Chapter 1: Lines Crossed
“The southern facing wing is far more intricate than the tour guide hinted at. The remnants of these archways aren’t exactly ‘insignificant’ or ‘not worth including for the general populous’. Most of the tile work has eroded or been stolen—” Chiyo pressed the stiff button on the side of her recorder before pinching the wrist strap between her teeth. She needed both her hands to scale the heavy blocks and rubble that obstructed her path. Laced leather boots scrapped against the worn stone, but her slacks were already grayed with dust and dirt. Standing upright again, she ran her hand along the classic elvhen arch, fingernails snagging on the anciently constructed surface.
With another sharp click, the explorer continued her observations. “There is still mortar and tool marks visible on the anterior side. Tevinter historians have not always been openly forthcoming, but one look through their archives tells us much of where these once grand materials ended up. How the first humans managed to strip these structures without ruining them completely is a different matter entirely. Imagine these lines capped over with gold, how each day’s light would have glowed upon them...”
She leaned far back, sending a few loose white waves to fall from her brow. Chiyo’s eyes traced over the fine masonry made by the skilled hands of her fallen ancestors. No matter how many sites she visited, these desiccated places hidden away from the hustle and bustle of the endlessly progressing world still managed to steal her breath away. But she couldn’t linger, there was still much to see if she dared ignore the warning signs written in glaring Tevene. She could read the language better than speaking it, but a feign of ignorance had worked before in other restricted places. Except her last visit to Antiva, they’d even cuffed her for that one.
A short jump down set the elf inside the ruin, already yards behind the flagged chains. Authorized Staff Only. No Public Access. But there wasn’t a soul around to enforce those posted statutes. She hadn’t seen a guard on patrol in over an hour, the complex too huge and sprawling to afford constant vigilance. It wasn’t like the Temple of Mythal at all, the most visited traveler’s site in the south. Preserved and restored, the grandeur of millions of gold tiles and fountains and the presence of live-in sentinels all dressed in ceremonial garb, thousands flocked every year to get a taste of antiquated Arlathan. The gift shop wasn’t half bad either.
That wasn’t what she wanted, though. The spotlights and the protective glass and the placards with their neat fonts on the walls. It was what the proprietors and the constricting Chantry didn’t want the people to see that interested her most. Knowledge kept behind closed doors and in musty books, there was magic in discovery if one knew where to look.
“The flooring has signs of having recently undergone some excavation, none of it looks like remodeling or for integrity. There’s no scaffolding or bracing anywhere in here.” Chiyo said into the little metal box clasped inside her hand as she approached a wide yawn in the stone. The path bore the rubber tire marks of a wheelbarrow and the scrapes of hand tools, notches stood out on the edge of a deep gap freshly made. “There should not be digging for artifacts here. The council doesn’t meet until this fall. When I last checked there were no active permits for site disturbances of any kind.”
The traditions adhering Dalish still had their culture to protect, it had taken generations to build up those hard-won treaties. The Chantry and its many extensive branches might own the lands these ruins were on or have influence with their elven handlers, but it was the staunch people of the Dales that gave any and all permission for changes to be made involving their historically erased origins. Her people had possession of less than a dozen substantial locations; there just wasn’t enough money to buy them all back.
Chiyo glanced to briefly check the charge left in the blue lyrium crystals fueling her gadget. Half depleted, she needed to work quickly before she lost both power and more daylight though the approaching evening would cool the humid air considerably.
With a running start, she leaped across the divide and landed lightly on the dense soles of her boots. She reached the stable ledge of the far side where no marks of modern alterations could immediately be seen.
“The way splits here. The ancient elves certainly knew how to build a lasting stair. Two thousand years later and these steps still bear weight. My landlord can’t even claim that.” She carefully made her way up a narrow side stair to the second level, but as her head rounded the last bend she caught a flash piercing momentarily through the limited light of the old, crumbling temple.
Chiyo stooped behind the carved half-wall at the top of the tread, shoving the recorder into one of the copious pockets of her jacket. No one else should be back here. She shouldn’t even be back here. If security caught her, she was sure to wind up on another banned list, already barred from more than a handful of Orlesian locations for trespassing.
She’d spent almost an entire paycheck just getting to the Imperium; there was nothing left in her budget for criminal charges or fines.
Peering around the corner, she held her breath and waited, scanning the vaulted alcove for any signs of movement. That wasn’t a flashlight, it hadn’t panned, and her ears had picked up on a faint pop. Several moments passed and all remained undisturbed. Maybe it was just a nervous trick of her mind or a glint reflected through one of the tapered, sparse windows at the wrong time.
With more caution than what she’d entered with, the curious elf continued on into the flaring chamber, but her nerve was rattled. Again she glanced over her shoulder, half expecting each time to spot an angry face and a badge. Recorder back in hand, Chiyo made several quick, discreet notes of her surroundings, milling down the widening hall and its offshoots. Cracked and faded paint lingered on the high walls. The outline of an arm, a mountain, and the carved antlers of ghostly halla dotted the buckling surface. Soon she grew calm again, becoming bolder once more as the artwork she found was more unspoiled. Time had stolen much of what had been missed over the many cleanses of the Andrastrian faithful, all but removing Arlathan and its wonders from the record.
“This one here, estimated to be at least 3 meters in length, is clearly another depiction of the tainting of Andruil.” Chiyo pressed her nose nearly to the bricks, studying the rich pigments in the crackled painting. “The same black helmet is universal in all the images painted, as is the construct of the armor made in the Void. These portraits must have been done all close in time to another, or an original inspired the rest. It would have been nice if these artists signed their work, then we might learn more.”
“Maybe they preferred to remain anonymous for a reason.”
Chiyo shrieked. The recorder slipped from her hold and only just escaped careening into the floor by a fumbling finger snaring the strap she’d failed to adorn. She spun on her heels and saw a tall man—an elf by the shape of his long ears— across the way. A hefty camera was holstered about his neck and a satchel with a bulky flash poked out from beneath the flap. He wore no uniform or emblem, only a closely fitted button-up pocked with sweat brought on by the Tevinter summer heat. The clothes may once have been nice, but the stonewashed dyes and mended stitching boded heavy wear.
“What are you doing here?” She demanded, hitting the snappy switch repeatedly before hiding the little device away.
“I might ask the same of you. A bit lost from your tour group?” The other elf asked, taking a moment to dab the moisture from his hairless head with the side of a rolled up sleeve. He seemed more than at ease eyeing the snooper caught in the act, a smile affixed itself to his broad lips.
“Are you with the Chantry?” Chiyo questioned again while she scanned quickly for any immediate exits. It was the quickest conclusion to cross her mind. The religious organization could be preparing this location for appeal, and photographs would do much to sway the board.
“Is that a serious question?” The tall man laughed, holding his camera steady when he vibrated from the preposterousness of her inquiry. “Why don’t you move along, this isn’t a place for wayward souls to wander. There are reasons it has been marked unsafe.”
Face wrinkled, the white-haired woman promptly frowned at the jest. “I can’t leave yet, I don’t have enough information for my next article. Why are they digging at the entrance?”
Without having to look at where he was headed the man walked forward, twisting a cap over the shiny glass lens protruding from his chest. “There’s not much here if there was they would have postcards of it or a calendar.”
“Then what are you photographing if this place is so boring? Don’t tell me you are one of those weirdos who collect pictures of fungus and lichens… or spiders.” Chiyo almost pressed her back to the wall when he came within range, but she kept her hands off the coated surface for fear of getting any of her skin’s oils on the fragile paintings. “I had a good tip about happenings in this temple. What do you know?”
“You have many questions for a stranger. You haven’t even asked my name.” Her tense gaze was drawn up to meet the wide-set, hooded gray-blue eyes that looked down the straight plane of his nose. She did not like feeling so short, instinctually rising up on the balls of her toes to make up some of the difference. A faint crinkle formed on the edges of his thin eyelids. “Will you pry from me my secrets as well?”
The amusing way his mouth moved distracted her, the detail in the shape spoke to her sense of artistic appreciation. Curved as deeply as the arches she’d studied at the temple’s rear ingress, the hewn, cleft chin below also fell into her quick appraisal. Here was a face she could examine at every angle and find new interest. He reminded her of intricate stained glass, precisely shaped and carefully cut.
A shame that he was behind a camera and not before it.
“Only if I can publish them.” The flirty tone escaped to her own immediate embarrassment, sliding off her tongue before it could be restrained. Chiyo’s long ears threatened to burn as the horrifying thought arose of the voice recorder possibly having caught the transgression. It would not have been the first time her editor had overheard something unintended by mistake. Bringing her tone to heel, she tried not to stammer her way through the conversation. “Unless you are too busy creeping through these dead, moldering halls to sit for an interview.”
“Spoken like a true journalist.” He shook his head with another chuckle, knowing fingers working the tiny clips on the back plate of his camera. The man’s eyes finally looked away, releasing her while he slouched, spinning the tail of film around the cartridge. “Who do you write for then? I see no press-badge or logo, perhaps an independent paper. You’re too old to still be in school.”
“I write for myself,” Chiyo answered stubbornly as the strange photographer began to walk towards the other end of the illustrated gallery, popping his spent film into a small container retrieved from the old satchel at his side. She pinched the inside of her cheek with her teeth, rolling it through before she decided to follow. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, but she wouldn’t let a handsome face distract from her goal.
“Vallaselan tel’thanun.” The bald man spoke in lilting elvhen, a language even most of the Dalish had stopped using unless they were chastising one another. She’d suffered enough of it growing up to know when to be thoroughly insulted.
An aloof flick of his blue eyes in her direction had her scowling once more as she pursued. “Certainly there are more interesting and pressing matters for a young woman to lend her energies. Why not write about the war? Or the endless political upheaval incurred by Empress Celene’s policies. You could be publishing accounts of the water contamination crisis in Kirkwall.”
“Sure, like I could change those things by putting them to type. But I’m not interested in the power-grabbing and tax-expenditure nonsense. There is nothing new there for me to reveal and many who would pay to say elsewise.” Said Chiyo proudly as they approached the furthest wall.
“Is that so?” He turned his attentions up to the last and largest painting in the room, one that was difficult to see until they stood beneath it. Cast in heavy shadow, the churning bodies of demons and dragons caught in an endless, unresolved battle could be made out by a distinguishing eye. “Tell me then, writer, what does interest you.”
“The truth…” She answered with firmness, but already her focus was becoming enraptured by the astounding work. She began to pat for her recorder, unable to tear her eyes away. Chiyo could already feel the words she wanted to write brimming on the edge of her tongue, how she would describe the field of wings and horns and vicious claws.
She didn’t notice the elf that stood with his hands behind his hips, watching her as she fell away into her own thoughts. The flowing flick of her brown eyes looked past his person and Chiyo’s mouth was open in an unabashed gape. She even pressed forward, reaching up to phantom-trace a blurred edge left unfinished by the painting’s creator.
“There is something that I would like to show you but…”
“But what?” She mimed back, rising to her toes for a better view.
“We have company.” Chiyo nearly fell back into him when she heard the first warning shout in brusque Tevene.
“Which way is out!” She hissed, hiding behind the unnamed elf while she looked to the open passageways on each end of the mural.
“This place is off limits!” Barked one of the paired guards, waving his gloved hands for a halt.
“I was trying to direct the lost one.” He responded calmly in their native tongue. “To the left, go to the balcony. There is a ladder, but the last rungs are gone. Don’t stop.”
“Where are your passes? Show us your documents.” Ordered the second officer.
“What are you doing?” Chiyo saw a squat cylinder twist out from his palm, brandished between two of his long fingers.
“Take the film.” The bald elf instructed softly through an unmoving flat smile. “They’ll confiscate it from me. Tomorrow, noon. The pastry shop by the river market. Yellow sign.”
“I don’t even know your name.” Was all Chiyo could say before the roll was thrust into her hands. She clutched it tightly, the blood in her veins sung as she prepared to bolt.
With the next, and much more angered shout she shot off through the nearest doorway. Chiyo didn’t even look back to the man blocking the guards’ pursuit. She ran with a quickness that left the soles of her shoes burning and a grin that stretched her lips wide as she shoved the contraband down the collar of her shirt.
She burst out into the scarlet afternoon, swung her legs over the stone’s edge and slid down the ladder, there exactly as he’d told her. Then, off into the surrounding jungle, she was gone.
Vallaselan tel’thanun- writer without a purpose
Chapter 2: Two Steps Forward
Chiyo kept a hand inside the pocket of her jacket. The tips of her fingers rested tentatively on the hidden canister that bounced along with the gentle motions of the trolley. It was strange, to feel more concerned over such a small, impersonal object than she was of the possessions left behind on a rented bed.
She hadn’t been mugged in years. There had been a suitcase stolen once before while visiting Denerim, but Chiyo couldn’t dismiss the apprehension that had followed her away from the escaped ruins. Not that there was much concern over the unfussy folk seated in the rows around her. If the wrinkled grandmother across the aisle with her deadly knitting needles wished to lighten her wallet, then by all means. They had their own lives to worry about, daily duties to perform as common as any other. Many carried empty bags that would soon bear all manner of produce. Mothers with young children in tow checked off their grocery lists. Elderly folk near to napping against the rattling windows stared out peacefully at the passing city scene.
Most of the Tevinter natives paid no heed to a lone, sightseeing elf. Chiyo did earn the occasional glance when she was caught speaking to herself in public though most interest was lost when they spotted the recorder. Tourist, she knew that word without having to think to translate in almost all of the many languages of Thedas. Most people, regardless of race, learned the common tongue alongside their native dialect. But as a whole, and outside the largest cities, several intrinsic languages were still actively used, passed down through the ages. Orlesian, Antivan, Tevene, Qunlat, Rivaini, Neverran, a traveler needed a comprehension of them all to make it far outside their given country.
She forced herself to stop fidgeting with the film when the call for the market stop was given and the trolley came to a slow, ambling halt along its tethered line. Several people stood and made for the open door before the breaks even finished squealing. Chiyo couldn’t believe that some transports were still horse-powered in a few of the far-flung corners she’d visited in the last few years. Not everyone was as quick to trust the relatively newer lyrium-powered lines, but many had begun to reap the benefits once installed. The mineral was cheaper and cleaner than a host of four-legged beasts, the improved smell alone enough to convince Chiyo of their worth.
Two short steps and she was on the paved street that ran in sight of the river’s enforced embankment before it dumped out into the nearby straits. Stalls stuffed with the season’s summer bounty crowded nearly up to the shores where they could, pressing tightly around the permanent structures that stayed open no matter the time of year.
Through the churning crowd, she could spot some of the stone docks, remnants of a bygone era when this city had been dominated by trade centered on the contested sea. Qarnius was a watery, old municipality on a quiet decline that had been around longer than almost any other Tevinter site by the eastern coast. History permeated every weather-beaten brick beneath her feet and each layer of architecture on the facings of the storefronts. Ages-past poked their way through one another; a discerning eye could note them for the shifts in style and material, yet her goal there was not to mark the antiquity in the facades or the changes of hand in the cement.
Chiyo considered pausing there amidst the spice vendors with their dozens of glass jars all neatly lined up and labeled, the vegetable hawkers who repositioned and refreshed their stacks of leafy greens, swollen squashes and bunched roots, and the cheesemakers with their wildly wielded knives, offering up paper-thin slivers of their craft to tantalize and tempt new buyers. It would be a lovely leeway into her next piece, with readers often just as interested in the locale of her adventures as they were in her findings. But it was nigh on noon already, and a hungry, growly gut was telling her that something far more interesting than another market summary lay in store.
The film had been worth the trouble of passing off to a stranger, and she would be daft not to learn why before she gave it back.
Her eyes scanned for the yellow sign, but it was her nose that drew her closer to a pastry shop. A waft of yeast and sugar made her stomach cramp. She’d been too nervous to eat much of a breakfast, not that much was offered around the hostel where a bed and a shower were about the only amenities. Beneath the only golden signboard on the block, Chiyo pushed her way through the front door. The soft chime of a bell issued her into the appealing and narrow eatery.
“Avanna.” The friendly greeting met her ear. Cakes, breads, buns covered the counter, distracting almost enough to keep her from looking first for the man she was supposed to meet. Yet the other patrons were far from being bald elves with rude regards. An elf in an apron worked the small business, but most of the others were human but for a craggy dwarf in the corner booth.
“Maybe he’s running a bit late.” She checked the clock on the wall, it was several minutes past. A few coins bought her a hot herbal drink and a savory little treat stuffed with melted curds and dried fruit. She broke the buttery outside with her fingers upon sitting down, the hot oils and tangy jam pooled across the cracked crust.
Chiyo pulled at a piece until the runny cheese finally broke just before it crossed her famished lips. She had to close her eyes at the delightful rush of flavors. “Why didn’t I become a food critic instead…”
“Then perhaps you should try the chocolate monstrosity they hide in the kitchen.”
Almost choking, Chiyo sat up straight in the spindly wooden chair, she bumped the table in her hurry, but a ready hand spared the tea a wasteful fate. “Again with the sneaking up on people!”
“Perhaps if you did not become so raptly absorbed… I walk through front doors like everyone else.” She momentarily frowned while she wiped the grease on her mouth. She turned in her seat to address the chuckling man, but her harsh mood softened upon seeing him in the exact same clothes as when they’d crossed paths the day prior. Though a smile lingered from his jest it did not nullify the dark circles beneath his blue eyes or the deep sag in his shoulder beneath the weight of his bag.
“Long night?” She asked as he dropped into the open chair, waving over his shoulder at the woman behind the counter.
“One could say that.” He yawned back, adjusting the wrinkled edges of his unrolled sleeves. “I’ve slept more amiably before. The cots in Minrathous’ jails are a bit more forgiving though perhaps I’m simply becoming too old to be spending an evening behind bars.”
“They arrested you?” Chiyo’s dark brows knit as another cup and saucer joined what was already on the table. She could smell the rich aroma of the generously spiced coffee in his mug that wafted while the tired elf dosed it with provided sugar and cream.
After a long, careful drink the man sighed through the heat that coursed down his throat. Lengthy fingers wrapped around the handle-less cup that he held close to his face, letting the steam rise around his cleft chin. “Officially? No. I was held for questioning, in case I’d seen something that wasn’t there. They even had me sign to that statement before release. With no evidence to prove anything, they couldn’t charge me with more than petty trespassing. I have you to thank for that, though.”
Chiyo sought her own tea and stole a chance to drink it before another opportunity came along to send it to the floor. Her hand again returned to her pocket, thumb clicking on the cylinder’s side. “So what’s on this film anyways?”
“Nothing.” The photographer answered plainly as a decadent plate was placed before him, layer upon layer of buttery chocolate stood out between a copious drizzle of caramelized sauce. The disbelieving stare he met didn’t slow the fork that brought the first obscene sliver between his teeth. He chewed, unbothered by the irked glare of the woman across the table.
“You got me to jump down a rotten ladder for nothing? That is the biggest piece of shite I have ever heard, and I used to edit tabloids.” Chiyo groaned flatly, watching him eat the disgustingly sweet looking cake. The sight alone made the roof of her mouth and the back of throat feel almost tacky. “I still have splinters in my palms…”
“Your hurdle left you your recordings as well, and I didn’t lose my pictures. I would deem that a fair trade for the efforts. Why need any more reason for that.” He pulled the tines clean through his lips and carved out another sizable bite. “We both came away with what we wanted, best leave it at that. May I have them?”
“I don’t think so. I can smell a story before I see one.” Chiyo drew the film from her pocket and held it firmly in her fist. The nail on one of her fingers pushed at the protective lid, a quiet threat, but a threat all the same. Exposure would ruin the contents, it wouldn’t take much to pull the negatives out and bleach them with the sun. “If you want this back you’ll have to trade me an interview and I need to see what’s on here.”
The man was silent for a time as he consumed a few more mouthfuls of his dessert. She could see him rolling her words around in his mind. After a quick pat with a napkin, he spoke again. “You could go have that film developed yourself and get the same answer. Nothing. There is no material there that would interest you, or most others, for the matter. My pursuits are rather esoteric. They won’t sell you any papers or get your name on a front page.”
“Let me decide that.” Chiyo shoved the film back into safe keeping. “I’m curious, you said at the temple that there was something else you wanted to show me. If you hadn’t distracted me then I might have found out this information for myself. I can’t go back to finish for a while, they’ll be looking for me.”
“You won’t take no for an answer, will you?” He rubbed briefly at his temple, eyeing the cup that still steamed.
“An interview includes lunch.” A smile spread across her lips. “I’ll go easy, promise. How about an informal question to start?”
He shook his head in defeat as he reached once again for the rejuvenating drink. “It seems I have little choice. Ask away.”
Fetching a small notepad from another pocket, Chiyo flicked through the pages to find a fresh one to add the new entrant. “What’s your name? Simple enough.”
“Solas.” The response was cut short by a deep and draining draught.
“Solas…” Her stubby pencil stalled, waiting for him to finish. “Is there a clan affixed to that? Chiyo Lavellan, if we are introducing ourselves, that’s how most people respond.”
He bristled, setting the cup sharply down. “I am not Dalish, I need no such moniker.”
“Alright then. Solas I’m not Dalish it is then. Is that hyphenated or not?” She fought the urge to snort as the photographer took to his feet and pushed his chair in. “Hey, where are you going?”
“Home, I’ll need my dark room for this nonsense.” Said Solas, already stepping towards the door.
“Wait for me!” Chiyo shoved her pad of paper back into her sleeve and wrapped what was left of the quickly cooling morsel in a napkin. She almost bolted for the exit herself, but she doubled back to leave a handful of speedily counted coins on the counter before the woman had a chance to yell.
Chapter 3: And One Back
This was not the domicile she'd anticipated, it didn't match the homely dress or the quiet nature of the man she'd followed halfway across town. The neighborhood was long-standing and opulent, homage paid on every street corner to what had once been the richest and most powerful empires that had ever come into being in Thedas. Marble porticoes that had to be centuries old, manicured gardens—each with a fountain or statue as a central ornamentation, columns of narrow cypress trees placed to block the immediate view. Wide-spread manors dotted the breezy coast, settled in artfully and naturally like they had always stood there, but those luxurious centuries were slowly falling away.
The abolition of the slave trade had gutted Tevinter, leaving only old-money to cling on the dying lavishness that was no more. Entire towns had dried up within a decade of the decree, leaving empty hulks like ravaged clams scattered along the beach. The meat and pearls were gone, polished shells left to dry and crumble in the salty sea air. Considering the expansive age and complicated history of the northern country, Chiyo wondered how much longer houses like these would stand before they too were left abandoned.
Instead of entering the stately home through the gated front door, Solas led his curious visitor around to the rear, slipping through an unlatched lawn gate without a word. From his bag he procured a set of heavy keys, the elf flicked through each on the ring and then back-tracked to the one that would fit the lock.
"Shoes." He lifted each heel to pry off his own footwear. "Please?"
His eyes meet Chiyo's as she stood in the open doorway, staring out into the deceptively eccentric room. Normal enough under a passing glance, but she had an eye for detail and was more than certain that the various, stored-away pieces of art were not meant for the common gaze. Stacks of passionately colored portraits, boxes of uncanny pottery, rolled up canvases composed of what she could only imagine to be limbs and torsos in an erotic display were shoved into every corner.
"Worried about the floors?" She asked, pulling the door shut behind her. The single painting mounted on the wall was bizarre to say the least; she'd never tried to understand some of the more modern movements in art though it was refreshing to see a nude male instead of the buxom counterpart.
Solas peered down the dim hallway while she worked her boot's laces. "No, only the noise. He keeps strange hours, and is not one for announced guests."
"This… isn't your house, I take it?" Chiyo dropped her voice to a low whisper. A dead ruin was one thing, but entering a private estate entirely another.
"I stay here while in the area, to come and go as I wish." Solas motioned her to follow through another doorway and down a flight of stairs. Little blue-white lights came to life as they passed, softening the darkness of the windowless inner quarters. They went beneath the first level and down into what Chiyo could only assume had once been a cellar though refurbished into a more serviceable sitting room. A low couch, a squat table, several sitting chairs and a cross-hatched case stacked with bottles of wine. In the corner was a block of tall curtains affixed to the low ceiling, she could just make out the edge of a workbench between the parted folds.
The walls, however, held far more interest than simple embellishment. As her eyes adjusted she could see hundreds of photographs pinned to every available surface, all neatly arranged in perfect rows. Some of them Chiyo recognized immediately, of temples and palaces and caves she herself had visited or studied in books. Others were either too closely shot to give away enough clues or utterly unknown, but she identified most them as being elvhen, dwarven or Andrastian, all ancient and almost forgotten by the people of the present.
"Traveler indeed, when do you have time to even pause…" It took everything to keep her jaw from dropping, and her pesky little fingers away from the glossy pictures. Chiyo turned around sharply when the already low lights in the room dimmed even more. She barely knew this elf, and now she was alone with him in a dark chamber. There was a utility knife clipped on her belt, but she'd never had to use it as a weapon before.
"Perhaps we will be in luck and I will have something more interesting to show you than such empty images. I'll need that film, though." He held out his free hand, the other still manipulating the lights. Solas was unmoved by the tension that had clamped around her shoulders, his voice boded no concern or ill-will.
"Fine, no tricks. I'm not one to be fooled by slights of hand." She drew out the smuggled canister and placed it squarely in his palm.
"Are you going to watch over my shoulder the entire time, writer? The dark room is far from exciting." He nearly teased as he inspected the small object, looking for cracks that may have damaged the contents. Solas entered the curtained corner, exhaling lowly as the small woman forced her way inside the cramped conditions. A trifling red light came to life with a touch, just enough to work with. "These chemicals do have an odor, you might as well wait outside."
There was certainly a smell as he opened several bottles and poured their contents into jars and pans. Alcohol and vinegar hit her nostrils first. Chiyo closed the curtains tight and stood firm, undaunted by the warning, "I take it you've never been to the Sulfur lakes then."
"Third row by the door, almost your height. I've been meaning to revisit these last few years." The room secure, Solas removed the film and began to prepare the various baths. Donning gloves and a mask, he looked quite the technician. Deft fingers removed the perforated black ribbon that he gently uncoiled and submerged into a watery cylinder. "I spent a month there exploring old tombs preserved in the back of eroded caverns. Have you seen the runes painted on the walls of those vaults? A sadness permeates that place, it weighs against the soul far more than the air's odor."
"Our people have been driven to many desperate acts." Chiyo stiffened as his fingers worked the buttons of his shirt, shoulders shrugging for freedom. It wasn't all that warm in the basement, but she could only guess as to what spills he worried about on the already damaged fabric.
"Our people?" He laughed singularly, removing the wrinkled outer layer, remaining only in a thin undershirt that left his arms bare. "The elves have not been unified in millennia."
Through the reddened obscurity, she could see the outline of a dark shape drawn into his skin. Most of the Dalish had forgone the traditional practice of tattooing. And here was a man who claimed no allegiance, but she'd be damned to think that those black lines did not spell almost discernable words in the all but lost language of her race. Eolas… She was sure of that one, the letters poked out from the deep-dipped hem at the base of his neck. There was a shape there too; if she squinted it almost looked like a beastly face.
"There are still clans that worship, some even that roam. Not all have submitted to domesticity in full." She stared at that obscure shoulder while the film was developed and cleansed, made ready for the exposures that would translate onto paper.
"And what of the city dwellers, the former slaves and the disbelievers, the ones who joined the Chantry or the Qun?" Solas continued his careful work, hanging the worn shirt off of a small hook on the table's edge. While the film soaked in the next emulsion he prepared several sheets of paper and the solutions needed for the subsequent step. "What parts qualify? Ears alone do not make the man."
"Our differences do not make us less elven either." She was surprised by her own firmness in the matter. His tone had set Chiyo's arms to tightly cross over her chest. "Maybe we should just stick to the history and ruins. I don't see what my race has to do with your pictures."
"Of course you do not, they aren't finished yet. Patience." A crinkle formed around his eyes, his smile not fully hidden beneath the papery mask. The writer in her wanted to ask more questions, to redirect the conversation into something she could actually use instead of a political debate. At the moment, she would accept a bit of silence to cool the insult.
For a time, Chiyo was content to watch the technical process. Her observant focus became transfixed by the way he managed the materials. Rubber covered fingers and delicate metal tongs, with surgical precision Solas transformed the negatives into something viewable in the span of an hour. Soon he was clipping several wet sheets of paper to a line, allowing them to partially dry while he poured out new fluids into a tray.
Chiyo had crept closer, sneaking away from the safety of the curtained exit to survey over his shoulder once he'd taken to the only stool. Her eyes swept across the black and white photographs, all of the ruin she'd been trying to delve deeper into. The arches and the murals, he'd even ventured out into the crumbling inner courtyard where the outlines of tiled promenades still stood. Interesting, but expected, there was nothing notable that warranted such adamant protection.
An unlabeled, heavy metal black canister had been pulled down from the shelf, Solas had set aside with a pair of accompanying tweezers. He barely noticed, or perhaps only chose to say nothing of the ever encroaching figure who stood now just inches behind him.
"Is that lead?" Chiyo asked, reaching out to inspect the unsealed lid. She gasped when her hand was suddenly blocked, long fingers wrapping around her wrist and palm.
"Gloves. Unless you want to go mad." He warned, cocking his head towards the box against the table's back corner.
Instead of wearing the protective gear, she used it instead to lift the top gingerly. A cursory glance in at the glowing, blue contents, however, told her exactly what volatile substance the photographer was making use of. She dropped the lid like it was heated on coals. "How did you get your hands on raw lyrium? Are you insane?"
Lyrium was rampantly used in every trade and industry, becoming increasingly prominent as advances in technology soared. The recent decades were not coined the Lyrium Age without good reason. But commonness did not supersede danger and legality. Unprocessed, the mineral made people terribly sick when handled. Only dwarves had the right, and ability, to mine and control the stuff. They dictated the distribution and market singularly with no competition. Humans, elves, Qunari, even the smallest amount ingested or absorbed had the occasional lethal consequences. Those who didn't die outright suffered long, slow, mentally dissolving deaths filled with days of pain and ceaseless babble.
"I need it for my work. As long as it goes untouched there is no concern. Now, if you would please look at this image." Solas carefully selected a single grain of the lyrium and dropped it into the mixture, stirring it gently until it melted.
"There is nothing there but old architecture probably formed before the destruction of Arlathan." Chiyo had pulled her shirt over her mouth and nose. But curiosity drew her close once again. She held her breath as Solas unclipped a picture of the stairway and submerged it into the questionable liquid.
