Twenty years of patrols have chiseled each and every stone of the Kirkwall streets into city guardsman Donnen Brennokovic. Weary and weathered, Donnen is paired with a recruit so green he might as well have leaves growing out of his armor. When the unlikely duo discovers a dead magistrate bleeding out on the flagstones, they're caught up in a clash between a shadowy organization known only as the Executors and a secretive group of Chantry agents-all over some ancient artifact.
The novella is a publication of Varric Tethras's noir detective story told in the eighteen codicies starting with Codex entry: Hard in Hightown: Chapter One. It includes cover art and 24 interior illustrations captioned by a quote from the story. It does not include Codex entry: Hard in Hightown: Chapter ???. The events of the book are set entirely in Kirkwall during the same period as the events of Dragon Age II, roughly 9:30-40 Dragon. The story is a homage satire of classic film noir tropes such as the Private Detective and the action film standard Cowboy Cop.
In the book, the speech patterns of some of the characters mimic Dragon Age II companions, for example Belladonna uses the "sweet thing" phrase that Isabela used, Hendallen uses Avaline's short, gruff sentences and Maysie sounds considerably like Merrill. Mary Kirby explained that this effect was because the characters in the novella were inspired and reviewed by Varric's friends and associates.
Two guardsmen, Donnen and Jevlan, discover the corpse of Magistrate Dunwald in Kirkwall's Hightown at night. They set about gathering clues, visiting his widow, Lady Marielle, and the Comte de Favre. Donnen next attempts to get a search warrant from Captain Hendallen, but are turned down for lack of cause and is reprimanded for not following procedure. Ignoring both the lack of warrant and procedure, Donnen picks the lock to the comte's house and the duo find him dead. Their search of the house is interrupted by Captain Belladonna, a Rivani sea captain who wants to be paid for the cargo she brought to Kirkwall for the comte.
Donnen's next move is to visit the elf, Maysie, who interprets the seal on a letter as belonging to a supposedly fictional group called the Executors. From there, he heads to the docks to find that the crew of the Dragon's Jewels has been attacked and Belladonna wounded, though not before severing the hand of her assailant. Disgusted with the whole thing, she throws the shipment at Donnen's feet, saying he can keep it.
Donnen goes to the Chantry to get his arm healed and encounters Lady Marielle, who suggests they talk. The go to a poncy Orlesian teahouse in Hightown called the Café d'Or where Marielle provides two leads: that she is being followed by two thugs and that a man named Wagner with a Lowtown address wanted to buy her husband's entire sword collection. Donnen heads to the Foundry and meets with Wagner, who reveals that he is looking for the Sword of Hessarian, the one that killed Andraste, and is prepared to pay Donnen handsomely to help him find it.
Donnen goes to the barracks to find Jevlan missing, his bunk bloodied and a ransom note indicating that he should bring the blade to the quays at midnight. He immediately returns to Dunwald's estate to confront Marielle with evidence from the barracks and discrepancies between her and Wagner's stories. Finding out that she is a Chantry agent and suspected an Executors' plant in the guard, he leaves and lets the tailing thugs catch up to him. After a brief fight, he tells them that he has the sword and will meet Wagner at midnight in the quays.
Donnen retires to The Hanged Man to drink ale until midnight and then heads to the quays. He stages the transfer with Wagner, getting him to admit to killing Dunwald. When Wagner realizes the sword is a fake, he threatens to kill Donnen, but the cavalry, in the form of Captain Hendallen and a dozen guards step out of the shadows to arrest Wagner.Just as the guards leave, Donnen is ambushed by Jevlan, who wants the Sword of Hessarian. Jevlan seriously wounds Donnen, who flees to the Chantry for healing. At the Chantry is Lady Marielle and Donnen gives her the real Sword to take to the Divine. When asked to name a reward, he simply asks that she put in a good word for him with the Maker.
- Captain Belladonna - Captain of the Dragon's Jewels
- Captain Hendallen - Captain of the Kirkwall guard
- Donnen Brennokovic - An experienced guardsman nearing retirement
- Jevlan - A new recruit to the guard
- Lady Marielle - The wife of Magistrate Dunwald
- Maysie - An elf living in the Kirkwall Alienage
- Seamus Dunwald - A dead magistrate
- Wagner - A Starkhaven buyer of antiquities
- Wael - A procurer of antiquities
- In Chapter Nine, Varric describes Belladonna's feelings for the Dragon's Jewels as "She liked big boats." which is a reference to the first line of Baby Got Back
- Mary Kirby, Varric's writer, is the real-world author of the book.
- Brian Bloom, Varric's voice actor, did a partial reading of the book to promote it. 
- Mary Kirby also did an interview as if she were Varric.