Last season, Cydrian whittled a staff from part of the fig tree next door. It was a grand staff, adorned with carved vines growing up the shaft, the head bursting with intricate foliage, plump figs nestled in between.
Mistress Hadriana saw the staff and told Cydrian that slaves may cultivate her garden, but slaves may not own a staff. Slaves are owned. She took the staff away and Cydrian has not spoken of it since. Nor has he touched his whittling knife. Dilris said he'd heard that Mistress had presented the staff to Master Danarius as a gift, but Dilris lies, so it might not be true.
Father used to say that he believed we could not own any property so that we could not afford to run away, but since Fenris' disappearance, my father has changed his opinion. He now believes that we cannot own any property because we must be made to feel worthless for our master to feel any worth. I hushed him; if anyone overheard, told Mistress Hadriana, our lives would be forfeit.
No one knows where Fenris is, nor if he got away. Master Danarius left for battle in Seheron with him, but returned without him. Cydrian whispers that Master Danarius had Fenris killed, but I know that has to be wrong; the Master is too angry, too upset by the loss of his favourite pet, and Fenris was comfortable here. Compared to the rest of us, his life was luxury and bliss and he was happy.
"Ilan," a haughty voices calls.
'Nessis,' I think. 'My real name is Nessis.' "Yes, Mistress?"
"The baths need cleaning." A whisper of silks, the scent of perfume and sweat and blood, and Mistress Hadriana sweeps past, on to her next depravity.
My name, my real name, Nessis, is the only thing I own. My slave names change as often as the seasons and each visiting magister calls me something else. 'Pretty Boy, or 'Bright Eyes' or even just 'Knife Ears'. Still, all of those are preferable to what magister Ahriman whispers as he…
I shudder, pushing the thought aside as I gather cleaning cloths and head towards the baths, steam billowing from the doorway.
My true name I tell no one. Only my father and sister know it. If I keep it as my secret, then no one can steal it from me. Unlike my hands or my legs or even my skin, I own it.
Hadriana spoke true. The room is in dire need of cleaning, spattered not only with dirt and soap, but speckles of blood and other bodily fluids. A magister's appetites seem insatiable – food, jewellery, power, sex – they never stop consuming, yet always they want more. They lie back like helpless slugs, being fawned over, fed or serviced – but if anyone does anything they dislike, or if they're bored, or just because – then their supremacy is easy to see. Your blood erupts from your veins, your own life powering their spells as they take even that from you.
The scent of sex hangs heavy in the air, and I wonder who her current favourite for abuse is now that Fenris is free.
Free. Even the thought seems illicit, impossible, and I push it aside, scared of who might see me as I think it. It's not true; Fenris must be dead, or dying, by qunari hands. Master Danarius would never let anyone go.
Mistress Hadriana is sent away, served only by my father and sister. Dilris drops them at the docks beside a ship bound for the Free Marches, or so he tells me. Rumours circulate the slave quarters – the mistress has been sent to duel another magister, or that she's off to find more slaves – but no one knows for sure, and no word is sent. Not that I hear of, anyway.
Time passes, I have no way of tracking it, one day merging into the next, and I miss my family. I might share my sleeping quarters with ten other slaves, but I trust none of them and I'm lonely.
Then, sometime after, Master Danarius also leaves. One day here, the next gone. The mansion is empty and quiet – it has been for the many, many days since he left – and yet still we cower in fear. Who knows what spells the master has left behind? Who dares tempt his blood magic?
Once more rumours run fast and dark around the mansion. Why did the master leave? Where is Mistress Hadriana? Has the master abandoned us?
Passing the entrance to the privies, I see Lakish, her face screwed up as she carries a heavy pot of night-soil. I make a move to help, but one flicker of her eyes is enough to halt my movements and I drop my hand, lowering my gaze to the floor.
Behind me, hissing robes and harsh breathing tell me Master Danarius has returned. I daren't look up, but I know the fear frozen on Lakish's face is similar to the expression on my own.
That's when I hear it – soft footsteps following Danarius, the barest chink of metal on metal. I peek over my shoulder to see him. Head bowed, shoulders slouched, chained like a beast – Fenris follows his master. For once, his skin is so covered in filth – mud and blood – that his beautiful, terrible markings are concealed.
I wait until they're gone, into the study, the clunk of the lock making it clear that it's safe to move, but Lakish is faster than me, struggling away with her stinking pot. I want to talk to someone, anyone, about this. Where is my father? My sister? Where has Fenris been? But slaves don't ask questions, nor do they show anything but fear and submission. I wait, standing in silence, still as the marble statue beside me, to be called. But the lock does not move and no one else passes.
Outside a bell chimes six, time for me to serve dinner, so I push aside all thoughts of freedom and capture. Danarius leaves his study alone, expecting me to fall into line behind him as he goes by. I am nothing but a piece of furniture this evening, quite literally as Danarius uses me for a footstool. At least he has no guests, no one to impress, so after he's been fed – every morsel lifted to his lips by his body slaves – he does not linger, disappearing off to his study again.
