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Here Without You [Solo, Complete]

Celeste Monroe

Shenaniginstigator In Chief
DAO/DA2 Timeline
((Wintermarch, 9:41))

Hell had come to Thedas. Or at least, this part of it.

“No more!” Gideon shoved the gangplank sideways with his boot, sending it and the dozen or so desperate souls on it splashing into the water between ship and dock. It was a brutal necessity; they stood a damn good chance of being crushed between the pilings and the hull, but any more on board risked capsizing the whole damn ship. Gid took up position alongside the rail, Celeste, Dax and Bailey with him, to ward off the ones trying to jump from the pier and scramble on board. The rest of the crew was standing by, awaiting orders.

“We have to go!” Her first mate had to bellow to be heard over the chaos. Celeste didn’t respond, shoving one jumper back into the water, her eyes searching the teeming crowds that were desperately trying to beg or buy passage on any ship out of this port. The Wicked Grace was one of the last still tied up, because Celeste had held them there, waiting as the crisis snowballed into a full-on disaster, because Nicolette wasn’t scheduled to be back for another two days. Trouble was, they no longer had two days to wait, or even two hours.

Up at the end of the docks, flames and sparks shot into the air as the fire that was now outpacing the demons in destruction claimed another building, pushing relentlessly toward the waterfront. Three men and a woman in tattered skirts jumped together, clinging to the rail, and the Wicked Grace listed dangerously to starboard as some of the passengers they had taken on rushed to the side to push them off, then righted, wallowing like a pregnant whale. They’d dumped their cargo, but the hold was filled with people, with the excess spilling onto deck. Just like the Blight, but with demons instead of darkspawn.


Shit, they might not have two minutes at this point.

And she had no fucking idea why.

The shimmering point in the air had drawn a crowd of curious onlookers when it had first appeared in the center of town yesterday afternoon. The wondering murmurs had turned to screams when the first demons had popped out, but the guard had dispatched them with minimal casualties.

Then more had appeared. And more. The fighting drew them like sharks to chum, and unlike first the members of the city guard and then anyone else able to wield a weapon, there seemed to be no end to their numbers. This morning, the town leaders had ordered all attempts at fighting them ended and the city evacuated, but the flames - lit by either the fiery demons or some fool trying to use a torch against them - had taken hold shortly after sunrise, and the last shreds of order had gone up in smoke.

An unearthly, ululating scream cut through the human noises like a hot knife through butter, and a massive, lanky shape landed in the middle of the deck, brandishing an array of wicked claws and fangs, its shriek unlocking the vaults to Celeste’s nightmares as easily as its bastard sibling had years before, only now, there was a whole new deck of fears to draw from:

Nicolette trapped in the town just beyond sight, hemmed in by flames, sparks lighting on her hair and skirts.

Thibault torn asunder by demons in a vain attempt to defend his mistress.

The Wicked Grace foundering in the harbor, lost with all on board because she had -

Celeste howled: grief, fury, defiance - and charged the fear demon with blades flashing, Gideon and the rest of the crew joining her as the crowds on the dock drew back fearfully and a few of the passengers on deck dove overboard. She didn’t have much hope of killing the damn thing, but they managed to shove it to the port rail and over through brute strength alone, though not without injury.


She wiped blood from her eyes with the back of her hand, not bothering to meet Gideon’s gaze, swallowing down blood and bile and bitterness. “Do it.” Even now, she couldn’t make herself give the order herself.

“Cast off!” Gideon thundered. “Hoist sail!” As the crew sprang into action, he limped up to the helm to guide the ship out. Celeste helped a few more people over the rail to replace the poor sods who had bailed while doggedly ignoring the pleas of the ones in the water. Even in her distracted state, she knew the feel of the deck beneath her feet, knew what her ship could tolerate. That done, she made herself join in as they pushed away from he dock and raised the sails, the motions all muscle memory, eyes and ears straining shoreward for a bark, a cry, a flash of steel grey fur or eyes like amber in the moonlight.

Querida … I’m sorry.

