One of the strategic disadvantages of Skyhold, as far as Dorian was concerned, was its inaccessibility. There was very little chance of surprise when you needed to ride for two weeks to get somewhere, too many ears on the route. Supply lines could be tricky to maintain, and life could become very tenuous very quickly.
On the other hand, one of the strategic advantages of Skyhold was its inaccessibility. No one bothered to come unless they really wanted to be there, and just as people could see you coming, so could you see them. The group that had arrived that morning had been particularly hard to miss; one did not take lightly the approach of a group of qunari, even if they'd stopped willingly well outside of Skyhold's walls.
Dorian saw absolutely no reason not to lurk quietly as their leader entered, flanked by a delegation of four, which seemed to Dorian to be the limit of acceptable unknown qunari at any given time. Her meeting with the Inquisitor happened behind closed doors, and Dorian couldn't find a good excuse to be there; the presence of Tevinter ex-nobility was among the least desired for such a meeting. Afterwards, however, Dorian followed their progress as they were led to Bull's favored courtyard.
Surely anything that happened out-of-doors was free knowledge. Dorian was mostly lurking because it made things more entertaining.
He stayed out of sight as the qunari approached Bull, who immediately handed his shield off to Krem without even looking at him; Krem made an oof of surprise at being smacked in the chest with no warning, but he took both the shield and the hint, giving the qunari a threatening look as he left.
"The Iron Bull," the lead qunari said, bowing to Bull. "Thank you for seeing me."
"What's this about?" Bull asked gruffly.
"I am Genevieve," she said. "We are Tal-Vashoth, numbering twenty-five. Some of us are Saarebas, some of us were Ben-Hassrath-"
"But you were a Tamassran," Bull said.
Genevieve nodded. "All of us fled the Qun," she told him. It struck Dorian that she was elegant, by qunari standards, but her speech was formal, stiff, slightly awkward. "We have hidden up until now, but it has only been possible because we had a spy. He has been killed. It is only a matter of time before we're discovered. We hope for sanctuary and seek to aid the Inquisition."
Bull crossed his arms. "The Inquisitor is the one who decides that, not me."
"She sent us to ask for your blessing," Genevieve told him. "A qunari for the qunari."
Bull looked her over for a long moment; Dorian was impressed when she didn't flinch. "You can stay," Bull told her. "You'll remain separate from everyone else while I check you out."
"We would not offend you by suggesting otherwise," Genevieve said. "I am certain that-"
She stopped short, turning her head to where Dorian was eavesdropping; Dorian wasn't sure who she'd been looking for, but she looked extremely confused when she saw him instead.
"It's only me," Dorian said uneasily, walking over to stand beside Bull; now all the qunari were looking at him, in varying degrees of confusion. "Dorian Pavus." He bowed, a little more ostentatiously than usual; if they were going to hate him, better to get it over with now. "Formerly of Minrathous."
She looked startled, but she inclined her head politely. Dorian didn't miss the look she and Bull traded, but Bull didn't say anything.
"Yes," Genevieve said, taking a breath. "Anyway. I'm certain we will prove trustworthy. If not, we will leave."
"We'll get you all fed now and worry about the rest later," Bull told her. He held out an arm, indicating the path to the kitchens. "This way."
"What was that about?" Dorian asked Bull quietly, as the qunari filtered out of the courtyard.
"Don't worry about it," Bull said; he looked amused, and Dorian wasn't sure he liked it. "Mind telling the Inquisitor for me?"
"Fine," Dorian said, sighing as if it were a great effort, just for the way it made Bull crack up. "I spoil you."
Bull kissed the top of his head. "See you later."
Dorian watched him go, frowning. Finally he shook his head and left; it was a deeply odd experience all around, but he did have an Inquisitor to see, after all.
Dorian had no doubt in his mind that whatever tests Bull needed to put the qunari through were extensive; apparently they passed, because soon after they arrived, the qunari were allowed to enter Skyhold proper and take up residence. Dorian doubted their actual utility to the Inquisition, because they still seemed to be set on being their own enclave. There was a sharp divide; a few of them were fluent in Common and conversed freely with others, but the rest of them were quiet, speaking to each other only in Qunlat and only when no outsiders were around.