"Still looks the same to—" She stopped herself as what she had assumed was the finished image began to change, subtly at first, and then a shape on the stone steps appeared. Thin, transparent as light streaming through a window. But she could make out the form of a head and shoulders, an elongated torso with the hints of armor, and bent legs caught in motion.
With the tweezers, Solas drew the picture up again, taking mind to let all the water drip back off into the dish. "They only reveal themselves while exposed to raw lyrium. Once this dries the capture will vanish unless re-introduced."
Chiyo swallowed, her throat becoming tight. She'd been on those very steps, how could she have missed something so frightening? A terrible shiver surged down her spine that made her bare feet clench to the stone floor. This was the stuff of children's stories told late at night to spook one another into fits and shrieks. "W-what do you mean they?"
"Spirits," Solas answered, watching as the figure on the page slowly vanished and left no trace behind as the air cured the black ink. "Those who linger. Pressed between this world and the next."
"That does it. You are insane."
He turned in his seat when the curtains abruptly parted and his guest took off, the soles of her feet slapping up the steps. When the distant door slammed he sighed and selected another image. This one, of an empty archway. He had high expectations for it, considering the last time he'd photographed that location there had been the most peculiar haze that filled the space, much like glass in a giant mirror.
"I guess she does not wish to write about ghost stories. Pity."
Chapter 4: Ink Slip
The pen drummed between her fingers, rattling the stack of notes below in rapid succession. Any rougher or less controlled, and the delicate tip threatened to bend. Already a splattering of ink speckled the top page that remained vacant but for minuscule black flecks where crisp, clear words should have been. None, however, would come out. She’d walked away without her interview, short of the full story.
There went her much-needed bonus and shot at the front page. Answers left unsaid at the bottom of those darkened stairs if only she’d stayed and not bolted at the first hint of fear…
Chiyo rolled her head over the firm back of the lobby sofa with a huff. She stared at the substantial tiles that decorated the ceiling, fields of geometric flowers stamped into paper-thin sheets of copper left to tarnish over the years with the seasonally humid air. What a grand building it must have been before being repurposed after the abrupt economic decline. They’d left the bones and the body behind, but the soul was clearly gone from the hostel, a shadow of former Empiric glory. She groaned, chastising herself for the waste of effort and brain power dwelling on the relatively humdrum architecture of a boardinghouse when she had much more pressing matters to manage foremost.
There were only a few weeks left before the full draft of her next piece was due, giving it plenty of time to be scrutinized on the incisive corrector’s desk while she made her way home. The snippets sent ahead had been reasonably received, but as always there was the fostered demand for punch—‘Give the readers something they can really sink their teeth into, a touch of excitement feeds the questionably literate masses and sells a few more papers. Write like you are starving and that next sentence might buy dinner, kiddo.’
But it wasn’t just the encouraging words of her editor-in-chief that made the elf pull a piece of dry skin off her lips. Writer without Purpose, the nerve of that man. Better to lack objective than to be wholly mad. She’d squandered so many hours and quite a bit of energy in giving him his ghosts back, if that’s what they really were.
Of course, the whole thing had to be a trick, a manipulation, forged entertainment at her expense. There couldn’t truly be… specters … Standing right there on the crumbling stairs, if the entity had lingered in that very spot she would have walked right through it.
“How absolutely ridiculous, spirits aren’t real!” The laugh that followed the outburst, however, didn’t sound so sure.
She forced herself to sit up straight, feet tucked under knees. Chiyo pressed the sharp nub of the pen to the top margin. Her hand was ready, poised and waiting, yet only a small bead of black formed instead of the flourish of vocabulary needed to earn her next measly check. She had to write, something, anything that wouldn’t lead down the delusional path of paranormal garbage. She’d suffered enough behind a tabloid amending grammatical hiccups to never wish to return to such drivel. This wasn’t a science fiction quarterly she was now journaling for, but a serious, independent literary coalition built on worldly interests and exploration.
At least, that’s what it said on the cover.
More than one article circulated since the paper’s inception had been perceived as more imagined and embellished than honest fact. She couldn’t add her name to that list of offbeat entries. Work like that could haunt her for the rest of her career. And now, when she needed her writing skills most all that came to mind were striking, bald men and lyrium exposed photographs.
Mythal’enaste, this was rapidly becoming her shoddy fortnight with what was supposed to have been a wholly traditional Avvar tribe all over again. She hadn’t expected so much of a culture shift, for being rather uncontacted it was bizarre to see such isolated people in reasonably new Orlesian-styled tunics and trousers. Here were mighty, wild hunters known for their archaic, pagan ways, loincloths and savage body paint, in manufactured fabrics. Their gods were gone, the dangerous cliffs were no longer scaled, and their damned hold-beast was a fat, slobbering mabari of all things. No one had died that year, but she’d been assured that their funeral practices still somewhat resembled that of old. The remaining family would capture an animal to offer up with the burning of the body. It might have been enough to save the article, had she been privy to see the mystical ritual.
That less than fabulous outing had nearly cost Chiyo a newly granted job, the only one she’d been offered when she left an internship before completion. Inexperience and poor journalism had not won her any respect, though spared notoriety, she’d promised herself then to never come that short of a goal ever again. She would write what she set out to, and nothing would keep her from the truth no matter how ugly and unforeseen it might be.
Pen and paper slapped against the cluttered table, sending a cold, forgotten tea cup dangerously close to the edge. A frustrated growl soon followed, as did a raking pass of fingernails through her untidy curls. Chiyo unfolded her legs and adjusted the wrap of the loosely-tied night coat that had slipped off her thighs. The fabric was old and the embroidery had begun to fray, but the once brightly stitched dawn lotuses that decorated the silky material were much too adored to dispose of or replace.
From between the cushions, she fetched the mislaid recorder; a quick listen might get her back on track. She needed to return to those ruins and move forward, there had to be a way to salvage the mess her exposé was quickly developing into.
She glanced at the front desk, the hostel staff had retired for the evening behind an office door. A sign on the counter termed the business hours and the lyrium-lights were turned off. Only the burning oil lamp at her side let her continue to work. The bunkroom had been darkened hours ago, the few other travelers sharing the space didn’t much care for her late night scratchings or musings, they wanted to sleep in their cheap beds and move along to their next destination.
Maybe it was time for a pay raise. Chiyo thought she might then afford to stay in a room of her own. At least, she wasn’t starving for her vocation, as much as someone might think she should…
“Back to work, this thing isn’t going to write itself.” With a few quick manipulations, she reversed the un-sampled recording and let it play back. Chiyo balanced the gadget on her shoulder while her hands took up the discarded tools of her trade anew.
“—‘not worth including for the general populous’. Most of the tile work…”
Her own voice went on through various interruptions, sending her mind back to those remnants that she would now miss getting to investigate in full. Soon her pen, after a quick replenish from the ink bottle, flitted across a fresh page and filled in the details, blocking out the scant findings into something that her fellow explorers might actually care to read. The dig site at the entrance had been so peculiar, obviously not a professional search by the look of it. There were no markings or graphing strings, nothing to indicate care or consideration. Just a crude hole and loose rubble. It would not be the first time tunnels had been excavated and secret chambers exposed.
She began to allude to the cavities found beneath the site dubbed the Dead Hand in the Dales and the strange artifacts that had been found standing deep within. Trees made of stone, curved branches arced into an empty sphere, statues of clear elvhen design. One could not look at the long faces and rigid arms of an archer carved from rock and not see the skill and might that had once been intrinsic to her people.
-Our people? The elves have not been unified in millennia.-
And he was in her head again! That damned Solas and his snobby disagreements. They were ruining what was planned to be a perfectly sound story.
Chiyo’s notes then took an angry turn, combating his spiteful notion with redirection towards the humans desecrating yet another site. Who were they to tell an elf she wasn’t allowed inside buildings that were a part of her heritage, why did they get to exert control over history that didn’t belong to them in the slightest. On and on she rambled, spitting the words as her fingers looped to make them permanent.
“Lacking both providence and permission, it can be assured that this violation will be made known to the Council when next they meet. If this place cannot be protected or respected then perhaps it is time that the Dalish take ownership of the property before even more unscrupulous acts are committed—”
Chiyo’s face splotched with sudden red when a sonorous, throaty laugh echoed from the small device, it brushed against her ear warmly even though it had been emitted in rude jest. She’d recorded the chance meeting after all.
“Where is that damned button!” Her fingers fumbled as her cheeks turned darker when her own voice betrayed more updated inclinations. Solas was far stranger a man than she thought the unnamed elf in the ruins originally to be.
Sliding down between the open gap of the sleek shift, the recorder became lost once again in the upset. Chiyo groped down the front of her sleep-dress as the replay of the encounter soundly shamed her again.
“Only if I can record them…”
Sultry indeed, she never thought herself much the flirt, but it seemed a pair of fine cheekbones and broad lips had a dangerous way with the inflections of her tone. With a wrench, she grasped the device and pulled it free from the confines of her clothes. There was only the hissy hum of a gap in the conversation when she brought it back to the light. But a different sound soon pricked the attention of her long ear.
There was another voice, not hers or Solas’. Chiyo tilted her head and lifted the recorder, turning the volume higher as she did.
“…ash'inan laim… lasa esh’ala itha—”
An icy shiver coursed down her spine and a thumb slammed the stop button with a hard click. Almost compulsively, Chiyo threw the boxy device across to the far side of the sofa. The air around her remained heavy with the day’s warmth that had yet to dissipate, but she pulled tightly at her thin robe. Soft, hushed words had her on edge in an instant, her pulse hammered harder than when she bolted from the guards and slid down a ladder in the escape.
Every fine hair on her arms and neck rose as the familiarity sank in. Undeniably, unequivocally, even if she couldn’t translate a single syllable for the fear that numbed the more dexterous parts of her mind. “That… that was elven…”
It couldn’t be, they’d only been speaking in the common tongue there inside that ruin. The guards who’d discovered them used a crisp Tevene, as did Solas when he’d answered their commands.
No elf spoke anything but broken chunks beyond the utmost of elvhen historians and the rare few linguists that argued more than they helped. The Dalish kept only the most basic of phrases to blend with their daily lives. Simply the most venerable words remained after centuries of verbal cleansing. Greetings and goodbyes, a few insults and blessings. At most a dozen words without thinking could be had at the tongue of an elven youth, a handful more with a bit of focus and study.
Chiyo tried to shake the frightful feeling that had wrapped around her. She’d pushed to sit on the sofa’s narrow arm, her brown eyes focused entirely on the slowly blinking light on the side of her favorite tool.
It was getting late, she didn’t have to consider the clock to know that, but if she left right then she might just catch the last trolley.
Leaving her belongs and notes where they lay, she slipped off the couch and restrained herself from running. Fear or excitement, Chiyo couldn’t discern. She fumbled in the dark while she fetched a pair of shoes and a heavier coat from the airless room full of slumbering travelers.
She wanted those answers now after all.
The back gate was locked this time. Chiyo shook the iron-wrought access again before glancing over her shoulder. It wasn’t really breaking in, merely a hop over the fence, though the mental reassurance wasn’t much to keep the sweat from moistening her palms. Boots pressed to the bars, she vaulted herself up and over, taking care not to snag her clothes on the decorative tips.
Slinking through the shadows, the little writer still in her night clothes bypassed the flowering bushes and approached the rear door. A try at the knob found it too was bolted. Chiyo considered knocking, but the odds of anyone hearing her seemed slim. Her only hope was to try the front door and sheepishly ask for the photographer by name.
“Oh yes, a complete stranger calling in the middle of the night, nothing to worry about. Please don’t get the authorities…” The recorder in her coat pocket bounced hard against her leg as she crept forward through the quiet garden, minding the thorns and sculpted topiaries.
Timidly she rounded the front steps and stood by the stately ingress while summoning the nerve to reach for the glossy knocker. Chiyo nearly gasped when her fingers met the brass, recognizing the contorted shape as that of a terrifying monster of mythology. Envy with its many limbs held the ball aloft, painstakingly detailed from what soft light illuminated the surface.
The idea to come here was rapidly losing the original appeal. The owner of the estate could be equally as odd, Solas’ invite had warned her of some of the peculiarities. She’d come all this way though. There wouldn’t be another trolley to take her home for several hours. Quite the walk without anything gained in return…
Her hunger for truth won over the nervousness that clenched in Chiyo’s belly. She firmly gripped the knocker and struck in a determined series.
Panic bolted through her nerves upon the door’s almost immediate opening, she’d had no time to prepare or compose.
“You’re rather premature; the Master was not expecting company for another hour.” A cool and proper voice decreed even before the entrance was fully opened. Chiyo stared at the human in a black, simple suit who gestured without so much as an odd glance to see her into the manor’s vestibule.
“I… I’m sorry?” She tried not to stammer as her thick-soled shoes trotted onto the dark granite cut into a remarkable herringbone pattern. With a wobble she reached to pull them off before the prim man could ask her to do just that.
“May I take your…” He did eye the peculiar state of her dress, not even the hem of her decorative cover or lacy nightgown poked out beneath the knee-length edge of her outer coat. Bare legs and clunky boots, not exactly the most comely of attire. “…Shoes, lady? The flooring is expensive.”
Chiyo was relieved when he skipped asking for her outerwear, she handed over the staple but dirty explorer’s gear before realizing exactly how unclean they actually were. She could see mud crusted in the laces and a few green smears from her recent jog through the jungle.
With gloves so white and spotless they practically glistened, she was embarrassed to see him remove her well-worn footwear, toting them off to the adjacent coat closet.
“Come, he’ll see you upstairs.” Like a lost and increasingly distracted child, she allowed herself to be herded up the spiraling banister, every bend in the stucco-ed well was distractingly decorated with stupendous art. Gilded frames bordered imposing canvas, the subject matter, however, seemed to lose more clothing with each rising step.
The second-floor hall was almost excessively adorned. These paintings were nothing like the modern interpretation viewed in the rear of the estate, left to the shadows almost forgotten. Here stood titillating masterpieces that could never be viewed openly or in public, not with the stuffy laws of morality governed by the far-reaching Chantry.
Once again she felt the warmth begin to rise in her face. Chiyo was no stranger to viewing art of nudity and sex. She’d survived countless art classes and museum tours, the Dalish themselves held little shame when it came to the natural state of their bodies. But some of the images took hold of base debauchery and ran wild with it. Certainly some of these positions were not physically possible, not in the mortal realm of reality, though the few Desire demons thrown into the mix seemed unphased by those paltry limitations…
Her spine and hips ached even considering… Oh dear.
A clearing of a courteous throat stole her attentions away from the last painting she’d fallen into beside the destined door. Chiyo’s heart lurched into her throat when the butler gave a stiff and shallow bow forward, gloved hand issuing towards the engraved access. With a deft twist, he rotated the handle and held it open for her to step inside.
“Good evening.” His flat tone crimped on her ear, edging on the polite side of insinuation.
With barely a foot inside the door, Chiyo was shoved forward by the attendant’s just as sudden departure. The latch clicked hard behind her and she was left alone in the dark, steamy boudoir. For as lavish and galleried as the hall had been, the bedroom was oddly devoid of any imagery. Only draped fabric and mirrors and cozy, cushioned furniture. A musky waft of perfume slipped softly beneath her nose as the slosh of water made her press against the closed ingress.
If there was ever a time to regret her decision to follow that lead, she couldn’t think of a better one.
A voice that was too smooth for the petulant whine the words carried came from behind the gauzy swathing of curtains that quartered off the apartment. “My, my, is my guest that early and eager? Please, don’t let me keep you waiting, make yourself comfortable…”
Chapter 5: Fickle Phantom Folly
A big thanks to rogenlavell!
A solid form arose from warm, dancing shadows caught behind the thin fibers of translucent drapes. One sculpted head, paired by round shoulders and a long torso darkened the divide as a dripping brown arm slipped through and dipped into the nearest basket for a fresh towel.
“You must be new, I just hope not too new. Perhaps all the rumors brought you so promptly. The lurid legend of Dorian Pavus must be astonishing, suspect to leave one quivering with anticipation. I dare say, every word is true.” He chuckled, certainly pleased with himself, limbs limber and stretching in veiled display. “Sit while you can darling.”
From the curtained bath stepped a man very different from the elf she’d abandoned in haste two levels below. Solidly human by ear and build, impeccably shaped, elegantly mustached, burnished skin a glisten, his black hair teased from beneath a small towel, another only marginally larger hung dangerously loose from his hips. Even naked, he glowed with opulence and privilege. Oil and candlelight worked their hazy charm, seductive even, under different circumstances.
Yet this second dweller also had her feet itching to run for the front door. A window would suffice, were any to open with a merciful gale, if it meant a prompt escape from the awkward and frightening situation.
“Speechless? Have I dazzled you already into a stupor?” With a haughty huff, he threw the towel he’d been drying his face with aside and in an instant the initial impassioned embers of his hazel eyes were blinked away, adjoined by an uncertain cough. “Well… they certainly don’t send me people like you often. I think there has been a slight error with a few devilish details.”
“What do you mean people like me, like elves?” Chiyo bristled, her rigid back pulled away from the door it had been plastered to. “And no one sent me, I came here of my own accord.”
“Oh yes, it’s the elf part that’s peculiar. Ha!” The Tevinter man dropped onto the nearest lounge, more or less mindful of his devious covering. “You’re cute. I’ll give you that, not my type, though. Call it a… lack of substance, or just that awful coat as a turn-off. But I’m afraid there’s no coin here to be earned tonight, my lady, as I have other arrangements and I never pay a professional in person. It’s vulgar.”
The short silence that spanned between them was bruising and terse as she processed his flowery words and felt the barbs hidden within.
“… a professional?”
Dorian, as he’d dubbed himself lifted a crafted brow. “A courtesan, harlot, mistress, embodiment of carnal desire. Don’t play so coy. Smoldering temptress would be more becoming. And lace, not white. You don’t have the posture for satin, it would wrinkle.”
She’d been called many snide and rude things in her dispersed travels, but never once had her vocation been so offensively confused, “I am not a prostitute, Ser.”
“Then what in Andraste’s burning blazes are you doing in my summer abode at this hour?” He was already reaching for the nearest wall plate, probably to summon someone to escort her away—directly to the police if she had any inkling. His hand hovered above the button below the inset speaker, waiting for an answer.
Because you’re hearing voices come out of your recorder, because a weird man showed you pictures of ghosts in the cellar, because you’ve lost your mind trying to advance your career, because if you don’t get this one right you’ll have to move out of yet another tiny apartment and probably have to live with your mother…
“I’m a writer, researching mysterious findings newly unearthed in ancient ruins.” She couldn’t lie, at least not with any poise or skill; the truth would have to be a good enough banner to fly beneath. “There’s an interview I need that can’t wait till morning. The photographer in your basement has information—”
“Solas? That dog, he didn’t even tell me he was here tonight!” Dorian slapped his leg with surprise. “Are you his inamorata? I’ve never seen him with a woman, but what a terrible cover story you’ve concocted to hide your liaisons! Like he has any shame worth shrouding that would hold a candle to mine.”
A hard blush hit her cheeks, standing scarlet against Chiyo’s ashen hair and fresh tan. “I just met him yesterday!”
“All the better,” he stood and meandered to his dresser, fetching a hung robe and slipping it on just as dampened decorum, at last, fell away. “If ever there was a man who needed a distraction from himself it’s that one. His eyes look too long on the departed. A touch of real would set him right. Pictures simply cannot satisfy empty hands left wanting.”
“Can we please talk about something else, anything else?” The elf pleaded, hiding her face behind scrunched hands at the first hint of revealed, perky cheeks and toned thighs.
“Only if you stop barricading my doors like an ill-placed statue. If it’s ghost stories you actually want, you’ll have to suffer through mine too. My steamy night shall not be the only one put on ice.”
Sightless, she felt for a chair, afraid to peek beyond a sliver between obstructive fingers. Onto an overstuffed settee, Chiyo stumbled where she promptly affixed her blindered vision onto the decorative stitching on a pillow.
“Would you bring our furtive visitant up please, and some wine—at least seven years—while you’re there. Send anyone else away. Thank you.” Dorian lifted a finger from a button beside his looking-glass before he selected a comb to amend his wasted, sultry state of dishevelment. A touch of wax to the mustache and a dab of cologne behind the ear completed the ritual.
“So are you another pursuer of phantoms and detective of dreams like Solas or were you pulled into this web by mistake? The fellow finds the most unusual of company, but I bet the same could be said of our odd relationship.” He stroked his smooth chin in the mirror, then, one by one, he began to slip the gold loops from his digits and ears. A plink and a ringy-wobble, each thin band was retired for the evening. “Now he floats in and out of my life, stories just tantalizing enough to keep me utterly hooked... Oh, could it be the scornful tale of a lady drawn by the pauper into a castle not his own? Falsely rich and dashing, she falls for the deception until the real prince returns.”
“Like I said, it’s just an interview,” Chiyo assured as she studied the swirling beadwork until her corneas began to burn from the prolonged focus.
Another laugh, but this one sounded less the thrown dagger. “It was just a drink, a curious conversation over coffee, and now I have a living, breathing haunt of my own with keys to my houses.”
Once again, without a knock or warning, the door opened and a sleepy guest was submitted by a pair of white gloves. The butler stepped in only to place the requested wine upon the entry table with the accompanying glasses. Short of even the shallowest of bows, he was gone again.
“Solas! Speak his name thrice and the specter appears.” The eccentric gentleman set his hands to pray. “Though a little moaning or chain rattling would have been a nice forewarning.”
Bleary-eyed and yawning, Solas rubbed his brow with the sleeve of his sweater.
“Was pulling me from bed truly necessary? I was going to find you tomorrow with new materials readied. Patience is not your strongest virtue and smudges on my prints are an unneeded signature to your patronage.”
“I wouldn’t have even known of your presence if you hadn’t invited over the press to my bedroom in the middle of the night. What a state to be found in,” Dorian pulled the wide yawn of his robe closed tight to his throat. “I’ll never feel safe to undress again, not when just anyone could discover me so vulnerable.”
Solas blinked and shook his head as if he’d misheard, but a slow pan of the room soon had his awakening gaze firmly set upon the uneasy creature hiding on the sofa. “Writer?”
“With a purpose this time,” Chiyo waggled her fingers in meek greeting. “Although ending up in this… boudoir wasn’t a part of my original plan.”
“What are you doing here then? I thought you’d deemed me insane and fled back to the safe surety of your trackless words.” His attention to her became speckled with curtness, there was a distinct soreness in his voice that the elf seemed intent on easing with a draught of wine. The cork popped free and a rapid glug marked the fullness of his glass.
Perhaps she shouldn’t have been so haste to dismiss him after pressing hard for information. She could have just given him his film and moved on, the whispered words simply marked as poor audio feedback. Instead, she’d barged her way in and pried for secrets, only to refuse them upon receipt.
Chiyo slouched, sheepish for her rebuff of needled truth. “I needed someone to make me feel less crazy, actually… something happened after we parted. There’s no explanation for it…”
“A change of heart,” Solas knocked back a large mouthful, his throat roughened by the acrid liquor. “Or did a spirit whisper rude phrases in your ear?”
From her coat pocket she fetched the recorder, its light flashed blue like a dying pulse, power cells near drained. She offered it up by the strap, almost afraid to touch much of the unnerving little device. “Funny you should mention that. I think you’ll find a segment towards the end rather peculiar. Don’t waste the battery, I didn’t want to risk replacing it.”
Now he was interested, all past transgressions forgiven in an instant. Solas, with a quick exchange of hands, had a half-empty glass traded for the journalist’s nifty tool. He fondled the buttons, unsure of which to press first. “Tell me plain, what have you brought me?”
“You captured a face,” Chiyo locked eyes with a pair of sharper blue. Accompanied by the dark circles that hung beneath Solas’ lids, weariness soon fled and was replaced by intrigue. “I might have snagged a sliver of their voice.”
“Is it raunchy, like an eons old affair?” Dorian tittered, measuring out a drink to wet his tongue with though it needed no further loosening. “Or at the least earth-shattering. The dead shouldn’t waste their time discussing anything less than the meaning of life and which nobles were sneaking side dishes behind their spouses’ backs.”
“Show me.” There was a tremor of excitement in his hands as he joined her on the settee. “Please.”
Juggling the glass, Chiyo showed him the tiny switch and adjusted the volume as high as it would go. Crinkling static emitted from the box as two pointed ears pressed in, joined by a rounder one who leaned over the sofa’s high back.
Dorian puckered his lips after several empty seconds went on wasted. “I don’t hear anything. If this is part of your game—”
“Shh!” The elves in his bedroom were quick to reinforce the silence.
Now that she was listening to it, the words were slightly less eerie the second time. Chiyo’s heart raced regardless, though she’d never blame the proximity of the weary man beside her, only the exhilaration of discovery.
A soft male voice, hardly more than an audible whisper emerged from the static. “…ash'inan laim… lasa esh’ala itha.”
“Someone’s eyes don’t… no, their ability to recognize is damaged… they want her to see… see what?” Solas had closed his eyes, focusing on the phantom speech and translated to the best of his knowledge. He stumbled, unmindful to that he was being watched, his own tongue snagging as he mouthed the words back, but it was a valiant effort.
Chiyo had seen it before, that same broken look about the face of an elder who reached for a term no longer there but the memory remained somewhere deep in their blood. The younger elves seldom bothered to try, perhaps too removed and unaware of what had been lost and how much had changed in just the last few generations.
“Leal banal'rasen sil o'tarem.” A new voice, another one, deeper and more audible than the first. Chiyo hadn’t heard it when she’d pitched the device aside.
“The… the darkness, it’s… Oh, rasen, rasen, raaaasen…” The bald elf paused and pressed the recorder to his temple.
“Weather, or raining… or maybe it’s…” Chiyo picked her own brain and found it lacking as well like the pages of a book long ago torn out and lost.
But lightning struck them both in unison and the answer came forth. “Cloud!”
“Yes, it’s clouding judgment, they should alleviate the cause.” Solas beamed and awaited anything more.
Dorian clapped, equally amused by their guessing game. “This is a fun sport, but I don’t know the rules!” Once again he was hushed and preemptively filled his busy mouth with wine instead of more chatter.
The next bit was acutely heated and spoken too passionately for much clarity. A garble came first though the tail-end could just barely be made out. “—elvar'nas melanane tarsul em'an!”
“An evil has befallen.” Solas was more confident in his choice. His knee began to bounce with animated eagerness; the tempo only grew with another long stint of static blurred muteness.
In her own heated excitement, overtaken by the energies vibrating through the room, Chiyo found too late the edge of the glass already pressed between her lips and the rush of pungent alcohol coursed across her tongue. Not to mention it was a glass used by a practical stranger, her face grew flush again… Perhaps there was no harm in it, he’d handed it to her absentmindedly after all, though there was a strange intimacy in the mistaken offer normally reserved for those closer espoused.
He wasn’t Dalish. It shouldn’t matter at all. Custom or not. Plus the wine was delicious, albeit robust. She steeled herself to drain the glass. There. Now he couldn’t drink after her and she could put her mind temporarily at ease.
One more string of words had inked out, and she’d missed them to her own obtrusive thoughts.
“I do not… shall not fail or, maybe falter is more suitable in this instance. And the last word, brother, a strong male bond.” Solas at long last opened his eyes again when nothing new emitted, he quickly found the marker to reverse the copy, intent of giving it another listen.
“Oh, that gave me the shivers.” Dorian shuddered through his gleefulness. “Look at my arms, almost goose-fleshed! Now that is what I call riveting evidence! But how do we spread the information? There will be nay-sayers and calls for speculation, hoax and fraud come to mind…”
Strumming the bowl of his wineglass with the manicured edge of his nails, the Tevinter-bred man began to wander about his apartment, lost wholly to his verbalized considerations.
“Well…” Part of her hoped the lyrium would run out this time, least she have to relive again the preserved embarrassment. “I’m ready to listen if you’re still interested in sharing what you know.”
Solas’ initial elation had begun to cool, now it seemed processing what he’d heard had taken over his faculties. “Somethings are best shown for what they are, there are few words that I can offer that would explain what has taken years of constant search into consumable understanding.”
“You know,” Chiyo relaxed into the comforts of her seat at last. “Someone once told me that if one could not explain something simply enough that a child could grasp it, then they themselves were the ones who did not wholly comprehend.”
“That would be true if there was an exact science to what I do, but even now I must make guesses and experiment until results are achieved. This is not a field many come upon naturally.” With a click, the recording resumed with its recount of notes made hours before she’d ever met him. Like a personal journal being laid out on display, Chiyo clenched her jaw and pleaded silently with the gods that nothing too embarrassing would come blurting out.
Maybe she could distract him, knowing too well the difficulties of talking and listening all at once. “Then start with how you came about such an obscure hobby?”
“I had a dream.” His luring statement was too simple and innocent.
Following it was sure to be one hell of a nug-hole with unknowable twists and turns. Those were her favorite leads.
“Tell me about it.”
Oh dear, it was going to be a long night indeed.
Chapter 6: Bedfellow Bedlam
*tweaked the last section just a little* 7/24
Every morning, no matter which country’s border she’d crossed or time zone entered, Chiyo had gone through much the same routine without exception.
Roll out of a bed or a cot within an hour of sunrise. Spend upwards of a solid minute doing nothing more than stare blankly in any given direction. Push the untamed demon that was waved white hair off her face. Threaten to crop it off entirely, stylish trends be damned. Find the nearest sink to wash. Wrangle her appearance into being just presentable enough to forage for an easy breakfast. And it always had to have that one special, rejuvenating cup of tea. Only then would she be transformed from surly beast to polite person, as cruel a curse as any to befall a young lady.
For this daily juncture, she was at all times alone, unsuited to be in the presence of more civilized folk. Not even her family would come within speaking range, a lesson learned from a series of endless abrasive dawns.
This morning, however, was much different from the standard she’d kept the last several years.
Her mouth opened first with a yawn, dry tongue trapped behind her teeth pried free from the sticky, sour residue left by liquor and a lack of pre-sleep dental hygiene. The initial shift of her stiff legs sent a large book toppling from her lap to thud against the carpet, another motion, and a heavy bottle dropped to roll across the floor. The noise awoke a terrible pounding in her head, a mallet’s echo within her skull. Before Chiyo could even open her eyes she began to suffer the pains of her strange evening.
Somewhere in the dissipating fog around her memory, she recalled a second—or maybe it was a third— sequence of drinks passed about to soothe the exhaustive efforts of extended speech that came with the recounting of elaborate tales. There’d been the wine of course… and something cold, with ginger? The half-dressed host himself had gone for ice, yammering about never having it chipped just the way he liked.
