Other: mature themes (racism, rape, prostitution, murder, alcohol use)
Yes yes yes, finally! Zevran Fan Club, shaddap! :X
I have no idea what “Hannah and Her Brothers” is about, or even what it is. Gang name lifted from a Xena episode. I find it easier to remember names that way, so sue me :X
Iron grey clouds crouched over the city of Denerim. A cool storm breeze fluttered the studding sails. The captain cursed and bellowed orders to his men to get them to the docks in the chancy changing winds.
Zevran stood on the starboard side, a little back from the bow and out of the way of the sailors. He was an elf, smaller than the burly shems like all his kind, but there was no mistaking the rounded bulge of his biceps above the elbow guards of his studded leather armor, nor the sculpted lines of his thighs where they were bare between the leather kilt and the straps securing the kneepads above the worn leather boots. He was no household servant or simple laborer — he was an Antivan Crow, one of the deadliest assassins in the world. Well the most deadly really, if you wanted his opinion.
A few stay wisps of pale blond hair blew across his face, which he ignored. Most of his shoulder-length hair was pulled back behind his pointed ears, tied with two warrior braids that formed a circlet behind his head. His skin was a natural deep bronze that few could achieve without baking their skin to leather under the sun.
He had a sloped forehead, long straight nose, and a strong jaw; all of which gave him a perpetual air of belligerent cockiness. Or perhaps it was the other way around — his lifelong defiance in the face of adversity had shaped his features as he’d grown. The left side of his face was marked with a tattoo, three filigree lines that swooped from his temple to halfway down his cheek. They had been black when he’d gotten them at sixteen, almost looking like fresh-painted ink. But in the five intervening years, they had faded to a purplish cast under the surface of his skin.
Zevran squinted his narrow amber eyes as the squall breeze cut towards the ship. He turned his head slightly to avoid a splash of spray kicked up by the plunging bow. He didn’t bother to move, not even when the rain started pattering down on the deck. It was only rain. Chillier than Antivan rain to be sure, but it suited his mood.
He’d come to Ferelden for only one purpose: death. A very difficult and obscenely expensive contract had come to the Crows from this country — this very city, its capitol: Denerim. Naturally, the Crows had sent their best assassin to handle it.
The Ten Pegs nosed into port, guided by pilot boats. The berthing and docking were tedious maneuvers, and Zevran went below to gather his gear. The rain grew thick and miserable for a while, but by the time he was ready to disembark, it had lessened into a steady drizzle.
Some self-important, rich shem reached the top of the gangplank at the same time as Zevran. The assassin cut him a sideways glare, and the man suddenly remembered he had some reason or other to stand on the deck another minute or two. Zevran never made any attempt to hide his profession, though outside of Antiva there were actually a few sad people entirely ignorant of who or what an Antivan Crow was. But the haughty shem and his yapping wife had both suddenly taken ill after a misplaced comment about elves knowing their place, and only the dullest of sailors on board had no clue how that might have happened.
Zevran stepped off the bottom of the gangplank and shouldered his bag. His weapons he wore openly, and he had little concern for any guards stopping him.
“State your name and business,” the tired and soggy port clerk recited.
“Zevran Arainai,” the assassin replied. He had a flavorful Antivan accent, unlike the dull heavy tones of the Fereldens. “I am here for a job.”
The clerk glanced up from his manifest for a moment, then bent and scribbled on it.
“Can you direct me to the residence of the Arl of Denerim?” Zevran asked him.
This earned him another curious glance, but the man must’ve had his interest surgically removed years ago. “Take Port Street to the Market. Can’t miss it from there,” the clerk said tiredly. He turned away from the Antivan to deal with the other passengers, clearly dismissing him.
Zevran flicked rainwater out of his eyes and resettled the pack on his shoulder, then set out towards the city. Shirtless elves darted through the rain, hurrying barefoot across the slick planks of the docks to offload cargo. There didn’t seem to be as many of them as usual, and their numbers were filled out by young human males, their necks and shoulders reddened by exposure to the sun.