It meant nothing, she told herself as they cleared the harbor, leaving the burning town behind. It wasn’t the first time they’d missed a connection. Nicolette loved to roam, and Celeste loved the light in her lover’s eyes and the jaunty bounce to her step when she returned from her excursions with tales to tell and songs to sing. She’d even gone with her on occasion, when there had been no need for her in port, and had been forced to concede that there were in fact things of interest further than a mile from the ocean. They had long since worked out contingency plans: next ports of call decided ahead of time, taverns and other drop points to leave messages in case destinations changed. Nicolette knew where they were bound from here, and would be waiting for them.

It was only a day’s sail to their destination, but they were so weighted down that it took them nearly twice as long, and they were out of food and water by the time they tied up, normal resources drained by the many extra mouths on board.

Nicolette and Thibault were not there.

But the sodding demons were.
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Celeste Monroe

Shenaniginstigator In Chief
DAO/DA2 Timeline
((Late Wintermarch, 9:41))

Capitaine! A word weeth you, s'il vous plaît?”

Celeste spared a brief glance as His Excellency, Comte Fuckwit McPrissypants, bore down on her with his mask still firmly in place, then back to the line she was coiling. “Can it wait until we’re at sea?”

“Eet cannot!” he declared imperiously. “Ees eet troo dat you have geeven passage to dat -” he flapped his hand dismissively toward the stern, “- dat mongrel for a song?”

“More than one,” Celeste conceded, following his glance to where Lucais was seated cross-legged with his back against the aftercastle and half a dozen children clustered tightly around him, listening to the song that he sang. Their faces were thin and dirty, eyes shadowed with the memory of sights that they should never have had to see, and they hung on every note as though their lives depended on it. “But yes.”

“Thees ees an outrage!” he fumed. “I ‘ave paid you generously for passeege to my ‘omeland!”

“You were told up front what the fee was,” she reminded him tersely, still coiling, “and you were told that your berth would not be private.” They needed this idiot’s coin, as galling as it was. Charging the ones who could pay for passage from one place to another was what let them get as many as they could who couldn’t pay out of the way of the chaos the Breach had unleashed.

It had a name now, for all the good it did. Nobody knew what had caused it or how to make it go away, so they seemed to be stuck with a green, glowing hole in the sky that shit demons for fun. The Divine had been burnt to a holy crisp along with most of the high muckety-mucks of the Chantry, the remainder were holed up in Val Royeaux, screeching about the heathen qunari that Andraste herself had supposedly escorted out of the Fade and not doing much else. Templars and mages were killing each other with a dedication that would be admirable, were it not for the innocent bystanders that kept getting caught between, and every new port of call was a roll of the dice as to whether demons, templars, mages or all three would be waiting. A few times they had gotten lucky: nothing was amiss, weary refugees unloaded, the Wicked Grace picked up what cargo and passengers she could and moved on. A couple of times, Celeste had taken one look at the desperate masses thronging the piers and turned about, steeling her heart against the cries because her ship was already packed to the gills.

And three weeks on, there had been no sign of Nicolette or Thibault.

Which was to say that the bullshit tolerance levels of a certain sea captain were at an all time low even before the jackass started braying.

“You deed not tell me dat I would be sharing my cabeen wit’ dis unwashed rabble!” he screeched, seemingly oblivious to the unfriendly looks that he was getting from the crew. “And to geeve passage for nothing more dan music? Dat is an insult!”

“He’s making himself useful,” Celeste replied, “and since you obviously don’t have that capability, I’m going to ask you to return to your berth until we are out of the harbor.” The Wicked Grace wasn’t the only ship trying to get in and out; overloaded boats and exhausted sailors made for lots of near misses, and any distraction on deck was a potential liability. She caught Lucais’ gaze, and the lines around his eyes crinkled as he gave her one of his gentle, ‘what can you do?’ smiles without missing a note. She’d known him for nearly twenty years: a kind and noble soul who gave of his talent far more freely than he should have. Trading music and story for passage had been a tradition on board this ship since well before Celeste had come on, and its use now in helping distract and calm frightened passengers only made his presence more welcome. She’d have taken him on even if Nicolette had been here, but without her -

Don’t. It had only been three weeks, and they’d been bouncing up and down the coast. She’d left messages when she could, but their itinerary had long since been thrown to chance. The minstrel was resourceful, and for all her curiosity, still preferred to run rather than fight. There was zero chance that she would challenge one demon, let alone a sodding regiment.