The reason Dorian knew they didn't speak around outsiders is that he and Krem were apparently the only people who didn't fall into that category.
It seemed ridiculous, the Vints being the only ones they would speak to. Dorian supposed that Krem made sense, being Bull's lieutenant, but why they would tolerate his own presence, he truly had no idea. They had no real chance of Dorian spying on them, because Dorian knew about four phrases in Qunlat, none of them fit for polite company; then again, that put his Qunlat comprehension far beyond most of Skyhold.
Bull had taken to spending a little time with them, though Dorian suspected he was still a bit wary of getting too close. It was to that end that Dorian went to their common room on what turned out to be a fateful day; Bull was missing from his usual haunts, and it seemed like an appropriate place to continue the search.
The qunari looked up when he entered, a momentary hush falling. Conversation picked back up again quickly once they saw him, with an "Oh, it's just you" quality that Dorian wasn't sure he liked.
"The Dorian," a qunari sitting at the end of a table said, waving him over.
"Hello," Dorian said, feeling a little suspicious and a lot confused.
"You sit," the qunari said, indicating a seat across from him. "You talk."
"You want bread?" another qunari rumbled, holding out a loaf.
"Oh," Dorian said, tearing off a piece as he sat down. He wasn't actually hungry, but it seemed both rude and possibly a little dangerous not to accept. "Thank you."
"Mark," the first qunari said, touching his hand to his chest. He pointed at the other qunari at the table. "Tomas. Hasmal. Broom."
"Your name is Broom?" Dorian said skeptically.
The qunari gave him a disapproving look. "Why not Broom?"
"Well taken," Dorian replied.
"Question," Mark said, and Dorian realized they were all looking at him hopefully.
"What is it?" Dorian asked.
"We talk not good," Mark said; it looked like it was hard for him to get the words out, but Dorian wondered if it was just because he was embarrassed at his lack of finesse. "Common, hard for we. You help?"
"We learn good," Broom told him.
"We hear good," Hasmal added.
"Smart," Mark said, nodding. "But we talk not good."
Dorian reminded himself that they weren't stupid; the Qunari were dangerous because they were brilliant, not because they were strong, and it was entirely possible they were playing him right now. Still, if they were willing to admit a weakness this big, it would be incredibly counterproductive to turn them away, not to mention cruel.
Also qunari were very large, and even waking up next to one every morning didn't make them less intimidating.
"I'm sure I can find a way to help," Dorian said.
"Thank you," Mark said, looking delighted; Broom slapped Dorian on the back so hard that he rocked forward. "Thank you, The Dorian."
"It's just Dorian," he said.
Mark nodded. "Thank you, Just Dorian." He shouted something in Qunlat, and the answering cheer made Dorian realize very suddenly that he'd just agreed to teach all of them.
Then they started passing drinks around, and it didn't take long before Dorian felt very magnanimous about the whole thing.
It seemed like Dorian had been home hardly any time before there was a sharp light in his eyes, piercing into his head.
"For the love of the Maker, put that light out," Dorian moaned. "I'm trying to sleep."
"I can't," Bull said, and Dorian opened one eye, staring at him suspiciously. "That's the sun. It's morning."
"Where were you last night?" Dorian said hoarsely.
"Quick trip out with the Inquisitor," Bull replied. "I can't believe you got shitfaced with a bunch of qunari and didn't invite me."
Dorian groaned, pulling the blanket up over his head. "Shut the curtains and bring me some water."
And so it was that, in addition to his normal duties of performing research for the Inquisition, fighting things that needed fighting, and generally being the most dashing man at Skyhold, Dorian found himself with the title of Qunari Language Instructor.
They actually did give him a title in Qunlat, but it seemed a bit inappropriate, given that he was teaching them Common.