Off the docks and onto the cobbled streets proper, there was even less traffic. Zevran wrinkled his nose. The sailors had all joked about Ferelden smelling of wet dog, but the Antivan hadn’t credited it. Ferelden was known for its famous wardogs, but certainly they weren’t so numerous as to make the entire country stink. No, no, it must be the rain, and the city streets. Muddy water gurgled in the gutters and darkened the cobbles. In many places, the road was uneven. Such untidyness would never be tolerated in Antiva City — not in the quarters where the rich moved about, anyway. A pang of homesickness flashed through the assassin, but he quashed it. One place was as good as any other. All cities had their sewers.
He found a boarding house — too small to be called a proper inn — squashed between a warehouse and a money lender’s office. He didn’t have much coin of his own, and he didn’t intend to stay long, so he took a cheap room. He secured his pack there, in a strongbox he augmented with a poisoned trap. Then out he went again, carrying only his weapons and a small satchel of important documents.
The rain had begun to taper off, though more threatening clouds lurked over the city’s rooftops. Zevran found the huge Market Square easily enough. There were several gated egresses. One was heavily guarded and led down a wide avenue towards a fortified castle. Another opened on a courtyard of a large estate, but it belonged to some country arl, not that of Denerim. Armed with more vague directions (honestly, he began to think half these people didn’t know north from south)*, Zevran circled the Market until he came to the alienage gate. This was easily recognizeable by the high wall it was set into, and the distinct aroma of sewage that came from the bridge just beyond it. Oddly for this time of day, the gate was closed, and four men guarded it rather than a solitary bored soldier.
The elven assassin ignored them and approached three beggars huddled by the wall. “Spare a coin, friend?” The most well-fed looking one approached, hands out. “I was at Ostagar,” he continued. “Darkspawn done et half me foot.”
Zevran chuckled. Nothing like beggars who kept up with current events. “Actually, perhaps you can help me.” The eyes of all three narrowed. Ignoring their suspicion, he said, “I am looking for the Arl of Denerim’s estate.”
“Are you gonna rob him?” demanded the youngest, a tow-headed boy barely in his teens. “Are you a Dalish?”
“Shut up, Shane,” growled one of his elders as they shifted uncomfortably, eyes darting towards the gate guards.
“Actually, I am half Dalish,” Zevran said. “And the arl is paying to have a job done. As for robbing him, the Antivan Crows always deliver the money’s worth.”
“There’s a job?” The youth’s hungry eyes brightened. “What kind of job?”
“Murder, you idiot,” the third beggar growled. “Antivan Crows are assassins.”
“Really? You going to kill Howe?” The boy sounded just as eager about that as he had been about the job.
“Shut up, you daft blighter,” snarled ‘Half-Foot.’
“I’m sure I won’t be killing anyone you know,” Zevran assured the boy slyly. He folded his arms and leaned his weight back on one leg, exuding the deadly confidence of his trade. “You do know the way to the residence of the man in charge of this city, no?” he drawled. A silver coin appeared between his fingers and he toyed with it idly.
The third beggar, clearly the brains of the bunch, moved forward. “Past those two streets on the left.” He pointed. “Take the third. Follow the wall til the gate.”
Zevran tossed him the coin and set out. The directions seemed odd, but they were accurate. Somewhere along its length, the alienage wall became the wall guarding the estate of the Denerim Arl. Why anyone would put a noble estate up against the festering slums of the elven quarter was beyond the Antivan, but… these were Fereldens.
The gate was closed. The guard challenged Zevran, who produced the letter requesting his presence, marked with the Arl’s seal. She shrugged and let him through the postern gate. He crossed the courtyard and approached the large double doors. He had to doge aside quickly as a troop of guards emerged.
They milled about at the bottom of the steps, checking their weapons. Their leader, a sharp-faced man with a thin black moustache, exited behind them, clapping a helmet onto his head. “All right,” he barked in a no-nonsense tone as he pushed through them, “our quota today is two dozen ears. Trouble-makers only! They go down easy, just put the fear of the Maker into them.” With a snap of his wrist, he signalled them to move out.