Unless someone needed help. Or she was cornered. Or Thibault was hurt. Or -

Fucking … don’t. That way lay madness, and she was already dancing close to that line. She hadn’t had a full night’s sleep since that first desperate departure, and for the first time in her life, she felt trapped at sea, yearning landward with a heart that felt like a compass spinning aimlessly, seeking a north gone awry.

“I weel not!” the Comte raged, stamping one leather-booted foot on the deck. “There ees a knife-ear there who weel not stop crying! Theese accommodations are intolerable! I demand a refund! You will provide me passage for free, as you ‘ave de rest of dese peasants!”

“A refund?” she regarded him steadily for a moment, hung the coiled rope from a bronze hook secured to the rigging, then reached into a pocket and withdrew the leather pouch he had given her, the clink of the sovereigns audible within as she limped toward the rail. Brannigan had stitched up the gashes along her left thigh, but she didn’t have time for the bedrest he had recommended, and she’d already opened them up once, guaranteeing some interesting scars to show Nico when she was back on board.

When, damn it. Not if.

“Here’s your refund,” she told him, tossing the sack in the air once and catching it, then drawing back her arm and hurling with all her strength. “Go get it!” He turned to stare seaward, his mouth agape, and she followed up with a foot to his ass that sent him over the rail, mask and all, with a final wail.

“Cap’n?” Dax, watching her closely.

She shrugged, nodded to the shore. “It’s close enough for him to swim.”

He looked dubious. “I dunno. Looked like he was wearin’ a pretty good sized money belt under his clothes. Might weight him down a bit.”

“Belts come off,” she reasoned. “Assuming he’s smart enough.” She stared off the starboard side into their wake for a time. “Guess not,” she said with another shrug, unable to make herself feel any guilt beyond hoping that she hadn’t given the children fresh fodder for their nightmares. Then, “No, there he is.” She pointed as the comte bobbed to the surface like a well dressed cork, dodged a skiff, then began dog-paddling frantically for land, trailing curses in his wake.

“Cap’n?” She sighed and readied herself for the reprimand. “You didn’t really -” He mimed throwing something. She snorted softly and produced the coin pouch that she’d slipped up her sleeve.

“Crazy, not stupid,” she reminded him with a tired smile as she tucked it away, then winced at the feel of fresh blood trickling down her leg. “Damn it,” she muttered, limping back toward the infirmary to get sewn up again.

Celeste Monroe

Shenaniginstigator In Chief
DAO/DA2 Timeline
((Guardian, 9:41; Jader))

“Well, now. Fancy meeting you here, Trouble.”

Celeste knew that gravelly voice, even if it was decidedly out of place. “I could say the same thing to you,” she told Varric, altering her course along the pier to approach the dwarf. “I didn’t think you set foot outside of Kirkwall.” Shit, she could list the times she’d seen him outside of the Hanged Man on one hand with fingers left over. He hadn’t been there on their last stopover, but she hadn’t lingered to look. The City of Chains had grown even less appealing since the Chantry had blown sky high and reportedly taken whatever sanity remained in the Gallows with it.

“Wasn’t exactly my idea, but -” the broad shoulders rolled in a shrug. “Strange times.”

“Tell me about it.” He didn’t have to point to the Breach that hovered over the southern horizon like a turd floating in a punch bowl. The damn thing was impossible to get away from any more; even when they sailed out of sight, Celeste could feel it scraping along her nerves, and she hated the fucking thing. “What are you doing in Orlais?”

“Looking for a reliable ship to Val Royeaux, conveniently enough,” the dwarf replied. “Hey, House.”

“Varric,” Gideon rumbled as he rolled up on Celeste’s right, crimson eyes sweeping the docks for trouble, finding none for the moment. ‘House’ was short for ‘Brick Shithouse’, which was what the Tal-Vashoth had been dubbed long before Celeste arrived on the Wicked Grace. There was a story behind it that Varric would tell if he was in the right mood, but now wasn’t it for any of them. “Run out of silk?” The dwarf was looking a bit more threadbare than usual - a lot more, to be honest, and Bianca had some substantial nicks in her woodwork, though she was as meticulously polished as ever.