It went more smoothly than Dorian expected. His charges were smart, and once he'd gotten them to forget most of what they'd been taught previously, they learned easily. As it turned out, it was more help to the Inquisition than Dorian anticipated, because once the qunari were confident in speaking, they began to interact with the larger population more readily. If anyone asked, Dorian would just say that that had been his intention in starting this whole ridiculous thing in the first place.
His father would absolutely shit himself if he knew about any of this. That thought greatly brightened Dorian's attitude.
As much as he'd actually come to enjoy it somewhat, today hadn't been the best of days. He was just starting with some of the children. On the bright side, they learned more quickly than the adults, but that didn't change the fact that they were young and thus sometimes unruly. If he'd been that way when he was a child, he'd have gotten a good thump on the ear, but that didn't exactly seem like the wisest course of action. Even if their parents approved of it, some of the children already came up to his shoulder. He could do without having to wrangle them physically.
He opened the door to the rooms he and Bull shared, grateful to be home. Bull was there, which was even better; he was a good listener and a better pillow, though most pillows didn't talk back quite so much.
"Someone has to be better with both children and the common tongue than I am," Dorian said, without prelude. "I don't know how I ever got dragged into this."
"You said yes when somebody asked you," Bull said, accepting the kiss Dorian gave him in greeting.
"Did you know that Common isn't even my first language?" Dorian said.
Bull frowned. "Really?"
"My first language is Tevene," Dorian told him. "I mean, people speak Common in Tevinter, but I didn't start learning the grammar until I was five."
Bull raised his eyebrow. "I think that still makes you a qualified teacher."
"Why does everyone look to me to teach them?" Dorian asked, his curiosity finally reaching its limit.
"Krem's not nice enough to get suckered into it," Bull said, though it was a fairly obvious deflection.
"Very funny," Dorian said. "How does everyone know that I'm approved for qunari interaction or whatever it is?" He gave Bull a look. "I know you're hiding something from me, so don't try to get out of it."
Bull said nothing for a moment, and Dorian knew he was trying to decide whether to tell the truth. Dorian didn't know whether it said more about the Qunari or Tevinter that he could read the former spy like a book. Dorian was sure Bull would say the same about him; techniques for deceit and secrecy were things any given Altus and Ben-Hassrath could find common ground in.
"Under the Qun, there are no names," Bull said finally. "We have identifiers, but we don't use them much. When we want to find each other, we use scent. It's how we keep track of the people we care about." He shrugged. "Lets everybody know who's what to who."
Dorian stared at him for a moment, mouth open. "Have you- have you been marking me?!"
Bull shrugged. "A little."
"A little?" Dorian said, indignant. "Half those qunari won't get within three feet of me."
"Aw, I knew they were a good bunch," Bull said, looking amused, and Dorian very much wanted to smack him.
"You should have told me about this," Dorian insisted.
"It didn't matter before now," Bull pointed out. "You didn't even know you didn't know."
"I don't care," Dorian said. "This is something I would have liked to have known." He crossed his arms, scowling. "Do you mark all your conquests like this?"
"No," Bull said flatly, and Dorian knew he'd gone too far.
"I'm going out," Dorian said, because he just wasn't interested in apologizing.
Bull didn't stop him, which was good, because Dorian didn't want to be stopped. He needed a moment to himself, before he said something even more stupid. The library, as usual, seemed to be the best spot for it; at this time of day, no one was there, which was exactly what Dorian wanted.
A large stack of books had accumulated next to his accustomed chair; Dorian could have said that it was because his unexpected and still mostly inexplicable instructorship gave him less time to study, but really, books just tended to accumulate when Dorian was around. He picked one up more or less at random, turning to the page he'd marked and trying to lose himself in the words.
"Dorian," someone said, before he'd even turned his fifth page.
Dorian looked up. "Genevieve," he said, putting his book aside and standing. At some point he was going to just have to admit to himself there was no hiding himself in the library anymore. "To what do I owe the pleasure?"
"I came to thank you for helping the others learn Common," she said. "We who have learned have tried to teach, but we can only do so much."
"I'm happy to help," Dorian said, though he was still surprised to find that he meant it- though today, not so much.