One of the guardsmen in the back leaned towards his comrade. “How many of the elven whores you think we can get to go down easy?” He sniggered.
“All of ’em!” his portly companion boasted. “I got my ‘fear of the Maker’ right here.” He patted his codpiece with a grin.
Zevran sneered as he slipped inside the doors before they closed. Amateurs. A Purge explained why the alienage gate was closed in the middle of the day. The workers, elven servants with jobs, would all be out. Only women and children would be at home, and the old and infirm, as well as those elves who worked within the alienage, shopkeepers and craftsmen and the like. And, of course, the unemployed — beggars, thieves, drunkards. The trouble-makers Rendon Howe wanted eliminated. It was a ruthlessly good plan, Zevran had to admit, as much as it disgusted him. But it was not his concern.
Hell, if the Fereldens wanted to kill off all their Grey Wardens and let the Blight overrun their country, that wasn’t his concern either. Except where it was his job to do that particular killing-off.
The butler, a properly dour old man, escorted the assassin to the Arl’s study after he had once again produced the letter with the Arl’s seal. “Zevran Arainai,” the butler pronounced, “Antivan Crow.” His imperturbable demeanor seemed a touch perturbed at the ‘title.’ Zevran smirked inwardly. It wasn’t the abject fear and respect he got in Antiva, but it was a start.
Rendon Howe was an older man with iron grey hair neatly trimmed above his ears. The cut did nothing to flatter him, as his ears stuck out ungracefully. His eyes were watery blue and close-set, his chin weak, and his nose… downright rat-like. Along with those ears, he would have made an excellent clown, if he didn’t constantly look as if he were gnawing on something unpleasant. His clothing was cut in a severe style, the colours muted greys and blues. The boots were practical, and he wore a rapier at his hip. His pinched face pinched even further as he turned to look over the assassin. “You’re an elf,” he said simply. His tone implied volumes about how little he thought of that fact.
A smile spread slowly across Zevran’s face. So many retorts for that, so little time. “You wanted the best, and that would be me.”
“And alone?” Howe sniffed, which only reinforced his likeness to a nose-twitching rat. “I rather expected more for this ridiculous price.”
“Only one can be the best.” The elf shrugged. “The Antivan Crows guarantee success,” he emphasized. “And speaking of said ridiculous price…?”
Howe sighed in annoyance and resignation, then sent for the money. Two of his house guards lugged in a steel chest and thumped it carefully down on the desk. The senior of the two produced the key and opened it — it was filled with gold coins.
“Really,” Zevran drawled, “it is so much easier to count it when you pile the coins neatly before dumping them into the chest.”
“It’s all there,” the arl growled.
Zevran spread his hands. “Procedure,” he said simply. “I am not in your employ until the contract is signed, and that will not happen until I am satisfied the Crows are being properly paid.”
Howe summoned his butler, whom he sent after his exchequer secretary. Truly, the man must have a servant for every task. Perhaps even separate ones for washing and folding his breechcloths. While they waited for the secretary to come in and begin stacking the coins, Howe extended him zero courtesy, and Zevran did his best to annoy the noble shem.
“They say Ferelden is much colder than Antiva,” the elf said lightly, his accent distinct. “Perhaps that also extends to a certain lack of hospitality. Some wine offered while we wait, for example.” He cocked his brows at the reticent shem. “No? Ah well, perhaps I will serve myself.” Zevran moved easily to the sideboard, selected a silver goblet, and poured wine from a crystal decanter. It was a deep burgundy; very nice. He raised the goblet, but didn’t get it halfway to his mouth when he heard the distinct sound of steel slowly sliding from a sheath. He froze, arm bent, and half turned. To his surprise, the guards hadn’t moved. It was Howe who had drawn his rapier.
“Put your lips on that goblet,” the human threatened, “and you’ll be picking them up off the floor.”
Zevran raised his brows. He glanced from the sword to the guards, who still hadn’t moved, except to rest their hands firmly on their weapons. Behind him, the sound of coins clinking into piles had stopped. Then, self-consciously, it started up again.