“Something like that,” Varric muttered, fingering the worn brocade trim on his tunic ruefully. “Might pick some up while I’m there, but I’m with the Inquisition for now, and we need to get to Val Royeaux.”

Celeste blinked. “The Inquisition? How the Fade did that happen?” The dwarf had never been the join-up type, any more than Celeste was.

“Long story,” he said, shaking his head, but Gideon spoke up before he could say more.

“The Herald … the one the Chantry is shitting its robes about … she’s supposed to be a Tal-Vashoth?” The interest in her first mate’s eyes had nothing to do with religious fervor; female Tal-Vashoth were rare in the south. He was never short of bedmates, but not having to worry about breaking one was a comparative novelty.

“She is,” Varric confirmed, looking amused. “That’s her down there.” He nodded down toward the top of the pier, where a tall, broad shouldered woman with curving horns stood surveying the docks warily.

“Hel-lo.” Gideon straightened, his voice dropping into that velvet purr that could get him laid in pretty much any port in Thedas, but Varric chuckled.

“I don’t think you’re her type, House. She might be more interested in your captain and her lady - what?” His eyes narrowed with suspicion as he caught sight of Celeste’s face, and he glanced toward the ship, looking for Nicolette.

Well, shit. “I was just going to ask if you’d seen her,” Celeste admitted, swallowing back the disappointment. It would have been a long shot at best. “She was away from the ship when it happened. Haven’t seen her since.” Saying it never got easier; felt like a knife in the ribs every fucking time.

“Shit, shit, shit,” the dwarf growled. He had a soft spot for Dancer, as he called her. “I’ll put word out to look for her. She still have the bigass dog? Good. That’ll make her easier to spot.”

If Thibault was still alive, but Celeste wasn’t going to let her thoughts go there. She might not be as fond of the mutt as she was his mistress, but he’d grown on her over the years … and his dedication to Nico was absolute. He would protect her as long as he drew breath. So he was fine. They both were, damn it.

“So … Val Royeaux?”

Varric nodded, accepting the change in subject. He’d look, and it wouldn’t just be his eyes looking; their chances of locating Nicolette had just gone up significantly, but Celeste was morbidly certain that thinking on it would jinx the whole thing.

“We need to talk to what’s left of the Chantry,” he explained.

“You do realize they’ve declared that the Inquisition is full of heretics, don’t you?” Gideon warned him.

“That has been mentioned, yes,” Varric replied with a shrug. “But there’s method to our madness. If we can create enough doubt in enough of the clerics, we keep them arguing with each other instead of trying to declare an Exalted March on us, maybe give us enough time to show them that she’s real.”

“Is she?” Celeste wanted to know, not bothering to hide her skepticism. She’d heard the stories, but bullshit came cheap. “I mean, she has the -” she held out her hand and waggled it, looking at him expectantly.

“Lucky? She’s real, mark and all,” Varric nodded. “I’ve seen it work; she can close up the smaller breaches on her own, and the theory is that with some more umph behind her, she can close the big bastard, too.” He rolled his eyes. “The ones who actually know about that kind of shit are still arguing whether the templars or the mages would be best, but since neither group is talking to us right now, it doesn’t really matter. We need to get to Val Royeaux to buy ourselves some breathing room to build the kind of credibility that’s going to get us alliances.” He cocked his head, peering up at her with a bit of the old gleam in his eyes. “What do you say? Chance to come in on the ground floor?”

Celeste glanced at Gideon, shrugged. Not like they had jobs lined up right now. “I don’t suppose that there would be pay involved?” End of the world or not, her crew had to eat and torn sails had to be mended or replaced. And there always seemed to be someone who needed it more.

“There’s some,” Varric told her. “Not much, but we can pay your standard rates, maybe set up a retainer if you want to stick around.”

“Let’s start with Val Royeaux,” Celeste told him. If Nicolette was anywhere, she’d be there, trying to reach her family. Celeste had made an attempt to find Clarice, Saul and Michel, but the sodding civil war had everything in Orlais fucked up even before the damned Breach, and it was only worse now.

“Good enough,” he agreed, then jerked his head. “Come on. I’ll introduce you.”

Celeste Monroe

Shenaniginstigator In Chief
DAO/DA2 Timeline
((Drakonis, 9:41))


Celeste turned her head, then shifted to make room as Téo clambered into the crow’s nest.

