“So… tell me, my dear friend, you’ve been with us, how long, exactly? Ten months? And we made the bet, I think, after two or three weeks? Don’t you agree that is more than enough time to seduce one sweet, naïve boy? Especially for someone as skilled as you, no?”
“Oh, my dear Leliana, I admit that our little Warden proved to be bigger challenge than I’d expect, but I do not give up just yet. I’m an eternal optimist. And I assure you that soon enough, he will invite me to his tent, and when I’m done with him, he’ll never want to…”
Something in her smile made him stop abruptly. Expecting the worst, he slowly turned around. Sure enough, Airam was standing there, with arms full of fire wood. Staring at him… with tears in eyes? Oh, Zevran, you’re such an idiot.
“Air, I’m –”
But the boy flinched as if he hit him and dropped the logs. And run away into the forest. He heard Leliana’s laugh and felt sudden desire to slit her throat. But first, he must find Airam… and hope that the boy will forgive him.
It took him almost an hour to find the boy, quietly sitting under the old willow tree near the stream, hugging his knees and staring somewhere on the horizon. Face wet with tears. He cursed himself again and approached him, deliberately making noise so as not to scare him.
“So how much I’m worth, Zev? Is it at least forty silvers? That’s the price at the Pearl, no?”
“Air, I’m so, so sorry – ”
“I trusted you. I thought that you’d understand… that you’re… safe.”
It was as if somebody stabbed him right into the heart. He gulped, unsure what to say. How to fix it. Carefully, he made a step forward. “Air, please, let me explain, I didn’t – ”
“Explain?” the boy hissed and got up. Then he started to unlace his robe, determinedly staring in Zevran’s eyes. “I think you made your point quite clear. So, this is what you want?”
“Air, no! Please, I… was just joking…”
“To take me? Bend me over and fuck my ass?” The robe fell on the ground, and the boy stepped out of it, only in his smallclothes. He pulled them off, too, and for a moment, just stood there, naked and trembling. Then he turned around and bent over. “Well, what are you waiting for? Come and have your way with me.”
“No! Air, please... kill me, if you wish, but don’t do this…”
“This isn’t to your liking? What would you like, then, Zev? Oh, I know, I should suck you first, right? Or do you want to tie me up? Make me scream and cry for you? Share me? What would it be, Zev? How do you like it?” The boy’s voice was almost hysterical.
He felt tears pricking in his eyes, when he slowly got to the robe and picked it. Not looking at boy’s face, and ignoring the smalls – he wouldn’t’t touch them for all gold in the world – he started to dress him up. At the first touch Zevran’s hand, the boy stiffened, and just stood there, silently, lifelessly, staring over Zevran’s shoulder.
“Airam. I didn’t mean it. I said it because I’m a goddamn fool, as a joke, I didn’t think… I had no idea… I swear it is not like that…”
“Leave me alone, Zevran. You can even say Leliana you won, if you wish.”
He wanted to say something, but for once, his words failed him. Forcing his body to move, he turned away.
In the camp, he ignored Leliana, only muttering that Airam is fine and that he wanted to be alone for a while. Then he went into his tent, and for the first time in twenty years, cried.
For the next three days, Airam didn’t say one word to him. Or even looked at him. The others noticed, of course, but he ignored their glances and inquiries. Leliana didn’t say a word about what happened, either.
He wasn’t sure if he ever felt so miserably. Assassins are not supposed to have friends; now he found out why. Just one year ago, something like this could not happen. He became too soft for a Crow. But he didn’t care; it did not matter, not any more. He was different now. And although it still scared him sometimes, all those changes that happened so suddenly, he much preferred this life to life as a Crow.
Sometimes, when he looked at Shale, he had to think how they were not so different. Both turned to cold, uncaring creatures meant only to serve their masters… Both rescued by the same boy, who taught them to make choices, to feel, to care. Who called them friends.
And that was the only thing that mattered – that he had a friend. That someone actually considered him, the whoreson and assassin, worthy of being a friend.
For the first time in his life, there was someone who trusted him, who protected him, fought by his side, without ever asking anything for it. Someone who didn’t think of him as of whore, who did not expect these “services” from him. When he once offered Airam “the Antivan massage”, the boy got so mad that he slapped him. Don’t you dare to do that, ever again! To… offer yourself like that! You are not slave any more! Andraste’s tits, why can’t you get used to it already? You’re my friend and I won’t stand it, I won’t let anyone to put you down like that, and that includes you, as well!