"It is hard for qunari to admit a weakness, and it is very hard when the weakness is in speaking," Genevieve explained. "They will not trust an outsider to teach them, because that would require telling an outsider they are lacking in such a basic skill." She inclined her head. "Of course you are different, and we are grateful to have you."
"How am I different, exactly?" Dorian asked, unable to leave it alone; hopefully he could get a more satisfactory answer about all of this, preferably without offending her.
"You are the kadan of the Iron Bull," Genevieve said, sounding as though she didn't understand why Dorian was asking. "If he did not trust you, he would not mark you."
"So it's very obvious, then," Dorian said, hoping he didn't sound as annoyed as he felt.
Genevieve considered him, looking at him like she was trying to puzzle him out. "It's not any different than it would be with any other qunari," she said.
"It's not?" Dorian asked skeptically. "Everyone seemed to know so quickly. You smelled him on me from ten feet away."
"That's not his fault," Genevieve told him. "He's-" She trailed off.
"He's what?" Dorian prompted.
"He's just so big," Genevieve said, sounding sort of awed.
Dorian frowned. "I hadn't really thought about it," he said. Qunari looked generally enormous to him; until recently, he hadn't really spent enough time around them to have formulated any thoughts about their variations.
"Even for a qunari, he is very large," she assured him. "Of course such a virile male has a strong, fine scent."
"And that's why the Tamassrans don't stop it," Dorian said, following the logical progression.
She nodded. "The use of scent can be controlled without breeding it out," she said. "It is often ignored for the sake of ease, but Qunari who become too infatuated with it can be reeducated. The desirable qualities that it pairs with cannot be sacrificed."
"He is very virile," Dorian muttered.
"And without your scent on him, it can be jarring," Genevieve told him. "It's not common for a qunari to mark a human, much less a-"
"You can say Vint," Dorian told her. "Maker knows I hear it enough."
Genevieve let it go. "But if he is your kadan, I would be insulted if he didn't."
"How did a Tamassran end up thinking all this?" Dorian asked. "I thought you were responsible for stamping this sort of thing out."
"I am not a Tamassran any longer precisely because of situations like this one," Genevieve said, giving Dorian a cold look. "The qunari do not love easily. When there is love, it should be cultivated and praised. There is no room for love under the Qun. The Qun grinds us down until we are nothing. That is not a life. That is only a way to spend time before death." She smiled, looking abashed. "I was very good at my job, but I was not a very good Tamassran."
"You're quite eloquent when you're angry," Dorian told her; it seemed like the sort of compliment a qunari would like, and it had the benefit of being true.
"Thank you," she said, looking pleased.
"I have to admit," Dorian said, "you're nothing like oh-so-rosy picture I'd been given of the Tal-Vashoth."
The corner of Genevieve's mouth went up. "And you accepted without question the Ben-Hassrath description of its defectors?"
Dorian bowed. "Truly an error on my part."
"I will leave you to your studies," Genevieve told him. "Goodnight, Dorian."
"Goodnight," he said, watching her go. He sat back down, picking up his book and looking for where he'd stopped. It wasn't particularly interesting; the observations were rather banal, honestly, nothing he couldn't get from half a dozen other books. Perhaps it wasn't a surprise that his mind began to wander, especially since there was a lot on it to start with.
Dorian wondered if it really was so horrible that he smelled like Bull, because Bull did smell good. Dorian had explained to him in no uncertain terms that he would not get sex unless he bathed often enough; Bull liked a lot- a whole lot- of sex, so it wasn't particularly hard to keep him clean. But even freshly washed, he had a scent, just slightly musky, noticeably non-human but, very thankfully, not like sleeping next to an actual bull.
It was best in bed, with Bull holding him; he could wrap Dorian up, make him feel small in a way that Dorian had never known could feel good. His scent was part of that, unavoidable when they were so close, still clinging to the sheets after Bull was gone. Dorian wasn't above curling up and breathing it in while Bull was away, and he didn't think anyone could honestly blame him. It smelled comfortable. Soothing. Safe.