“Supper.” He passed her a knotted bandanna. She took it, but made no move to untie the bundle, cupping it in her hands and enjoying the warmth of the contents. Spring was slow in coming to the Waking Sea, and the winds aloft, particularly at night, held a decided chill.

“Thanks.” She looked sideways at him, smiling faintly. “Let me guess?”

“Fish,” he confirmed with a grin. He’d grown from a scrawny, scrappy kid to a lithely muscled, still scrappy young man with gorgeous hazel eyes and a smile that drew the ladies like flies to honey. “He put some of the honey in the batter, though. Tastes pretty good.”

Stubby was as good as ever at making use of what was on hand, and fortunately all of the crew liked fish well enough. Between the chaos unleashed by the Breach and the damned mages and templars still battling it out, food on land was getting harder and harder to come by, with profiteers grabbing up what was available and selling it to whoever could pay their extortion-level rates. The sea remained a reliable source of bounty, and fishing had been added to the duty roster; bellies on the Wicked Grace stayed full, and the extra generally wound up being given out at one port of call or another or traded for what the ocean couldn’t provide.

The honey - and some eggs and the flour for the batter - had been a gift from a grateful seacoast village west of Kirkwall. A renegade mercenary company had hit upon a novel variant of the good old protection racket: hire on a blood mage and have them summon a minor demon or two to send into the town. The ‘heroes’ would dispatch the demons, claiming they had come from a rift in the countryside and promise to keep protecting the town as long as they kept paying. But as was often the case with assholes, they just kept getting greedier and greedier, demanding the best of the food, the prettiest of the women, the most comfortable houses. And any time the villagers got slow with paying up, more demons just happened to find their way into town. The people weren’t stupid; they’d figured out that it was a scam of some kind, but the demons were hard to argue with.

When the Wicked Grace had tied up at the village’s lone pier, looking to refill the water barrels, the bandits had taken them for fresh meat, not knowing that the mayor’s son hd slipped out and made his way up the coast in search of help, finding Celeste in a tavern ten leagues to the east. They’d dropped Gideon and Dax off just out of sight, letting them reconnoiter from the landward side and confirm that there wasn’t a rift within five miles of the village. The rest of them had played the part of dumb sailors, and when Celeste, Sorcha and Kali had been ‘invited’ to spend an evening with the leader of the bandits and his lieutenants, they had shown up looking as submissive as lambs.

The poor bastards had never known what hit them.

A few vials of fart juice and blood lotus in the booze turned things upside down quite effectively, and with the upper echelons incapacitated, the remainder of the bandits were fairly easy to mop up. As it turned out, stoned blood mages couldn’t cast for shit … even less so with an arrow in the throat.

All in a day’s work these days, and normally, seeing the surviving assholes still farting and belching while tied up and waiting for trial would have had Celeste in a chipper mood for at least a week, but she couldn’t really bring herself to give a damn, and once they had put to sea and the weather had proved favorable, she had left Gideon at the helm and climbed up here, trying hard not to think about how many more bastards like those were out there preying on the vulnerable. Trying harder not to think about the chances of Nicolette running across them.

Téo watched her in silence for a moment. “We miss her, too, Cap’n,” he said quietly.

Celeste nodded. “I know.” The minstrel had long since been accepted by the crew as one of them. Her music never failed to add energy to the work on deck, and she never hesitated to pitch in when her hands were needed instead. She’d provided a sympathetic ear to almost all of them at one time or another, and participated in more Red Jenny capers than could be easily counted. By unspoken consent, the first action at any port was to spread out and seek any word of her.

And two months on, they hadn’t found a damn thing.

“She’s smart,” Téo asserted confidently, “and she’s got Thibault lookin’ out for her. They’ll be fine.”

Celeste nodded, but didn't respond. He knew as well as she did that being smart and having a big dog didn’t count for shit when holes in the fabric of reality started shitting out demons. And he knew as well as she did that in addition to being smart, Nicolette cared about others. She might be cautious where her own safety was concerned, but she would put herself in danger without thought to protect someone else. And she was curious, and Maker knew that there was no shortage of things to tempt that particular trait.

“We’ll find her, Captain.”