Chiyo shaded her face from the encroaching sunlight as she tried to sit up straight, having spent the night crammed into the high-backed and angular corner of the sofa. Uncomfortable weight had her all but pinned to the spot. Snuggly nestled with a warmth that came from nearby flesh, actualized dread forced her sore eyes to part and peer upon the encumbrance leaning into her side.
Snoring softly, his sleepy breath ruffled a few stray hairs from the form of his mustache, Dorian didn’t so much as flinch when the woman beside him clapped her hand over her mouth to stop an indecorous screech.
With the timidity and care of unseating a dragon’s egg from its fire-flanked nest, Chiyo inched her way out of the human-shaped trap. Floppy arms had to be lifted and set aside, pillows wedged in, his head cradled just so. With a cautious twist, the last of her came loose. Dorian slumped to fill in the opened space and continued his uninterrupted slumber atop the outer-coat she’d sloughed off in the night.
On tiptoe, she slunk out of the bedroom, stepping delicately around abandoned glasses tinted with their former contents. Books lay open on their spines and in precarious stacks. Maps fanned out, crisscrossed with pictures and documents. But the room was void of one other occupant with no telling as to when he’d forsaken her to such a distressing fate.
The door was left ajar less than a handbreadth. She grimaced as the brassy hinges threatened to squeak ever so slightly, any noise deemed to be an alarm to her escape. After an eternity it was just wide enough to slip through. Hair-trigger tensed reflexes managed to pull the door shut again without a sound, only then did she breathe a sigh of relief.
But the drop in defenses only made her nervous once more.
With a snap, she spun around and inspected the hall. No sarcasm laced comments awaited. No Solas poised to scare her this time. That spook of a man had already created a rather flustering habit for himself. However, this morning, he was nowhere to be seen.
Now, to locate her shoes and retrieve the recorder. Then she could get out of here before anything in addition happened. Maybe it wasn’t too late to go back and teach Common if this was the direction her career was taking. Grading papers would certainly have fewer surprises. Probably paid better too.
In her quick crawl through the manor, her luck seemed to change for the better. She found a lavatory that was almost too nice to use. Black marble on every surface and mercury glass throughout, a claw-footed tub big with room plenty for a quartet of bathers. The toilette alone looked to be worth more than her miserable salary, bonuses included.
Her hair, teeth, and attire might be unsalvageable, but at least she wasn’t going to piddle on an imported rug or the trolley stop.
A prim maid on the first floor refused to answer in any language or play pantomime as Chiyo pointed to her bare feet. The woman’s march continued, nose nearly turned up at the sight of a small elf in her less-than-immaculate night clothes, a loaded laundry basket more important than the lost vagrant. Were staff members always this rude, or was she truly so out of place to deserve scorn?
There had to be someone here who would talk to her. She picked the direction the maid had come from. Where was that butler now when she needed him, he’d stashed her belongings after all. Down the side hall she went in a stomp, her mind focused with determination no matter how peculiarly unbefitting she seemed. Empty room after empty room, the ache in her head only mounted with her frustration.
Finally, at the end of the corridor, the very last set of swinging double doors appeared to have some kind of life contained behind them with the gentle clink of dishes and a shadow’s crossing of the light that leaked out onto the polished floor. Chest puffed, hand extended, she approached the entrance and gave it a swift push.
“I want my shoes!” Chiyo demanded of the unknown occupant, but the moment the words left her lips she wished them pulled back in.
“…Good morning to you too.” Solas turned to look over his shoulder from his placid lean against the counter, a rare gap amid the myriad of copper pots and tableware in a cookery that likely dwarfed her entire rented living space. Golden marmalade dripped from the piece of dark bread that hadn’t quite made it to his mouth. “Quarter till eleven if you hadn’t noticed. Certainly a late start. There won’t be much daylight left by the time we get there.”
Her brow slowly pulled together in confusion, she glanced to either side of herself before drawing together a doubtful response. He wasn’t speaking to anyone else by mistake unless they were invisible.
“When we get where?”
“The lakes near Carastes. The inspection of the gravesites,” Solas picked up a small plate from a tidy stack and added to it another slice of the grainy loaf he’d just begun to tuck into. With precision, he set the simple offering just out of her reach. “You wanted to examine the tombs where humans have been historically buried over native elves. Does none of this sound familiar?”
More allured by the warming kettle than the soft bread, Chiyo sidled a few steps forward, tempted also by the bowl of bright butter. He could keep the sweet jam, her stomach turned at the thought of introducing anything so sugary. “To me, yes, but I don’t remember inviting… anyone else… along...”
And then it dawned just as she took to sit on a simple stool. Her backup plan, in case the lead in Qarinus proved wrong. She’d divulged the rest of her trip to two anomalous men in the middle of the night. The maps, the books, they’d decided the local the next treasure trove of encounters with the spectral and arcane.
“I’m never going to drink ever again.” Chiyo groaned, head in her hands. A little porcelain teacup came to rest beside her untouched plate. Steamy water followed suit, and a tiny metal ball packed with dried leaves clinked as it was dropped in. Her magic brew waited, but she wasn’t quite ready to become a person just yet.
“You fared better than most that come to his parties.” Solas turned back to his modest breakfast, licking the citrus preserve from his fingers as he went. “I’ve witnessed more than one person ride upon the stuffed wyvern he keeps in the salon after a few of cocktails. Last night was the celebration of discovery, much less a humiliating matter. Call it a communal melding of likened minds believed to be on the brink of changing history.”
“You know,” Chiyo cradled the piping hot cup and blew it gently before taking her first sip. “The more you talk the less I seem to like you. Everything sounds to be an insult just waiting to be tripped over.”
“Oh?” There was that little chuckle of his, reserved and reined in, it only served to infuriate Chiyo more as his tone changed with a subtly that left her skin tingling.
“I didn’t realize you liked me at all. Curious indeed, for a writer you aren’t particularly careful with words, are you?”
It didn’t start in her cheeks, but a flush from chest to forehead rivaled the temperature of the aromatic tea.
“Let me collect your things then, if you desire so to be on your way.” Her head turned only soon enough to catch a flickered smirk as he left the kitchen.
Mythal guide her, if she blushed one more time trying to get this interview completed she’d go back to Orlesian tabloids, no, even worse. Back to correcting commas in business adverts.
It’s not too late, you know. This is an adventure, running away now will lead to regrets later. They could be murderers, this could be a ploy. No, you’ve been reading too many crime serials on the road. You’ve never teamed up with anyone before; they’ll affect your interpretation of the facts. This is different. This is dangerous!
The self-talk wasn’t helping, yet there she was, hoisting her rucksack high above her head and shoving it into the small cubby above the narrow booth of musty seats. Counsel and rebuttal, but this time her logic wasn’t winning over what instinct insisted.
A whistle blew, warning all the passengers of the old train that their departure was imminent and that the engine was primed. While in motion, the massive reactors were safe, cooled continuously by the rush of air. The latest lines were equipped with more efficient coolants, emissions completely contained inside the hull. But in older models like the rachitic relics serving the Tevinter coast and other declined areas, the pent up exhaust posed hazard to any unfortunate enough to be near one of the many vents. Any moment now, they'd have to leave, no passenger too important to risk a cracked container or full-blown eruption.
Yet even late as she was, having spent most of the afternoon debating and spurning herself, packing and unpacking in a vicious cycle of doubt, Chiyo’s erroneously invited companions still hadn’t shown. The note slipped into her coat pocket had been clear. This train, at such and such time, and that there’d be a ticket paid in her name ready if she were serious about the investigation.
Second whistle, pertinently shrill and joined by the call of a crewman. Maybe they’d changed their minds, believing her to be the Dalish savage from the south. Ready to exact revenge for generations of exploitation and domination, she’d sacrifice them both to appease her wrathful gods. That one made her snort aloud, earning a sharp side-eye from a wrinkled passenger across the aisle.
Maybe he was just like everyone else she'd met here. Kindness that only reached the level of indifference, civility as culture demanded, but internally wishing she were simply someplace else, being someone else's problem.
Perhaps he’d only set this whole trip up to shake her and her insolent questions…
Wouldn't be the first time someone had purposely gotten rid of her. Or the second, for the matter.
Plopping into the seat by the window, the one without an ugly, dark stain splashed across the worn velvet headrest, Chiyo made one last check of her satchel: various snacks, traveling papers, chewed up, stubby pencils, spare lyrium batteries stored prudently in a case, a bottle of bear repellent her cousin had given her that was getting so shabby-looking that the instructions had become illegible. Thumbing the lid, she wondered its potency against people—in a dire emergency of course—they’d proven more frightening over the years than most animals.
Maybe she was going to Carastes by herself after all. But instead of liberation or happiness, an unaccustomed sense of disappointment began to dampen her mood. Great undertakings were rare and far between, what were they really if experienced alone?
A discontented sigh leaked through her lips as the train gave its first lurch forward, the glass in the window rattled against the elbow she’d propped there. So much for what could have been.
It’s for the better. If you say so…
Another piece of luggage slid into place above her head. Great, let it be a woman with a squalling infant or gassy dog, then her misery would be complete. “Room for one more?”
Chiyo pulled back her legs from their sprawl across the gap. “Yeah, sure—"
But registry came second as the sound of a familiar voice stole her gaze from its broody hold on her tote and reaffixed it upon the quiet interrupter.
A lone bald elf stood in the center walkway, bearing an almost identical look of disbelief until a heavy suitcase came close to striking him as it was swung by an undiligent traveler. Good, it wasn't just her then. Pointed ears still must be unfashionable as ever here.
"You're late." She couldn't feign much irritability amid a rush of newly sprung joy.
Solas brushed the near threadbare trousers he wore before sitting down. “I had to pick up a new lens for my camera, but I’m glad to have something to test it on so soon. I must admit, I wasn’t certain I’d see you again.”
“Not the only one who can manage a surprise, I'd hate to be predictable.” Once again Chiyo’s tone slipped its leash. Maybe she’d be wiser to use the bear mace on herself before another fool-hearted word reared its head. Shocked by her own response, she quickly altered the course of her conversation. “But where’s Dorian? I thought he was more excited about this trip than either of us.”
Taking to the space beside her, Solas also avoided the unwelcomely discolored opposite seat. “Ser Pavus does not believe in public transport. It makes him rather ill.”
“Of course it does…” It took every ounce of willpower not to roll her eyes but none remained to contain a smug little smirk. “I guess we’ll have to travel deprived of his wit and ceaseless charm. However will we fill in the time?”
“You could tell me more about yourself.” She shouldn’t be watching his mouth, pleasing as it may be, but the quirk in the corner soon matched her own. The charismatic shape was trouble enough, but the words it formed spelled more. “For all the questioning I know practically nothing about my interrogator.”
“I’m not that remarkable.” For once, bless the heavens, her face remained calm and blotch-less. The professional in her cried for a notebook, from her bag it was selected and flipped to a fresh page, pencil ready. “These, eluvians as you called them, now those sound fascinating.”
“I believe I was only compensated for one interview. And last night was your sole pro-bono.” Asshole. The lead cracked as she pressed too firm. There he went, turned vexing once more. “You’ll have to bargain for another.”
“Fine." She rifled for another writing utensil. "What do you want this time? More food?”
“Where are you from?” He was quick with that one. Chiyo wasn’t used to being asked much in the way of anything personal. “Your accent is not obviously placed. Not breathy enough for Orlais, not barking like a Fereldener. Antivan is more through the nose than anything else.”
“The Free Marches, originally.” The truth, it was simple and clean. Harmless information, anyone could learn such details if they tried hard enough. “This year I’m in Redcliffe, Kirkwall last year, Denerim for a stint before that, next is anyone’s guess. Lydes keeps offering an ‘internship’, but they only want to pay in experience.”
“Ahh, that explains it.” Solas perched his chin into his palm, lazy fingers stretched up the tilted side of his face. “Dalish through and through. Rootlessness, homelessness, or is it just inborn wanderlust?”
“I believe it’s my turn to ask a question." Chiyo shook her head in refusal. This was her trip, her article, it would not be so easily misdirected. "If eluvians were real at one point in history, how did they work, and why have I never heard of them before?”
“Continuously after my biggest and most prized secrets. Have it your way, writer.”
Dangerous indeed. But if that were true, she’d better learn to stop smiling so much.
Chapter 7: A Misstep in Manners
Thanks belongs to Llynnyia, my muse, my flame!
Loss of light was certainly an understatement; it was going to be pitch-black by the time they made it to their destination on the western edge of the lakes. Inevitable delays and stalled stops had whittled the day down to the nub with a few miles remaining before them still.
Her strange companion showed enviable mastery in an unteachable skill after the last lull in their conversation settled. In the midst of crowded clamor, he'd drifted far from the discomforts rendered unescapable to Chiyo and resumed the realm of dreams that beckoned him so.
A twinge of jealousy that prodded the scrunched journalist's nerves was an unwelcome guest in an already congested head of emotions.
Perhaps she shouldn't generalize, wide-swept assumptions always proved too porous. But there was a degree of unfairness in how easily men could fall, and stay asleep. And this one seemed intent to prove he could perform such a feat just about anywhere.
Maybe if it had stayed quiet, she too could have slipped away and consciously checked out of her more protected cloister by the window seat. Silence or stillness, she'd accept either. The end of the train bounced on decades old axles, each anomaly in the track rebounded within the already rocky ride.
Bumped by every side-stepping passenger on their way to the privy, Solas took the assaults unflinchingly. A shift inwards after each collision to the slumped shoulder, unguarded elbow, and ill-cocked, long-legged knee soon had him removed from immediate jeopardy. The seats weren't particularly long, and soon her own scant space was heavily encroached upon, the polite inches afforded earlier now revoked. At least his wasn't a full-bodied, smothering lean, but the press of hip and thigh distracted Chiyo's thoughts away from the coughing, sneezing, snoring, prattling, nattering, crying, and grinding of the world around her.
These were terrible conditions. Scripting words was a delicate matter best saved for comfortable chairs that didn't leave ones shoulders aching, desks wide enough for notes to all have a proper place, lighting that on no occasion left eyes to sting or squint, and above all, a sacred serenity that came with knowing exactly what was to be written before ever setting it to print.
Beneath the intermittent glow of a single lyrium-laced line in the ceiling her draft failed to grow, let alone blossom, into an article worth the paper and lead she was using to cultivate something with time left fallow.
This was exactly why real writers arranged their interviews. On separate sofas. Piping hot coffee. Set schedules. Clear-cut goodbyes. They most certainly would not have allowed for the unprincipled acts of fleeing from the authorities, midnight drinking sprees in nightdresses, or hopping the next train together in a jaunt across the countryside— to chase ghosts of all things.
She was a fraud with a degree. A little girl with ink stains on her trousers, playing a game of hats.
The first rule of journalism was to have a plan and stick to it. The second, and more significant at present, was not come into such close vicinity with a contact that she could feel the sweat beading behind her knees and had to loosen the first button on her collar to prevent overheating.
Well, that may have been a little melodramatic—the second rule was to stay composed. The reality of the window nearest to her being jammed shut on the stifling train didn't help in the matter. But it certainly wasn't the Tevinter summer to blame for wreaking havoc on her mischievous thoughts.
Chiyo drew the line at looking upon the guilty party's reposed face, having no wish to see exactly how long Solas' lashes lay against high cheekbones or the pouty part his mouth had taken on. A precursory glance didn't count. The second was an accident too.
Grown women did not need to leer at men. And she was not going to become some creepy lech on the train over an innocent brush of thigh.
Professional pursuits and attentions shouldn't be sparking such abhorrent interests in a man whose appearance failed to distract from a prideful personality. Broad shoulder be damned! He'd have taken no notice of her were it not for their shared goal or her miraculous find. Once this was over, all would become calm again and she could forget the more fascinating details about his body for good.
From the fore a screech of breaks broke the relative hush, soon they'd slow and be free.
Chiyo began to shove her belongings back into the slender canvas bag on her lap. If only her emotions could be so easily stowed.
This is nothing more than circumstantial allure, born of convenience and chance. Yeah. Really cute chance. Stop that!
Maybe she was working too much, the memory of her most recent social outing seemed rather dusty and stale. No one agreeable had asked her to dinner in months, or more honestly—years. Of course, there had been propositions. And just as many calling cards thrown immediately into the rubbish bin.
Careers lasted longer than fruitless dates better left declined. Her first amateur position had been lengthier and more satisfying than her most extensive, and failed, relationships. The nature of most men was just too frivolous to warrant a lady's better-applied energies, though that ideation gave no excuse for unsolicited behavior on her part.
A modern woman she may be, but she'd been raised better than this.
Even when her eyes obeyed, the nose below betrayed, unable to escape the gentle aroma that permeated off his person. She was teased by a unique smell she'd not perceived before, unnoticed in the mildewed ruins or the riverside cafe or the noxious photo lab or the musky boudoir. It was subtle and stayed close to his being. Words from a perfume advertisement she'd trimmed up in Orlais surfaced and faded: phenolic, chypre, fougère, all too pompous and pretentious to match what baited her nostrils without mercy.
Maybe if she leaned a tad closer, she could describe the elusive qualities better. For research purposes, of course. Just in case this field didn't pan out…
Then—as Chiyo shifted in her seat—he turned and nearly rolled into her to evade his latest assailant.
Heavily pregnant and hoisting a drowsy toddler around on her already widened hip, the encumbered lady who squeezed by would have had to consciously try to hit the side of the seat any harder than she did.
Chiyo froze in the commotion, sweltering in the earned punishment for her perversion.
Oh no… No, no, no.
Those could not be the tips of lengthy, lethargic fingers grazing against her lower arm or a head within inches of resting upon her shoulder. Blunted nails skimmed across a few inches of skin, signaling a static charge to the fine, exposed hairs just under the rolled up sleeve that had at the time been a source of reprieve from the heat.
The train could explode at any time now, its obsolete engine given permission to extinguish her suffering. Lightning aimed precisely at her seat would suffice. A humane heart attack embraced with a welcome like a lost friend. The Maker, or Andraste, or Falon'Din take her, she wouldn't be choosy as long as she died before he woke up.
There was nothing quite like a twilight stroll down an old road to relieve the strains of a six-hour train ride. A whisper of a breeze cooled her overheated skin and dried the damp from her curls. Its touch the only one she'd accept, having been harried twice too many times that day already by the hands of odd men. She'd implode if he, or anyone, touched her again. Best steer clear for a time and let the overstimulation work free from her system.
The crunch of gravel beneath Chiyo's boots kept an earnest pace, a heel-to-toe quickness resolved on staying at least a yard ahead of the man following behind her.
Her shadow stretched further out still in the low hang of Solas' oily lantern light that illuminated their path as the sun's diminishing afterglow slipped away. Darkened blacks and purples were left to take over where bright blues and golds had been just moments earlier.
Membranous-winged creatures cut across the sky, flitting through the trees in search of insects now that their feathered rivals had gone to roost. As long as they stayed airborne, Chiyo gave the bats only a wary eye, but she'd turn swatting fiend if one so much as came within striking zone.
"You could slow down a smidge. We have all evening and then some." His placating voice did well to obscure yet not fully hide the demands and windedness her brisk march taxed him with. The length of his legs was no match for a small woman's need to ventilate her pent up energies. "These spirits have waited for untold ages, what are a few minutes more."
"You don't have a deadline hanging over your head. My landlord won't be so patient when rent comes late—or never. I can't pay in photographs like some." Chiyo huffed as the outline of an archway finally came into view. Its iron face was flanked by gnarly fieldstone boundaries choked over with unmanaged brambles. Seldom visited, the upkeep appeared kept at a minimum. Elves were bad for the economy, she'd heard that said in many ways in many places, some spoken, some not. There was little money to be made off their prior sufferings. Unprofitable sites were frequently abandoned—or held in 'trust'.
Seldom visited, the upkeep appeared kept at a minimum. Elves were bad for the economy, she'd heard that said in many ways in many places, some spoken, some not. There was little money to be made off their prior sufferings. Unprofitable sites were frequently abandoned—or held in 'trust'.
"Please don't believe I meant that in jest. Only that your enthusiasm seems unconventional." Solas tested the gate and found the rusty latch secured by a heavy, weather-pocked lock of dwarven make, distinct by the grainy remains of a hammer stamped inside the letter O. Picks and pins were mostly useless without the advanced knowledge required to even decipher how the exact inner mechanism worked. Waiting for it to disintegrate with age would take less time and deduction than forcing it open.
From his assessment he looked up as a backpack was tossed over the shingled fence and the smaller elf took a few steps back.
"We could wait for Dorian…" Solas tried a disregarded persuasion that did little to impede her quick vault up and over the mortared stone where the vines appeared thinnest and least likely to bloody her hands. "Or not."
Her descent was softened by a pad of uncut grass. No one had been buried here in ages, its confines reportedly filled to capacity in the years before she'd been born. And thanks to no trivial act of legislature, no one legally could be thereafter while the elves claimed its value to their heritage and history. An empty victory, the most offensive damage already done chiefly by the removal of sacred trees, but a victory regardless.
From off his neck and shoulder, Solas lifted his camera bag and carefully passed it through the bars and into Chiyo's care once she'd picked herself up from the overgrown ground. The lantern barely fit, but a moment of finagling soon had all his equipment transferred.
She expected more nimbleness from the fit-looking fellow, but his first attempt left a snicker sneaking through her nostrils. Lanky limbs weren't always an advantage, his arms snagged a solid hold but his legs couldn't quite gain the right leverage to finish the job. With a second leap, the maneuver was completed and his feet landed squarely on the matted lawn.
"Where should we start?" Chiyo tried not to look too long at the new split of fabric across his knee, the state of his dress already verged on disrepair. Even she could afford the occasional pair of pants to avoid shabbiness. Unless she were mistaken, they were one in the same the set he'd worn for the last several days.
"With a baseline for comparison. I may need to make a few adjustments." Retrieving his camera, Solas began to assemble together the most recent addition to his instrument. To the top he set a large round flash, the front received a newfangled glassy eye with more fine-tuning rings than she'd ever thought required. Perhaps that's where all his money went, maintaining such technology couldn't come cheaply. Six months had gone into repaying the small loan on the recorder that currently hung from her wrist, charged and ready.
Experienced hands removed the protective cap and lifted the camera to his face in one quick motion.
"What? No!" With a pop she went blind, rubbing her eyes only produced bright spots and circles until the effects began to fade on their own.
Solas twisted the lens again, unphased as his subject stumbled. "Hmm, still a tad out of focus. The light should be powerful enough, though."
"A warning would have been nice," Chiyo growled as she leaned against the nearest monolith, her vision still speckled with stars. "Save your film, we've work to do."
"I thought you'd prefer your adventures documented. Does the adage still ring true about an image's value compared to words?" He seemed keen on ruffling her feathers ever more; a grin stretched Solas' closed lips when she refused to comment on his playful game. "Pretty faces sell papers, well, at least when not scrunched and grimacing."
"Take my picture again and you'll have some words alright." Every family gathering, school yearly, and Dalish wedding she'd ever attended had left a trail of awkward images that—wait. What did he just say about her face?
"Y-you know, I have been wondering since last night if what we heard was an echo from the past or if there could possibly be any intelligence gleaned from these phantoms. We can see them, with help, maybe they can see us, hear us. I thought we'd try a few sessions where we ask questions. With any luck maybe, there will be a response back. Or maybe, better yet, we could just be really quiet and say nothing more tonight. Be diligent listeners. Keep this purely academic." She yammered without so much as taking a breath as she unnecessarily fiddled with her own piece of technology.
The judgmental eyes of her peers, her coworkers, her boss, already burned upon Chiyo from half a continent away.
There was no margin here for error. One bad article stood between her and self-publicizing a zine in a basement. She wiped her mouth; the bitter taste of stamp glue curled her tongue and faded.
"I doubt they'll get a word in edgewise." He arched with a wry grin, and before she could formulate a scathing reply he'd already moved on, fingers clicking away with a few more test shots interrupting the condensing dark.
"Just get me on the front page and out of here before we get caught." With a click of her thumb a tiny light came on and the recording began. She decided the latter idea would be best, for now, it would keep her ruinous mouth shut for a time.
He knew. The sly bastard with his handsome face and insolent confidence. Of course he did. And she was still playing right into it.
Chapter 8: Close Encounters
All my love to Lyn, who helped me along with this one today. And I promise, cross my heart and hope to die, we'll return to our normal fun and fluffy programming after a little... heart to heart towards the end of this chapter. Blame the ghosts...
But you do have to wonder though, what started this whole mess in the first place... (plot bunnies everywhere...)
(TW: PTSD, Panic attacks with resolve)
“This wasn’t part of our original plan. I had thought a walk of the grounds would be sufficient.”
Chiyo stopped on the gritty stair when the light behind her failed to follow her down into the mausoleum buried at the heart of the cemetery.
“Are you not coming?” She turned to the photographer standing just within the egress. One hand supported the lantern raised near level with his eye; the other however, grasped the knee of the flanking statue of a robed priest. Carved from slick green serpentstone brought to life where the light penetrated the more transparent edges, the matching set of guardians that made up the entrance had been worn smooth by the passing of years.
His chest rose with a deep breath and whistled out through his lips. She watched him fidget curiously with the lamp’s lid as he took a half-stride back. “I am. A moment for my bearings, if you don’t mind.”
“You’re not scared, are you?” She couldn’t stop the small smirk of delight twinging in her cheeks. “Is it the dark, or the spiders, or the corpses?”
“Wrong on all counts.” Solas took a tentative step down, forcing the slump in his shoulders to straighten. “The construction here simply does not allow for any ease in movement, an advantage to your stature, but not to mine.”
“Tight spaces, really?” The teasing joy lessened as her head cocked to one side. He was a curious person indeed, an explorer cut from much the same cloth as she. For all his travels, there should be nothing left in this world that would make him even remotely cautious.
“I have my reasons.” His tone unexpectedly sharp, even to himself. He curtailed whatever hesitations had first afflicted him and proceeded down the steps. “And they are not up for discussion, that is, if you’d like to continue our venture.”
Chiyo watched the lines of his face tighten as Solas passed her on the stairs, rigid and closed off from questioning. Solemnity restored, she managed the scrape of shame that came with having just teased a near stranger. Somehow, she’d forgotten that small detail. About a connection only three days forged.
Her bottom lip remained firmly caught between the hard press of her teeth until they reached the first landing, the guilt only grew as they trod in utter silence. From there the path was split in half a dozen directions, each archway inscribed not with words but by symbols of the major households at the time. Silver snakes with twisted bodies, dragons curled in amber knots, black suns with ruby cores, crowns made of cobalt lazurite. The materials were just as striking as the imagery itself. Perhaps there was an honor amongst thieves. If these minor works had been left in an elvhen tomb they’d be long since pillaged.
Solas lifted his beacon towards each, pausing but briefly as they made their turn about the enclosure. In her experience, random choice paid off nearly as much as guided selection, but perhaps his experiences in Tevinter would lead them to something more profitable. Chiyo’s own instinct considered the hall crested over with a fan of bent swords, her partner’s choice not yet made apparent.
His knuckles were near white around the lantern’s handle. Chiyo paused by an empty urn, desiccated flower stems and crumbled leaves littered its basin. All nearly aged to ashes. She’d not continue without some form of a peace offering for making light of what could only be an old wound. When all else failed, there was always honesty.
“Drowning.” Even the word could not cross her tongue without an extra breath being stolen to replace it. “I won’t swim in water if I can’t see the bottom, and even then I’d rather not.”
He stared, oil lamp still held high. Why did he have to look at her so? Blue eyes fixed to her person in such a way she believed he could see right through all the shields and facades to the parts of her life she’d rather not expose unless compelled under duress.
Go on, spill your guts out. Tell him about the time you attacked a little boy because he pulled on your ear, or how you cried at every Satinalia festival until you were twelve because the masks gave you the willies. I bet he’d love to hear about the time you got caught with Vahari defacing Chantry property and were forced into doing community service by old gran Lavellan.
After an eternity of scrutiny he finally released her, the harsher edges about his face softened as Solas lowered the lantern. “I’ll keep that in mind.” With nothing more to say, he walked through the next open channel.
Not exactly a thank you, but she’d take it as an accepted apology.
She followed, taking care not to drag her heels on the delicate mosaic of tile underfoot, many loose with age. Solas had picked the iconography snakes for whatever reason or fancy left undeclared, but it would be as good a place as any to start. Here they stood a chance to link evidence to historical fact, that was, if the spirits chose to share information that could be researched. Names, dates, events, Tevinter was ripe with its own documented antiquity, only Nevarrans could claim rivalry in extensive knowledge on personal history and bloodlines.
Styles in internment had changed over the centuries, but at the height of fashion it had been almost unthinkable to place ones disassembled, dehydrated remains further than a few inches from the rest of the lineage —better still if the family crypt was within close proximity to an even more affluent one.
From there the way branched further still into a network of catacombs, each wall pierced with a honeycomb of niches and placarded top to bottom with family crests, name plates and ages, some centuries old from eras long since passed. More impressive still were the painted lines Chiyo found her finger gently tracing, a myriad of colors linking births and marriages—though some were found to be severed with a harsh black stroke.
How far back could she recount her own lineage? Five, maybe six generations before the tales became hazy and then eroded completely altogether. Earlier than that, little existed beyond unanchored names on dockets of sale, tax records, property insurance… And even those were rare.
The deeper they traveled, the lower the ceiling hung and the closer the walls had been carved as more and more space became required to house the dead in their tidy cubbies with deviations from the original track cropping up wherever the rock could be hewn away. Such grandiose effort and craftsmanship, the excavators must have been relieved when the trend changed and familial plots became the norm. Culture here had shifted much since slaves had gained their freedom, gutted workforces left people scrambling to fill gaps with numbers too low to maintain the old ways as they were.
How many elves had been forced to dig up the skeletons of their forebears and make room for their human masters deep within the earth? How many cried as the trees were chopped down from the tops of ancestral mounds and burned, or did none remain who remembered what they stood for in the first place? Just another old forest being cleared, just a few skulls left by savages, rebels, beings who’d also once been at the seat of power, likely having rooted up the bones of those who’d come before them.
Progress. Time waited for no one and certainly gave none special treatment.
Solas stayed close enough to be accused of hovering, even as she lingered, delved deep into her own thoughts. His breath hitched every time she wandered more than a few feet away. So much for being the brave, unshakeable man he put on the airs to be. Maybe in the brightness of day he would be unbothered, but now, inside of stifling walls and the small bubble of light, his veneer was beginning to crack.
Who could blame him though? Even her own nerves felt exposed, sensitive to every sound of their own movements against the stone and flicker from their lone flame.