And now he screwed it up and lost it all. Because of something that became joke long ago. Why didn’t he say Leliana that she won? That he doesn’t care about the stupid bet any more? But he knew why; it was because of his stupid pride. To admit defeat, in anything, was always out of question. And it wasn’t the first time it got him into the trouble.
Three days now, he wanted to go to the boy and apologize, and explain it, but he didn’t dare. And now Air came and asked him to go “collecting herbs” with him tomorrow early morning. Nobody was fooled by the pretence, of course, least of all he, but nobody asked or complained. Even Alistair kept his mouth shut, for once; he suspected Leliana explained the fool that it’s better not to mess up with him right now. As much as he was glad that these days of living nightmare will be over, he was dreading of tomorrow’s morning.
Because the boy will certainly say something like “Leave and don’t return.” And he would be right to do it. But… He wasn’t sure if he would survive that. Not because of Crows. Because he couldn’t imagine how he would live without friend anymore.
The sun was still not up when they left next morning; some of the herbs must be collected before the morning dew evaporates, Wynne said. He wondered how they are supposed to find them when he could hardly see the path in the forest, but he didn’t say anything. It wasn't important anyway.
As they walked, the tension between them increased. It seemed Airam was waiting for something… well, it was not so difficult to guess on what. But he couldn’t, he didn’t dare, and it was clear that the boy was getting more and more anxious every moment that passed in silence. In the end, the boy couldn’t stand it any more and turned to him.
“So – ”
But he didn’t finished. Instead he looked to the right and draw out his daggers. Moment later, darkspawn appeared. There were eight of them, but only genlocks. Annoying weaklings. Couldn’t choose worse moment to pop up. Well, at least they could serve as training dummies for Air. Few months ago, he decided to specialize in the magic of arcane warriors, and Zevran was giving him lessons in fighting with two daggers ever since. One hour every evening, without exception. Until these three days, that is.
The boy pulled out his dagger from the heart of the last genlock and turned to him. And for a split second, he was sure he was the next one. They stared at each other, and then the crazy kid whispered the most unexpected, unreasonable and impossible thing he could.
“Sorry I yelled at you and… all that. I know you didn’t mean it – ”
“It’s just… the bet… I mean, he did it, too… and I, I thought…” The boy blinked and turned away, embarrassed.
He threw away his weapons and took Airs hands in his own. “Crazy kid, don’t apologize, when it was I who hurt you. I am so sorry… I shouldn’t have made the stupid bet… or tell Leliana I don’t care any more, I should have told her long ago…”
“You mean… you… really meant it, before?”
The boy tried to pull his hands from him, but he didn’t let him. He must explain it, somehow. “I will not lie to you. Yes, when we made the bet with Leliana, I really meant it. But that was when I was still a Crow, you know. But it is different now. I’m different.”
“What Crows have to do with it?”
“Everything. Please, let me explain.” He looked with disgust to the corpses at their feet. “But not here. Let’s go bit further where we can sit and talk, yes?”
The boy thought about it for a moment, and nodded. Reluctantly, he let released the boy’s hands and picked his weapons. Silently, they walked for a few minutes, till they came to the small clearing, with a steep slope at the further end. There they sat down.
He sighed. This was going to be difficult. “Well… where should I start… Er, well, for most people, sex is something… sex is connected to emotions, yes? To what they feel towards the other person. Normally people have sex when they feel love, or at least some affection and trust to the other one, yes? But Crows… it’s different. The first thing that Crow children learn is that there is no love, or trust, or friendship.”
“But Crows work in teams, too, no? How can they work together if they don’t trust each other?”
“Ah, but that’s something entirely different. Let me explain it on example. We are team, yes? Our little party, I mean. If, let’s say, Alistair was wounded, you would help him, because you wouldn’t want your friend to die. If we were a team of Crows, you would help him, because you wouldn’t want to bear consequences for failing the mission. So it is no friendship, or loyalty, but everyone thinking of their best interests that keeps the teams working.”
“That’s terrible… but I don’t understand how it is related to… what we discussed before.”
“It is the same. Also in sex, there are no feelings. Only pragmatic consideration of one’s interests. Precisely because sex is emotional for normal people, it makes it perfect tool of manipulation for Crows. Not only to get to the mark; murder is not the only way to destroy someone, after all. Young Crows are carefully and thoroughly trained to use it. The training starts when they are around twelve or thirteen, and if, by some chance, they still had some emotions left at that time, after this training, there are definitely none.”
“Raped? No. Forced? Yes.”
“That’s the same thing.”