It's late, gone three am, when Fenris returns to the slave quarters, his markings glowing as he picks his way through the crush of bodies where they lie, back to back in the tiny sleeping quarters. His own room, for it seems he is still enough of a favourite to keep this room, is near where I sleep, and he does not flinch when I reach up a hand to pat his foot as he passes. An incline of his head acknowledges me, and I stand, following him into his room.
"Ilan," he says, not sitting, not relaxing. Unlike my family, he does not know my true name.
"Avanna, Ser Fenris. Good to see you again."
He does not reply, his only response to move and shift on the spot, as if even now, his lyrium markings burn his skin. Green eyes stare at me, his expression sullen, and his black brows drawn close together.
"My family, ser," I get down to business. "They left with Mistress Hadriana."
He blinks, slouching his shoulders as he rocks to the side, turning his head away. "Your father is gone."
Even the beauty of his voice doesn't lessen the sickness I feel at his words. "And Orana?"
"She is safe. Free. She is working in Kirkwall, for a…a friend. He is caring for her." He turns his back on me, dismissing me, and I bow my head in thanks. Fresh wounds on his back seep blood, but Fenris has never been one to ask anyone else for help.
Leaving his room, I lay down, but I can't sleep, images of my family whirring behind my eyelids. It seems Fenris can't find any rest either; soft footsteps pad behind the flimsy door and I hear many hisses and snarls before dawn breaks.
The next night Fenris indicates I am to follow him to his room again. He's still standing, but one arm hangs limp at his side, dried blood caked over his shoulder. He doesn't ask, so I don't speak, leaving only to fetch warm water and a clean cloth.
Once the wounds are cleaned, and his arm bandaged, Fenris sits on the edge of the bed. I assume I've been dismissed, but before I can leave, Fenris murmurs, "Cydrian says you stole Lakish from him."
I'm surprised, staring at him, but he's looking at the floor. I don't know him, I've barely interacted with him before. His status as favourite has kept him apart from all of us. I’ve never known him to make an effort before. For a moment I hover between ignoring his comment, or replying. Fear makes me bold. "You know how it is, ser. Rumours and lies are all a slave has. It was but a fling, nothing more."
Fenris nods, the fingers on his injured hand flexing open and shut. It's strange to see him like this, shorn of his armour; I've never seen him so vulnerable.
"Dilris told us that you'd escaped. That you'd been living free," I say.
His eyes narrow as he glares at me and I wonder if I have been too bold. We're not friends, we've barely acknowledged each others existence before these last two nights. Fear scuttles down my spine, sharp, cold feet digging into my flesh.
Fenris snorts under his breath, closing his eyes as he turns away. "Slaves have nothing, own nothing. My freedom was... hn, as you put it, but a fling. Nothing more."
Over the next few nights, I tend to the results of many beatings – both physical and magical – while he tells me of the world outside these walls. I haven't left the house, never mind the grounds, for almost ten years, so much of it is hard for me to comprehend, never mind believe. Blood mages and possessed apostates arguing over the correct use of magic, chaste Starkhaven princes cavorting with lewd female pirates. And then this Hawke, Champion of Kirkwall, Fenris' master.
"Not my master. I was free," he corrects, trying to control his wince as I sew closed a wound that spreads across his bicep. Master Danarius – or whichever slave he chooses to inflict the wounds – is careful to avoid Fenris' face. I feel a twinge of the old jealousy, of how the master has always cared more for his little wolf than the rest of us.
"Free." I marvel, the illicit word tastes so sweet.
"Yes." He drops into silence for a few seconds, eyes far away. "Hawke was my friend. He encouraged my own, ah, friendship with the pirate. But when the abomination moved in to his home, twisting his mind…" He spits, his lip curling, and I know that is the end of tonight's conversation.
For the longest time, I was too scared to think, existing by not existing, but Fenris teaches me that my thoughts are my own. That whatever is happening to my body, as long as I protect myself in my mind, I am free.
It's beautiful, the house I make in my head to hide in. Thick strong walls protect us – my father, sister, Fenris and I, from anything that happens. In my mind, despite knowing it's not real, I feel safe. No magisters, no other slaves so desperate to keep their own skin that they're willing to sell you out of yours.
I don't have to visit every day. Danarius prefers to inflict his violence on the handsome males in the household, rather than a skinny elf that's all knees and elbows. But Danarius does so like to throw parties, and that's a time I have to visit the sanctuary in my head.
A slap interrupts my thoughts, hitting the back of my head so hard I fall to my knees.
"Why is this room not clean yet?" Danarius snaps, the slave at his side kicking me in the ribs until I fall flat. "I thought you were better trained than this."