Maybe it wasn't surprising how much he liked it. He hadn't felt as safe as he did in Bull's arms since he was a small child.
He gave up on his book, setting it on the pile next to his chair and leaving the library. Dorian wasn't sure whether he'd made Bull angry enough to leave for the tavern, but he doubted it. Very fortunately for Dorian, Bull was relatively slow to anger; Dorian couldn't always say the same thing of himself.
Sure enough, the qunari in question was still where Dorian had left him; by now he'd taken off his harness and brace and looked to be readying himself for bed.
"Still pissed at me?" Bull asked, and Dorian could hear the tension under his nonchalant tone.
Dorian stared at him for a long moment; he still wasn't happy that Bull hadn't been honest with him, but he'd read the situation wrong himself. He wasn't interested in punishing Bull for it, but he also wasn't prepared to let him off so easily.
Dorian went to his dresser, struck suddenly by an idea. He picked up the small bottle of sweet-smelling oil that he kept there; given that he used it to condition his mustache, the scent was so familiar that he could barely even smell it most of the time. He poured some into his hands before putting the stopper back into the vial and setting it down.
"Hold still," he said, rubbing his hands together as he walked over to stand in front of Bull.
Dorian maybe shouldn't have smacked his hands onto Bull's chest as hard as he did, but he was still somewhat annoyed; besides, Bull barely even flinched. He left his palms there for a moment before dragging them down, making sure that the oil smeared onto Bull's skin.
Bull looked down. "Did you just mark me?"
"Yes," Dorian said. "Deal with it."
"I hope I'm not supposed to be angry, kadan," Bull said, smiling.
"Be whatever you want to be," Dorian said, though he'd lost whatever anger he'd still had. "I'm not letting you wash it off."
"I don't know why you think I mind being yours," Bull said, pulling him forward and kissing him.
"Get that oil on my clothing and you won't be," Dorian said when they parted, pushing back a little.
Bull laughed, undoing Dorian's buckles with practiced ease. "Oh, we can't risk that."
"They're so hard to clean," Dorian said, starting on the laces of his trousers.
"Easier not to wear them, then," Bull said; he kissed Dorian's stomach before bending down to work on Dorian's boots.
"I think you have a point," Dorian told him, shrugging out of his top and setting it aside, well out of harm's reach.
Bull looked up at him, grinning dirtily. "Got two good ones-"
"And you're working on number three?" Dorian said, before Bull could finish. "Honestly, how many times are you going to say that?"
"Until it doesn't make you make that face," Bull said, tossing Dorian's boots away before dragging him into his lap.
Dorian sighed. "I hate how you think I'm adorable."
"Anybody who took you seriously all the time would bore the crap out of you," Bull said, smiling.
"Point," Dorian said, putting his arms around Bull's neck and leaning in to kiss him. "If there's one thing you're not, it's boring."
"If you keep running around, I'm not going to teach you anything," Dorian said calmly, sitting back in his chair and crossing his arms. He'd found that, somehow, that was the threat that impacted the qunari children the most strongly. When he was a child, he'd have just left, but apparently these children didn't hear it the same way.
It had the desired effect; the children stopped talking, sitting down on the floor of the room that Dorian had commandeered for lessons. "What are you going to teach us today, The Dorian?" one of the children asked.
No matter what Dorian did, he couldn't convince the children that "The" in "The Iron Bull" or "The Inquisitor" wasn't an honorific; he suspected that The Iron Bull himself was undoing his work whenever Dorian's back was turned.
"Today, I want you to make up a story," Dorian said.
"What kind of story?" one of the children asked.
"Well, I'll give you a sentence to start with," Dorian said, "and then everyone has to add another sentence, one at a time. Everyone gets to help decide what kind of story it is." He gave them a stern look. "Absolutely no violence allowed. Now, are you ready?"
There was a general affirmative clamor in response, just as Dorian had suspected.
"One day, a big duck was walking down the road," Dorian started.
"Why was a duck on the road?" one child asked, frowning.
"I don't know," Dorian said. "It's your story."