“Perhaps. But the people that train them are most skilled in this. They now how and where to touch, how to please, how to make their bodies respond in the way the want – ”
“Oh. I see. And then they tell them the ‘body-never-lies’ crap.”
He never heard such hate in Air’s voice. He looked at the boy and something cold squeezed his heart. Whoever it was I will hunt him down and make him beg for death.
“Yes. They are touched by people they don’t like, that disgust them, or people fear and hate and they are told that their body likes it, that they want it, that they are nothing more than whores... There are many that cannot stand it. The constant feeling of being dirty. Shame. And guilt…”
“But those who survive… by fifteen, they are able to seduce pretty much anyone. And they are proud about it. They are beautiful, cold and proud, walking deadly weapons. By eighteen, if they are any good, they have already killed one hundred, and seduced at least twice as many. And if they are really good, and survive till twenty five, they have pretty good chance to become Masters themselves. By that time they will be long behind counting; cruel and merciless just like those Masters I… they hated so much. They would get their own apprentices to… train.”
Air looked at him, then quickly averted his gaze, biting his lip; it was clear he wanted to know, but did not want to ask.
“I was not a Master… yet. I needed one more successful mission.”
The boy winced. “You…”
He shook his head. “I made my choice that first night, remember? You know, you’ve never told me how you knew… But you saved me, in more ways than one. I owe you so much.”
Air quirked his eyebrow and snorted. “Oh? And that’s why you decided to use that weapon against me?”
“No! I… was just… I did not want to hurt you, but… I did not trust you, either. I was sure you will want something from me.”
“Well that was exactly what I could not understand. Do you understand me at all, Air? Everything I learnt about life, everything I thought I left behind me so long ago… I knew I will never be able to hurt you, but I was still who I was. Things like friendship, or trust… even now, it is still new for me; I’m afraid I will never be very good at it. And back then, the very idea of trust or friendship was… totally absurd. I was sure you must have some darker motives and that once you get what you wanted, you’d dispose of me. So I decided to… secure my survival… by becoming your lover. That was something I understood, something I was good at. I thought, it would be something would be enjoyable and… profitable, for both of us. It was at that time that I made the stupid bet.”
“Zevran, I’m so sorry. I didn’t realize it all… Some friend I am.”
“Don’t say that. You, you are the best friend anyone could wish. Trying to assassinate you was the best mistake I ever made.”
“But you know, Zev, it wasn’t that difficult to resist you…” The boy chuckled softly and he felt as if a huge stone dropped off his heart. “You’re not as great as you pretend to be, are you?”
“Tch. If I really wanted to seduce you, I would have been easy, trust me.”
“But you just said you did want it.”
“I said I decided to do so. But, even then I… couldn’t. I think I respected you too much.”
“No, you don’t understand. Even if you tried… I am too damaged. I – I don’t think I’ll ever –” the boy gulped and turned away.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to… You don’t have to talk about it, if you don’t want to,” he whispered.
“No… I… I don’t want to bother-”
“To bother me?” He grabbed the boy by shoulders and turned him to look in his eyes. “When I told you about me, about Rinna, was I bothering you? It helps when you can tell it to someone you trust, it hurts less. You taught me that. You taught me that this is what friends are for. I know I’m not the most trustworthy person, but – ”
“No, I… I’m sorry, I do trust you. It’s just – it still hurts, I can’t forget, I dream about it every night, I see them in every templar I meet, and – ”
There was that cold hate in Air’s voice again, and when he looked in his eyes, he saw they were once again black like death. He gently pulled the boy bit closer and put his hand around his shoulder. The boy remained silent and for a moment he thought that he will not tell it after all. But then he continued.
“My parents were apostates. We were living, my parents, me, and my little sister, deep in a forest. Not with Dalish; only four of us. Everything was perfect and I couldn’t even imagine that something could change. Till that day. Till my eight birthday. I remember I asked my father to show me something, some spell, because I thought I was already big enough and when he refused, I ran away to the forest. And there they found me. I knew I was not supposed to let them see me, let alone speak to them, but I was angry and I… did it in spite. I was such a damned idiot.”
“You were just a little kid, Air. Whatever happened, it wasn’t your fault.”
“I wasn’t that little, I was eight, I should have known better! They are dead, Zevran, they are all dead and it is my fault! I let templars catch me, I led them directly to our hut! It was because they had me that my parents didn’t fight back! They were raped, and tortured, and slaughtered, all because of me!”
He pulled the sobbing boy into his arms, trying to find words that could console him, but what could be said to that? Even among Crows, few were willing to accept contracts that required torture of marks, and even fewer would do it in front of the innocent child. So he just held him, whispering that it was not his fault, but Air did not seem to hear, just kept talking, almost feverishly. As if trying to get it out of himself as soon as possible.