The assassin smiled and relaxed, lowering his hand but not replacing the goblet. “You know,” he said jovially, “usually when a client wants to test my skills, they throw a useless lackey at me.” He tipped his head towards the two guards. Howe’s narrow gaze never left his face. “I don’t make a habit of killing the client to prove a point,” he told the man. He turned back to the wine and got it nearly to his lips when he froze again, Howe’s blade at his neck.
“Put it down,” the arl ordered calmly. “Sit down. And wait until you are summoned.”
Slowly, Zevran lowered the goblet. He set it down with a gentle thunk. Howe pulled back, holding his blade relaxed but ready. “Didn’t they mention,” he said, “that in Ferelden, the nobles are not powdered and pampered pets, but warriors hardened in battle?”
“Must have slipped their minds,” Zevran confessed, only half as cocky as he could have been. “Makes sense. Dogs take after their people, do they not?”
Zevran shrugged. He’d meant it as a compliment. He turned away from the arl and walked to a chair by the wall, swaggering just enough to show he wasn’t doing it just because he’d been ordered to. He plumped down deliberately in the chair, leaned back like a cat stretching lazily out in the sun and, just to piss the man off, propped his muddy boots up in the low service table.
The guards tensed, clearly awaiting orders to teach this knife-ears a lesson. But Howe didn’t even twitch an eyelash. He’d just get the elven servants to clean it up. The bastard.
Howe sheathed the rapier. True to his boast about Ferelden nobles, he handled it professionally. “I will need to present you to the Regent,” Howe told the assassin. “I do hope you have some modicum of courtly manners.”
“Only a Regent?” Zevran waved it off carelessly. “I have been in the company of Princes. Of course, usually it’s standing in a pool of their blood, but ah.” He shrugged flippantly.
He actually made Howe grit his teeth. Point for him! “I am speaking of Teyrn Loghain — the General of all Ferelden’s armies, father and Regent to the Queen Anora, and ruler of this country.” His eyes glittered. “If he disapproves of this plan, you’re going home with nothing.”
“I don’t think the Crows will be too happy with that,” Zevran threatened.
“No,” Howe agreed. “Your employers will be most unhappy if you fail to secure this highly lucrative contract.”
Slippery, oily, greasy rat bastard. Zevran shrugged with nonchalance. “I concede your point.”
“Well, then. I believe your coin is ready to be counted.” He looked to the balding man behind the desk.
The exchequer secretary nodded. “Yes, my lord,” he said crisply.
Zevran glided lightly out of the chair and came over to inspect the shining columns of gold. “I can’t help but notice you have a great many Orlesian coins,” he pointed out.
“Left over from the occupation,” Howe replied smoothly.
“Orlesian coins are six grains lighter than Ferelden coins.”
“It buys the same amount,” Howe said a bit harshly.
“In Ferelden, yes; perhaps even in Orlais.” Zevran fixed the arl with a pointed stare. “But this coin is going to Antiva, where its only value is the gold weight.” He told the secretary, “Separate out the different coins.” Turning back to Howe, he said, “If you want to pay in Orlesian coin, you will have to make up a six percent difference.” Was the nobleman gritting his teeth again? Oh good! Before he left, perhaps he could push the man into fully grinding them. “It appears at least eighty percent of your payment is in Orlesian gold. That should be about 124 coins to cover it. Unless you wish to use Ferelden coin, in which case, 100 will suffice. Your man can do the calculations.”
The secretary looked at Howe, licking his lips nervously. The arl scowled at the man, who then scribbled a few moments on a bit of paper. “Uhm, that’s correct, my lord.”
Howe rubbed the bridge of his nose and sighed. “Very well. Sandin, see the Antivan gets the proper amount of coin to fulfill his contract.”
“Yes, my lord.”
When the accounts were settled, the coin was packed back into the strongbox. Howe’s guards would be responsible for getting it to the Crow Masters in Antiva, and Howe of course would be responsible for any mishap that might occur to it. All that was needed were the signatures of the clients on the contract.
“When can we meet with this Regent of yours?” Zevran asked.