In a narrow alcove he set down the light in its bowl of glass and extended the wick least it burn too short while they worked. The eyes of an elf were sharp even in low light, but useless as any in pure darkness.
“Shall we begin a session here?” He placed his arms behind his hips, palm to wrist.
“Certainly, did you have anything to ask?” Chiyo looked away from the decorated wall, having just stumbled upon a complicated web of the inter-breeding of close cousins, a practice since made rather taboo.
“The experiment was your idea, I am content to observe and record events as they happen.” Solas glanced at the camera dangling from his neck. “That is, if you’ll stand to be in a few more pictures.”
“After,” Chiyo readied her recorder as she sunk to her haunches. “I don’t want any accidental feedback if we can avoid it.”
Again she turned on the device, the battery level well over half full. Chiyo cleared her throat before giving the date. “Nineteenth of Justinian, Carastes, exact time is unknown but assumed near midnight. I am joined tonight by my… associate, Solas, in an investigation seeking evidence to the presence of specters. Is there anyone else here who’d like to make themselves known?”
She took a long pause, counting the seconds to provide an adequate time for a response. Chiyo hoped that it was excitement making her heart pound against the anterior of her ribs. She had no time for fear or any of its pesky relatives to bother her now.
“What year is it? Can you tell me when you died?” Again, she remained silent and still.
“Are there any elves with us? Humans?” And on it went, a chain of questions pursuing knowledge from the beyond. Only when she’d finally run out of inquiries did she turn off and rewind the recorder with hopes that one of their nets had snagged something. She held it to her ear, shielding her eyes as Solas snapped a few quick shots.
She’d already played twice through an hour’s worth of feedback from up above, but no voice came through that even her fine ear could hear as she blundered around in the dark. Solas’ pictures were useless until they returned to his lab with the chance they contained something at all.
For minutes, Chiyo heard nothing but her own voice, each empty gap held its fair share of disappointment. She shouldn’t have set her hopes up, how many unremarkable years had she been exploring with the little tool and recognized anything of the sort?
“Maybe we should try another spot…” Chiyo mumbled with her chin in her hand as her questions repeated without remark. She let the tape run through, her thumb poised to turn the whole unit off again.
And then, just before she pressed the button, a bolt of energy ran down her spine from skull to tailbone even before her mind registered any noise. Echoless and faint, what sounded very much like a muffled laugh hissed its way through the tiny speaker.
“That was—” To her horror, Chiyo watched as the blue energy that powered her favorite tool decreased with each blink while it rested in her palm. She’d never witnessed such a rapid decline, dropping the unit down to almost nothing within a few unnerving seconds. “Shit!”
She yanked the battery from its chamber and rustled in her bag for a new cartridge. With a click, the device was reassembled, charged in full. And then it happened again. Baffled, she watched as the power drained away to nothing but the lowest glow. “What is going on here?”
Her confusion switched to agitation with the next flash of light, the malfunction not what she wished to have immortalized. But the next battery she tried was already dead, as was the one that followed. In less than a minute she’d gone from fully prepared to useless with nothing gained but a phantom’s distant mockery.
“What a piece of junk, I paid way too much gold to… Ugh! Well, that’s the end of that.” With less care than she should have given the expensive apparatuses, Chiyo packed her supplies into her satchel and swung the leather strap onto her shoulder. Taking up the lantern, she’d at least try to make herself somewhat handy. “I’m sorry, how much film do you have left?”
“A roll, give or take a few slides.” Disappointment tinged Solas’ words; it seemed another had their hopes equally raised. Once more, he took charge, leading the way with an eye through his lens.
Out of the niche they turned the corner to reenter the main pathway, Chiyo’s attentions returned to the walls stuffed with categorized bones. One had been broken, the ceramic plate fractured. Peering inside revealed a pair of empty black sockets staring straight back upon the disturber of their eternal rest, as well as a the glint of a few shiny baubles.
“You’d think there’d be more grave robbing here.” Chiyo whispered through a sudden shiver as the hairs on her neck rose with an icy chill. “How much gold must be—”
They both froze to the spot.
An aura of muted grey-blue crossed between the gap just yards before them. An arm, a leg, the profile of a face, no more than a glimmer in a sunless world that darkened again just as quickly.
The scream strangled in her throat escaped only when a heavy heel stepped backwards onto her toes as Solas staggered. His camera slipped and the flash went off, blinding them both with fright. Chiyo heard the sound of breaking glass, the floor became slick beneath their feet as they both stumbled.
In the gloom of it all, Solas bolted. At least, that’s what he attempted. Unable to see, and with nowhere to run but back to the outlet they’d just been in, Chiyo trailed him with only her memory and ears as guides.
“Wait! Come back!”
She would have tripped over him had the raspy gasps racing from his lungs not alerted her to his position on the ground. “We’re trapped. We’ll never get out!”
The oil on her boots made her drop to the floor exceedingly precarious, having already to navigate another shaking set of limbs in the dark. Chiyo all but crawled to his side as she watched over her shoulder for any sign of that thing.
“You’re ok, we’ll figure this out.”
The promise slipped through the clenching dread of her own distress, yet she pushed it aside for someone in far more trouble, who needed her more than she had reason to be afraid.
“I can’t, I can’t do this!” She felt for his hands and found them drenched with panicked sweat, clenched to his sides with rigid convulsions. With all her might she pulled one away and held it tightly within her own. He needed to calm down, and soon, breathing with such speed would only lead to fainting. Then they really would be in deep shit.
“Slow down,” Chiyo wrested free his other hand and held the palm firmly to the flat plane of her chest. In his wrist she felt a speed of pulse unlike any other, ready to combust. “Let me help you…”
Solas wheezed as his whole body trembled with unrelenting violence. “I can’t!”
The phrase seemed stuck on repeat.
“Like this. Try it.” She took a deep inhale and held it for a count before releasing a long, slow exhale. When the first didn’t work, she tried again, encouraged as he fought to match the pace she set. His arms, stiff and strong with anxious quakes, pulled Chiyo close. The wet heat of his brow met her cheek. Each crashing breath broke against her neck, but bit by bit, she deemed them to slow.
“Forgive me,” She took another breath. Her hand pressed his hard to the damp fabric of her shirt. “I should have listened when you said you weren’t comfortable.”
“I am a coward.” Broken words still held their conviction, and edges sharp enough to wound. Her heart ached for a man she barely knew, but in that moment she would have sworn to have known him her entire life. Same cloth indeed, down to the very thread.
“That’s not true, and I won’t believe it for a second.” Chiyo continued to breathe with regularity, it was the only thing she could do. If anything, she could be a distraction; all nightmares had to pass eventually. “What if I told you I was a delinquent in my youth?”
“You?” He croaked with fatigue as his body continued to shake in fading rhythms. “Impossible.”
“I defaced a Chantry.”
He laughed, or close to it, and she knew it wasn’t sweat that dripped onto her neck and shoulder by the way his jaw juddered.
It was a start. But coward or not, bravery didn’t matter much without a perceivable way out of this mess.
Chapter 9: Adder's Tongue
A minute. An hour. A day.
There was no distinction to mark the slow leak of time forgotten in the gloom. Maybe if she counted it in breaths, in heartbeats, in the nervous jolts inflicted by tricks played by her mind, Chiyo would have some notion as to just how long they’d spent huddled in a capsule of obscurity and immobility.
Like in the aftermath of an explosion, the greatest effort was expended not as debris flew through the air, but on recovery and damage control once the dust had settled and the screams ceased.
Now, only a sluggish draw of air met her ear. The thrum in his chest reduced to an approximate, appropriate range. Yet the limbs that’d yet to release Chiyo still trembled beneath the skin as anxiety was replaced with sheer exhaustion. He clutched her close to him, held not as a suitor or confidante, but as if she were his only hope to stay afloat. Solas had stopped talking altogether at some point, his speech slowed to nothing as the stress diluted, leaving him empty and unresponsive to her gentle questions.
She’d never witnessed a catatonic state, the prior panic more attune to her own understanding, but she found the vacancy of self more perturbing than the onset.
Chiyo stroked the dry back of Solas’ head and neck, wishing he’d speak, if not for his sake than her own sanity. Hushed whispers, footsteps on the tile, a shrill tune, all too faint, and none she could prove to exist outside of her own head. Being down here too long really would make one crazy, but she’d been in a clear state of mind when that… spook, spirit, image, whatever it was, crossed their path.
They’d come for evidence alright, but they’d never discussed what they’d do if they found it.
Or rather, if it found them.
Not even a Genitivi Award was worth this much misery, fear or risk she’d placed on another. And being stuck down here wasn’t getting her any closer to finishing that damned draft. The ghosts certainly wouldn’t commiserate her for a riveting article or well-placed pun.
All she needed was a little light. Too bad she’d skipped on the faddy trend of smoking.
Unabashed, Chiyo patted the pockets of his shirt and pants within her reach for the box of matches Solas had used to start the lantern. Her pursuit came up empty, and he wouldn’t move enough to allow a more thorough search.
He’d have to snap out of this if they had any chance of getting back to the surface. Solas was too big to carry or even drag, and there was nothing so cruel in her that would make Chiyo leave him behind. Fondness or not, the lanky photographer wouldn’t be in this state if it weren’t for her choices.
“Hey,” She shook him with hopes held on reserve for a response. “Do you need to eat something? I think I have some water left…”
Chiyo rummaged blindly through her bag, recognizing the items by feel alone. Between the batteries were sachets of dried chickpeas, dehydrated pumpkin slivers, sesame crackers, but nothing sweet and sugary. Chocolate, honey, caramel, all detestable but in the smallest doses, and they were just what she needed now. She kept digging, there had to be something.
Her knuckles knocked against a canister as her deprived eyes shot up in reflex.
That was a light, she would have sworn it.
Bright white, it panned again, joined this time by a spine-chilling whistle, long and low.
Gods, what was coming for them now?
Chiyo’s finger wrapped around the trigger of her only defense, her thumb cocked inside the twisted wire safety ring. She pointed the cylinder in the direction of the fluorescent flash and waited, breath held captive inside her lungs. Phantom or freak, she’d not be a complacent victim.
The light returned again, its energy focused directly into the narrow niche.
“Get back!” It was her only warning. As the glare drew near she took aim and—a feeble hiss leaked from the nozzle and imbibed the air with a weak, peppery whiff.
Expiration dates, what a miserable cause of death.
Mace was a terrible idea anyways, like it would have any effect on phantoms.
She shut her eyes tight and waited for the end to come.
“There you little rascals are! Pull up those trousers, this is no place for canoodling!” Dorian dropped his brass-bodied torch and peeked from between the coy fingers over his eyes. “Well, there was that one time while I was away for college… But we’re all young once. Mmm. That kinky fiend.”
“You have a light-stick?!” The disbelief the came with her next blustered breath ricocheted through the freshly spiced chamber.
“Yes?” He dropped his free hand to rest upon his lean hip. “Have you not seen the tariffs on oil these days? I know what you’re thinking. The crystals are worth twice their weight in gold, but I will not support a Qun-based economy by becoming dependent on their exports.”
“You know…” Chiyo wasn’t entirely sure if her next move would be to kiss or kill the obnoxious rescuer from their plight. “That would’ve been really, really useful to have before we got stuck down here.”
Dorian stroked the polished barrel down to the bulbous eye on the end. “I bought this new toy, shouldn’t I get to play with it first? I can have my fancy gadgets too.”
Kill, definitely kill. She glowered when he pointed the intense tip in her face.
“Now, tell me what you’ve done to my dearest friend and maybe I’ll let you touch it.” The Tevinter man laughed and lifted the hand-cranked instrument before she could swat the light away. “I’ve been left in a stupor before, but you can’t possibly be that good.”
“There was an incident and some panic, the rest doesn’t matter.” Chiyo spoke through gritted teeth, in no mood for further ridicule. “Just help us. Please.”
She wasn’t above begging if need be, though groveling fell well below that distinctive line.
The light turned away, and she was presented with the bulky handle. “I believe you, and my words are not an aimed jape. We need to get him up and going again. Rudeness has worked before to twist all his cogs and springs back to their normal overbearing tightness. Though it has been a few years since my last crack at this, perhaps I’ve grown a tad rusty. You know he wouldn’t even enter my basement when we first met?”
“Come on old boy, up you go. Quit squashing the lady.” Dorian puckered his lips as he lifted an arm off the smaller elf with deftness. “Or would you like me to lift your curse, sleeping beauty.”
The sour grimace Dorian was rewarded with was good enough. With aid on either side, Solas was returned to his feet. He staggered several steps, too hollow to put forth much effort yet, but after a few wobbly paces they were free of the miserable cavity and moving forward.
“One after the other, just like taking a drunk for a stroll.” Dorian pointed with his pinky, his other fingers clasped tight around his comrade’s wrist. “Right, dear, about three clicks forward, then second left.”
With one arm clasped around Solas’ waist, Chiyo guided them with the light, but her feet knew direction little more past the broken lantern on the floor. “How long have you been down here looking for us?”
“Hmm,” Dorian pondered, counting with snaps behind his teeth. “Fifteen minutes, maybe twenty? But I’d been on the property an hour or so prior to finding this lovely place.”
Chiyo was beginning to pant under the lethargic load of a full-grown man, her own body taxed and tired. She shouldn’t have anything left to express surprise, but her brow rose nearly an inch higher on her face. “And you already have the way out memorized?”
“What? Like it’s that difficult,” His tittering was more playful than it was insulting, but that didn’t exactly keep the tongue out of his cheek. “Half a mile of tunnel and no more than two dozen adjustments in direction. And that’s our most direct route. I’ve had more challenging puzzles over brunch. The Maker wouldn’t have gifted me with such a perfect face if he hadn’t found a worthy enough brain to use it, would he?”
“Seems like cleverness is the only thing you two have in common.” Solas seemed downright humble in comparison, egoless when standing side-by-side the portentous Pavus. Part of her wondered exactly how much of what he said was over-inflated, but as they walked he called their motions long before he could even see the landmarks. His only awkwardness lay in the momentum of hoisting around a lanky elf; labor not his obvious strong suit. “Did you meet in an academy?”
“If you think baldy here is smart then you’d be downright baffled by the wonders held beneath all this gorgeous hair…” He shook a dampened black strand away from his face. “Top of the class is a severe understatement. I was leagues ahead of those schoolboys, even the older ones. But,... it is shameful to admit, there weren’t any elves, among even the worst of them. Some colleges can still be considered a bit too exclusive, though I doubt you need that explained.”
At long last they’d reentered the main galley, though instead of seeing an unchosen symbol straight across the way, there lay the chosen silver snakes above the adjacent door. Chiyo stared at it in awe, unable to imagine just how they’d gotten so turned around.
Dorian heaved, reinforcing the grip he kept on his stupefied friend. “But great minds work best together. Regardless of how they find one another. Say, he hasn’t told you about our—”
“Shut. Up.” Solas’ voice cracked free from its maintained silence, hoarse and rueful.
“He speaks! It’s a miracle! Andraste herself has returned you from the dead.” Dorian issued a rousing pat to his back that thumped hard enough to make even Chiyo wince.
It wasn’t until they made it halfway to the final stair that Chiyo realized the torch in her hand was no longer needed. The orange glow of newborn sunlight poured through the opening and spilled down the first few steps in a welcoming cascade.
“Impossible… it couldn’t have been that long…” Her tired jaw slackened as they climbed up and into the open air. She was nearly pulled with him when Solas all but dropped to his knees as he was blinded once more, overwhelmed it seemed by their return to the dewy, yawning world above.
“Can you not wait to do this until we get to the bloody coach!” Dorian pulled him up sharply again.
They’d been in dark abyss an entire night and emerged out of the halls built for the dead, dazed and roughened about the edges. And with more questions than answers than when they’d first descended.
She reached one last time for Solas’ hand, finding that she too needed some stability herself has her head swam through the confusion and disbelief. There was a half-hearted squeeze exchanged, and then the clasped fingers fell away, returned to their prospective, uncertain parties.
“How about we discuss what happened down there over some breakfast, yes?” Dorian suggested as he glanced over the dazed pair, having finally deemed Solas fit to stand without his help. “My treat.”
Chiyo’s legs had barely carried her to the nearest table before all her joints collapsed into a heap on the first seat. To watch the other two remain on their dusty feet was confounding. Listening to the spat drained the last few drops from her reserve.
“No thank you.”
Dorian shunted a folded set of clothes into Solas’ hands. “Take this and consider throwing those old rags away. You’ll feel better in something clean.”
“I am not an invalid in need of coddling,” The tall elf was peeved, but at least he sounded more like himself as he declined the parcel. Life had returned to him, but with it came the same bruises and soreness left over from the evening trials as her own. Only, Solas wore them mentally and not speckled along his arms. “Leave me be.”
“Were my words too big or are there rocks in your ears?” And Dorian, it seemed, was unfamiliar with such blatant rejection. “Shirt. Pants. You’ll replace them in the powder room or one of us will.”
A single hazel glance snapped Chiyo’s attentions off from the arguing men and back to the floral design woven into the fabric on the bistro table before her. She couldn’t even conceive of undressing the poor soul who’d spent the night in a fugue state.
Liar… A writer deprived of an imagination is worse than one without purpose.
“Now.” Before he could be shoved, Solas slipped through the curtained divider at the back of the café, gone from her sight. But not her mind.
Her fingers plucked the tablecloth’s beaded edge, any distraction to keep them from pantomiming how easily they could undo those hard little buttons on his worn-out shirt. The heaviness lifting from his eyes when he gazed in silence upon her, an incarnation of mercy, while she cleaned the grime from about his face. The moist towel slips, space between them dwindles as—Scratch that.
And the hack writer of the year award goes to...
That wasn’t imagination, it was copyright. Blush-worthy brain fodder plagiarized from a smuggled novelette she’d skimmed through, and hated, lured more by the text’s legality than its lurid contents. Too fanciful for her tastes and made even more obscene by poor timing. There wasn’t a soap strong enough to scrub her mind clean again of such filth. No wonder the Chantry had banned it.
Bathroom sinks weren’t built to withstand such idealistic… force.
Her head drooped down to rest on the table, too tired to block the teasing trickle of thoughts in all of their infernal torment. Hadn’t she pushed all degrees in formality enough for one lifetime?
“Ungrateful wretch. It doesn’t matter if they match his taste, so long as they’re clean.” Dorian dropped into the booth and pressed his back to the cushions with an exasperated sigh. He tucked a receipt into his breast pocket with a neat, precise shove, but his mood remained prickled. “No excuses, even if they won’t be a perfect fit. Men’s clothes are so much simpler, I’m sorry to have nothing to replace yours with.”
“You wouldn’t know my size anyways.” Chiyo squinted in the bright of day streaming through the glass. She’d considered adjusting the wood-slat blinds, but any thought of darkness left her stomach trying to teach itself new knots.
He snorted as a fresh pot of coffee was placed squarely on the table by a bleary-eyed server who’d barely just put on their apron when the trio had lugged themselves in. Dorian took the carafe himself for the first pour. He filled the other mugs to the rim as his soft gaze made a measured appraisal. “Six and a half, narrow. Thirty on the inseam, petite, and most articles off the rack are what, two, three inches too long down the sleeve?”
“How did…?” Her hand grasped at nothing, missing the steaming cup nestled in its saucer entirely.
“I took several years of mathematics before I dropped that degree to study the arts. It’s all proportions and geometry.” He sipped the hot brew, but the brief bristle of his mustache marked a note of displeasure. A heavy dose of cream soon had him on the mend. “If your shoe is such a percentage as long as a floor tile, if your hip is so high by a doorknob, etcetera, etcetera. The rest is simple deduction and a few trade secrets learned by having the same tailor my whole life.”
“If only we were all so fortunate.” Warm ceramic finally found her lips, but not before a dribble marred the clean cup down the side. Coffee wasn’t going to smooth her rough edges today. Her favorite blend of tea might not have been enough either, not after surviving such an atrocious night.
His cup was replaced on its plate with an abrupt clink. “Are we here to discuss my privilege or how you ended up in the arms of a stranger whom you’ve sworn only a professional interest in?”
Chiyo’s sore spine straightened and her chest puffed as he dashed verbal salt on her wounds. “Would you have rather I documented his distress in detail for your personal pleasure? What happened down there was in no way his fault or by my intent.”
“Your interests seem misaligned.” Dorian licked his thumb and smoothed the hairs above the lip that curled into a shrewd smile. “Are you lying about how long you’ve known him, or are you just that naive? A writer would have asked why the man cracked; a lover stands in ready defense.”
“I do not lie. And I don’t need you to tell me anything.” Chiyo took another long drink, allowing the heat to burn away a few of the harsher remarks waiting on her tongue. “It was clear enough that he’s been through something... awful.”
Their conversation became crimped with an interruption of service and food.
“Ah, splendid.” Dorian wafted the delicious scents from the tray being delivered to their table. Twists of bread and cinnamon glazed with fresh-butter, hot fruit browned in its own juices, clotted cream, spinach pie. He waved the yawning server off once the rapture left his senses. “Please, have a plate.”
Chiyo reached for a dish, but her entire hand was gripped before she could even lay a finger on the stack of pretty-patterned china. Into sharpened eyes she looked and was held there immobile. The smile beneath a groomed mustache no longer as candid.
Suddenly, she didn’t feel quite as hungry any more. Perhaps this was how a bird felt, entranced by the gaze of a viper, wings held captive with fright long before the coil of scales ever had them ensnared.
But first that venomous strike.
“You and I really must have a talk.”
A man of Tevinter still wielded power, but anyone with money had a knack for making a problem disappear.
Chapter 10: Defeat Isn't Always Bitter-
Another big shout out to my dearest Lyn, thank you for playing all those word games. A whole garden of rubescent roses shall I name after thee. ;)
“My dear Ms. Lavellan, I’m afraid I don’t know what to do with you,” Dorian spoke almost too placidly, the articulate spill of his words over her ears left them numb to all but the innermost surge of a pulse. She wanted to rip her hand away, but his venom-laced poise had already worked against her nerve.
“This is quite the quandary of a position you’ve placed me in, one I cannot amend forthrightly. To be so successful and troublesome at once. Rather like being in want of a little rain only to receive a monsoon.” With his victim stunned to his liking, he patted the back of her rigid fingers with a rapid fetter and released his hold.
“I… I’m not following?” Once freed, Chiyo promptly returned all her limbs as far to the opposite side of the table as she could. Stuffed beneath the booth, balled into fists, she made note to count her digits and found them still whole and attached.
Men in the south were never this strange and seldom spoke with such contortions of the tongue. Her weary head ached merely trying to follow the tricky maze he was actively spewing.
“You see, in just a few days time you’ve transformed my favorite pastime of scrapbooking oddities to something much more profound and interesting.” Inspecting his fork, Dorian twisted the silver piece before selecting a dripping slice of poached pear.
“But, truly, at what cost? At what value do we estimate these… advancements? How much gold to weigh against the discovery of the century?” He pursed his lips and pointed with the fruit-laden fork. Dorian stared at Chiyo with an intensity that would have made a less exhausted person expend the energy to squirm.
Abruptly returning his gaze to an abandoned breakfast, Dorian took a teasing taste of the speared treat. It sent prickling shivers running down her arms and legs at how this man could switch tracks so quickly, with such conviction she believed him possessed of two personalities, each unaware of the other’s ruse.
“Are you trying to pay me, or offer a reward, because I’m not expecting you to.” The last thing Chiyo wanted from this man was money. She’d foot the bill for her own breakfast too if it meant a moment’s peace. Not that she was getting to eat any of it at present.
“A reward, ha! Get the ghost of my grandfather to tell me where he buried his first wife and I’ll give you a fine prize!” The succulent morsel disappeared behind his amused lips. He chuckled, all the while chewing.
“Patronage is the correct a term, write it down so you’ll remember. However, with you, I am not so certain. Too much risk, too many factors yet unknown, so much you couldn’t possibly understand of the situation at large. I don’t really like to gamble. Selling pieces of art is far more predictable and profitable. Besides, it’s not in my nature to be so overly involved. Being the middleman, now that’s the sweet spot. No legal risk of owning the pieces or buying them either! Ah, but I forget myself.”
A lingering smirk shadowed about the corners of Dorian’s mustachioed mouth. Each move of Chiyo’s felt watched, points deducted as her mannerism were placed beneath his shrewd scope. The dirt on her sleeves, the tremor of her fingers as she sought to place them around the cup’s handle, the unredeemable slouch that marred her shoulders, the dark rings beneath her eyes, all passed beneath unhidden appraisal, and likely found to be lacking whatever qualities Dorian sought.
Good. Then maybe he’d soon grow bored with her.
She did not exist solely for this fellow’s amusement, and her work was not designed for the private consumption of a select few. Silent willfulness was all she dared.
Chiyo reclaimed her coffee in a staunch act of rebellion, equally vexed as she was confused. Her words she kept at bay until it was fully decided upon what game the chatty man was playing at. Which was he, madman or genius, furious or pleased? Perhaps a cultivation of both… but she couldn’t yet be certain.
“Now, enough sidestepping of the greater issue. My favorite photographer is in shambles after only a few short hours in your illustrious company, I simply cannot allow you to damage him any further. He’s enough to dodge and worry over.” Onto a plate, Dorian served himself a crumbling little square of spinach pie topped by several sheets of paper-thin crust that blanketed the moist delicacy. With precision, he shaped it into perfection, not a crumb out of place.
“Solas has always been consistent in fueling my little habit over the years... as much as I facilitate his. Thus far, you have only proven to be chaos embodied behind a sweet elven face. But I must admit you also produce results of the likes I’ve never thought possible. You see my conundrum?”
The drag of chair legs across the wooden floor announced a presence and both turned to see their long-absent companion.
“Are you quite done harassing your guest?” Though his words were brusque in make, Solas’ voice still fell flat with the weariness of their night’s excursions.
Dorian hadn’t been far off to say his outfit would be out of taste. The fit was the least concerning detail.
Don’t you do it!
Chiyo held her breath to stop the onslaught of snickers and snorts after the first sputtered into her coffee. Her eyes grew wide and began to dampen with strained tears at the sight of exposed ankles that poked out from pant legs much too short. The loose, drapey cut of his tunic had him covered, but the color and print left his embarrassment a palpable aura.
Height of fashion or not--batwing sleeves and boatnecks-- a youthful trend smeared over the latest magazines, Solas’ pale skin simply wasn’t meant for the strong hues of saffron paired with looped, green batik…
“Look, not a stitch of grey or beige to be had on the whole garment! It only took ten years, but what a transformation.”
Dorian’s praise did not seem to bolster his glum friend’s spirits as he deposited himself at the end of their table.
A stolen glance down revealed the beginnings of shins and calves as the crisp hem in the cream linen rose ever higher. If he hadn’t been entirely miserable before, he certainly was now.
“And my dear mother Dorian wonders why I don’t come to visit more often.” With a thrust of a fork, the prepared plate of pie was blatantly stabbed, dragged and subsequently tucked into before the first whine of a complaint could be issued. “It's best just to ignore him. If he actually meant to turn you out then he’d have done so already. He won’t be satisfied until there are tears spilt, curses spat, or a threat to strangle him.”
Arms crossed over his chest, Dorian was sore with rebuttal. “Always ruining my fun, and what did I say about those cogs? Much too tight, how can you even breathe.”
At that the a Tevinter gentleman actually leaned back to take in the entire ensemble. “On second thought, perhaps you should roll up the pant hems to the knee, at least then it will look on purpose. My great aunt Vasilia the II always said if you must look a mess make it a stylish one, and hold your head high! Bless her, and those awful wigs.”
Rescued from being the center of attention, Chiyo was at last free to grab a meal and indulged in a cherished routine of some manner of bread and creamy spread. For a few savored bites that helped to lessen the pangs in her belly, the world began to resume some degree of balance and tranquility.
“--You were late, what was the excuse this time? A new beau or another brandy tasting gone awry?--”
Sleepily lost to the notes of cinnamon and cooler morning air, her attentions drifted from the continued squabble and tired bickering of men. Discluded from the familiar repartee, the haughty jabs, and curtness, there was a content quality to being utterly ignored.
“--There would be an apology, but my life doesn’t simply go on hold whenever I feel the urge to go galavanting off chasing shadows. At least I finished my work, unlike--”
It wasn’t long until the act of chewing became too taxing and the moderate comforts of her seat offered her the luxury oft afforded to elderly men in favored recliners.
This was it, the gendered secret coveted above all others. To embrace the base need and become one with the Void… The full-bodied initial flush of sleep tingled just beneath her skin. It was so simple, just a few more breaths and--
“I’m going to go back.”
“What?!” She sat up with a lurch, knees striking the hard surface above. The dregs of her now cold drink were sacrificed in the upset but mostly caught within the rattling saucer. Chiyo awoke to a world of eyes. Drawn on by her outburst, the waiter with his tray, the barista behind a rush of steam, a lone early-bird patron at the threshold, the trendy Tevinter tyrant across the table, all stared at the little elf making too much ruckus to be polite.
Only one kept his eyes to himself, refusing to even so much as lift them from a firm affixment to his lap.
“After all that--that disaster, you’d put yourself through it again?” Silence was the only answer Chiyo received as she gaped at a man who could not possible hate himself so much to be re-subjected mere hours after escaping a nightmare made real. What could possibly be so important or worth knowing that made the risk of anguish even an option? There had to be more, something unshared, perhaps even purposefully kept unsaid.
Even Dorian joined the mummed ranks as he took to transforming the uneaten portions on his new plate with a spoon. It seemed his acute case of the verbal runs had finally been cured.
“We’d only just begun to scratch the surface before…” His face paled and he was quick to change course in their conversation. “There is no reason to feel compelled in helping me again. Let there be nothing owed or asked between us.”
Solas’ voice dropped, but the volume couldn’t mute the stirring fear in his tightened throat. “I have my reasons to research, and I’m not requesting you to rejoin me if that is your concern.”
Like hell she wasn’t.
Chiyo leaned forward, hands clapped to the table’s edge. No one was going to deter her from what could be the greatest article of her career and get away with it.
Was that worry or relief that flicked across his brow at the firmness of her tone? Both were sufficient to rile her frayed emotions.
“This is my story, I picked this place. You’re not going to chase me off this find so easy. After a change of clothes and a few hours sleep, I’m getting what I came here for.” A few weeks from now her name could be splayed out on the front page. She would be the one lined up for interviews instead of hounding them hundreds of miles from home. All her hard work, years of snippet, second-string journalism and being printed last-in-line before the advertisements section, it could finally pay off.
Solas finally lifted his eyes, narrowed, measuring, and entirely uncertain what to make of the roused beast lurking behind a sweet face , one that looked right back at him with a stubborn, ragged grin.