“They… made me watch it. They said if I don’t watch, they would do it to Mellit, too. She was only four years old! She was there and saw it and cried and I couldn’t help her, I was her big brother and I couldn’t do anything, anything at all. And their leader, he just laughed and laughed and all the time reminded me that it was my fault, that I should remember it forever, that I should never forget what happens to elven sluts that forget their place. But in the end, they killed her, too. I did everything they wanted, but I didn’t save her.”
Now, these guys, they would deserve the torture. Death is too quick and simple punishment for them. He will make them suffer, in pain, for years and years. I will find some poison that will make flesh slowly rot on their bodies.
“Why they didn’t kill me as well, I have no idea. They took me to the Tower and during the trip there, every night, for weeks, they… they... I don’t remember coming to the tower. All I remember is that I suddenly woke up from the nightmare, shrieking, and there was a strange boy near me, looking totally terrified, but still trying to calm me. That was how I first met Jowan, and if it wasn’t for him, I don’t think I’d be here today. I’d probably throw myself out of the window.”
Suddenly the boy laughed, but it was the most terrible laugh he ever heard. “And do you know what happened to those templars, Zev? Few years later, I overheard Greagoir talking to another templar about it. Apparently, my parents were rather infamous, escaping templars for years, so for finally removing this threat, our dear Knight Commander recommended their promotion.”
He narrowed his eyes. The Knight Commander just got at the top of his ‘to-do’ list. But there was one more mark he wanted to add there. “And… you said someone also… made a bet?”
“Yes, that… I never had many friends in the Tower. I was an elf, I looked like a freak and I screamed every night. They bullied me and laughed at me, but they did not try to hurt me. Now I think they were afraid of me. Then, three – no, four year ago, yes, I was fifteen, he appeared. Taranis was everything I wasn’t. Handsome, popular, funny. He was always nice to me, and protected me from others, and gave me a lot of small presents, said he was in love with me. Then, one day, he… forced me. I begged him to stop, but he didn’t listen, just went on with that ‘you-know-you-want-it’ shit. And I… didn’t stop him, because I didn’t want… didn’t want to loose him. But I didn’t enjoy it, Zev, I didn’t enjoy it for one second. It made me sick. And it hurt like hell. Even so… I let him do it few more times. Because… I trusted him, I thought he really loved me. Andraste’s ass, how stupid I was. Then I heard him brag about it to some friend. Laughing how he won a bet. How he had ‘tamed me completely’. ”
“Oh gods. And then I… I’m so sorry. ”
“Don’t be. You’re nothing like him. You’re far better person he could ever dream to be. And I had my revenge on him, anyway.” He gave that terrible laugh again.
“I can be cruel if I want to, didn’t I tell you? Oh, yes. Next time he even brought his friends with him. There were three of them. Said that he loved me and wanted to share my beauty with others, to make them adore me as well, something like that. But I was ready. I played along until they were naked and hard, then I paralyzed them. And then I casted three spells: one, that would cause them nightmares, second, that froze them, and third, to keep them alive. Then I started to scream and when people came running, they found me hurt, shocked and unable to speak, near four ice statues in very peculiar positions. It took them three days to dispel it. Oh, Greagoir was furious. He wanted me to be tranquilized, but Irving saved me, said I did it unintentionally, in shock.”
“They didn’t witness against you?”
“Would you? After being an ice statue with nightmares for three days?”
“On the second thought… no, I guess not. But… you would not use something like that on me, would you?”
“Well, that’s an idea isn’t it. You know, I think I actually could, if I ever hear of that bet again.”
They remained sitting there, in silence, for some time, he with his arm around wrapped around Air and the boy resting head on his shoulder. And it was enough.
They returned to the camp without single herb picked, as Wynne pointed out, throwing suspicious glances at him. Air just pointed at his blooded daggers.
“Sorry, Gran. We really wanted to, but we were attacked by some darkspawns.”
“Of course. I should have noticed it, please forgive me. But you were not injured, were you?”
“We were, actually, both of us.” Their eyes met and the boy smiled a little. “Took quite some time to clean up the wounds, didn’t it, Zev? But it’s all right now.”
“Yes. It’s all right now.”
“Oh, and Leliana? I think Zev would like to say you something. Right, Zev?”
He watched the boy chatting and joking with the others and smiled. Crazy kid. Tamed me completely, indeed.
And I wouldn’t have it any other way.