Fenris carefully circled his opponent. His bare feet found easy purchase in the sand of the ring as the sun beat down on the platinum of his hair, the tanned skin of his bare chest and arms. Sweat glittered as brightly as his lyrium markings, and the human opposite him regarded the quicksilver designs more warily than he did the greatsword in the elven warrior's hands.
It was his first mistake.
Fenris moved in quickly. He brought his sword up from below in a two-handed swing that was faster than his opponent was ready for. The human blocked with his own greatsword but just barely. The shock of the impact jarred him. Fenris could see it, the man's pale eyes wide and nervous, his tongue darting across his lips. His hands gripped the hilt of his weapon with white-knuckled ferocity. Fenris grinned. As with the others, this would be too easy.
The youth had an unfortunate appearance with a horselike face and protruding jaw. This nose had been broken more than once and reset poorly. But he had the look of a field hand or a mason, all muscular breadth and the endurance of one who worked long hours in the sun. Why the Qunari insisted this boy be a warrior was unknown if he had some other skill. But there was a grumbling. The Arishok needed all able-bodied men capable of fighting passably to train with the antaam. Perhaps this boy really was a mason, forced to trade his tools for a clumsy sword. He certainly didn't wield it like a scythe.
Fenris opted for a new approach. Even as he maintained his attacks in the shokana, he shouted out bits of advice. He commanded the boy to straighten his stance, bend at the knees, keep his sword level, not swing like a girl. It barely helped, but the elf liked to think it made the drill last longer than it otherwise would have.
He had been pulled to assist in the training of all these men and boys, the Qunari apparently desperate to replenish lost numbers at Kont-Aar. It was enough to have Fenris never have to don the white robes and skip straight to the leather trousers and minimal armor of the Karasten. Desperation. That was something he'd never seen from the Qunari even while in the midst of their war with Tevinter. He'd seen plenty through the eyes of the Fog Warriors of Seheron, but it had never been anything like this.
When the morning drill was over, the flustered men put away their practice weapons and moved on to the next phase of their daily training. Fenris didn't know what it was and almost didn't care to. He knew that, in battle, these "soldiers" were little more than fodder against the darkspawn (or any enemy, for that matter). It did not sit well with him. He hung his own sword on the rack in the yard and strode across the sand to where his ben-hassrath mentor was seated upon a stone bench in the shade of a palm grove.
It had pleased him to see how the Qunari had built their city while leaving a good deal of greenery growing wild. It wasn't something foreigners would have expected of them with the perceptions of rigid structure and focus on the military war machine. But the Qunari understood things that even the cultures that fashioned themselves more advanced didn't, knew the importance of the smallest of things, appreciated the flora and the fauna of the whole world for the natural laws they obeyed. Ben-Hassrath had been keen to reiterate all this to him and more.
The venerable elven man looked up as Fenris approached, a smile gleaming through the fading markings tattooed in his skin.
"You appear to be fitting well into your role, Karasten," he said. His voice was deep and warm. He had been a warrior, himself, once, his shoulders still broad and arms retaining the tone of the muscle beneath. Many Dalish of Rivain find their way to the Qunari, he had said. Where preservation is key, the Golden Giants excel. The blood of the elvhen was the strongest here, their ancient traits more pronounced. The races did not intermingle as happens so frequently in the south. To those like Ben-Hassrath, it was a boon.
"It is the only role I know," Fenris replied, taking a seat beside his assigned mentor. "I remember nothing else."
Ben-Hassrath nodded, his brown eyes taking in the lines of the lyrium markings. "Perhaps that is best. Tevinter corruption runs deep, and there is no telling what they had tried to make of you."
"I was told I did this to myself in a way...to save my family." His face darkened. "I have no way of knowing the truth."
"Even the truth can lie to you. Be what you are, Karasten. There is nothing else."
Fenris said nothing, merely stared out across the disturbed sand of the practice yard. Human athlok were raking it all back to rights, smoothing away any proof that any had been there. All that would remain were the linear tracings of their tools, the rakes leaving their patterned marks behind. The elf looked down at his hands, the palms opened toward his face. Similar lines followed the bones in his hands and fingers, and he felt the tingle of power even as the lyrium remained dormant. The footprints of his past were gone, wiped away by what he had always seen as a curse. Every glimmer of quicksilver had reminded him of Denarius, of the torture and shame.
How would the Qunari utilize this ability of his? He couldn't help but wonder. Another reason why he'd been rushed through the usual process, he expected. He was no mage yet could do things to directly counter them. His distaste for them was palpable—one of the first things revealed during his questioning under qamek. They had debated making him Arvaraad, but he would have to prove his worth as a warrior, first.
The athlok finished their task. There was no other sound beyond the wind in the palm fronds above. The two elven men sat together in silence. It was a calm silence that said anything that needed to be voiced all on its own. And it was loud. Fenris smiled, still gazing at his hands.