“Hope you have more film packed. We’ve got work to do, photographer.”
“Mmm, feisty.” Dorian chortled behind the fingers pressed to his lips. “I might just like this one after all.”
“Excuse me? Sir?” Chiyo tapped thrice against the thick glass of the baggage claim office. The thin-haired man inside had tottered oblivious before her several times already as he shuffled parcels, packages, bags, suitcases, and small crates into various piles, cubicles, and bins.
She waved the numbered stub at him, though sleep deprivation did little to bolster any patience left in her being. This was too much hassle for a woman in want of her things. If she’d known the annoyance in retrieving a single rucksack previously deemed too heavy to hoist along on their stalled adventure, she would have carried it all through the cemetery instead of storing it for the night.
With a grumble, she leaned against the box window. Solas had already gotten his belongings returned to him by a much more speedy person who only paused long enough before a change of shift to take one slip. Now she was at the mercy of an old, bumbling geezer who took more notice of the straightness of pick-up tags than the huffing elf just beyond the slotted screen.
Through the loosely milling morning masses, Chiyo spotted the others, parked on a bench. It seemed no sooner than he sat down, that Solas’ head fell towards the luggage held tightly in his lap as desperate sleep took him, willing or not.
Not even a forced smile could be afforded as she submitted the receipt and prepared for yet more insufferable waiting. It wasn’t like she was in any hurry to collapse onto the nearest bed, wherever that may be.
Dorian had inquired--or more aptly--harassed their waiter as they left for potential, quality stays. The lakeside town wasn’t known for its thread counts and maid services, instead, it appealed to those with more rustic, simple tastes, this peaked season now filled by the fishing enthusiasts who flocked in droves to the plentiful lakes and streams. Pilgrims making their rounds to the homely institutes of faith nearby claimed that the welcomed change of pace, and free from the main city’s many distractions, helped them feel divinely closer to their Maker. There wasn’t much draw for socialites unless nature walks and week-long game hunts in the wilderness were their aims.
Where he’d settle for lodgings was anyone’s guess. So long as her own board was cheap, Chiyo rightly didn’t care.
No other sum or pleasure could be better gifted now than that of plump pillows, scented bath soap, and silky night shirts…
Salvation had come at last. From the organized chaos, she watched as her vessel of hope was hoisted high and double-checked, then escorted towards the latched hatch.
Just as she began to imagine the comforts contained just a few feet from where she stood, Chiyo felt a tug as an unwatched strap slipped down her arm.
It was fast. The instinct to grab came swift even before comprehension registered. Her satchel!
The leather thong pulled taught in a twist around a stout wrist. A short woman’s fingers clasped around bag’s precious bulk.
Chiyo pulled, hard, and before a word could even be exchanged, the dwarf struck with a heavy, grazing fist.
Her whole world went red.
Ruddy hair coiled beneath a cap was all she saw beyond the knuckles of the assailant who vanished after a few strides. Red-hot rage rang in her ears, seared by pain when her knees knocked the floor. Ruby smeared on her hands that gushed from her nose and over her mouth. Rust on her tongue that traveled as the first few breathless, gagging whimpers moved her aching jaw in stunned horror.
Alone amid the chaotic cries of a confused crowd, she scrambled and faltered, unable to rise or see past the cradle of bloody fingers. With each passing second, the satchel that brimmed with her work, her tools, her livelihood, slipped further and further away.
Chiyo crumpled below baffled strangers. For the first time in her short life, she surrendered, and truly tasted defeat.
(Ok, she really has had enough this time, on to the TLC Chiyo truly deserves now, and some well-earned truth too...)
Chapter 11: -And Love Isn't Always Sweet
Sometimes it can be a little... spicy.
Sweet, cool fingertips brushed over her knuckles and wrists, but Chiyo shook them away. Blind and too sore to tolerate the intrusive, soothing touch, she reeled back. "Get off!"
"Come on, let me see. Move your hands." With considerate prying, the bloodied face below was exposed. She bared her teeth as the inquisitive digits returned to inspect the angle of her nose and tender sinuses. Chiyo squinted through a pair of watery eyes to find Solas close and crouched down on the floor.
His attentions flicked from her ghastly features to their surroundings and back again, every sound and shuffle prickled his already alerted senses. Spine hunched, legs set to spring, the attack in broad daylight had him primed to bolt. "Don't raise your voice… explain what happened?"
"She--Pft!" Chiyo spat the coppery run of blood from her mouth, "A damned dwarf... pinched my bag… called me a snoop! And punched me! I don't snoop! I investigate... that's my job! Fuck, this hurts."
“Andraste’s shining ass-cheeks, are you going to let that thing swell up crooked or are you just going to fuss like an old hen?” There wasn’t a chance to swat the second set of hands away before two thumbs took her nose. A sickening pop reverberated through her skull.
“I’m going to shove a tree up your--!”
“Oh shhh,” Dorian’s palm lifted from her cursing mouth once the worst of it passed. “You’ll thank me later. Before mathematics, I had a brief study in medicine. But it was the anatomy that truly perked my interest.”
“I hate you.” She hoped there was venom enough in her words behind the fresh tears and mumbling.
"Can you stand?" Solas stopped to glance over his shoulder. He tugged on her arms as a blond officer, belted in crimson and badged with a steel emblem in the center of his chest came patrolling around the corner.
“There’s something about a man in uniform... and a scar! Pardon me, but I’m going to have to introduce myself.” Sidling through the crowd and smoothing back his hair, Dorian stepped forward through the throng and met the lone templar-lieutenant first.
"We need to go. Now ."
"Not without my recorder," Chiyo whimpered as she was forced to her feet and pulled forth into a brisk, unbalanced walk. Solas paused only to snatch up her remaining luggage from the now unattended hatch and add its weight to his back alongside his own. "And my notes, why did it have to be my notes! That thieving midge took them! Couldn't she have just nipped my wallet?"
"This wasn't a simple mugging." His low voice urged her onwards, holding an arm in a tight grasp to keep her close to his person as they dodged the bustle of the morning's first scheduled stop as workers, migrants, and tourists flooded the station. "You were targeted for having something they want."
Chiyo held her nose and mouth, the bleeding had slowed to a coagulated trickle down her chin and onto an already unsightly blouse. Bumping into several passersby to cross their path, many opened their mouths to complain but were struck dumb by the gruesome sight.
"But to follow us here… How did they even… We must have struck quite a nerve there in Qarinus." Flustered and babbling in broken thoughts to himself, Solas guided them on a twisting path through the people-clogged cluster that finally had them out on a public road.
Great… He wasn't just a madman chasing phantoms, he was apparently paranoid too. To her, this was nothing more than a continued string of bad luck, notably worsened since she'd met the striking photographer. All but the brusque insult fit the mold of a random robbery.
Skirting around the edges of shops, peddler carts, and eateries, they were fortunate enough on several counts not to run headlong into the bustling residents taking advantage of the cooler early hours before the noon sun chased them all back inside. She knew naught what sigil of security he searched for, but with a sudden veer in direction, something seemed to have snagged his interest.
At the first opportunity, Solas ducked into a door propped open by a chalky vacancy sign.
"Hide your face." It was his only instruction as they approached the desk. Solas took her arm and placed it snug about his waist, the whole front of her body was tucked into concealment against his taller frame. With a tap, he struck the table's small call bell.
"Avanna travelers, how may I help you folk?" A man spoke and she heard the creak of wicker under an added load as the host took to the chair. "My my, fresh off the last train are you?"
Solas shifted with a yawn, but his hold on her didn't falter as a pen scratched briefly to provided parchment. "A room please, and yes. Completely tuckered out, we've journeyed too much for one morning already."
"Of course," The other voice softened to little more than a pleasant whisper. "You've chosen a wonderful time to visit. The pickerel being fished now are the best they've been in years. Couples just flock from all over to try it, but that little place on the corner has a curried version like no other. Take your wife for a treat when she wakes up, if you tell them I sent you they'll get you a good table too."
The plink of coin on the desk was traded for the rattle of a tagged key. "Ah, I'll keep that in mind, thank you. If you'll excuse us, she will need all the rest she can get."
Still wrapped around each other, Chiyo did her best not display her wounds or to trip as she was escorted down the hall. Only when he loosened his grip did she withdraw from the red, sticky smear she'd left on the breast of Solas' shirt.
"Smooth talker." There was little elegance left in her speech beneath the swelling of her cheek and lip. No real lie had been given to cover their ruse, but no truth offered up either. Any suspicious clerk with a smidgen of merit to their name would have turned away an unmarried pair, doubly thus if a member of the party looked like they'd just been beaten on the street.
Offensives against the Chantry’s doctrines weren't just looked down upon, they were finable if businesses were discovered to be entertaining such disgraces to society.
"One learns many things to evade an enemy and steer clear of trouble when necessary. I have found when one's mind is left with small hints they’ll often fill in grand dreams of their own and it keeps their thoughts preoccupied." He stopped at the door with the same painted number as the key in his hand. Looking each way as he turned the lock, Solas pulled them both inside.
He set the chain and deadbolt as soon as the door clicked back into place. With a shrug, Solas dumped their packs by the coat rack.
Released at last, Chiyo tottered to the foot of the bed as her peculiar partner went first for the parted blinds, peeked into the tiny washroom and then opened the closet. Finding nothing, he let loose a long, whistling sigh and ran his fingers over the hairless temples behind his ears. "I knew that last arrest was going to cause issue..."
She watched him pace a few steps before he returned to their bags on the floor and proceeded to dump his belongings out onto the carpet. Pictures spilled from envelopes torn asunder. A toiletry bag was hollow of any prior contents, though a razor and toothbrush were soon recovered in the mess. The pockets on his spare clothes, identical to the ones Dorian had forced him to dispose of, had all been pulled inside-out. Ransacked!
"But how did they find us so quickly here in Carastes? Where else have we been followed?" Spare rolls of unused film were found opened and exposed, he grasped them in his fists and then promptly tossed into the nearest waste bin. His nose crinkled in a silent growl.
Good job, now not only are you bleeding and stranded in a Tevinter town where nobody from home knows your location, you're also alone in a hotel room with a probable criminal too. Hope you leave an interesting corpse… That’ll make the headlines for sure.
"You keep saying they ?" Chiyo shifted a few inches up the bed to pad the distance between them. "Are you in some kind of trouble I should know about?"
"At one point, I very well should have asked the same of you. Considering the circumstances." He began to stuff his personal effects back into the sack, wadding the clothes and images with a gruff shove.
"I've grown used to the constant harassment, but this time, they nearly put the screws to my thumbs about a journalist prying her way through the same haunts they knew I frequented. Oddly, they wanted your name above all else."
"What did you tell them and when, exactly, were you going to mention that the police were actively looking for me?" Chiyo's jaw dropped, certainly it wasn't her first rub with the law but in the scheme of her adventures all the incidents had been rather minor. Trivial counts of trespassing, lack of permits, and general annoyance to property owners. No one in her field could claim a pure, spotless record, but it was required that they keep their noses clean and above major scrutiny. The honor and validity of the paper came first, their autonomy depended on certain standards being maintained.
"What could I have said?" Solas rose and returned to the washroom where he ran the tap to the sink. "I barely knew who you were at that point."
Blood-dried fingers crept to cover her tired eyes. A full-blown investigation by the state could be a career fatality, no one would hire a journalist who couldn't work without the Chantry's dogs constantly sniffing about their heels. "What do the police want with my notes… I haven't even reported any misconduct this year… And why would they enlist purse-snatchers?"
"It's not the law I'd be most concerned with. That dwarf most assuredly didn't work for herself alone." A damp washcloth bumped her bruised cheek and in her misery Chiyo let her hands drop into her lap while her face and neck were subjected to a thorough cleaning. "The Chantry, the templars, the lyrium trade, the dwarven mobs, they're all shaking hands under the table to speak."
"I really, really don't want to hear some conspiracy drivel-- Oh shit! They have all my drafts… Weeks of recordings, interviews, I can't replace those…" She was too exhausted to even consider crying over her woes, but there was energy enough for catastrophic doubt to ensnare her already miserable mood. "I'll never have something prepared in time… I'm… I'm going to get fired."
Her life began to come apart at the seams inside her mind. She could see it now, going home with nothing, her job already coasting on brittle ground. Without her latest piece completed, they wouldn't pay her or reimburse the trip expenses. She'd be too broke to make rent for that tiny apartment with the stove she could almost reach from her bed.
Chin in his hand, Solas turned her head and found more to groom. "Why didn't they just arrest me? I wouldn't be homeless in jail… This is going to ruin me."
"I'm sure you'll come up with something. Lay low for a bit and they'll think you've quit. Otherwise, you'll be changing cities every few weeks for a decade or so. It's an amusing existence, let me tell you." His teasing joke was lost as he worked next to clean some of the blood from her shirt.
Her thoughts continued to spiral. She'd have to move back to the Lavellan compound. Her aunt would rail her for the wasted effort and costly education. She'd have to find a new job and probably end up teaching, stuck behind a desk and grading the papers of children until she was old and covered with cellulite and scraggly veins from a sedentary lifestyle. Chiyo would pick up that ever-present mothy, ammonia smell of all language and literature teachers she'd been a student of.
"Ms. Chiyo the school marm… I can hear the pop of spitballs and pointy paper darts already..." With a slump, she fell back onto the mattress and stared at the ceiling. "I'm going to have cankles and cats and a collection of candles I never burn because they were gifts…"
"You're a strange one, aren't you?" The reddened rag, still cool and damp, came to lay across her nose and eyes. "The Carta themselves probably just stole your satchel and you're going to fret over turning into some old biddy?"
"I should just resign now and buy a drawer full of those thick, ugly, beige stockings." She felt the laces of her boots loosen before they were pried away.
"Rather, why don’t you get some sleep. It will all appear better once you are in less pain, that I guarantee. Meanwhile, I must find Dorian... Can you promise me something?"
Chiyo groaned, her body grown too heavy and morose to roll over or reach for a pillow. "What, not to jump off the roof?"
"Close," Even his chuckle sounded tired, it was a wonder he could still stand. "Don't leave this room."
She didn't hear the door shut behind him, her consciousness fled and body vacated long before his hand ever touched the knob.
Skin slid in a stretch between crisp sheets as the feather-soft bed dipped down on the far edge.
Fine fingers brushed the curls back from over her eyes and returned to trace a marked path across her cheek.
Quiet and warm as the sleepy, crackling fire, a word was sighed and sealed by lips onto her ear.
Her bones had grown infinitely ancient during the ages she must have slept away. Each joint popped as it stirred, knees, elbows, neck, but her face seemed surprisingly numb. Upon lifting her head, a mostly melted, rubbery bag of ice slipped off and rolled across the scratchy bedspread.
A glow still leaked from behind the drawn curtain, though without a clock she wasn't sure if the day was ending or a new one just beginning. Considering how tired she'd been, a week could have passed. Cautious fingers reached to touch the chilly center of her nose and cheek, but even ice cold the pain radiated across the damaged structures beneath puffy skin.
Chiyo forced her legs out of the depression they'd created on the mattress and bid them carry her to the bathroom in the corner. A single surviving sock shuffled across the carpet, she groped for a switch in the dark. The pulsing pale flicker of blue-white light stung, but the image revealed in the mirror left the little elf wincing out of self-pity. What a mess…
Dark blues and reds splashed across one side of her face from beneath a bleary eye down to the edge of her stiff jaw. For already having a round nose, the added swelling and discoloration only made the feature that much more prominent and wide. One nostril was swollen shut and whistled when she tried to draw air through it.
With her pinky, she poked and prodded, feeling for cracks in the arch that made up her cheek, the socket around half-closed lids and the bridge of her clotted, but straight nose. A tinged rag lay on the counter, she re-wet the fabric and dabbed to remove the last few traces of blood. The front of her shirt was utterly ruined with diluted stains. Chiyo stripped the garment and dropped it on the floor, her slacks soon followed.
Staggering to her bag, she rooted in it for something clean. Discovering the contents disturbed in much the same manner as the man who'd joined her on this venture, she settled on a simple, speckled summer dress that seemed the most unmolested and easiest to pull on. The rest she wouldn’t wear until they’d been thoroughly washed again after unknown hands had beset them.
Beyond the pain, her stomach turned, sick with hunger. The morning’s morsels of bread and fruit had long since disappeared. Gone were her favorite snacks, along with the brunt of her funds, documents, and chances at a real future.
Her spare coin purse had been opened, but most of the hidden stash tucked into a shoe seemed to be accounted for. It wasn't much, but a few copper pieces would be ample for something to eat and perhaps cajole another into getting her some new aspirin. Chiyo eyed the glass bottle she'd brought from home, but paranoia was perhaps more contagious than the common cold.
Into the trash, it went to join the contaminated film in the bottom of the bin. She should have packed that willow bark tea gifted on her last name-day...
Belly growling and head pounding, promises were soon revoked. She wasn't going to wait an eternity for that photographer to come back and watch the shadows for lurking fiends. Coin in hand, she panned the floor for her boots, the other sock she'd fallen asleep in had disappeared into the unknown reaches of the Void.
Found placed in a neat fashion by the entrance, Chiyo slipped in her feet before she opened the unchained door.
She saw a raised fist before anything else and promptly slammed the door shut again.
A soft knock followed, drowned out by the hammer striking behind her sternum. "Awake, presumably?"
"And wishing I wasn't again..." With a sheepish pout, Chiyo turned the knob and peeked out at the man whom she'd nearly struck in her haste. A brightness had returned to his eyes, but the dark bags below had yet to be sufficiently slept away. Much more himself in less boisterous attire, Solas seemed to have recovered somewhat from their ordeals.
"I was going to drop this off, doubtful to think you'd want to sit at a table in lieu of your... condition." She sniffed, smelling out the bribe even before he lifted the waxy paper box in offering. It wasn't mere manners that let him in without question, but overwhelming appetite.
"You know, if you want to say I look like shit and you can't be seen with me in public, I’d wholly agree to leave it at that." He might be borderline bonkers, but the man couldn't have been a better mind reader.
The warm weight placed in her palms wiped clean the debt, all prior transgressions were forgotten with the opening of the lid. Cumin, ginger, garlic and jasmine sifted through the side of her nose that still worked. Glorious cuts of fish bathed in rich, creamy orange sauce paired by hefty scoops of long grained, beautiful rice.
She might have the food, but it seemed he’d kept the cutlery. “How about I just ask you to eat dinner with me?”
If it tasted as marvelous as it looked, getting punched by a dwarf would almost be worth the reward. This elf surely knew a few ways to a lady’s heart. One at least, through the route of her stomach.
Ok, enough title-puns for one day. Lyn and I are going to have to savor some curry after this one. <3 But what about dessert?
Chiyo would never admit to the tinge of wetness building in her eyes as she chewed through the first few glorious bites of curried fish. The sore ache in using her jaw could not be wholly usurped by the remarkable pleasures found on the end of a fork. Soft and succulent, the tender slices melted on her tongue and left an agreeable warmth in its wake as the sharper notes of seasonings faded.
Food had never moved her to tears, but the tingle and delight elicited by the comely dish did much to unload the heavier burdens from her spirits.
The quiet company wasn’t half bad either. Even if it meant having to share the generous portions that her howling belly wished entirely for itself. Left to eat without interruption or comment on her blatant appetite, unsaid turns were taken with the take-out.
Ruffled, ragged and rent from the trials of their day old adventure, they sat on the floor with the bed to their backs, barricaded and bolstered from whatever else the world had waiting beyond the locked door.
Here, in this small room with gaudy, golden motifs running down the wallpaper and falsely gilded prints of unassuming artworks, with its scant furnishings beyond a place to sleep and a tiny desk, Chiyo could breathe easy and out of reach from their combined demons. For a few minutes, she was content with putting her plans on hold. Salvaging her career could wait until after dinner, at the very least.
Politely passing the carton between them, she caught several flicked glances upon her bruised features, but Solas wouldn’t look at her long. His lips pulled into a tight line each time his eyes took note the puffy purples that blossomed where dwarven knuckles had imprinted her face. He struggled, opening his mouth several times to speak only to close it again around a scoop of spice and coconut cream congealed rice.
Tines hovered over a few covetous, meaty flakes, but her manners were too far ingrained to take all from a meal she’d not purchased. “Do you want that last piece of pickerel or--”
“I’m sorry.” She’d broken the thin barrier of their short-lived silence. The words he’d swallowed at first now spilled out with nothing to stop them. “If I’d been paying attention, perhaps I would have seen…”
Solas swiped his hand across his puckered mouth and down the wedge of his chin. “You didn't deserve that.”
Chiyo left her fork settled on the rim of the box. Apologies didn’t make for much of a continued appetite.
She couldn’t allow him to take the blame for this, not when her own self-awareness had been just as lackluster. In all the scuttling, skeevy cities and hole-in-the-wall places she’d traveled to over the years, no one had ever been made responsible for her well-being. Today was no exception.
“I won’t accept that.” Now she had his attention, be it brief, her pain reflected back in the hard stare of another. “Unless you punched me disguised as that little tart, there is no need for so much guilt.”
Frustrated fingers left his tightened face and worked next the thick, cardboard folds of the container’s lid back into the place. “I fell asleep in public without considering the consequences. It was careless, knowing what I do.”
“And whose fault was it that you fell asleep in the first place?” Chiyo’s head leaned onto the edge of the mattress and she crossed her hands over an abated stomach. “Call this my compensation for the hell I put you through last night. You were in no shape to be safeguarding my every move anyways. If anything, I should have been looking out for you.”
She watched Solas scrape at the waxy coating off the box with his thumbnail, leaving white, powdery crumbles to fall on the carpet. Shame tinged the edges of his demeanor as his shoulders sunk in a deep curl. “My personal shortcomings should not be so detrimental. That’s twice now they’ve been the cause of compromise.”
For a moment, she considered reaching out to touch the man whom she’d held so close through what unknown hours had passed down in the dark. The hot sweat of fear and the desperation in the grip of his arms would take weeks to forget...
But a question as to why lingered and itched until the only relief left was to know. “I’d like to ask you something. However, if you don’t want to tell me it won’t be brought up again.”
He drew a steady breath and released the leftovers to lace his fingers in his lap. “Then I shall answer as I am able.”
“In the catacombs, after we saw whatever that... thing was...” Chiyo curtailed a shiver as she drew a knee up to hold against her chest. That was the last image she wanted in her head then, better left chalked up to some trick of the mind or illusion until solid evidence told her elsewise. “Why did you keep saying we were going to die? Did you really believe that?”
Solas was quiet, words again trapped behind broad lips pulled into a pinch. She could almost see them rolling on his tongue as he decided which, if any, would be spoken aloud. After several seconds, Chiyo thought to lay the impertinent question to rest before adding the remainder of their evening to a lengthening list of ruined events. The memory of the panic that had rattled his confidence and left the elf shaking was still too recent, her curiosity not worth making his inner wounds match what she bore externally.
“When you were young,” His eyes had closed to little more than slits kept fixed to some unremarkable spot on the floor. “Did your parents ever frighten you with stories about children who wandered off too far from home and ended up in terrible trouble?”
“My mother, eh, not so much. But there were other relatives who made sure I was thoroughly terrified of everything from undercooked eggs to giant snakes that lived in fish ponds.” Chiyo cleared her throat, even thinking of fetid, muddy pools made her skin crawl and beg for a bath.
And remember how often you screamed yourself hoarse when the other kids pushed you into the water. Good times… Little cry-baby. Those were medium-sized snakes at best, no wonder they teased you into fits.
“Meandering from the compound was only the half of their favorite over-cautionings, always paired with being kidnapped, eaten by bears, or ending up dead in a ditch.”
“You were lucky then to have some kind of forewarning.” His knuckles grew ashy the longer he spoke, each hand woven to the other. The newly revived color to his face lost its vigor, but he continued on. “Foolishness may lead some astray, but it’s ignorance that places a boy in an abandoned mineshaft down in the Deep Roads.”
“No,” Her head snapped up from its lull against the bedspread as a brush of fear coursed along her nerves, trepidation taut in her veins. Yet it could only have been a fraction of the terror he must have experienced. There were just some places too dark and dangerous, even for her. “For how long?”
“Of that, I can only guess. The closest I come is three days, maybe four. But in the dark, it might as well have been an eternity. Even now, I do not recall how I made it back to the surface. Only that I supposed my life near to end and that I had the choice to either live or die. Perhaps it is better that I remember as little of the event as I do.” Solas’ voice came up hollow, emotionless even as he retold the barest bones of his tale. His prior agitation had been exchanged for stillness, rigidity for stupor. Only his chest rose and fell, but a bit too quick for her liking.
Here, in this small room with the hideous wallpaper growing uglier and more headache inducing by the moment, the walls crept close and the ceiling hung low. There wasn’t a single breeze to un-stifle the humid evening air. It didn’t seem quite as sheltered and cozy as it had been moments before.
Are you trying to kill him? He’s been so nice--mostly-- and now you’re tormenting the poor man. What kind of journalist-bullshit was that? All but twisted his arm, didn’t you? Of course he’d have to answer after those tactics. Now who's really the snooping bitch...
Chiyo reached for his shoulder and gave it a gentle squeeze. “What are your feelings about shaved ice? People keep telling me that the only good stuff comes from Orlais where they use natural-made blocks from the mountains, but there are supposedly better flavors available here in the north.”
“I… I’ve never had reason to compare.” His brows knit into shallow furrows as he was encouraged to his feet by the diminutive woman. “Isn’t it a Fereldan confection in origins, regardless?”
“Then that settles it, we’ll need to try a few and decide on the matter.” She was already sifting through her bag for a pair of lighter shoes and powder for her face. Something had to help in the matter of concealing the fresh shiner from the public eye.
Flipping open a small clam-shell lid with a mirror fixed inside, Chiyo shut it again upon seeing her face. Maybe make-up wasn’t going to correct as much as she imagined. “You don’t have a hat, do you?”
Solas didn’t laugh so much as he coughed on soft, dry hisses leaking from behind his teeth. Hands firmly pressed behind his hips, he said nothing as the writer left the little shop a few coins lighter and with a new purchase pulled low about her head.
“It’s just a hat.” Chiyo’s tone came flat from beneath the wide, floppy brim that hid much of her face from those blessed to be tall and helped shadow the bruises from any so less fortunate to be even shorter than herself-- dwarves aside. She’d be steering well clear of them for a spell. Not that they all were involved in the festering underbelly of society… but they did share the trait of having rather flinch-worthy fists.
He stooped just low enough to peek upon her zealously dusted features, skin left blanched and powdery from the application. “Excuse me hahren , but I’m waiting here for a young lady, not an old woman. Here you seen her? She was supposed to be treating me to an outing.”
“Ohh, this granny surely doesn’t buy rude da’lens dessert.” She rolled her eyes and tugged the hideous mauve monstrosity even further down on her dark, knotted brow. Maybe she should have selected something more discrete, or at least without the added floral pieces in the band, but little else had been as shielding and the only other suitable option had been overtly pink, with fluffy feathers...
“How can you even see to walk? I’m surprised they didn’t include a matching cane. White hair, absurd headwear, the sensible shoes, you’d pass for ninety at a glance.” Solas offered up an arm that was promptly rejected as his companion left him in a haughty march.
Seeking out the promised sweetened ice, she’d not be one to wait for him to finish his light-hearted jests.
“You know, that’s a lot of sass coming from a bald man. If anyone’s old here, it’s you.” Sore, swollen and tender, Chiyo’s cheeks burned beneath the heavy cake of makeup she’d applied to distract from the unsettling contusions. Tanned in the Tevinter sun and discolored by several hideous shades of red and violet, the addition of old cosmetics almost looked worse than what she’d tried to cover with it originally.
A few long-legged strides and bodily twists around the milling passersby taking advantage of the cooling evening air had him caught up to her. “That is by choice and has nothing to do with my age.”
“Really?” Chiyo lifted part of the woven flap to reveal a wry smirk. “You choose to have a shiny scalp, or is that some sort of men’s code for hiding a prematurely receded hairline?”
It must have stung his pride a bit, she watched as his previously glib mouth turn down into a soft pout. Perhaps the remark had been a tad harsh, but she’d succeeded with the derailment of his more derisive teasing. “How old do you think I am?”
For a moment, Chiyo stalled on the street, leather-clad toes dangling just off the curb. She’d not given his age much weighted thought, her own young life seemed at least somewhat comparable. A handful of years older than herself, easily gauged by his travels and experience, the beginnings of fine lines off the corners of his eyes, gave her only the vaguest of hints. Old souls in handsome bodies were not the simplest to peg correctly.
“Thirty...two?” She guessed, though saying it aloud seemed a stretch.
“Is that so? Interesting.” Chiyo wasn’t sure if his placid response served to hide shame or amusement.
He made no further comment as they crossed the street adjacent to the tidy public park--if a shallow duck pond, a paved walking trail, and a few manicured hedges could equate into being one. There on its border sat a cart, a glinting block of ice spinning in its center, slowly being whittled down into snow fine flakes and doused with gaudy colored syrups.
“Are you not going to tell me?” Waiting on a throng of children to collect their frozen rainbow motleys, she eyed him once again. With risk to earning a crick in her neck, Chiyo could only see his lofty features from the nose down.
Dreadfully pleasant lips curled into an innocent smile. “No, I believe it will be more stimulating to leave you without the truth.”
“Do not underestimate me,” She huffed, resisting the overwhelming urge to place her hands on her hips. “I’ve been told I can be quite wheedling and insufferable if need be.”
“I’m sure.” Even those simple words were blemished with a lilt of his tone that left her riled.
The incorrigible, easy ways in which he could slip beneath her skin and prod with blasé manners upon her buttons was maddening. From one minute to the next the writer, who was more akin to reading the subtleties in others than being taken as an open book herself, couldn’t be certain whether she’d be feeling sorry for the fellow, furious with him, or utterly flustered by the wily attempts he made at flirting.
In defeated hush, before speaking got her into any more trouble, she observed in a silent fume beneath the protection of the hat as Solas selected a brilliant sapphire, minty debacle. If color were any indication of how sugary sweet it was, Chiyo’s teeth ached at the thought of even a nibble crossing over her palate.
Dragon Fire. Now that sounded the least sucrose-sodden on the list. The splash of deep, blood-orange over pure white dazzled as it slowly saturated the crisp paper cone. With a precursory lick, her tongue was greeted first by a ripe cherry tang and then seared with a rush of cinnamon, hot tingles paired by the cool relief of ice.
