assumed she'd helped him take it to the Guard Captain." Cullen looked confused. "Was he still looking into it?"

"We think he got too close, and the murderer got the better of him. We're dealing with a maleficar. For real, this time, Anders, I can feel your eyes drilling holes in the side of my head." Anton took a deep breath and continued. "Actual blood magic. Actual demons. And that's what killed Emeric. I'm going to find this guy, Cullen. I know what I'm walking into, and I'm probably taking Anders with me, as soon as I've got a clean lead. And if I'd been just a little faster, Emeric would have known what he was walking into, too."

"Damned right I'm going with you!" Anders snatched up his tea again, eyes flashing blue. "Man set demons loose in my city. You can't just bring demons into the world and expect that's going to end well. And if you don't expect it to end well… Well, let's just say I know where I'm needed."

"What is that?" Cullen asked, watching Anders as he talked. "You keep… flickering."

"That is something my good friend Kristoff picked up in Blackmarsh, once upon a time, and he passed it on to me shortly before I buried him. Poor bastard. Good man. Great warrior. Consider it one of those dirty Warden secrets. I'll tell you my dirty mage secrets, but not my dirty Warden secrets. Solona would come up here and light my ass on fire, and none of us want that."

"If you keep making Cormac scream like that," Anton drawled, "I'll be able to tell Cullen all your dirty mage secrets."

That just put some interesting questions into Cullen's head, most of which he wasn't sure he wanted answers to. "Er." Cullen paused to clear his throat. He squeezed Anton's hands. "If there is a blood mage involved, then this really should be a templar matter."

Anton was sure Anders had something to say to that, so he cut in first. "Well, it still is, isn't it?" he said sweetly. "After all, here I am, reporting to you, Ser Cullen. Knight-Captain Cullen." He added an extra purr to the titles just to watch Cullen squirm a bit. "And Meredith has already made it clear she does not want to be bothered with this."

"But that was before—"

"We'll keep you apprised, Captain. Don't worry." Anton stretched to peck Cullen on the lips, and Cullen gave him a look that all but admitted defeat.

"I don't like the idea of you going after a murderer," Cullen said softly.

"Did I ever tell you the story of how I got into Kirkwall?" Anton asked, smiling. "One murderer and a few demons aren't going to be enough to bring me down. I pissed off the Carta, and I'm still here."

"Did Varric buy you out of trouble for that one?" Anders asked, squinting over his tea at Anton.

"I didn't even know Varric, at the time. No, my brothers and I got ourselves out of that mess." Anton dropped into Cullen's lap, helping himself to another cake. "Cormac's been punched in the head by an ogre. We'll be fine. I'll be fine. Didn't there used to be a statue over there?"

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