There were no chains that could reach him here. Not anymore.
Isabela squinted down at the project in her hands. She was pinching folds of cotton cloth in her fingers while attempting to stitch a straight line with the tiniest needle she'd ever seen. She found herself feeling horrid for making Marian ever have to mend sails. This was ridiculous.
But what she found the most ridiculous about it all was that this was supposed to be all part and parcel of her training. Somewhere, through the fog of the qamek and prying questions, she'd landed a place amongst viddathari learning the ways of something called vashkata. The deadly shadow. It sounded more than a little intriguing, and it had been stressed to her at length that most in that role wound up aiding the ben-hassrath. She was shocked at the number of other women that accompanied her to the tedious lessons, all of them being trained with needles and thread and strange musical instruments and not a word of ever having daggers or poisons or anything fun.
As they worked, hunched over in their white tunics and black and blue sashes, the Qun was recited to them on a never-ending cycle. Not the whole thing. Maker, that would have been torture. It was just the relevant parts for their particular purpose, proverbs, anecdotes steeped in metaphor. There were certain things they were expected to repeat back, always in chorus, and Isabela had found it quite easy to memorize what she needed to to get by. She still didn't know what Marian found so heavenly about all this. Perhaps it was the structure where her life had been nothing but tragic chaos. As it stood right then, Isabela felt trapped, penned in, part of some sewing circle better suited for old women gossiping about the latest goings-on.
Not a pirate queen of the Waking Sea.
She wanted her daggers back, and she wanted to find Marian.
Still, to even have a chance of seeing her dearest friend again, she needed to be compliant. She needed to play the part. She had already seen what rebellion and disobedience earned new converts. One young man had been taken away to the viddathlok and had yet to come out. That was a week ago. He'd been a human from Nevarra, mercenary in the Tevinter army. He'd liked his previous life plenty well. Maybe it was just worse for prisoners of war. She remembered the penned mages when they'd first arrived and barely suppessed a shudder. Her stitches were crooked enough as it was. She didn't need her misgivings making it worse.
The qunra instructing them was suddenly at her shoulder, kneeling and peering at the sewing clutched in Isabela's unschooled hands. That wasn't really true. She knew how to sew just fine. That didn't mean she liked it.
"How can you guide something as unwieldy as a knife if you can't even manage a needle?" the human Qunari asked, her tone shockingly sympathetic. She wasn't patronizing, wasn't unkind or even stern. It was like she completely understood. Or wanted to sound like she understood. "You must control your fingers as well as your hands. Truth be it, you never know what you might have to use as a weapon to defend the Qun."
"You know," Isabela pushed to keep her tone calm and even conversational, "I hear words can cut as deep as any knife. Needles seem a pittance in comparison."
She might have meant to be scathing. But Qunra...smiled. Her lips broadening across her small, oval face, blue eyes twinkling. "We are the shadow of the Qun," she said, still looking at Isabela but addressing her words to everyone. "Everything we have is a tool: our minds, our hands, any blade that is handy, even the tiniest needle or single word of our voices. We walk where others do not see. We feel what others cannot touch. We solve the problems the army cannot. We cleanse foreign corruption from the inside out." She stood. "Finish your work, viddathari. There is much still to learn."
Varric had never realized that the Qunari language—Qunlat, as it was apparently actually called—was so tonal. Vowels meant everything, the sound, how long you held that sound, the importance of inflection. He sat with a group of other newly assigned ashkaari as they were taught the alphabet, dipthongs, and other phonetic nuances. He had two notebooks before him. One had been assigned him by the tamassran instructor and the other was his field journal where he noted other observations about the Qunari around him and those he met on a daily basis, now. He still didn't totally understand half of what came out of their mouths, be it his unfamiliarity with the language, yet, or the simple fact that he couldn't wrap his brain around their logic...but he was getting there.
Seeing them in their own element, though, he had to grant was a fascinating opportunity. They were less up-tight, more free with the information they gave or with conversation in general. They were pleasant. They cracked jokes, even. He didn't get them, but he lacked the context. All he knew was that kossith laughter was hearty and full and startling.
They were people, too.
On the sly, he'd jot down ideas for Caught in Qunandar, his new serial about an Antivan merchant that found himself on the wrong side of the Tevinter-Qunari war and wound up arrested, sent to an internment camp on Par Vollen, and was constantly plotting ways to escape. His methods would constantly backfire, and instead, he would wind up ascending the ranks, his only means of true escape coming when he...
Varric ran a hand over his face, smudging his chin with the charcoal from his stylus. ...When he discovered his true calling as a spy and informant for the Arigena—by Andraste's teeth, this place was starting to crawl into his brain and make itself at home.
He really hoped that Hawke knew what she was doing.
He was getting too old for this shit.