“So what’s the plan?” She asked between crunching bites, mulling over their situation at large. All prior ideas had to be scrapped for lack of both tools and security. Without her recorder, there would be no voices heard from the beyond. With his spare film worthless in a waste bin, there’d be no additional pictures. Considering the dose of brutality already endured, a cautious head won over a curious heart.
“Plan? For what?” Solas’ lips were already tinted with blue, he appeared comically cold even standing in the sweat-rousing embrace of summer heat.
“To get out of here, away from the police, the Carta, whoever.” She kept them walking along the tumbled brick path, glancing all the while for potential eavesdroppers or vagrants. “Do we run to the nearest safe house, or do you have some sort of underground network already in place to smuggle you out of compromised areas? Maybe a dash for the border would work… They still do hot air balloons around here for the season, if only we knew a pilot...”
“Please loan me whatever fantastical crime serial you’ve been reading. But I’m afraid nothing quite so fanciful will be taking place.” He sucked the dripping melt from the simple treat, draining the stark color to near transparency. “Actually, I was planning to bore them into leaving us alone.”
“And how, exactly, are we going to accomplish that?” Chiyo cracked a hardened lump of ice between her teeth. Perhaps she had kept her head too deep in the trenches of books and words, ideas that only existed on paper, and on one series in particular. Swords and Shields , however, was not an anecdote of medieval literature that could simply be put down and forgotten.
“Play tourist a few days.” Solas deferred from the walkway and settled himself onto a iron-wrought bench near the water’s edge. At once, several ducks perked their bills and beady eyes in his direction, waiting hungrily for any morsels he might offer. “We’ll see a few sights. Eat a few meals. Take some drab pictures with the tail of the film left in my camera. If all goes well, we can then abscond back to Qarinus in a few days with our pursuers scratching their backsides, nothing gained or further found that could be considered incriminating.”
She didn’t join him on the seat, the idea that they could be followed, that someone might be keeping surveillance on them had her too nervous to sit for any given length of time. Even shopping for a few minutes had felt like a risk. Instead, Chiyo kept watch at his side from the limited screen of her hat, finally pushed back into a more serviceable position. “Will we have the added company of one Dorian Pavus to wile away the leisured hours?”
“No, unfortunately.” Arm slung over the bench’s back, the Carta would have to jump from the nearest shadows if they wished to rattle him any further. His claim to be living at large seemed far from the truth, the morning’s prior alarm seemed past any recall or concern. Priorities supposedly muddled, he’d shown more stress sitting in the sanctity of the hotel room than being out in the open. “I’m afraid he’s already registered for a coach to take him home in the morning, along with two elven passengers who will sadly miss the private ride and have to travel unnamed on the train again.”
“You think that might be enough?” The questions continued to leak, Chiyo had never once been required to hide in plain sight. To say she was nervous or in beyond her depth, would only be half the truth. Shouldn’t they be stealing disguises, making up alibis half way across the country, changing their names? But maybe his plan was simple in the best way, the kind that would work.
“Worst case, we can just use that enormity on your head to fly away with a strong headwind.” She considered dumping what remained of her frozen snack onto the smooth back of his head, but the glaring elf settled for a pinch flicked at his gaping collar and the satisfying little gasp of alarm that came with it.
“Keep that up and you’ll be the one wearing it tomorrow.” Falsely rough with her warning, she was glad that Solas couldn’t witness the uncontrollable smile working its way through the bruises.
Just a head up, it's going to be a short while before I get to chapter 13. I've been putting off updating my other story, WDHW, since the end of April. I think its time to get something going for that over my upcoming three-day weekend. But who knows. Maybe my muse will slap me upside the head and all will go smooth and fast and I will get two chapters done with all the free time coming my way. Thanks to everyone who has been rooting for me from the sidelines. Knowing that I bring others some degree of joy makes all the effort worth it tenfold.
Chapter 13: Goodnight Moon
Everybody should thank Lyn for the extra long chapter tonight, it just kept growing and growing thanks to her wonderful encouragement and brainstorming with me. <3
"Thank you, I'll get right on that." The little elf smiled so tight her cheeks nearly split in half.
"Of course I don't have a damned passport. Why the fuck would I ever be here if I did!" The curt, hissing tone slipped over her tongue as she strangled the newest onslaught of documents with a false beam still painted on thick over her lying mouth. Dropping the involuntary pleasantries, Chiyo continued to mock the clerk as she made her way back to her seat. "I'm sorry, we'll need more proof of identification. Oh yeah? How about I show you..."
She swallowed the more violent outburst as she resumed the chair beside an elderly woman. Not that the poor dear could even hear her, but manners were often difficult to forget even at the most trying of times.
But this was utterly ridiculous.
Certainly, no crueler contraption of mankind's own make could possibly exist that was worse than a limbo of legality. There were less than a dozen people in the room and most of them were crisply starched, tightly buttoned, hoity-toity, void of emotion employees of the state. Over two hours had trickled away wasted and they'd still not called on her again. She'd been to the front desk, repeatedly, nearly every fifteen minutes, and walked back to her seat with additions to an ever increasing pile of paperwork.
Oh? You don't have your passport? There was a form for that. Pardon, what do you mean you don't carry an original copy of your birth record on hand hundreds of miles from home? Here, have a nice, double-sided questionnaire. You don't have a police report of the theft? Have another form. What's that, you don't have any other legal identification with you? There wasn't a form for that. There was an entire booklet that needed to be notarized. And half of it was in untranslated Tevene! Sign here, and here, and here…
It seemed the continuous harassment was only serving to make things worse and they were now just finding various busy work to keep her preoccupied. But instead of placating Chiyo's agitation, they were stoking the coals.
A heated huff escaped between the elf's teeth with the continual respellings of her own name. Each long tail of the Y turned up on itself and stabbed its way through the other characters, skewering the lot together with a hard line. Every dot and loop steadily became sloppier until 'Lavellan' was no more than a squiggle smeared by the side of her blackened palm and pinky.
Here, in a stifled bureaucratic cesspool of an office with shadeless, unopened windows, coughing patrons unbothered by the endless plight, and creaky little chairs with miniscule desks built onto one of the armrests that wobbled every time she changed the position of her hand or turned a page, Chiyo felt punished for being robbed, victimized by the circumstances and utter lack of sympathy by those who should be helping her.
Even as a professional writer, her fingers had never felt so cramped as they did forming her most-legible letters into tiny boxes with the shoddiest, most insufferable pens to ever grace the face of Thedas. Chiyo elaborated every possible detail of her life again and again, all to receive yet another slip of paper that would allow her passage out of the country when the time came, a day not far off considering how quickly the summer was being expended.
It was but a few days till August. And that final drafting date loomed ever closer.
Birth, citizenship, place of residence, employment, maternal histories, education, marital status, and her least favorite-the unique numeral of her elven registry.
Five little numbers, meaningless until they were grouped together to form a marker that might as well have been used as an ear-tag in a stockyard. No other race was obliged to memorize anything beyond their personal taxation code. Humans, dwarves, qunari, none of them were forcibly recorded in this fashion.
And all for the sake of their protection. To safeguard the funds established for their embetterment, coin collected to assuage the guilt garnered by centuries of slavery and abuse while the words knife-ear and rabbit never left their daily vocabulary. Of course, the progress made over the past hundred years had to prove the quality of the imposed aid.
Look at how literate and educated the Dalish are now in our schools, marvel at their permanent housing that we gave them the land and money for, applaud for how clean their feet and civilized their faces have become, amaze at how few children they have now that we've taught them to close their legs for once.
Perhaps the most despicable part of the assimilation was just how necessary it had become to exist. The cost of fighting back had become so tremendously high that most dared not challenge it. Those that rebuked the system lived on the absolute fringes of society, copper-less, comfortless, and for lack of better options, destitute. Otherwise, they were simply cut-off and cast-off, forgotten as remnants while time trudged on.
Shuffling together the pre-printed novel she'd been assigned to detailing, Chiyo returned to the front desk and waited for the gentleman ahead of her to finish his business.
It was possible that they'd forgotten she was there in purgatory with them, but her last day in Carastes wasn't going to be spent in its entirety trapped within administrative loopholes.
"Alright, I have a finished a relocation form, a personal identification proclamation, a Dalish migrants addendum, a statement as to why my documents are missing, I corrected the I-864 as asked, I have my application for a new visa," The piqued elf laid each item out in turn and in order as the woman across the long bureau kept her bespeckled eyes fixed upon the finalized documents she was embossing with fresh red wax, each motion performed with astute precision. "Is there anything else you need?"
A begrudging sigh escaped the orderly lady's dark lips and she placed her brass stamp squarely back into its holder and the cup of scarlet paraffin back over a heating element.
"Let me take a look," She thumbed through the first few sheets, her horned glasses slid down her arched nose. The bright whites of her eyes, magnified by the rich umber of her skin showed no sentiment as she reorganized the stack and looked directly at Chiyo. If she was bothered by the blend of deep browns and greens and yellows that smeared one side of the journalist's healing face, it certainly wasn't apparent.
"It seems you have all the necessary documents." With a hard crimp, the bundle was perforated, set with a brad, and placed on the bottom of a thick pile beside a potted ficus. The miserable twig for a tree stood limply in its bowl. Thin roots poked out, exposed from the mildewy peat it had been forced to reside in. A few tiny white flies fluttered as the muggy air was stirred. When was the last time the little plant had been in the sun, the wind, the rain? No living thing deserved to be trapped here for all eternity...
"So…" She cleared her throat when the receptionist selected several items from a different stack. "When can I take my photograph and have my passport remade?"
"I'm afraid we don't perform that function here without the proper clearance." The clerk punctuated each head-spinning sentence with a firm whack as she systematically processed other completed forms. "If you'd read section twelve part C and the following subset, we'll have to forward your papers and have them verified by all parties involved who can attest to their authenticity and accuracy. Then we shall receive notification of permission to reissue your credentials."
"And… how long will that take? Are we expediting these today, tomorrow? I can't stay here long." Chiyo's hands slowly crept up over the desk's edge. She stared blankly at the unaffected person who stood between her and her ability to cross the Orlesian border, and subsequently back into Ferelden.
"Approximately three to five weeks, if your country of origins can return them promptly and there is no difficulty in matching your records." Another stamp thumped, a precise piece of paper turned over and arranged for approval.
Weeks. And several of them at that. Maybe even a month… It took several seconds to wrap her head around the time frame and its unexpected bulk. Her precarious deadline became ever more doomed. Unless a miracle happened, she'd became a fugitive and cross illegally if that were her last option.
Her life's fate was going to be determined by a simple lack of permission, turning her into a woman on the run. Hair left to grow to unwieldy lengths, clothes shabby and layered with stitches. She'd have to change her name to something mysterious, or heralding, and would sign it with a kiss in the dark lipstick used as part of a shady disguise. Leaving renegade drafts in caches hidden around the country, only those who could decipher the code would know the wealth of knowledge hidden behind the gibberish. They'd be printed on the forward of every major publication, alongside a wanted poster. Every Carta mob boss, government agent, and police commander would slam the paper on a desk or throw it at a cohort with outrage as the ghost-writer slipped through their clutches yet again.
With her string of luck, though, she'd probably next be found writing snippets on toilet paper from a Tevene penitentiary. They'd shave her head to cut down on the lice...
The glare off glasses flickered her way as the woman straightened in her chair. "If you are in much of a hurry, I'd recommend locating your residing dignitary and make your plea there."
Not that they'd see you. It wasn't said aloud. But the woman's lackadaisical tone implied it very much to the long ears the words and gaze fell upon.
Chiyo's breathing became heavy as the vexation and indignity rose to near boiling levels. "You know what? I might just do that. Thank you for the courtesy."
Reaching across the work-table, the small elf snatched the edge of her papers from their tray and gave a sharp yank, sending the higher forms toppling in a cascade. The ceramic bowl holding the moldy topiary spun off the desk's corner and hit the floor with a resounding crack.
Like weasels popping up from their holes, the other employees all looked up from their own quartered cubicles and tidy desks and prepared piles.
She winced as the shards clattered and wobbled loud amid the much too apparent silence. "Sorry…"
Grimacing with a bottom lip clamped between her teeth, Chiyo spun on her heels and left with as much dignity and grace as she could summon.
[V.T. Stop. All is going really well in Tevinter. Stop. Haven't been arrested yet. Stop. I'm on to something really big here and don't want to leave until I get to the bottom of it. Stop. Is there any way I could get an extension? Stop. You won't be disappointed. Stop. C.L.]
[C.L. Stop. You know that goes against our company policy. Stop. And there is only so much budget allocated for goose-chases. Stop. Not that it ever stopped me. Stop. Sorry kid. Stop. Damn accounting will have my hide if I don't say it. Stop. Don't go down any nug-holes I wouldn't. Stop. We have to print on the first of Kingsway. Stop. With or without you. Stop. V.T.]
Chiyo folded the telegram in half before tucking it down into her back pocket. It wasn't the news she'd hoped for. Summer wasn't going to last forever, the fruit of her labors would either be harvested or laid to waste. All publishable works had to be finalized within a week of printing. And from Tevinter it would take several days for a single draft to reach Redcliffe. They didn't need her there for the editing, but that only mattered if she had something prepared in time.
She had to start over. And she had to do it soon. Now even.
Not a minute more could be wasted on the fake vacation that had served to distract her from her goals. It had been disturbingly easy how Chiyo had shirked duty and diligence to spend lazy hours perusing postcard stands and playing makeshift games of chess in the hotel's parlor. Buying day old bread for the duck pond-and subsequently being chased from the park by zealous swans. Poking through the local apothecary had been somewhat worthwhile. The smooth-talking clerk had been quick to sell her the latest remedy for bruises, as well as pushing several hair treatments in the direction of her companion that went unpurchased. They'd spent much of the better part of the last several days well within the public's eye being as humdrum and ordinary as possible for any who might be watching.
And the food. The glorious food. Her palate was quickly becoming ruined by the degrees of spice and complexity of flavors to be had in even the most simple dishes. The light, creamy yogurts blended with ripened fruits put every heavy Ferelden dairy product to shame. And whoever had thought to put saffron and nutmeg in oatmeal deserved a parade in their name.
Her mouth watered at the thought of her last breakfast in the small town, she'd have to make the most of it before they slipped back to Qarinus. But first, she must get to work. Tomorrow's rewards would only come if they were earned. And she had an epic achievement in mind.
Jostling a paper bag onto her narrow hip with enough goodies to drive her through the task ahead, while Chiyo turned the lock on her room's door.
Immediately, her nose curled at the noxious fumes that wafted about in an invisible haze that left her dizzy.
"Solas? What are you doing?" Chiyo's chest heaved as she coughed, dumping the sack onto the limited table space by the coat rack. With empty hands she immediately covered her mouth and nose, her eyes began to water as she rushed to open the lone window.
The sounds of liquids sloshed from behind the closed-up washroom, but a few moments later an elf donning a pair of heavy gloves and a mask excused himself, slipping through the narrowest gap he could make in the doorway.
"Getting a head start." With care, Solas peeled the rubber from his hands and lifted the mask's straps from each ear. "I've worked in less adequate conditions before, but there is no sense in not having all these images ready for lyrium exposure."
Chiyo remained by the window, sucking in the cleaner air. How could he even stand to breathe was a mystery when her lungs already felt on fire. His workshop in Dorian's cellar was nowhere near as toxic as whatever he'd just brewed up in the bathtub. "And what was so wrong with your room that you had to stink up mine?"
Placing the protective wear on the floor, he explained with much chagrin. "Room-service nearly caught me in there while you were out. I thought it best to relocate before any questions surfaced as to why an elf has a key that should be in the hands of one, absent, Dorian Pavus. As far as they'll now know, he checked out early. I'll try to find other arrangements later this evening."
"Well, if you are done turning this place into a laboratory, I'd like to ask for your help." Perhaps it was the fumes, but his presence had given her a sudden spark of an idea, harebrained as it was. "I need an interview. A real one. At this point, you're my last hope of keeping a job."
Chiyo watched as a curious brow rose over his hooded eye. Already she knew that look, and hated it for the flip-flops it created in her stomach. "And what did you have in mind? Certainly nothing so abstruse as my interests might entail."
"The other day, you were starting to tell me about the connection between the Carta and the police and the whole lot. I still have my doubts, but I'd also be willing to hear you out this time." Finally able to breathe somewhat, she proceeded to turn out the contents of her last purchase onto the table and drew out the only chair from its position on the wall. Snack foods, bottled beverages, a new set of pencils, a journal of pristine writing paper. Everything she would need to accomplish a feat she'd not attempted since her collegiate days… an overnighter.
"Has something changed your mind to make you want to listen to my conspiracy... drivel, as you called it?" Solas probed her reasoning with an ever-present teasing lilt as he ambled by, selecting a package of wafer-thin potato crisps seasoned with oil and salt.
A quick twist against one of the tight drawer pulls made a bottle cap pop and a rush of fizz erupted as she broke the seal of a clear, citrusy tonic.
"No, but I think you of all people can talk enough to fill a few pages. And you can start by how you got involved in all this." She couldn't help but beam with her ribbing jest, all the while wrapping her lips around the beverage's open top.
"I hope you don't have any other plans. It's not a story that can be made in any way brief." Making himself comfortable at the head of the bed, Solas readied for a long night of questioning. A pillow shoved between his back and the wall, he crunched his way through a handful of chips. "Should I start at the beginning where I spent six months hiding from thugs out of Orzammar or should we skip all the way up to my first detainment in Orlais where I was accused of conspiring to steal lyrium out of a shipment being hand delivered by the Carta straight to the Chantry's doorstep?"
Chiyo's pencil was already scratching at the foremost page, "The very beginning, I can always edit it down if need be."
"One request, though." She looked up from her introductory sentences to be met with a serious gaze. There was no joke or jovialness in his tone and no room for misinterpretation about his situated, firm demeanor. "No names. Not mine or Dorian's or anyone else I may mention."
"Deal." Incognito it was then.
Chiyo shifted in the hard wooden seat, the bones of her hips were numb from the hours which she'd been sitting. Her back snapped as she forced it to straighten from a deep hunch over the makeshift desk. Shoulders groaned and popped once she finally dropped the worn stub of a pencil against the page and it rolled into a pile of curled shavings. Her eyes, her hands, her head, everything ached, having been pushed long through the night and into the earliest hours of the morning.
It had been some time ago since she'd lost the counsel of the subject whose gentle snores came from the comforts of her purloined bed. Somewhere after she'd begun a second revision he'd drifted off once the steady flow of questionings ceased.
Over the span of several hours, they'd toiled to create something that now resembled much of a proper article. One that would either work brilliantly and come with success or end up in the rubbish alongside all the bizarre works of supposed subterfuge that had come before it. But unlike those farcical entries, this one came with a nagging suspicion of truth.
While implicating every particular body of power known to the face of Thedas, doctrinated or illicit, his was a story that linked them all together. The Divine's leashing of their pampered guard dogs and their harsh laws enforced on the general populace, Templars permitting the continued trade of smuggled lyrium to pass beneath their noses, nation's selling their subterranean mining rights away to agencies under the complete control of dwarven mobs, the Chantry sitting on a stockpile of the valuable mineral-both physically and in the market- so large that they controlled to the last copper the lyrium's over-inflated retail value. And those at the top were all making a killing off one another. Others involved merely ended up missing or dead.
And there was more. Solas had seen evidence that implied the Chantry wasn't just ultimately money-hungry. With their limitless supply and no restrictions as to what they were permitted to do with the potent material, they were also using it to perform top-secret experiments in the development of 'new' technologies. Yet, if his theory was correct, these discoveries weren't new at all, but incredibly ancient and stolen from the ruins left by elves of millennia ago.
It was enough to make even her head feel a hundred times too crammed.
Turning the knob on the buzzing lamp, she extinguished the blue-bright source offending her dry corneas. Those same eyes soon relished in a welcome dark of the muted moonlight that peeped through the drawn curtains. Chiyo closed the cover on her journal and turned her sore body in the chair to see what had become of the now silent elf.
Solas looked so peaceful, spent with his story told and relieved of being the sole harbinger of the dangerous knowledge collected over several years. Yet, he'd spoken like a person who was seldom listened to, avidly and eager to a fault even, encouraged by each added bout of inquiries. She never interrupted and waited patiently for each titillating wave of answers to pass before prodding any deeper.
Nug-hole indeed, but it still felt as though they'd only just begun to pare away at the exhausting truth's surface. Her spine crackled as Chiyo stood, hands pushing on her hips while correcting the deep hunch in her posture.
Arms wrapped around a squished pillow, he'd nodded off into a sprawl across her bed. So much for him finding someplace else to stay, not that there was a budget for multiple accommodations.
She wasn't going to torture herself by sleeping at the desk. The floor looked questionably comfortable at best, maybe padded with the blanket trapped beneath him. No sofa or lounge offered her any sort of reprieve. And the bathroom was barely tolerable, still rancid with the odors of a cobbled chemical bath, film left drying in rows from the rod.
With a cautious creep to the far edge, she considered the bed with space enough for a small elf to slip beneath the covers and steal a few hours of rest before they checked-out of the hotel at nine. If she fell asleep right then and there, she could have almost four solid hours… Surely, Solas wouldn't mind, considering the situation he'd put her in. Besides, if she stayed beneath the bedspread they'd never even have to touch.
Peeling back the scratchy comforter, Chiyo kept her bleary eyes upon the placid face who'd usurped most of the pillows. Sitting lightly atop the mattress edge, her weight sank the side and she held her breath, waiting for any movement or sign of disturbance. At first, she slipped her legs beneath the sheets and began to settle in, but the uncomfortable heat burning in her cheeks forced her to sit up again, least the bed catch fire.
Nope, nope, nope. This was obscene, the worst of ideas, and she knew it. How would she feel if woken to a stranger of a week crawling into her bed?
The inferno of her face quickly alighted the rest of her body.
Oh… No… better not think about that compromising proposition whatsoever. Even mental erotica was probably considered to be illegal in this day and age, at least, of the lurid caliber currently playing out between her ears. Better turn herself in for indecency, straight into the stocks where the world would learn of her perversions and pelt her with all manner of nastiness.
But she was so tired, too worn-out to even drag her feet into a cold shower…
Maybe just curling herself into the smallest ball possible at the end to rest… It couldn't hurt, right? Unappealing feet were the only part left within any proximity. One recovered pillow, still warm from his body heat, and the corner of a blanket, her solitary saving graces.
Just a little sleep was what she really needed, and wanted. That was all. And nothing more. She'd feel better afterward and could put some much-needed distance between them again in the morning. It wasn't even a night together, just four hours on the furthest edge of the bed. Maybe she'd be lucky for once and wake up before him, and he'd never have to know…
Or maybe he might… Go to sleep!
Chapter 14: Truth Sleuth Troubles
A deepest thank you from the bottom of my heart for all the encouragement and support I have received in writing this. All of you are wonderful and have made all these hours and sleepless nights a true joy. <3
Strange. Usually, in her dreams, she was the one doing all the touching and instigation with limbs and lips that knew no sense of shame. Time and again, she'd been tickled and teased with spirited, yet feckless imaginings of collarbones tasted, hips held, and toes curled. Acts performed in urgency, wanton ideas skimmed from the surface, impulsions completed before she'd a moment to actually enjoy them… These flights of fancy only served to curb the craving of a lascivious mind left otherwise starved.
The slow, steady hands that had her lazy features now were a remarkable change of pace. Something original swept her senses, for once, and wasn't stolen verbatim from the lines of smuggled smut kept stashed beneath the mattress. This degree of realness though...
She'd have applaud her subconscious for its turn of ingenuity. Later.
Perhaps a degree of exhaustion had burrowed its way into this reverie, leaving her listless and content to lie there. She wanted to sleep as much as she wanted someone to pull the pearly buttons on her blouse loose in a succession of tiny, tormenting pops. To trace and chart the line of each uncovered curve, every crevice of her ribs. To leave behind only a map of pretty marks, trails from tests of teeth.
Well, maybe not just as much... It was a close tie.
Her arms hung limp, too heavy to lift as they became enveloped by long, firm fingers. The short length of her legs remained too lodged in the pliant bedding for anything more than pleasant, anticipated stiffening and the flex of one unruly knee. An amenable weight pressed against her person, she reveled in the welcomed attentions. So long as it wasn't asked of her to move.
Not yet at least. Not without a few more indolent minutes of a well-earned, well-deserved catnap. But... she'd never been above a teensy bit of bribery.
"Please…" A beautiful, breathy word. Barely more than a beseeching whisper fell from his lips. "We don't have much time."
Chiyo's back arched as warm air skimmed along her neck and ear, brisk and baited with a rush of excitement. Her skin all but melted where each lovely syllable slipped over. There was a pleasure in and of itself in being wanted, desired, sought after, any term of need.
"Mmm, why rush?" She yawned with a deep stretch, sleep's sluggish spell broken by her own drowsy purr. A hand reached up and slid across the plane of a broad chest, the robust heart within pounded. And… rattled.
His pulse had the most peculiar cadence of jingling metal against solid wood…
An awful lot like the shuddering of slender chain looped against the doorframe.
With eyes split open as her body was urgently shaken awake, the fantasy world broke into a thin gray morning with a darkened figure hunkered very much on top of her. Sure enough, it was Solas, but the frantic beat above her fingertips could not be matched by the hard knock beneath the peephole or the violent twist of the knob that left him flinching.
Of all the thoughts and questions that should have immediately come to mind, only one surfaced. Why wasn't she screaming?
Not a single word escaped her dumbstruck mouth as Solas turned his wide-eyed stare away from the only entrance and down upon the baffled face below. The warning look said it all, with no instructions needed as to what she had to do next.
"Open this door or we'll break it down!" The hammering continued, growing louder and harsher with each added bang. The pale painted wood heaved in its hinges as the attacks escalated with pummeling fists and blunt kicks.
In a flash they were up, shoving loose belongings into bags. Her journal was collected, first and foremost. Everything else was secondary once her beloved dawn lotus robe was secured from the back of the chair. Boots were forced onto her sock-less feet, the laces left untied for haste, merely rammed behind the tall tongues.
Solas only lurched to grab his camera bag before thrusting the window wide open and knocking out the flimsy mesh screen. One leg nearly outside, he cursed and darted back to the washroom to snatch up almost forgotten film.
"Leave it!" She hissed in a low objection and didn't wait for his choice to be made. Pitching her rucksack down the half-story drop on the inn's built-up backside, Chiyo wasted no such precious time.
Out she went, with no qualms about trivial losses. The elf forsook several replaceable personal effects. She wouldn't have any use for an old hair comb or toothbrush if she were dead. Or worse.
Her heels hit the ground first, and then her ass with a hard thump on the grass as she rolled away from the fall. A bath sheet knotted into a ball and stuffed with crinkling, processed pictures plopped against her shoulder. She looked up to see her fellow renegade clinging to the windowsill. Solas pitched something back inside the hotel room. Glass shattered, and then she caught the spark of a match struck against the brick before it too was tossed.
Down the wall, he dropped as the room above billowed with dense smoke and the curtains burst into flame.
There was no time to shake off the tumble or even dust himself as they took to the street in a sprint towards the only quick escape available for miles around. Back to the trains and far, far away from whoever had stalked them to their rented quarters.
Distance was the only source of protection with swiftness standing as the lone safeguard for their lives.
She ran until her lungs scorched with each breath drawn in acidic gasps. Wild white hair clung to her sopping wet forehead and cheeks. Her sprinting feet burned hot as the soles tore into the backstreets, leather seams further rubbed them raw and blistered.
A sleepy town passed by in a blur of pavement, closed doors, shuttered windows, and first light's fishmongers. They slowed for nothing until coming to an abrupt halt at the back end of the country terminus, circumventing the main platforms entirely.
The first passenger lines were an hour or more from boarding or departure. But there were still left plenty of loaded cargo containers lined up and waiting for clearance.
Slipping through the wire fence with their fair share of gut-wrenching snags on knotted barbs and humble crawling with bellies to the ground, the pair skittered out onto the criss-cross of iron tracks and railway cars. A handful of bleary, yawning workers maintained the backlot, most were more fixated on the contents of their lunch pails and thermoses than the reflective eyes of elves watching them from between the gaps of cars.
Solas tugged urgently at every door they slinked by, but most were hopelessly locked. They hugged the shadows of the quiet yard, waiting for any opportunity to arise with hearts throbbing in their heaving chests.
One came to them as a hatch left ajar just enough to wedge a few slender fingers into. It took four desperate hands tugging in tandem to pull open the rusted, squealing piece of junk on a freight line pointed east. They entered as stowaways and with a great heave, the corroded door was closed as snug as allowed. Then, they were gone, without a trace.
Neither had said a word throughout the entire debacle once outside the hotel and the silence remained until the first few rocky lurches pulled the box forward. Only when the vibrations picked up speed did either find the air to speak clearly over the coarseness of their ragged throats and lungs.
"Let me guess…" Chiyo wheezed as she pressed her drenched back to the stiff boards of a crate. Hot beads of sweat poured from every inch of over-exerted flesh and dripped from the sodden curls about her ears and neck. "You skipped paying the room's bill?"
"This is no time for jokes." His skin shone slick where the sparse cracks of the sun could reach him. Solas dropped his depleted body onto the limited floor space before her, finding what little room he could to stretch his legs.
He began to untie the hurried knots from the towel and salvage what he could of his film, inspecting for damage and smoothing out any creases. It seemed he wasn't much the early morning person either as a few embers of a temper flared. "For years I've known relative peace and only mild disturbances for my research. And now twice in one week I have had to flee for my life. Untold pieces of evidence, lost through carelessness."
"Oh no. You are not blaming me for this." With a wince, she pried the shoes from her feet and cringed at the sight of scarlet toes and blister-torn heels, wet where the welts had broken. "I've done nothing compared to half the stunts you've pulled. If even only a sliver of the story is true, you can't run from stuff like that forever. Trespassing a military base, in Korcari of all places, you'd've surely been imprisoned or executed for that exploit alone."
"Had I been identified, yes. But my habits have not changed, my explorations have been almost minuscule. And I've done nothing recently to warrant this besides conspiring with you. I have been honest, can you say the same of yourself?" Solas shot her a narrowed look, his eyes shone sharply blue inside a reddened scowl. "Where, exactly, did you investigate before coming to Qarinus? I need to know sites. What you saw. Who you spoke with. Did you touch or take anything? You must have poked the hornet's nest hard for them to go this far."
"For a moment there, I would have sworn you were almost paranoid enough to accuse me of working for the Chantry too." Chiyo's lips pursed with a whistle of pain while stroking the fresh sores on her ankles and heels. She suppressed the terrible urge to pick at the watery bubbles beneath paper-thin layers of skin.