“Maybe.” Celeste was a realist, but not knowing what was real was the kicker here. “When Daniel died, I knew it.” Life in the icy waters of the Waking Sea in a winter storm was measured in minutes, and not many of them. She had accepted his death, grieved and moved on. “But now, I don’t know … anything.” Was she dead? Was she alive and trying to find them? Was she being held by assholes like the ones they had just bested, but at a landlocked town where word of it would never reach the sea? And Celeste might never know.

She’d hoped to find Nico’s family in Val Royeaux; that, at least, would have given her a place to return to, because the minstrel would seek them out. But the family living in their neat little cottage had said they found it vacant; talk with the neighbors had confirmed that Clarice, Saul and Michel had departed in the night when the chevaliers began to openly assert their loyalty to Grand Duke Gaspard and issue thinly veiled threats to any who did not support him. They had left no word of their destination, and if they had sent a missive to Nicolette, it was likely caught up in the same turmoil that seemed to have devoured Celeste’s own attempts at communication. She’d left a letter with them, just in case.

“I should have stayed,” she muttered, not for the first time. Her best chance to find Nicolette had been those first hours. The minstrel would have gone first to the port where they had agreed to meet.

“Then you’d both be out there,” Téo pointed out.

“Two is better than one.” They made a good team, Nico’s nimble but subtle wit balancing out Celeste’s brash confidence. Together, they would have stood a greater chance of fighting and finagling their way through the chaos to meet up with the Wicked Grace. But she hadn’t stayed; she had chosen her ship over her lover, and that choice was eating her up inside, the what-if's taunting her relentlessly. Their cabin remained untouched. The dried flowers and bright scarves that Nicolette had used to decorate; her clothes in the wardrobe; the cinnamon soaps beside the tub; the books of tales and songs from across Thedas; Thibault’s bed, well padded to cushion aging bones; all of them still there. But the scent of her lover had begun to fade from her pillow, and Celeste spent little time in the cabin days, prowling the streets whenever they made port, staying on deck or in the crow’s nest at sea until exhaustion drove her to a few hours of fitful sleep that was more often than not cut short by nightmares.

“We won’t stop looking,” Téo promised, and he meant it, but Celeste knew that at some point, the wild hope that surged every time they made port and the knife’s twist of disappointment when their queries turned up shaking heads and blank looks would both begin to fade. She didn’t know whether she hoped for that moment or dreaded it.

“I know,” she told him with a wan smile. “Almost my turn at the helm?”

He nodded. “Better eat,” he told her as he reached for the ropes and began the climb back to the deck. Celeste opened the bundle and took out the first of the two pieces of fried fish. It was still warm, the crust crisp and slightly sweetened by the honey, the meat tender and flaky; she barely tasted it, had no real appetite, but she ate it anyway, and the second. She hadn’t had to order her crew not to allow her to wallow in something that she refused to call grief, and she knew that if she tried to stay here and mope, Gideon or Kali would be up to kick her ass. She was the captain; she had a ship and crew depending on her, and she hung onto that like a lifeline.

Some days, that felt like the only thing keeping her sane.

Celeste Monroe

Shenaniginstigator In Chief
DAO/DA2 Timeline
((Early Bloomingtide, 9:41))

The Wicked Grace had long been known for having a captain and crew that marched to the beat of their own drum. From the day the ship had first put to sea, Quinton Monroe’s philosophy of following your dreams had led to situations that the average cargo ship - even a smuggling ship - didn’t encounter.

But the crew having to put down a mutiny by the captain was strange even by those standards.

“Get. Out. Of. My. Way.” Celeste stood on deck, glaring at the crew that stood shoulder to shoulder between her and the gangplank. Even Charlie, the new cabin girl, stood at one end, looking worried but determined. It had been Kalindra who had figured out that the skinny lad they had taken on in Highever last month was actually named Charlotte. At twelve, she likely wouldn’t be passing as a boy for long, and since the Grace was likely the safest ship for her to be on Celeste had let her stay.

Except that now, nowhere in this part of Thedas was likely to be safe. Maybe nowhere at all. The waterfronts were abuzz with word that the Inquisition headquarters at Haven had been attacked by a darkspawn riding an archdemon and buried beneath an avalanche. The traders who had witnessed the attack from afar had sworn that nothing could have survived, and in the week since the first reports had come, no word had been received to indicate otherwise. Which meant that the only person who could close the rifts that still dotted the landscape was likely dead and the demons were just going to keep coming. They thinned out the farther from Haven you got, though, and more than one ship's captain was talking of finding out just what lay north of Seheron and Par Vollen.