The child thought for a moment. "She had to go meet her duck friends."
"Very good," Dorian said.
"They were going to the lake to swim," one of the girls said.
"But-" another of the children said, stopping when he saw Dorian's expression. "However, when they got there, some other ducks were there."
"They got into a fight with the other ducks," the next child said excitedly.
"What did I say?" Dorian asked, in a warning tone.
"The other ducks were mean to them," she amended, "but they weren't scared."
Dorian nodded. "Much better."
"They ran the mean ducks off and then got to swim in the lake," the last child said.
"The end," Dorian said. "There. That's your story."
"That's not the end," one of the girls said, looking at Dorian disapprovingly.
"Then what happened next?" Dorian asked.
"Next they went to the woods," she said firmly.
By the time Dorian stopped the lesson, the ducks had already discovered they were mages and gone out hunting for dragons; he couldn't help but be proud.
It had been easy to get them to calm down at the beginning, but as soon as Dorian released them, most of them made for the door immediately. Bull had clearly been waiting on the other side for Dorian to finish; he ducked his head as he came in, avoiding the fleeing children.
"How did it go?" he asked, walking over and hugging Dorian from behind. He laid a hand on Dorian's stomach. "Getting some practice in for when we have our own little Bulls?"
"Oh Maker," Dorian said in horror, spinning around to face him. "There isn't anything else you haven't told me about qunari anatomy, is there?"
Bull grinned widely. "I just wanted to see the look on your face."
Dorian narrowed his eyes. "That was not at all funny."
"Maybe not to you-" Bull started, but he was interrupted by a small voice.
"The Bull?" one of the girls said, and they both looked down at her.
"Little one?" Bull replied.
"Question," she said.
"Was that Common or Qunlat?" Dorian asked patiently; the automatic nature of it led him to deeply question all of his life choices up to that point, but there wasn't much hope of changing things now.
"I have a question for you," she corrected.
"What is it?" Bull asked, picking her up and settling her on his hip.
"Do you love The Dorian?" she asked, in the shameless way that children asked things. Even though Dorian was relatively certain of the answer, he still flushed, waiting impatiently for Bull's reply.
"Of course I do," Bull said easily, and Dorian tried not to let his relief show. "He wouldn't be my kadan if I didn't."
"Is it hard?" she asked.
For the love of the Maker, Dorian thought desperately, please don't let him make a dirty joke in front of the children.
"Nah," Bull said dismissively. "When you find the right person, it's harder to not love them."
"Will I love someone?" she asked, sounding timid and hopeful, and Dorian took a moment to be astonished once again by the fact they'd fallen in with a bunch of romantic Tal-Vashoth.
"I hope so," Bull said. He ruffled her short hair, in between her horns; they were spread ones like Bull's, still growing in. "Don't rush it, little one. You have plenty of time."
"Thank you, The Bull," she said, flinging her arms around him. He chuckled, letting her hug him for a minute before putting her down.
She ran off, and Dorian gave Bull a look. "Don't pick me up," he said.
"I wasn't going to," Bull protested.
"I see that look in your eye," Dorian said. "You always get it just before you put me over your shoulder and carry me away."
"I haven't done that in at least two weeks," Bull said dismissively.
"Because I keep warning you not to," Dorian pointed out.
"What if I just do it a little bit?" Bull asked.
"There's no 'little bit' of being carried around in public," Dorian said. "Even if there's barely anyone around. Apparently I have become respectable, and I would like to maintain that fiction for the moment."
"You're good at being respectable," Bull told him, wrapping his arms around Dorian again.
"I'm glad you think so," Dorian said. He rested his cheek against Bull's chest; he smelled good and familiar, with the faint tinge of sweet oil. It was entirely possible that the qunari were on to something with the whole scent thing.
He was not going to tell Bull that.
"C'mon, kadan," Bull said, pulling away. "You've been respectable enough. Let's have a drink."
"Good idea," Dorian said. "I've been dealing with children. I deserve less-than-respectable drinks."
"That's the spirit," Bull said, leading him out. "Respectability will probably still be there in the morning."