"Now that would be a most inaccurate judgment of character." She felt her own eyebrow elevate while he spoke. It was a curious confidence his words bore after only knowing her a week. "I do not see an ounce in you of the guile and insidiousness required to play such games of espionage. You would have used your pawns more adeptly if you were a spy instead of relying so heavily on a single rook and a cornered queen."
The leather boot by her hand would have made an excellent projectile if her shoulders weren't so sore and arms weighted with exhaustion's lead.
"How flattering, I'm to be assessed solely on a game of chess. That one loss is going to haunt me forever, isn't it?" It had already cost her the coin for dinner and no small amount of pride. He'd manipulated the board calmly, always a step ahead with subtle shifts to place her pieces exactly where he wanted them. Her unpredictable, wildcard tactics had worked for awhile, but the ultimate lack of strategy had been Chiyo's downfall. "I'm sure your opinion of me will change after a few rounds of Diamondback."
Taking care not to place excess oils on the shining ribbons of black tape, Solas began the tedious task of winding each roll back into individual canisters. "You're still evading my prior questions."
"Fine," She huffed, combing fingers through her damp hair. "For your information, my last piece was centered around a group of 'heretical' elves. They were protesting certain religious doctrines in a little town at the base of the Frostback mountains. Haven, if you've ever heard of it. It's a miserable, pious wayside en route to the more popular Temple of Sacred Ashes."
"I've heard of no such recent dissent," He spoke around a small cap bobbing between his teeth. "The media is usually so rapt on those events. Outrage sells, I'm sure you agree."
"Of course you wouldn't. Because all reports were strangled in the cradle and any involved were removed." Unpublished and uncompensated except for a small stipend, she had been ordered to turn in all of her notes and erase every recording. Which she'd done, on paper at least. There was a surviving copy tucked behind a set of dishes in her kitchen cabinet.
"You didn't hear this from me, but…" Chiyo leaned forward, offering up a second pair of hands for the task after first wiping them with the corner of the towel. With a given nod, she copied his methodical motions. "No one in the Chantry wants any word being spread about a growing cult of Shartan."
"And just why are you still hobbling about like an old biddy?"
Dorian peeked over the top of his book at the elf shuffling across the carpet. He sighed as the small woman paced, her sore feet forged a path through the sitting room lined with shelf after shelf of leathery texts and curios. Yet not even his collection of slivered fossils, articulated bones, and various preserved bits of rare animals could distract her current focus.
With nothing more than a shrug and mumbled acknowledgement over the pen-nib pressed against her lips, Chiyo kept her eyes fixed to the copy of her latest draft.
"I should don a white sheet over your head and dub you the manor's new haunt." She paused by the draped window with a miserable groan and then back-pedaled around the plush lounging sofa.
With a snap of the opened halves, Dorian set the novel aside, his eyes tracking her around the room. "Please, though, keep the moaning noises to a minimum during daytime hours. I do have a business to run and I'd prefer my clients not to fall into fainting spells. Are you even listening to me?"
"What was I thinking… they'll never let me publish this…" Frustrated enough to halt the hapless march, her hips pressed into the seat's back behind Dorian's shaking head. She turned the next page with a heavy sigh and began to massacre the words anew with red ink. Doubt had taken root on her original idea, sapping that first instinctual drive to expose the truth.
For the days since returning to the protected confines of the Pavus estate she'd done little more than work, other than to soak her mashed toes in salt baths and rise at terribly late hours. Having spent her nights tearing the article apart at the seams and stitching it back together, the journalist had awoken for the third morning in a row with shredded bits and crumpled balls of paper littered over her bed. And every time she began to read the newest rendition birthed in the wee hours of the day, she hated it even more than the version before.
"If this doesn't get posted, I'm ruined." But by some miracle, if it survived to printing...
It was a haphazardous piece without the extensive censoring needed to protect the parties involved, herself notwithstanding. However, lacking all the nitty gritty details, her work felt commercial, pedestrian even at best. And a desperate fabrication at its worst. Subject matter was only the beginning of her problems, any story could be spun into something of interest if done correctly. The stress and hurry she'd placed herself under was leading to a plethora of egregious errors though.
Nothing less than perfect would suffice for submission. She couldn't afford another debacle or time lost on a lengthy stay at the corrections desk. Every verb was placed under scrutiny. Run-ons were ruthlessly punctuated. And the dreadful commas splices… she'd certainly choke for sheer number if they were all plucked from the pages by the publisher and shoved back down her throat.
"My my. You're just as awful as that fiend holed up in the wine cellar. At least you'll grace me with your presence now and then. How does such capricious company find me, and I'm a generous host too. Let's have a look at what's worth skipping breakfast and lunch for, shall we?" Chiyo sneered when the dog-eared stack was snatched away, embarrassed by its boundless defects, yet there was a small relief in being rid of the wretched thing.
She watched with color building in her cheeks as the project's first reader skimmed through, his moustache twitching as he pantomimed a few phrases.
He hates it, of course he does. You couldn't string two sentences together to save your life, let alone your job.
"What do you think?" Her quiet request sounded almost sheepish as she pressed in closer, gauging Dorian's reactions by every pursed puckering of his lip and roll of the eye.
"I'm sorry my dear. This simply won't do."
She wasn't good with knots, but a hangman's noose couldn't be that difficult to tie under duress. Wasn't the drop more important anyways? So long as it killed her before the shame of failure ate her alive…
Hack writer. Without purpose. Died without accomplishment. That will sound great on your tombstone.
"There isn't a single detail describing the immaculate style of my person in here at all. I don't dress like this to be self-effacing." He tsked with a tongue to his teeth and tossed the whole corrections-bludgeoned lot onto the open space beside him on the sofa. "You've only seen a facet of Solas' boring tale and have missed entirely all the more colorful details of mine."
Chiyo slumped in a defeated lean against the furniture and pressed her ink-smeared palms over her eyes. "I don't have time to start over, or for more interviews, especially not spurious ones. Not when I should have mailed this yesterday."
"Well, then that's a right shame." Dorian collected a delicate snifter from the side table and treated himself to a sip. The passing whiff of pungent brandy that skirted beneath her nose was strong enough to raise her head from its droop. "I'd so hoped you'd be joining us in a few days for the festivities."
"Festivities?" She repeated while reaching for the castoff papers, only to have her fingers swatted away.
His dark lips, wet with liquor, turned into a frisky smile. "You've come to Tevinter ahead of its spookiest seasons after all. A little early for All Soul's day, though here it's nearly a month long event. But if you'd rather go home then accompany me to attend a most spectacular private séance and swary, I understand. And I'm sure your employers will accept this bland, incomplete entry just fine."
"I don't see how a party is going to help my article on lyrium conspiracies." Chiyo's hair shook with the worried ache building behind her brow, her hands cupped around the nape of her strained neck. Writing was a full-bodied experience, exhaustive of all energies and tiresome on the bones.
"You've never been to one in Minrathous then, have you?"
Chapter 15: A Thousand Pictures, and Still No Words
Anything to see Lyn smile. <3
Just keep your mouth shut and smile. Like that. Good girl, this will all be over before you know it.
Standing in naught more than her old underwear, Chiyo rubbed her bare arms, pimpled with the overly cool air. It was a blazingly hot summer outside, the last of the sweltering season made the most of its remaining stint, but inside the little boutique was an icebox by comparison.
She wouldn't ask how they could afford the special luxury, not when every other question seemed to be answered with plot or machination. Maybe the owner was part of the mafia. Maybe they ran an illegal lyrium refinery in the backroom. Maybe she'd shackle her incessant pestering and keep her nose clean, and unbroken, for once.
Fat chance, but a girl could hope.
Kicking crumpled pants free from about her ankles, she stooped to collect her clothes from the floor and placed them on a hanger. For the moment given to her to be alone, Chiyo surveyed the peculiar image in the mirror with its knobby knees, soft, pale belly flanked by tanned arms, and a demure bralette that didn't look quite as charming or crisp as she remembered it to be when she'd donned the garment that morning.
She made a mental note to buy something in a color that wasn't beige the next time she had a few spare coins to amend her wardrobe with.
Her fingers tweaked the fresh, blunted wedge of her recently tamed mop, long overdue for maintenance. The nape of her neck shorn near to the skin, unruly curls were lavished with product and patience into sculpted waves. It was the washing sink that she'd truly revealed in, blunt nails deliciously scouring her scalp.
Pampering is nice, but it's such a pain to keep up with… And expensive too.
No complaint had been made by the small acts of indulgement, what with her face still bearing a few fading blemishes leftover from the trip. However, this last detail wasn't part of the original agreement.
In fact, nothing that they'd done that day had ever been decided upon or even left open for debate. Not once was she told where they were going, or why, until it was too late. Cooperative to near complacency with several other requests and offers from travel arrangements to the devilish disguise of their purpose, Chiyo had permitted scissors to be taken to her overgrown hair. A surly glare had spared her dense eyebrows from excessive plucking into the modish arches of permanent surprise. For that respect alone, she refused to bend.
She'd even gone so far as to accept the stinging gall of proffered help of all things. An arranged trade for her services, one the recently impoverished elf, down to her last few coins and traveler's cheques, couldn't exactly refuse.
If she went through with it all, under the firm terms of succeeding, that new recorder he'd dangled in front of her face would replace the stolen one without costing her a copper. For that, she could play the requested role one night and survive whatever embarrassments or discomforts it might entail.
This was just one of many trials of a long list she needed to check off. And then she could go home.
A light rap on the wall brought with it company and Chiyo submitted to being evaluated by the indifferent tape measure of a stolid, graciously plump woman who spoke about as much common Trade as she herself spoke fluent Tevene. Up, down, hold, straighten. No more words were needed to command the short elf into whatever pose required.
Upon the subdued girl in the glass she kept her eyes fixed, watching the tallied stripe stretch across each segment of arm, leg, chest, hip, and waist. Numbers unimportant enough to her besides ultimately meaning one thing. Small. The hardest one to swallow came when the tape was looped about her mid-breast and drawn taut, a laughably low digit before the handsome, near to overflowing, bounty standing right behind her.
If only… She couldn't bring herself to be jealous of a woman whose name she didn't even know, but the curvaceous comparisons were not adding any extra confidence.
"I caught someone eyeing this… Too bad it's not in my size." The cheerful words whistled in the walkway as a slip of translucent fabric fell in a flutter over the partition wall. Bringing with it an immediately red and roasting flush, she caught the ostentatiously thin chemise that's modesty was further reduced with generous swatches of lace.
"You're too kind." She said through her teeth, trying hard not to wad the scanty article into a ball. Wasn't there a saying to leave something for the imagination? Not that she had any trouble in that regard. But thoughts like those were of the very last variety she needed now.
The goading jest aside, if someone truly had such obscene preferences, he was sure to be in for a major disappointment. Grandmothers probably wore more alluring things than she did on a regular basis, with cleanliness and comfort being her only priority.
Though… She rubbed the barely-there silk between her fingers. Even the gold-tinged lace was soft… What was so wrong with a little whimsical denial? It's not like anyone would actually see it.
This was no time for self-derived shame. She had to have a proper dress, like any other tool of the trade. Dorian had not been reserved in telling her how important appearances were amid this particular group, being of elven descent already set her at a severe disadvantage. The Dalish ancestry could be circumvented with the correct application of style and poise, otherwise she'd get no insight beyond glimpses of upturned nostrils for the entire event.
Front page news. Noble nose hairs and boogers. Who trims and who forgets to blow. Read all about it!
The request was simple, the implications were anything but. Be unbiased. Gather evidence. Don't get caught. They were asked to prove the Magister's home to be genuinely haunted or merely a farce put on as spectacle. For the past several years there had been numerous encounters, almost too fantastical to be true, and all conveniently timed around the annual gathering.
The seamstress prodded her healthy flank. "Girdle, yes."
Chiyo wasn't sure if it was an offer or an order. But the long, tubular, buckled contraption brought next into the dressing room left no room for doubt. The blank stare that accompanied the constrictive garment made all the silent sentiments known about the unsuitable items still clinging to the elf's frame. Off they went, replaced in a dizzying flash and without a single eyelash batted by her dresser.
If she'd had prior concerns over her figure, they vanished alongside any potential lump that could be stuffed inside the off-pink casing stretched from bust to midthigh.
Blessed are the seamstresses, whose miracles are wrought in well-applied foundation wear.
The selection of dresses being passed through the curtain, however, did leave her somewhat questioning levels in taste at the peculiar assortment. Color palettes would be worked around. Hemlines and necklines could be adjusted. But not feathers. Anything but that…
True to his word, not a stitch of white hung on the rack, though it seemed he'd changed his opinion of satin on a few pieces. Everything else though, seemed to be fair game. Of course, the fluffy monstrosity was the first to be pulled over her head.
A spurring shove sent Chiyo in a jolt out through the narrow divide and onto the half-step platform for a turn in the mantel of glistening black plumage and a sheath that fell to the floor.
"Hmmm," Dorian tapped his chin as she stumbled over the twisted train. "No, not this. I saw one just like it last year on Archon Radonis' sister. In crimson. Looked like a great bird set on fire. Next."
Being paraded and displayed was a miserable enough affair without the rude remarks. Cheeks puffed with indignation, Chiyo was pulled away, stripped, and redressed.
"Ahhh, now that color would look marvelous beside my new vest." At least the comment was positive when she stepped out in a more moderate, flowy emerald design. The Tevinter man spun his finger and leaned toward the inattentive fellow sitting beside him with one arm crossed over his chest and the other hand massaging his temple. He kept a soured stare firm to the glass front door. Dragged at last from his seclusion in the basement, Solas appeared none too pleased with a coerced reentry into the public forum.
"What do you think? A bit meek, perhaps, but I don't know. Please turn for m- Vishante kaffas. Forgive me. Was I not clear? No bows. No. Bows."
With a snap, dress number two with the extra voluminous decorations over the rump was promptly rejected.
Pink, body-length fringe was ixnayed next before it could be given a proper swirl. A yellow and russet plaidweave a-line was threatened with flame. Worst was the silvery, shimmering pant-suit that earned the harshest comment of all… Unbroken silence held by a hand placed firmly as a shield over his moustache, protecting it from being curled by the vile obscenity.
The furious flow of Tevene sputtered between Dorian and the madame needed no translation as Chiyo waited alone in an empty dressing room. For most of their standard fare, the shop had hundreds of wonderful gowns to choose from. But one small problem with Dorian's last minute plan kept the outing from being fruitful… there just wasn't time enough to alter anything to actually fit her.
"What do you mean you don't have more in her size? If you have to pull something from the children's section, so be it." More incensed language followed.
A younger seamstress slipped her way inside, carrying with her a bundle wrapped in layers of dustcloth. "These are a little older, but… You know how quickly trends change. Spring's favorites will be fall's throwaways. We were saving these mostly for the beads and trim." The chatty girl rummaged through the set, pulling out several articles that had already been pillaged for their materials.
A salvaged dress for the charity case. Splendid. Maybe the cost of this expenditure wouldn't cause her stomach ulcers with guilt after all.
"Here, look. There's two left. You even have a choice of indigo or dark gold. We'll have to hem a slip to match though. But that won't take more than an hour." She held up the dresses, sheer-paned tabards covered in a topography of delicate beadwork had survived repurposing. They were nearly outdated, by fashion's brisk pace.
The blue was too sparkly for her more reserved tastes, but the coppery-gold simply begged to be put on. Effortless, roomy, and light, it needed no adjustment once the side fasteners were secured and an under-slip was quickly pinned into a proper length just below the knee. The beaded fringe clinked on the floor if she stooped or leaned, but a pair of heels would solve that minor defect.
"You're insufferable. I already have a perfectly fine suit hanging in your cedar closet."
Chairlegs squealed against the floor and heels stomped.
"It's gray and belongs at a funeral. Best in a coffin. So unless you are masquerading as the ghost, I won't allow it."
By the sound of it, she wasn't the only one at odds with the game of dress up.
Happy with her selection and wearing a genuine smile of content, she stepped out for one last performance.
And ran smack dab into another person traversing the narrow hall between the rooms.
A firm hand steadied her arm as she bumped back into the wall.
"Excuse me." The downright dour look she received from the tall elf being escorted for a fitting himself wasn't exactly the one she'd been hoping for. She'd have been satisfied with a twinkle of surprise, even mild approval, but instead he displayed a tight-lipped draw of his mouth and deep furrows above harrowed eyes.
Perhaps she should have picked the blue…
"At least you get to wear pants." It was the only consolation Chiyo thought to offer while the aggravated man took prompt leave and disappeared through the next curtain.
Maybe they had a girdle for him too. She muffled the most unbecoming snort as her mind illustrated a charming picture of the terse fellow being laced up and buckled in. Now that would be a marvelous sight to behold.
Chiyo knocked on the door, shifting cold, cramped toes on the stone floor. He'd not shown up for dinner and she hadn't seen hide nor absent hair of the photographer since he'd stormed out of the shop hours earlier.
Let him collect his thoughts. He'll be of no benefit to us in that mood anyway. A wise suggestion had kept her from following after Solas, but part of her still felt conscious-stricken for letting him go alone. Dorian's status and protection only extended so far...
When no answer came she turned the knob, finding it unlocked, and permitted herself entry. Plate in hand, balanced atop a steaming mug of tea, the least she could do was extend a bit of kindness and leave a peace offering on his desk.
The room was not as tidy as she'd last known it. Printed pictures had exploded over every available surface, pinned to any free space or left lying across furniture, even the floor had been converted into a slap-dashed gallery. Care had to be taken to avoid the glossy landmines as Chiyo stepped around them, her eyes flicking from image after image of their brief trip. A tiny smile crept over her mouth when she discovered a photograph centered on a familiar, sun-washed face. A woman struggling to keep a wide, floppy hat on in the wind with a speckled dress twisted around her legs.
It was perhaps one of the only pictures to exist in all of Thedas of herself that didn't deserve to be immediately thrown in the trash.
She moved a stack of the more clinical sheets over to one side for a few inches of space on the messy desk to place the cloth-covered plate.
His drink would get cold soon in the coolness of the cellar. He had to be around here somewhere. It was then she spotted several identical prints that had been marked with a pen or torn in half. To the naked eye, there was nothing obviously special about the darkly lit architecture. A week and a half ago, she wouldn't have known better either.
Copies were left in a littered trail back to the rudimentary laboratory and the heavy curtain. The inquisitive journalist followed the pictures and spotted the faintest red glow through the fabric. He must be at it again, Dorian hadn't been exaggerating about the hours Solas spent in his pursuits.
Would it be double or triple the amount here if everything had gone as planned?
Chiyo poked her head through the drawn, dense divide. Once again her senses were met with the heavy fog of chemicals, but her chest seized with a gasp when she discovered the photographer slumped on the stool and laying face down on the table beside his work.
Lined with bottles and jars, the shelf on the wall was organized with all manner of dangerous substances. Acids, alcohols, phosphates, and oxides. Any of them potentially lethal. But one, in particular, was a close culprit.
The lead-lined lyrium container lay on its side and open, the glow of its granulated contents spilled across the paper-strewn surface.
"Solas, wake up!" She tugged his arm, lifting it away from the most toxic of materials spilled just inches from touching his bare wrist. The limb fell limp to his side as she reached next for his shoulders and pulled him back up to sit. The skin of his neck and the chin that lolled over her hand was clammy and chilled. "Damn it! Come on, open your eyes."
How long had he been down here like this? A sweep of dread left her cold all over... She'd nearly gone up to her room after dinner instead of popping in for a sympathetic visit. Would anyone else have discovered him in this state or would she have been awoken in the morning by the arrival of a city coroner?
"Get up. Now." A cruel pinch placed inside his elbow at least sparked a reaction. Solas groaned and gave a loose shrug. He swatted when she twisted the tender flesh again through his shirt and vehemently growled when she did it a third time.
With a sudden rush, Solas shot to his feet and immediately covered his eyes. The dizzy sway set the stool to wobble. He nearly pulled the curtain down as he passed through the hung panels before Chiyo grabbed hold and kept him steady. "Easy, easy. Why don't you come sit?"
"It's not ready… I need time… more tests." He mumbled while she guided him to the old sofa, nearest to the door and the freshest flow of air. Chiyo snatched a handful of prints to use as a makeshift fan.
"You know, maybe a new hobby wouldn't be a bad idea. Or at least a ventilation system." She warned, watching the life slowly return in his listless features. Fingers to his wrist, she tested his pulse, sedate and throbbing while he coughed. "Are you alright?"
Consciousness regained, he sat with his head held above his knees. He spoke to the floor after several deep breaths. "Did... you look in the tray?"
"No, I thought you not breathing was a little more important." Her words were curt with worry dredged up from unknown depths, stirred by the thought of what would have potentially been an accidental death. Chiyo struggled with the fact that she wasn't fearful or even upset, but anger pricked her nerves into a minor maelstrom. He acted too smart to be this careless, to place himself under such hazard and risk.
"Add a piece of lyrium. Tell me what you see… I thought it was a mistake. Print after print... but they were all the same." He pointed back at the quartered corner with a shaky finger.
Something had him rattled, but what made him think she would be any braver was baffling. Chiyo left him for a moment and did as asked. With the aid of gloves and a mask, she used tweezers to drop one of the spilled grains into the metal tub and swept the rest back inside. Sure enough, the image changed as the mineral dissolved and the lids of her eyes stretched to their limits.
Chiyo took a step back from the chemical bath. And then another for good measure. It seemed nothing like the terror that had sent them reeling in the catacombs. It didn't even appear human at all. "What… what exactly am I looking at here?"
"Something I have never captured before. What no one believes to be real." Horrifically tall and slender. Beady, black holes for eyes. A cavernous mouth hung agape. The outstretched hands though… Chiyo shivered and exited the eery red space.
Trading the protective wear for the plate and cup she'd left on the table, Chiyo rejoined him in a huddle on the couch. Prying away a trembling hand from his head, she placed the mug-handle in Solas' grasp.
She pulled off the draped tea-towel and set the dish of powdery donuts on the broad armrest. One pinched for her, one forced onto Solas, she pressed the yeasty confection to her mouth and let the normally unpalatable sugars melt against her teeth.
"Have you ever been to Rivain?" She hoped he would take the hint and speak of something else that wouldn't ruin her dwindling odds of getting sleep that night.
"Once." He chewed dryly and wiped the tiny crumbs from his lap. The sip that he took next cleared whatever haze lingered about his senses as his face wrinkled in disgust. Solas promptly re-gifted the tepid beverage with a grimace. "I was commissioned there by a hotel to take shots of their beaches and other amenities. Would it surprise you if I said I had a normal career at one point?"
"Yes, actually. I'll need some proof, or it never happened." She watched as he reached out to the nearest shelf and thumbed a few binders, all unmarked and indistinguishable. Upon her knee, he placed a chosen volume and she opened it with a clean pinky nail.
The frazzled elf couldn't even fake surprise over the obsession. Countless pictures filled every slot. But at least these were pleasant, idyllic even... Miles of white sand, plazas with bubbling fountains, rolling hillsides heavy with grapevines.
And each had a little story, one he recited from a memory that gained in clarity as Chiyo pointed at all the stunning places she'd never had the fortune to see.
Soothed by his words and the long draughts of tea, she found reprieve in listening to him speak. With fear compartmentalized, hours slipped by as Solas set her mind at ease with faraway tales of beautiful locations and the curious people he'd met along the way. Some were merry folk, others, though, were miserable even in paradise.
After a time, she wasn't even looking at the pictures anymore. Her drifted gaze fell idle on the softening storyteller, and then on nothing as her lids drooped. She curled in her seat, floating between inactive listening and drowse.
"You should go to bed." A yawn floated past as Solas leaned over to rescue the abandoned portfolio before it toppled to the floor. "I'll be fine now… Thank you."
A warm, languid touch brushed the sugar-speckled corner of her mouth and generated a rousing wriggle.
Chiyo stretched her arms and forced herself to stand. Without another word, she ambled towards the door and rubbed at the slight mark of sticky dampness left on her face.
Her feet tripped on the first step before her senses caught up to what had happened. The skin around her bleary eyes crinkled, dawned with the realization that it had been the hard tip of a nose to bump her cheek. And those soft, soft lips below had joined the sly motion.
No. No… Not tonight. She'd had enough of her mind messed with for one evening and didn't even bother to glance back to see what kind of look had come over him.
Chapter 16: Red Handed
A part 1 of 2, because I wasn't going to make anyone read something so huge without a break...
This was not where the night should have ended up.
Far, far from it.
He was better than to be so capricious, so caught up in the opulent glitz and glamor of the evening's event.
The heady blend of power, intrigue, danger, and sex that permeated the air corroded his manners.
And the champagne that had worked a bubbling magic on his irreverent tongue, leaving it equally loosened and lacking and licentious.
How had he even permitted himself to become this off-course from their original goal?
He shouldn't be taking any pleasure in this bedroom, cornered and captured by delightfully imprudent thoughts left with nowhere to hide.
Especially not here. With a beaded dress lying at his feet.
Not when he could feel every tremble of her muscles against his thigh and hot rush of air brushing by the arms that strained to hold himself up.
She'd shut her eyes to the visceral grind of bodies, yet the inescapable, muffled moans still left her ears burning red in that thinnest window of slivered candlelight.
This wasn't supposed to have happened at all.
But where along that evening had he played the game so wrong…
The bathroom door snapped shut. A resounding bang echoed off the tile and rattled the mirror on the wall. It took a steady hand not to nick the lathered crease behind his ear as the elf pulled the blade in a short sweep.
Solas released a long sigh through his nose while he dipped the broad edge of the razor into the foamy, water-filled sink with a precise flick. "He's gone. You can come out now."
From behind the drawn shower curtain she stepped over the tub. Pulling several small items from the pockets in her robe, Chiyo dumped them on the counter. Narrow metal tubes rolled towards the edge, tiny compacts of pale powders, kohl, and black wax clacked. Palm-sized paper sheets tinted to shades of roses and berries fluttered, and a half-dozen differently shaped, minuscule brushes plinked on the porcelain. The jumbled lot would be rightfully at home in any artist's toolbox.
"Honestly. The nerve of that man." Hair pinned immobile with flat bars around her head, Chiyo carefully dabbed a wet cloth around one rather smeared, sooty eye. "I can do my own damn eyeliner. Just not with him telling me how every step of the way."
He sniffed as something soft wafted towards his nose with a curious tingle. It was sweet without being overtly sugary. And tart with lemon, ripened in the sun.
Her craning neck, arms, and legs gleamed with recently applied oil left to soak into her skin. A rare indulgence, if he knew anything about her personality, likely granted pardon for practicality's sake.
It was, distracting, to say the least. Watching a woman adorn the various layers of her make-up, face nearly pressed to the silvery glass. The blade in his hand slowed to ineffective strokes along the scalp while she made repairs with dabs of cream and began anew the delicate work of tracing each brown eye in kohl lines and thickening every lash with inky wax.
How she managed not to blink or wince as an applicator came close to stabbing the vulnerable watery whites had him confounded. It would be torture to allow anything that near to his own eyes.
With the aid of a rounded tuft of hair and a dab on the back of her hand, she fashioned a smoky haze across each lid. Soft circles of rogue were swirled into place on the apples of her cheeks for a charming glow. But that last twist of deep plum painted into an arched bow on her mouth left his own distracted lip drawn to pinch between his teeth.
Solas promptly looked away when the flick of her rimmed gaze caught his in the mirror. Why did he note a glint of scruple in that short-lived stare, tucked behind a smile? He'd seen it once before. That same weighted squint and quirked grin, equal parts evaluation and mischief, as she'd displayed during their chess game when he'd thwarted her wiliest gambits and presented his own more crafted ones.
She was watching him too. Waiting to see what he'd do before spinning the whole game on its head again with minimal regard for the rules. Losing seemed the least of her concerns, so long as she kept him wondering and off-balance.
And, if he were to play fair, it was the writer's turn. But he had little idea what kind of move she'd make next.
He'd have to fault his imagination for believing that her attentions gleaned over the freckles exposed by the open gape of his shirt. The whimsical notion faded as she returned to her own reflection.
Chiyo began the arduous process of removing each metal clasp from her curls, clipping them to the limp collar of a patterned robe. "Worried about tonight?"
That wasn't the question he'd waited the day over to be asked, but not a word had been shared about the evening before. Silence left him stretched on tenterhooks in her presence without rebuke or even a simple acknowledgement. He was not accustomed to this state of breath holding and second-guessing.
"No." He forfeited the last pass of his shave to wipe the drying skin clean before the residue became tacky. "I've been to my fair share of these kinds of social events. Are you?"
Already he scratched at a phantom itch on his throat and tugged the tight binding of a tie around it. Pressed full of starch, new, stuffy clothes lay in a bag on the bed, no better than a cilice waiting to be donned by a repentant sinner. And stripes. Why did the trend this year have to be tiny vertical stripes?
"As long as I don't get swallowed up in a crowd or make a spectacle of myself, I'll survive." With locks freed, the fluffy hair bounced into a carefully crafted shape. She licked a finger and twisted a curl before each ear. "How big is this thing really? Something tells me that Dorian's version of a private affair and mine are very... different."
Polished as much as required for his role that evening, he began to pull the remaining buttons on his old, more comfortable shirt. "I think it's best to experience some things oneself, rather than have them ruined by another's account."
Solas chuckled as a brush slipped from her inattentive fingers and clicked on the floor when she made an attempt to shove everything back into her pockets.
Chiyo's thoughts seemingly slid further with every opened inch. But to his amusement, that earlier, narrowed query returned yet again for whatever unspoken answers she sought after. "And just how much experience do you have?"
"Enough to know that if we don't get dressed soon we'll be late."
If Solas needed to be concerned with anyone else's behavior or troubles that night, Dorian had already proven himself to be the most discomfited in the group. The Tevinter scholar's standard degree of haughtiness and domineering personality already burned hot in his veins, even before they'd left the modest townhome that belonged to one of his close cousins. He'd fretted and argued and brooded the entire trek from Qarinus, relief found only in having someone new to torment for a change.
Dorian might be a considerably vexing pain in the ass, but he was a good man whose loyalties could not be purchased nor his principles sold. He simply wore every feeling too openly, as a constant, exhausting adornment. Ser Pavus was wholly, and unapologetically foremost, himself.
Yet even on his best days, he could be grating and unremitting, though manageable with the right application of critique and witticism.
But within minutes of their timely arrival, the man's gaskets were already primed to burst.
The poor bastard was still hiding his wounds, and had been behind burnished smiles and eccentric habits for years. It was akin to painful-having to watch those scars reopen right there in the front gallery.