In my head, I close the door to the world, locking him out so that I barely hear his insults, barely feel the kicks that he directs to hit my stomach and ribs. Despite my detachment, I scream and cower, making sure that he knows how powerful he is, how weak and useless I am. Minutes pass before he strides away, his breathing heavy, sweat sticking his silk robes to his back. He's barely moved, but the scent of my blood excites him.
"Fenris," Cydrian whispers as he follows behind him, his own face sweaty from beating me, his eyes all apology.
I nod to Cydrian, but the fire burning in my chest doesn't care why Danarius had me beaten, only that he felt he had the right. It's hard to bend to the task of finishing cleaning, but I must, so I do.
As I scrub the wood, I think about Fenris. I had thought that I might trust him, but he did lie to me. He didn't tell me the truth about owning your mind - not the whole truth, not the reason he snaps and spits like a caged beast, the reason he is beaten half to death daily.
Every time you visit your mind-house you live like a king. You eat off a table instead of the floor, whole meals instead of leftovers thrown at you. You luxuriate in the comfort of sleeping in a bed or bathing in hot water. Of simply being able to relax – even for a little while.
No. What Fenris didn't tell me was far crueller than anything Danarius has ever had done to me. Every time you leave your mind-house to come back to reality – you're captured by slavers again. From freedom to servitude again and again and again.
That spark of fear, that burning coal of anger inside, it glows brighter and brighter each day until it's all I can do to answer when called.
I don't know how he can live with this rage.
"My name is Leto. I wish you to call me that."
My hands still, the healing potion dripping in thick globs down his torn flesh. "As you wish," I reply, my tone non-committal. Standing behind him, I can't see his face, but I'm used to his silences now, the strange huffs and sighs and grunts he makes instead of speaking. He knows I still don't trust him; his silence shows me that he doesn't care.
"Did Hawke call you Leto?"
"No, for I did not know it myself. But... I think I would have told him. Hawke – Garrett – was a good friend, he used my slave name, Fenris. His abomination called me beast or wild animal."
"But how…?" My voice trails off and Fenris, no, Leto, twists in his seat, one eyebrow arched.
"He sold you." I blurt out, my anger bursting like a dam. "You say he was your friend, but he sold you back to Danarius - Dilris saw the note! Danarius sent Hawke five gold as payment. A mere five gold! He was laughing at how little the Ferelden thought of your worth to accept such an insult."
Leto freezes. He is usually shifting, twitching, moving, as if he can't stand to live inside his own skin, and yet now he is still, not even blinking. I pull my hands back, stepping away from him, waiting, but he doesn't move. The only sign of life is the fury burning in his eyes.
I back away, waiting for a response, but nothing comes. Leto does not acknowledge my leaving, still unmoving apart from the slow rise and fall of his chest.
Once more, I lie down on the cool floor wishing to sleep, but the blessed relief does not come. I pray to Mythal that Leto will forgive me. He has the opportunity to lash out at Danarius to vent his rage; I have no one to bare my heart to but him. I hope that he will understand, hope that he will forgive.
Hope. A feeling that is dashed when, as dawn breaks, I hear footsteps belonging to Danarius. He steps over some of the elves still sleeping, ignoring others like me who move out of his path, bowing in obeisance. Behind him, four of his household guard move in tight formation.
Danarius pauses at the doorway to Leto's room and sighs. "Come, my pet, I have been patient long enough. I miss my little wolf. I miss his affection."
There's a struggle. I can't see clearly as I daren't lift my gaze, but Leto hisses and spits like a cat. One of the guards screams out in pain as a hot coppery spray of blood splashes the walls. After that, Danarius drifts away, his remaining guards dragging Leto behind them.
I spend the day in a hurricane of emotions as hope, fear, anger and trepidation all batter against me, leaving me worthless to do anything other than stand in silence. Lakish must sense something is wrong, for she covers for me, cleaning and serving instead of being stuck in the kitchens. Dilris whispers to me that all Lakish wants is to steal my position - a better one than hers – but I ignore him.
I can't take my eyes off the study door, desperate, angry, wishing I could take back my words, knowing that I can't.
The dinner bell rings as the study door opens. Danarius floats past, not turning his head towards me. Leto pads behind, once more clothed in his armour, his sword strapped to his back.
"I had hoped to avoid the cost of this process, but it's so good to have you returned to me, my pet." Danarius pauses to cup Leto's cheek.
There's no hissing or spitting, no slouching or shifting of weight. Leto leans into the touch, a soft purr deep in his throat. His eyes are narrowed, but he looks blissful, not annoyed, content at the touch of his master.
I gulp - I can't help it. Just a soft noise, in the back of my throat. Danarius pays me no mind, but Leto twitches, gaze picking me out as his right hand reaches back for his sword. Green eyes lock onto me, but there's no recognition, no anger or friendship, nothing but suspicion of a skinny slave who is staring at the magister's favourite bodyguard. There's nothing familiar in that gaze. Leto, if I was ever friends with Leto, is gone.
And all he has left behind is a legacy of hate, burning within my soul.