Then, they had finally gotten a solid lead on Nicolette from one of their regular taverns: she had been there three weeks before, alive and unhurt, accompanied by Thibault and another big dog, had lingered for a week, and - most importantly - had left word of her destination when she had departed. They had cast off and raced up the coast, but when they arrived at the port … nothing. No Nicolette, no message in the tavern - in any of the taverns or inns - and no one who had seen a beautiful minstrel and two monstrous hounds about the town. It had been two weeks: more than enough time for her to have made the journey, even on foot, and further questioning had led to the discovery that a gang of bandits had been ambushing travelers on the road between the two towns.

The town’s guards hadn’t numbered enough to take them on, but the addition of the Wicked Grace’s captain and crew (minus Charlie) had tipped the balance handily. They had routed the bandits and found - nothing. None of Nicolette’s possessions among the stolen loot in their camp, and the survivors of the fighting swore up and down (with her dagger at their throats) that they had never seen a woman and two dogs, let alone attacked her.

But they could be lying. Or they could be telling the truth. Or there could have been other bandits. They were back to fucking square one, with no fucking idea where to go, and Celeste couldn’t fucking do this anymore. Sailing around, leaving notes that might or might not be passed on with people who might or might not be there a week from now. Not knowing. That was what was eating her alive, making her heart feel as though it was trying to claw its way out of her chest. To be so … fucking … close, and to not know what had happened, where her minstrel was, dead or alive, safe or in danger. She’d felt the decision click into place in the bandit camp, a steely calm settling over her, quelling the frustrated fury. She’d returned to the ship, gone to her cabin, consulted her maps, stuffed some clothes and gear and the atlas Nico had given her into a sea bag, headed back out on deck and run straight into a brick wall.

“Not happening, Captain.” Gideon was as calm as ever, crimson eyes sympathetic, but kept his position, as unmovable as one of the masts.

“She’s gone inland,” Celeste told him. “There are villages between here and where she came from. If I backtrack, I can pick up her trail.”

“It’s been three weeks, Celeste.” Kalindra sounded careful, which annoyed Celeste, and reasonable, which just plain pissed her off. She was not remotely interested in reasonable at the moment. “You’ll never catch up with her on foot.”

“Well, we’re damn sure not catching up with her this way!” Celeste shot back in exasperation. “Look, take the ship and sail to Rivain. Once I find her, we can meet you -”

She’d known that wasn’t going to go over well, but she didn’t even get to finish.

“Shit on that!”

“No chance!”

“Absolutely out of the question!”

“I’m giving you a sodding order!” she snarled, dropping her hands to the hilts of her daggers. Knowing she’d never draw them, and knowing they knew she’d never draw them, but needing to hold onto something, because it felt as though the whole damn world was tilting away, out of her control.

“And we’re refusing it.” It was Brannigan who responded. He’d been ready to retire to the Anchorage when this had happened, had stayed on and kept the crew patched up through fights with demons and bandits and pirates (the heart attack Isabela had given them the previous month notwithstanding), but it was costing him. He’d lost weight, and the arthritis was hitting him harder every day, but he’d insisted on coming along to when they’d gone after the bandits, and he stood firm beside Gideon now, even though she knew how much his joints were hurting him. “You’re not thinking clearly, Celeste.”

“How the fuck am I supposed to think?” she rasped. “If I’d gone ashore when this all started, I could have found her then, but I didn’t. I chose the ship, and now she could be anywhere, and it’s like -” Like looking for Daniel in driving show and towering waves, but she couldn’t say it, couldn’t come that close to suggesting that Nicolette might - Nope. “Like looking for a damn needle in a haystack,” she substituted, part of her wondering what sodding idiot dropped a needle in a haystack, anyway. “It’s my choice, damn it!”

