Feastday of 9:36 Dragon passes without being marked, as it has every year before. There are parties behind closed doors, but they aren’t doors that Athenril picks the locks to. Instead, she sets in order her affairs for the coming winter, and she doesn’t wonder at a holiday she has never had the opportunity to celebrate, save in picking pockets at outdoor gatherings and in selling trinkets in the days before.
First Day, too, comes and is an hour shy of ending without so much as howling winds outside the townhouse’s door. Athenril sits by the fire and mends armor, and tries not to think about the one year she entertained guests for half an hour. There is nobody to bring her home-made stew tonight, and nobody that she wants it from. The Champion is tucked away in a mansion in Hightown, and Bethany (she reminds herself with a firm hand) is gone.
She expects nothing and gains nothing, and she is content.
And then Hilgrud clears her throat.
She lives there now. There are more than enough rooms for both of them, and Athenril trusts nobody more than she trusts the gangly girl, now noticeably taller than she is. There have been sidelong looks from the neighbors at a Fereldan girl and an elf living together in what looks like a house that’s far too nice for either of them, but the guard never come around. It’d idyllic. It’s peaceful.
Hilgrud is sitting on a low sofa, legs crossed under her. Her hair is beginning to grow out again, wisping around her ears. “Athenril?”
“Yes?” Athenril sets down her armor in her lap, then leans back on her good hand.
The girl unfolds herself and goes to the small satchel at the end of the couch. It’s only when the latch gives and she straightens out, a fabric-wrapped parcel in her hands, that she says, “I have something for you. For First Day.”
Athenril isn’t sure if she stares or frowns. The last time she was given a gift- does the meal from the Hawke siblings count for that? She holds out a hand, and Hilgrud passes her the object.
The fabric that it’s wrapped in is from Nevarra, iridescent and soft. Borrowed from one of the crates she lifted a month earlier. Inside is something long, narrow, and a tug at the corner of the fabric reveals a sheathed knife.
She pulls it free and tries not to inhale sharply as the light of the fire catches it.
“Name a gift. I’ll get it for you,” Athenril says, turning over the blade. It is finely made, elegant, and expensive. Knicked from a Hightowner who didn’t know to guard it better? Lifted from a shipment before Athenril saw it? She doesn’t recognize it, but it fits perfectly into her hand, wedges well between palm and splinted fingers.
Hilgrud says nothing, and Athenril glances up to find her looking at the floor, brow drawn and lips pursed. It’s not a familiar expression on the girl. Hilgrud has always been quiet, nearly silent, a shadow and an extension of herself, but she has rarely looked so troubled.
“Say it,” Athenril presses, and her voice holds a snap she didn’t fully intend.
But Hilgrud takes it in stride. If anything, it seems to revive her. She lifts her head. Her throat bobs and her tongue peeks out to wet her lips.
“A tattoo,” she says.
It’s not what Athenril was expecting, and at first she doesn’t know what she’s heard.Tattoo is a word that holds no meaning for the span of a hundred heartbeats. Tattoois not gold, is not safety, is not a gift she has ever thought of giving or of being asked for. Tattoo.
“A tattoo. Like- yours.” The girl- woman- gestures to Athenril’s arms, where beneath winter wool are curling bands of blue. There are more, marking silent paths around her body, but Hilgrud only looks to what she’s seen. “… Is that okay?”
Athenril considers a moment, then nods before she’s reached any firm conclusion.
“Yes,” she says, and decides not to question it.
She takes Hilgrud to a side street in Lowtown, one they rarely frequent on any jobs. She has an agreement with the artist who lives in the comparatively well-kept home: no leading anybody with murderous intent down his alley unless absolutely necessary to save her hide, and a little coin, and he’s willing to add to the designs she bears on her skin whenever she has the time and inclination. She hasn’t, recently, except for a small line added in the wake of Antiva to remember it by.
He still greets her as warmly as anybody (which is to say, with a nod and a step back so she can enter, and a curious glance as to why she’d come in the middle of the day), going to fetch his tools once the door closes. The house is small, much like Gamlen’s: a main room and two smaller ones, one of which serves as his bedroom, the other as his work room. She leads Hilgrud back.
“What will it be?” the artist asks from where he is crouched in the corner. “It’s for the girl this time?”
“Yeah. She wants a band around her right arm. Blue. Like mine.”
He nods and rises, bringing over a tray of his tools. “Got it.” His lips quirk and draw back over rotted teeth. “Thought you told me never to do another one like it, though.”
He wasn’t the one who started marking her, but he has done the majority of the work over the last decade. She snorts a laugh. “I did, didn’t I. I’m telling you differently now. For her, a blue band, just like mine.”
The man nods, and Athenril sits, tapping the pallet in invitation.
“What will you have it mean?” she asks as Hilgrud settles and the artist mixes his pigments. His needles are ready, his tapper is by his side.
“What do yours mean?”
Athenril looks down at her, stretched out on her back with her long lanky arm laid out to her side. She could lie. She could keep that to herself. But it’s a necessary lesson, and unlike her name on an old associate’s child, it’s something she wants to pass on.
But it is not a kind lesson.
She softens the blow.
“One of the only things you have- really have- is you. Your home is in your body. Your belongings are your body. The only way to take that from you is to kill you- and the way to protect them is to fight or to run.”
The only thing you have is you.
Her fingers trace over her own tattoos. She has lived a life of city nomadism, even when she has had enough gold or enough pull to settle down. Too long in one place and she always becomes edgy, fearing her own complacency. The townhouse is her one exception - but she doesn’t plan to stay there forever, not even with the city guard helping to keep it safe.
It’s not safe. Nowhere is ever safe. It’s always better to move than to spread out or put down roots, even if moving is just a few streets over every six months. People need to search to find her. She likes it that way.
She looks down at Hilgrud, the only one who never needs to search, and her lips twitch into a thin smile. One of the only things.
Hilgrud nods. Athenril looks to the tattooer. “Get to work then.”