“I will arrange it for later today. Do you have lodgings?” Not that Howe was offering any. Zevran nodded. “Leave the information with my butler; I’ll send someone to collect you when you are needed.”
Zevran performed an Antivan court half-bow, which was actually deep by Ferelden standards. “As you wish, my lord.” Like most city elves, he was able to affect a subservient tone and manner, even while imagining the Arl performing several anatomically impossible acts with some of his rodent ancestors. Whether Howe was mollified, or not fooled in the slightest, he gave no indication at all.
And so Zevran found himself in Denerim with a lot of time on his hands. He hated waiting. He paused at the edge of the Market and looked towards the alienage gate. The three beggars were nowhere in sight. Zevran shrugged. It was too late to warn them about the Purge, anyway. Most likely they already knew — from some astute servant at the estate — which is why they were outside in the first place.
The Antivan splurged a few coppers on a meat pie, rightly guessing that the fare at his ‘inn’ wouldn’t be up to par. The pie was actually good, with a flaky crust and well-spiced meat. Not as spicy as it was in Antiva, of course. Then it started raining again, and he headed back to the shelter of the boarding house.
The front room’s desk doubled as a small bar. The assassin sat on a stool and the shem girl on duty came over to him. “Watered dog piss,” he ordered. The barmaid grinned, but didn’t seem surprised in the least. She poured him a mug of…. Zevran sipped it. Yeah, he’d guessed right. He dropped a copper on the bar.
The girl set her fingertip on the coin and pushed it back towards him. “On the house,” she said, smiling again with a cute little wrinkle to her nose. “We don’t get many strangers in here.”
“Oh, really?” Zevran snorted. “A piece of crap lean-to on the way from the waterfront? I can’t imagine any locals come here often, either.” He took a gulp from the mug, figuring if he could throw it past his tongue, he might not taste it as much.
She grimaced, but persisted doggedly. “I mean your kind.” Oh, of course! Elves. “Where are you from? Tevinter?”
“That’s desert, ainnit? They say it gets hot up there.” She leaned forward on the bar, twisting a hank of hair around one finger.
Zevran took another gulp of his drink. “The desert gets cold at night,” he warned, fixing her with an icy stare. Unfortunately, she took it quite the wrong way.
She smiled again and leaned over the bar so he could get a good view of her less than impressive cleavage. “You want your bed warmed? I can arrange for your stay to be on the house, too.”
Zevran slammed the mug down on the bar. “Do I look like a whore to you?” he snapped. She jumped and shrank back. He reached over his shoulder and pulled his sword out. He pointed it at her, and she backed up against the shelves. “Does this look like an instrument of pleasure that a whore would carry around?”
“No!” she squeaked.
“Stupid bitch.” He sheathed the sword. “Give me the jug.” She blinked dully, and he had to repeat himself before she fetched the jug of swill from under the bar and handed it over.
He took it up to his room. He didn’t bother paying extra for the whole jug — the single copper he’d left was more than it was worth. Besides, he was on a budget, wasn’t he? His Crow Master had paid his way and given him a stipend for supplies and mercenaries. That didn’t include fine board and lodging, drink, or whores.
Zevran looked at the gaping maw of the jug. He wanted to get drunk badly, but reckoned that would be a bad idea when he had an appointment with the Regent — ruler of all Ferelden and blah blah blah. Maybe he should have taken the bargirl up on her offer but… he grimaced in disgust. Since he had made the mistake of falling hard for one particular woman, he hadn’t been able to take as much pleasure in them as he used to. The expensive whores of Antiva hadn’t been able to take his mind off her, and they were professionals. Some simpering Ferelden girl, smelling of dog, looking to bed an elf — he would have to be drunk for that to have any appeal. Maybe if she had been a boy….
“Shit,” said Zevran, staring down into the jug again. “I hate waiting.”