“What you do is your choice,” Gideon corrected her, firmly but gently, “but what we do is ours. Nico is one of us, Celeste. We care about her, too … and we care about you. We’re not leaving you alone. Either we all sail north, or we all stay and keep searching.” Ten faces, fanned out to either side and wearing ten identical expressions of resolve, nodded their agreement, and looking from one to the next, Celeste felt another kind of panic trying to rise. They’d lost Nordstrom in Cloudreach in a fight with - you guessed it - fucking demons, and it was a miracle that he was the only death to date, but that kind of luck couldn’t hold. Every one of them had battle scars. They couldn’t stay here; not without anybody to seal the damn rifts. She couldn’t lose them, too.

The ‘too’ in that thought tipped the balance on her control, and she stumbled forward, swearing at them in every language that she knew, but she didn’t have the momentum to shove past them. Gideon caught her just before her knees hit the deck and knelt with her, massive arms around her as she buried her face in his chest, not crying, because she didn’t cry, damn it, but she couldn’t fucking breathe with the bands of fear locked in place around her chest at having to choose again and what that choice might cost. Kalindra knelt on her other side, and the others clustered around, hands reaching to touch her head, her shoulders, her arms, and Charlie wormed in close, wrapping both arms around her and holding on tight, and after what felt like forever, the bands loosened, letting her draw a breath, then another, and something closer to sanity replaced the raging storm in her brain.

“All right.” She rocked back on her heels, looking around at them. “What do we do?” They’d been right; charging off overland with so much time gone would accomplish nothing, but she’d been equally right that their efforts to date had netted exactly zero.

“She’s trying to find us,” Kali stated confidently. “She’s been keeping to the coastline. The bandits may have made her move inland, but she’ll head back seaward when she can.” Without bothering to ask, she dug into Celeste’s seabag, came up with the atlas and leafed through it. “Here.” She pointed to a spot on the map, tilting the book so they could see. “If she takes this road, it takes her north of here, then drops back south to this village.”

Celeste studied the map, her mind working. Maybe two days sail to the east. “And if she’s not there?”

“Depends on whether or not she’s been there,” Kali replied. “If she has, then she’ll have left word where she’s going. If she hasn’t, we drop anchor and wait a few days, see if she shows, then keep moving east, checking every port as we go. Sooner or later, we’ll get ahead of her.”

Celeste let out a frustrated hiss. “This would be a lot easier if she’d just stay put!” she grumbled.

“Or if we did, since we make a larger target,” Brannigan agreed, “but in the present climate, that hasn’t been possible for us, and much less for a woman alone.”

Celeste winced and nodded. She spent a lot of time trying not to think about that and failing miserably. Nicolette was far from helpless, but demons couldn’t be charmed or outwitted, and in a fight with even one, the gentle minstrel would be at a decided disadvantage. And demons were rarely found alone these days.

“She’s made it this far, Cap’n,” Téo assured her with an encouraging smile. “We’re close now; just a few more days.”

She drew a slow breath and nodded. “Thank you,” she said quietly, looking around at them all. Putting a hand flat on the deck beneath her, she offered a silent apology to her ship for being ready to abandon it, then pushed herself to her feet. “Let’s put to sea,” she ordered, heading for the bridge. Unless her aid was needed, Nicolette had always stayed there with Celeste, her music and song turning every departure into a celebration, and the silence now was just one more aspect of the absence that gnawed at her awareness like a phantom limb, reminding her constantly of what she’d lost. Kalindra came up to stand beside her at the helm.

“I love her,” Celeste said simply. She’d said the words to Nicolette, though it had taken her a ridiculous amount of time to utter them aloud the first time, and she likely hadn’t said them as often as she should have. She’d thought them every damn day for the last four months.

“Really?” Kali feigned astonishment, then rolled her eyes, shaking her head in affectionate exasperation. “Trust me: we all knew that well before you did, you great goose.”

Nicolette was not at the next port of call; they anchored a few days, then continued east, checking every seacoast town with a dock, and even those that didn't, using the dinghy to get to shore. Sometimes they moved on immediately, sometimes they anchored for a few days, doing odd jobs to make up for the cargo they weren’t hauling. Two weeks in, the first reports began making the round: the Inquisition and the Herald of Andraste lived still, in a mountain redoubt deep in the Frostbacks. The adversary and cause of the Breach had a name: Corypheus. And two weeks after that, the messenger from Cumberland tracked them down.