Howe’s man had come to get him in the late afternoon, when it was nearing dinner time. The arl looked more the warrior there at the castle, with his blade strapped across his back along with a wicked hatchet. He wore leather armor, though his was dyed and dressed, and edged in polished steel. Apparently, silks and satin were not the thing at the Ferelden royal court. Zevran had to give them grudging respect. He gave the arl a short bow, little more than a dip of his head. To Howe’s credit, he didn’t harp on the elf’s “courtly manners.” So they entered the Regent’s study in a state of detente.
The Regent was not holding court at the moment, though perhaps he had been, for he was in full plate armor — not the thing for even Ferelden Kings to lounge about in. The tall, dark-haired man busied himself with the wine decanter as Howe approached with Zevran.
“My Lord.” Howe approached Teyrn Loghain like a man offering a placating steak to a lion. “I believe I may have a solution to the Grey Warden problem.”
Loghain turned and his steely gaze swept over Zevran. The elf stepped forward confidently. “The Antivan Crows send their regards.” He showed his teeth in a faint feral smile.
The Regent looked over at Howe. “An assassin?” he snarled, clearly without respect for that ancient profession. He shook his head in disgust.
“Against Grey Wardens,” the arl replied, “we will need the very best.”
Zevran chuckled faintly. “And the most expensive.” Howe shot him a look and the cocky assassin grinned at him. Loghain missed the byplay entirely, for he had turned back to his cluttered desk.
“Sire.” Howe moved up beside him. “When one is faced with an infestation of rats, one does not confront them with honor and steel. One uses poison, or whatever other means necessary to eradicate them.”
Loghain sighed. “Very well. We do not have the manpower to spare to hunt these vermin down. The ratcatcher will have to do.”
Zevran bristled at the lack of respect, but bit his tongue. All he cared about was getting this job. It wouldn’t do to fidget impatiently while the powerful men read and signed the contract, so he kept an iron grip on his self-control and stood in an attitude of relaxed poise, examining his fingernails. At last the ink had dried and the contracts were sealed. The deed was as good as done.
The assassin couldn’t wait to get to business. He peppered Howe with questions as they left the castle. How many Grey Wardens had survived? Was he sure there were only two? What were their specialties? Their dispositions? Where might they go? Who were their allies?
Apparently, one of the Wardens was an elf. Zevran had never been contracted to kill an elf before. Of course he had no problem with it — a job was a job. He’d killed elves who were working as guards to his targets, and the occassional servant or slave who couldn’t be counted on to keep quiet during an infiltration. It was only very rare for an elf to rate high enough as an actual target. In fact, Zevran had never heard of such a thing. If anyone wanted an elf dead, there were plenty of cheaper and easier means than hiring the Antivan Crows. This contract would surely go down in the annals of the Crows as something extraordinary.
Reports from Lothering indicated the Wardens weren’t alone. They had a woman travelling with them, and perhaps had gathered more followers. That meant a difficult fight. Ferelden women, unlike their Antivan counterparts, were known to be fierce warriors with blade and bow. Still, the men were bigger and stronger, so it was just as likely that magic was involved. Any woman in a dress could fell half a dozen swordfighters with a fireball, if she had magic.
Luckily, Zevran found a mercenary company headed by one such woman. Her name was Hannah, and she was an apostate — on the run and hiding from the Circle of Magi. Which was always a bonus, because he wouldn’t have to explain his request to hire a mage to a bunch of nosy Templars nor pay the Chantry a usage tax for such services. Hannah had three brothers, all warriors and fiercely loyal to her. They, in turn, kept the dozen or so other fighters in line. This worked out well for the elf, as the men were used to deferring to someone smaller than they were. It was always a trial to have to prove oneself to a bunch of muscle-bound shem fighters just to get them to follow orders. With this company, simply called the Black Wolves, Zevran dealt with Hannah, and she cracked the whip on her followers.
They secured three wagons, loaded them up with provisions and tools of their trade, and set out west on the Imperial Highway. On the hunt at last, Zevran felt more alive than he had in weeks. Which was ironic, considering his quarry was the most deadly he had ever faced.
I don’t know if the whole thing about Zevran checking Howe’s payment makes any sense whatsoever. But heck, I wanted to give them something to interact over. We’ll overlook any little logic inconsistancies, shall we? :X