"Ahh, if it isn't our host and my dearest, oldest friend. Mathematician extraordinaire, who put the entire Orlesian academic board to shame and beat my own superb test scores by a single point!" Dorian's grip around his escort's arm was too tight and sudden, nearly tripping Chiyo as she tottered on her heels to keep up with his sweeping movements. "Felix, I'm surprised you even remember what I look like."
How he'd found them so promptly amidst the noisy throng was anyone's guess, but the welcoming had not gone as smoothly as it should have been between the heir-apparent and a powerful magister's only son.
"I'm younger than you, or have you forgotten?" The laughing gentleman with short, black hair and deep-set eyes winked as he gave a courteous bow. He was pale and thin-skinned, sickly in appearance even, for one bred and born so far north. Either he never ventured beyond the thick walls of the familial home, or his health was considerably subpar for his age. "Do tell, what has happened in the last year? We've been missing of your company, you don't visit anymore. This wouldn't happen to be your..."
Even Solas, a mere observer, shifted in the awkward weight of the pause.
"Ms. Lavellan. Only a curious companion tonight. It's still a pleasure, regardless." Chiyo offered up her own name and a hand for a civil shake, spurring the man at her side to speak before she ran out of scripted lines. "Ser Pavus has been telling me all about your art collections. From the sound of it, you have quite an impressive assortment."
Nerves somewhat abated, Dorian released his grip around her and stood on his own, straightening the shiny lapels of his long overcoat. Always a cut above and a degree overdressed, his outfit had trappings plenty for him to preen with.
"Yes, yes. Business is booming, restrictions and taxes are awful, and whatever other drivel I'm supposed to add about how the trade runs me absolutely ragged. Forgive my absence, but I did not come all this way to bore you with my dealings in the seedy underbelly of perverse oil paintings and naughty sculptures." Dorian sounded delighted, chipper even, yet his perfectly tipped moustache failed to hide the frown building beneath it.
He wasn't fooling anyone. Be they blind, deaf, or without a pulse.
Still, he could not help but cut himself a little deeper, till the festered blood ran freely from the sore hurt. "How is Lymicara these days? Is she still just as saccharine now that the nuptials are long passed or has she finally soured?"
"Lymi is fine, visiting her mother at present. Doesn't much care for spooks and raucous. You've certainly heard by now, she's due early next year with our first. It's all my father wishes to talk about. He's over both moons." A glance away was damning enough as another in the crowd called him by name, but Felix answered politely with a hand resting on the profane art dealer's stolid shoulder.
"I'm sorry, my old friend, but we'll have to finish catching up later. Come find me once the séance wraps up, people begin to thin out afterward."
Dorian's face crumpled the moment Felix parted and slipped back through the promenade of boisterous party-goers shimmering in their late summer garb and rubbing elbows with their acquaintances.
The first wave of waiters bearing refreshments had just begun to disperse trays laden with bubbling, wide-brimmed glasses and light morsels of all manner from the nearby, bountiful seas and trees. Someone was already eyeing the iced oysters with a hungry stare, wheels turning as to how to keep her pretty lipstick from smearing on the lustrous shells...
"I need a drink. Now. Five minutes ago. Actually, why am I not piss drunk already?" Dorian snapped for the nearest attendant and took two glasses; one he downed promptly and placed the emptied vessel on the tray, the second he kept for slightly slower sipping. "Ahh, thank you. Don't go far and you shall soon be our fast friend. I'll marry you if brought a bottle."
With a polite shake of her head, Chiyo declined a drink herself, but for solidarity's sake, Solas made a silent toast with his patron. He'd scraped Dorian off the floor the first time they'd met and held no qualms with performing the same task again if need be. The exuberant man had suffered too many harsh blows in his life already to earn any added criticism. If Dorian wished to soften them with fine spirits he'd make no comment on his behalf.
It was with widening eyes, though, that Dorian stared over his tilted glass into the bustling foyer. Nearly spitting champagne, he spurted with a venomous gasp of outrage. "That conniving bitch! How dare she show her face here of all places. The sea will freeze solid before I'm to believe she was invited!"
Solas looked away from the man turning positively purple as a pair of fingers tapped the edge of his hands, held in their home behind his hips.
"Who is he talking about? I thought he was friend's with this family." Chiyo asked, tucking an olive into her cheek. She panned the dozen guests passing off their unneeded hats and bags, as well as signing the guest book.
With a brief point, Solas motioned towards an immaculately dressed, tall woman with dark hair shorn to a barely-there stippling. Even from this far away, her icy smile flashed just as bright as the dazzling white stones encrusted over her midnight-colored gown and transparent cloak.
He leaned to whisper in her ear, his nose once again tickled by that same delectable scent he could trace only to the nearness of her skin. "That would be a Madame de Fer, and if we don't keep those two at least a hundred paces from one another this entire estate will be burned to the ground before dawn."
They'd been at this charade for hours now, with nothing gained for all their investigating, or as it would be called more aptly, snooping, around the sprawling homestead. Generations had passed down their considerable wealth and a legacy that still garnered respect for all those sired under the Alexius name. There was simply too much to look through, and the house was built for keeping up appearances, not hoarding supposed secrets behind every door.
The guest quarters had been easily poked through, open for any passerby to freshen themselves in. Libraries and the central atrium were also accessible, but little had been found to implicate any act of falsification. A few shrouded sessions with the recorder smuggled in his vest had been to no avail. No wires to pull objects from hiding places, no speakers to project otherworldly noises, no moveable bookcases that revealed hidden passageways, no one dressed in ghostly gear waiting to pop out of the shadows. Not yet, anyways.
The famed foreign mystic hadn't arrived yet to stir the cosmic energies into a spiritual frenzy.
He couldn't wait to see that buffoonery in action.
They'd watched this hall and found the milling maids practically to be ignoring the shallow niche. Something was here that even they wanted to circumvent, with a pace always hastened while they crossed the egress and a hush fell over their chatter for several strides.
"You've jammed two already." Solas hissed back to the elf crouched on the floor. He stood as a vigilant watch, peering around the corner every few moments to ensure they wouldn't be stumbled upon. "Admit it, you don't know how to pick locks."
"Shh! I'm trying to focus and I'm running out of pins." The latch rattled as she twisted the bits of metal retrieved from her hair. The lock refused admittance for all her valiant efforts, pleading, and as a last desperate act, cursing. "Come on, you piece of shit. Ha!-"
At last, the door clicked, but her look of triumph immediately vanished at the sight of a tanned hand turning the opposing knob. Bared to the waist, she stared up at the dark, caramelly elf darkening the doorway.
"Though, Maker knows, I do not mind finding such a delicate, snow-petaled fiori upon my doorstep, I would have preferred such a gift left for me, unwrapped, and in my bed." The stranger ran fingers through his length of yellow hair with a throaty chortle.
Solas froze, pressed flat to the wall and prayed Chiyo's wit would be speedy enough to save herself from the half-naked blond offering her a hand up off the floor.
"Or... perhaps you were looking for something?" He didn't care much for the flowery language carried out over the deep, resonant tone, nor the striped tattoos running parallel down half his face. However, it was the insidious kiss placed with a flourish on the upturned inside of her wrist that spurred the most unexpected scowl.
"It could not be me, our host would not spoil a most lovely surprise by letting my name slip past his lips so soon, would he? Or did you hear about the impossibly handsome elf locked away in this room and just had to see for yourself if the rumors were true? Which, I assure you, they are my dear."
"Not exactly. But your talents, and uh…" She stalled, losing traction as quickly as she gained it. He considering making a noise, anything that might serve as a distraction, though it would risk them both getting caught. Only when she spoke again did he dare breathe. "And your remarkable looks, they would proceed you anywhere. There are maids here with loose lips, but please, I would hate to get them into any trouble..."
"Really? Come, mi Bella. Tell me all that you have heard while I finish getting ready. Perhaps you would enjoy an Antivan brandy after, and, if you like, a private palm reading tonight. Just the two of us?"
He'd never so much as touch another sweet again if her palms were the only sliver of almond-oiled skin that man wanted to see.
Interrupting the fiasco playing out before him would almost be worth the dismissal from the grounds sure to come from their invasions. Yet the intrepid thought wasn't enough to smother the few lively coals stoked somewhere deep inside his chest.
She'll tell him no. They'll have a laugh. And then go politely on her way.
"Actually, I would love to ask you a few questions about your work. If you wouldn't mind, of course."
His jaw dropped. That's not what he'd predicted. In the slightest.
"I'm sure a man of your prestige has a few secrets, if you'd let me be so rude as to pry." The last Solas saw of her was a hand waving him away behind her back before Chiyo was drawn inside.
"For you, dear lady, I shall keep nothing."
The door clicked. He stood there, baffled and alone.
Chapter 17: Peep Show
And here is part 2! Also, I'm a huge old prude, so this one is being flagged as... NSFW
Shame, that he was only an amateur.
Heartburn required shrewd, expert extinguishment. It was prudent to dampen even the smallest embers, least they take and the whole mess ignite anew. Water would have been preferable, but the flow of crisp, crystalline amber and a few dribbles of sweet rosé drowned out the fiery demons just as well.
The sharp tie around his neck felt at once too snug. He pulled the knot loose and the hardest button below joined for relief from the heat. Be it the summer's lingering swelter, or the influx of wine, or the embarrassment he refused to confront, there was nothing more insufferable than being encased in double-breasted, unspun, raw silk that breathed as well as wool, and left to cook in it.
Fainting in the basement from the fumes and his own exhaustion, beside an open container of potentially lethal lyrium no less, had certainly not been the most impressive feat to earn attentions with. Combined with the frightful stunt in the catacombs, the accidents had done little more than destroy any and all of the confidence he'd managed before. How much more pitiful he'd appear now if she saw him, drinking in the mute company of noxious gardenias and unfeeling stone figures.
He had no room or right to be upset with her choices. Still, it didn't leave him feeling any less defeated or outclassed.
Was it the intoned, practically dripping offers that had left him so abashed, or was it simply the surplus of glorious hair and a rich tan...
What did he have to compare, to compete, besides having height enough to tower over most. Being filled to the brim with barely governed anxiety and obsessed with an invisible realm must make him the ultimate catch.
Contemptuous offers of assistance were only making matters worse.
'I did all in my power, dear friend, and you still managed to lose your lady. Splendid. At least I won't be the only one going home forlorn. Maybe a ghost will keep us both company tonight.'
Solas emptied the last from a bottle looted brazenly from the tipsy Tevinter who had teased him in harsh jest. He'd left Dorian in a delirious lounge across a garden fountain's broad edge, coat tails floating in the pool. Giggling to the guests who'd joined him for a moment of fresh air and star gazing. His newest acquaintance lay in a snoring stupor on the grass, more apt at holding the tray than the liquor atop it.
Tucked between ornamental statues, Solas leaned in a brace against the wall and resigned to what he always ended up doing. Watching the world waltz by in its endless and ever predictable patterns. A humdrum, monotonous pastime he'd become all too proficient in over the years.
The woman dipped in strands of silver, who shimmied and shimmered with every slow draw of her long cigarette. She'd tap the ash out in the dish on the table. Glance at the red ring left on the paper. Then she'll roll her eyes as her friend steals a drag. Snickers pierced the smoke ring and he moved on to the next cluster of unassuming party-goers.
A ring of resplendent dwarves playing cards, adding in their coin without seeing the tell-tale rub of a nose from a bearded gent that portended his next influx of minor wealth. There would be grumbling and cries of trickery as the deck was dealt again while pockets were loaded with gold.
All was in good fun, but not everyone in the garden was behaving as stupendously and with such ease.
Though maturity usually came accompanied by grace and virtue, some came of age unbestowed.
A crooning, southerly visitor more than old enough to recognize when he wasn't wanted. He'd try to dance and dodge around a turned back to the amusement of the lady's entourage. Ignoring every dodging, cold shoulder and hard stare. Annoyed, the woman would attempt to leave with the group and he'd still be bold enough to grab. An arm if he could be somewhat civil or perhaps the lech- His hunch was solidified with a crisp slap.
These aimless happenings, wont and uninspired, almost ritual in their settings. Creatures of habit that he held no exemption from, merely in his own manner.
The drained cup in his hand found its resting place on the stone lip of a sculpture's base, and with his thumbs and forefingers, Solas fashioned the square through which he viewed society. Always at a distance and through layers of glass.
And it seemed the wine had skewed his focus. The makeshift lens caught the slow sway of golden beads that flowed with the comfortable motion of a sauntering hip. She was certainly pleased and relaxed, humming a tune to the timing of her own steps. Chiyo's initial beam grew smug when she spotted him.
"Bored, hmm? I couldn't have been gone that long." Was the humidity to blame for turning her curls completely wild or had there been fingers run vigorously through it. And what had left her skin so freshly flush, her eyes burningly bright at this near midnight hour?
"Did you miss me?" A light laugh ensued as he dropped the gesture and waited for the blurry haze in his vision to settle.
Yes. Solas nudged the empty bottle on the ground deeper into the nearest bush with his heel, but he wobbled on the one leg. "I was beginning to think you'd forgotten our purpose here tonight."
"Looks to me like I wasn't the only one having a bit of fun." Chiyo held up a hand when he labored to regain his stance. "You should have stuck around. I'm sure it would have been even more amusing to watch."
To watch what, exactly? If his first instincts about her always proved false- Certainly it didn't mean- She couldn't have possibly… Solas went stiff, or at least close to it in his state, what with the floor beneath him tilting rather hard to the left.
"Do… do you need to sit down?" Maybe he'd gone cross-eyed, but her joking nature shifted into cosseted concern as she took hold of his arm, linking it in her own. "Come with me, I could use a rest too. These shoes are killing my toes."
The stars above spun in their black sockets and the passing faces churned to obscure smears. Solas shielded his gaze while he was escorted back into the discordant throng of a party minutes before it's awaited climax. A gathering bell chimed and echoed through the halls as the blinding lights began to dim. They were not heading in the direction of the ballroom, but against the tide entirely and back to the quiet hall with its chambers left open for any to use.
Deposited into a chair unceremoniously and given a glass of cool water, the darkened sectional room with its low burning candles continued to twirl.
"Well, tonight hasn't been a complete bust yet." Chiyo stretched, using the plush arm of the seat to support herself as she unbuckled her shoes. "I did learn a thing or two from Mr. Arainai. Quite the wealth of knowledge for something so spur of the moment."
Her tormenting inferences breathed life over a few sparks left dry beneath his soggy mood.
"Was that before or after he got dressed?" Solas swallowed the rest of his unpoised words with the lemon-imbibed drink and immediately wished them recalled back to whatever dark corner they'd slunk from.
Her brow came together low and hard over a narrowed glare, but her lips curled into a baleful smile.
Slowly, she leaned over at the waist across the chair and with nimble fingers Chiyo coaxed from his collar the length of an undone tie in a leisurely tug. Solas tilted forward with the sedated pull, the lids of his eyes already heavy and drooping even as her knuckles ran the fabric across his jaw.
"Before. But it was after the orgy for sure."
The glass he'd brought up to his parted mouth slipped, spilling down the front of his shirt.
Her laugh sounded more like the clatter of proverbial game pieces scattering onto the floor.
Chiyo cackled until she ran out of air and massaged at her sides, trying to catch her breath. With a swift shake of each leg, she kicked her heels towards the pillow encumbered daybed centered in the room.
"Forgive me, that was so crass. But it was too funny a thought not to share. The look on your face. Camera worthy." Her hands remained against her ribs where she tugged at the edge of some source of discomfort. "Oh, this hurts."
Dark on the thin fabric, half way down her back, Solas spotted a blotch of deep red stained the beaded tabard as she walked away. It shook him from the stunned silence that had over-ridden his senses.
"Your dress. There's something on it." He shrugged out of the damp jacket to be left in a crumple over the armrest.
"What, are you kidding me?" Chiyo inspected the front from neckline to fringe. She pulled the shoulder around for a quick peek and groaned at the sight. "Why. Why can't I have anything nice for once."
"Please..." With a yank, she lifted the outer shell over her mess of hair and examined the burgundy streak. Into the pitcher of ice and lemon slices, she dipped a napkin and dabbed the delicate material. "Tell me this isn't blood."
"Blood? Why would you be bleeding. Did someone hurt you?" The questions came up in blurts as she turned her back, revealing even more of the mess on the lighter inner slip. It took him less than a bumbling moment to find his feet and little more to cross the room, though not without tripping.
"No. I do a good enough job of that myself, wouldn't you say." She grumbled, working as gently as she could around the fine, seed-sized beads, but the color wouldn't budge. "And remember back to when I said you were lucky? Pants and suits don't come with metal stays stabbing you all night and crushing your ribs. Ladies aren't supposed to breathe, apparently."
"Why would you subject yourself to that kind of torture?" She jumped in her skin when his hand found her bare back and the worried touch was immediately withdrawn.
"If I answered that we'd be here till dawn talking about the injustices in the history of women's fashion… Just…" Chiyo took a deep breath and stood straight, utterly still. "Look for a cut or something. Maybe this is an assassination attempt. Aren't there legends of spies so fast you don't even feel the attack happen and then, wham! Poison gets you a few hours later with the killer safe and sound, miles away?"
"Again, you read too much. Besides. They'd used arsenic in your case. It's simpler to taint food." One cautious finger slipped into the narrow gap between the fabric and her body. Peeling away the border of the slip from just beneath the bone of her shoulder revealed no breaks in the few extra inches of skin he could see, only a medieval-looking, discolored contraption tied snug around her figure.
"It might be beneath that... thing." His mind came up blank for the technical terms designated toward women's undergarments, items that were far from his usual scope of comprehension. "Can you take it off?"
Her shoulders shot near to her ears, striking the borrowed jewelry dangling from each. Solas saw the tips of her ears turn scarlet and could only imagine the shade that must be taking over her face. "I-I'm sorry, that was horribly inappropriate. There is surely someone else around here who could-"
"You'll have to help me with the top clasps. I can't undo that part myself. Then you will turn around and not say another word. Understand?" She passed off the weighty garment and threw down the wetted rag.
He was relieved only in that she didn't see the redness that had spread over his own features before Chiyo rolled the second stained slip up and over her head.
"So, these metal pieces…" He'd never done this before. But which would be more shameful? Admitting that fact or lying about it?
"Pull them together and they should come apart. I think..."
Solas' palms dampened and his fingers timidly reached for the brassy fixtures as the untold weight of the years suddenly crashed around him.
How many had it been, since he'd been this physically near to someone, or even entertained the possibility of… Oh dear.
Five, ten, fifteen, a hundred? Did he even truly know beyond that he must have been young and fool-headedly ardent at some stage of his life. But had the girls he'd fancied then ever adorned such complicated monstrosities? Memory had faded much of those brief encounters to guesses of names and vague faces, the details of clothes were long gone.
The first one snapped open after a few tries, but the pressure on the second made him struggle. It took the strength of both his arms to set her loose. Though perhaps it would have been easier if he weren't so fixated on making a quick study of the fine shape of an exposed spine before having to look away as he'd been ordered.
Buckles of garter straps popped and elastic snapped. He listened while she twisted and struggled and wrenched her way through the taut back laces. It was several minutes of garbled insults before the lined, riveted, and boned contraption struck the floor. A deep sigh of relief escaped her rescued lungs.
"I'm going to burn this like the trash it is." She stomped the stretchy apparatus and gave it a more than deserved kick across the floor towards the empty fireplace. "Let's make it quick, please… Wait a second. This… this doesn't smell like blood. Did someone spill wine on me?"
But it was as he peeked to see the last, clean, lacy slip hanging from thin straps off her back that they both sprung at the sound of the sitting room door banging open. The shuffle of tripping feet and gasping giggles broke the relative quiet and sent them scurrying.
"Someone will catch us!" A female voice squealed.
"Hide!" A hissed and desperate demand met his ear. Clutching the silkier dress to her chest with one hand Chiyo pushed him with the other towards the nearby lacquered wardrobe. Before he could even protest, she ripped the narrow set of doors open and shoved him a second time, forcing his lanky limbs to fold before clambering inside the storage cabinet herself, over the top of him.
"See, there is no one in here. You're mine now."
"Move your leg." Chiyo mouthed the words more than she spoke them aloud. There wasn't width enough to bend his knee another inch, there wasn't even room for him to stand upright when her own head brushed the low ceiling. Solas had to use his arms to push his back into the wall and keep from sliding down into the narrow gap she'd wedged herself in atop the slippery dress that had dropped off his arm. Crammed into an awkward squat, the open gap remained half an inch from shutting.
He could just barely see the outline of a tangled couple blundering their way into the room and falling in a heap onto the pillowy bed, taking no obvious notice of the abandoned shoes by their feet or the coat on the chair.
"I've waited all night for this." A woman purred as her much stockier cohort knelt on the carpet and dove up into her skirts.
The following gasps and squeals quickly averted his stolen gaze. Solas stared at the shadowed face just an arm's reach from his own, already beet red, but a toe-curling moan left it scrunched as tight as the unfortunate press of both her legs straddling one of his.
"Quivering already? Mmm. My darling, long-legged pet, I've got just what you need. Only the finest for you will do. And it's come directly from Orzammar."
A snort escaped through Solas' nose that came with a threatening glare from the horrified writer trapped in the cupboard with him. Creaks from the mattress and a throaty groan required no other pretense, only a hope that the romp would be over with the same rush and gusto as it had begun.
"Oh yesss, Sorrel. Give me your Huge. Dwarven. Goods. Oh Maker! Yes!"
Her hand clamped over his mouth when he sucked in a breath that tried to break into a chortle.
Don't you dare. Chiyo's eyes punctuated the warning as they pled for mercy.
His whole body began to shake from the strain of their held position and the smothered stitches building up his sides. He'd no doubt of her ability to strangle him with the bowtie wrapped in her clutches, though his death would bring with it sweet, sweet revenge for her own wicked joke.
"You take the full might of my hammer so well, woman. But can you handle this? Ahhh..."
"Just keep it off my dress. Oh! OH! Sorrel, like that!"
She squirmed in unpreventable humiliation as wet slaps and delighted cries piercing the air changed abruptly to a disastrous shriek and several hard thuds. Bodies struck the floor and Solas glanced out to see a fuzzy dwarf with his pants pulled down and ankles grasped his hips dangle off the side of the bed in pursuit of his fallen lady.
But it became apparent that no change of scenery would deter the resolute fellow from his amorous pursuit. Right on he went, and Solas felt his chest heave with an unstoppable wave. Uncontested, it ranked as being one of the funniest things he'd ever seen and topped the list of the most ridiculous situations endured.
He closed his watering eyes and a second hand pressed over his quaking jaw when a few raspy wheezes slipped through her fingers.
Teeth opened against her palm, there was no more holding the laughter in.
For a split second as Chiyo's hands lifted their seal, he believed she'd either resigned to the fate of being caught by the intruders or was actually going to kill him. But the new purchase found on each side of his face brought forth something else entirely as she stretched up to reach him, with no lack of help boostered from the thigh beneath her.
Yet, he wholly forgot why he should care or what had even been so humorous in the first place as the misguided thoughts were seared away in a flash of lightning, sparked by lips that quickly let pass their original plight of desperation.
It seemed he would have to get used to always being wrong. An insult he'd be content to suffer.
So long as it felt this right.
She couldn't avert her eyes. They remained utterly fixated on the long, hard protuberance held behind a buckled belt and outlined by snuggly-fitted leather. Eight, maybe nine inches to the tip. Certainly enough to skewer.
Quite a nerve-wracking eyeful... Just before her face as it had been while knelt down on the floor.
"Do not be frightened, my dear, I see how you stare. But I promise. It will not bite. Simply be careful with where you might put your hands if the need becomes too great."
Hello, my name is Chiyo Lavellan, and I keep winding up with undressed, potentially dangerous strangers who drip with cologne and sex in their bedrooms at very improper hours.
To admit to having a problem was the first step in recovery. Supposedly.
And while Dorian hadn't circled her in a slow stroll, with hands cupping the lean bones of his hips and keen, amber eyes she could practically feel skimming the outlines beneath her thin dress, this one was at least slightly improved. By wearing pants.
Ser Pavus hadn't, however, been met with a slim knife poking out of the tops his trousers.
"Hmm, yes. That's quite the curious aura. How it radiates off of your body. Despite that, I would give you the entire evening to explore every inch, if I were not already promised elsewhere. Before you fly off, my lovely uccellino, you'll make for a delightful warm-up."
"We're still talking about palm readings, right?" The short, strapping elf offered her only a deliberate wink as he finally withdrew. He gave her room enough to relax, out of immediate stabbing range, as well as a full view to the honed shapes of his back and the limber sway of his hips.
Odd. The thought crossed her mind, for a mystic to have so many well-defined muscles. The blade she might explain away as ritualistic, or plain necessity. A foreign elf in a land still less-than-perfectly hospitable to their kind needed some form of protection, but his apparent athleticism did not match the job description.
"I can also do tarot if the lady requests. Be warned. Such practices can become rather… intimate. Skin will keep some of its secrets well hidden, even beneath an expert touch. But the cards, they will bare your naked soul unto me." His dancing fingers gestured towards a squat, draped table that held only a wooden box.
Chiyo took the opportunity to get off her feet-and place her back safe to the wall. Between the toes mashed tight in the rounded heels and the irritating pressure of modern corsetry on her ribs, she'd about had her fill of being dolled up.
"Perhaps." She watched as he took a floor-length, black coat from its post and slipped his toned arms into the ornately embroidered sleeves swirled with gold, the edges just skating against the hardwoods. "However, I would like to ask a few questions about you before we start unlocking the mysteries of my future, Mr…"
"Araini, though most do not address me so." One large closure in the center of his chest was all that held the stately piece to his frame. Heaps of hammered bangles tinkled around his wrists as he slid them over his knuckles. As a final touch, a macabre bird's skull, the beak dipped in a lustrous, metallic finish, mounted on a chain, was placed to dangle on his sternum.
He gave the outlandish outfit one long turn in the nearest mirror before raking his fair hair over the collar just so. "If you've any interest in the occult, surely you've heard those breathy whispers in the dark of my repute, of Zevran the Mysterious."
There was no question to why a man only a few inches taller than herself needed such a large robe. Something had to help contain his rapidly swelling ego.
"Only in rumor and speculation." Chiyo strangled a snigger with a forced, dry cough. Surely there was a rule somewhere about laughing at an armed subject of unknown temperament and background.
"That's why I had to come see for myself, but you already realized that. How could you not, with your spiritual insights? Is that why they brought you here for tonight's séance? Are there truly spirits here that will commune with the rest of us or is this just smoke and mirrors entertainment put on by the elite. Another excuse for getting together with ample booze to smooth out any wrinkles? Half the people here have lyrium trade connections, I doubt that guest list was an accident."
"Ahh. There it is. I knew you could not hide those naughty-tongued questions for long." Zevran carefully arranged himself on the stool beside her and leaned into his palm, a smile growing across his white teeth. The lids of his eyes drooped into a shiftless, all-knowing stare. "You sound like a reporter."
Apprehended by his gaze, her spine straightened under the inspection, from what little slump she could manage through the network of metal rods and dense elastics holding her torso painfully in place.
Good job. You made it a whole three minutes before blowing your cover. She couldn't pick locks, she couldn't lie, she couldn't even keep from getting caught. Some masterful spy she was turning out to be.
"It is expected, to be a tad skeptical, no?" Zevran purred a throaty chuckle. "If one believes everything, how will they recognize the truth when it comes, aching and unashamed before them?"
"I may be doubtful, but not above convincing. If given enough evidence." The middles of her rouged cheeks turned molten as the mystic flicked the latch on the carved box centered between them and flipped open the lid. From it, Zevran lifted a stack of tall, glossy cards.
"Then allow me the pleasure of revealing your deepest secrets, your desires, your destiny even, if the spirits will be so generous. Shuffle them thrice, and we shall discover why they brought you to me tonight." With the deck presented to her, Chiyo fumbled with the over-sized assortment and cut them as requested, not that she'd argue long with a man who kept a dagger tucked by his loins.
She'd never had her fortune told, but already her mind predicted what vague illusions the other elf might say to be taken as plausible because they could apply to almost anyone. You'll come into a little money by the end of the year, be kind to family members. A close friend will soon reveal a deeply kept secret, listen with open ears but a closed mouth. Don't travel for the next few days, there is danger waiting on the path, but it will pass soon.
"Did you have any query you'd like to ask the cards before we begin?"
He's looking for leads, anything to make the act seem more personal and true.
Chiyo shook her head, offering up no more of herself than necessary. Zevran split the deck once and selected from the top four cards, displaying them face-down into a simple diamond formation.
"Marvelous, the energy is already stirring here. Can you feel it pulsating all around, those murmurs tickling your ear? I dare not interfere... Would you turn them over so I may interpret without further disrupting their connection to you?"
He doesn't know anything about you. Let's keep it that way, shall we?
Working clockwise, she flipped them one by one, revealing the intricate illustrations below. A brightly lit orb suspended in twilight, a slivered crescent mirrored back by the sea. Bearded and dressed in rags, an old man leaning on his bent staff, pointing towards the road at his bare feet. Trumpets in a fanfare, blasting great chasms into the ground for throngs of people to fall in. Two horses, drawing a crowned king in a gilded cart, his scepter thrust towards the sky.
His brow rose and he stroked his chin. Zevran cocked his head, listening to a sound beyond her own comprehension. Or more likely, beyond existence itself. "How very interesting. They have much to tell you tonight. Too much even. Yours is not a quiet soul... yet they understand it very, very well. But why are the spirits drawn so near to the callings of your heart?"
...And now you're doomed. Even her flippant shrug felt like a betrayal.
"This one especially," Zevran waved his hand over the top card. "The Moon, it represents you. There is a willingness there, but the way is not clearly made. Light shall shine down upon your emotions when the time comes. It will reveal that which is already in front of you to be right and sincere. Trust in the instinct of your intentions. They are there for a reason."
To the second card, he moved next with another nod and tucked an errant lock behind his pierced ear. "The Hermit stands in as your past. A sign guiding for a moment of self-reflection, the opportunity to look back, as well as marking second chances, with an old devotion being at the fore. You may be tempted to remember only those happier times and forget the hurts that relationship brought with it. This is not so much a warning, merely a consideration. The third card confers."
An old devotion? She couldn't think of a single former flame worth rekindling. There was that relatively decent fellow who could cook with some panache. But the endless drawls of fiscal responsibility and the importance of investments hadn't kept that candle lit long. Homemade dinner for two hadn't survived past dessert. So much for office romance.
"Judgment. Now do not fret, my pet, at the violence and turmoil you see before you. Those are your doubts and uncertainties being banished, enemies of happiness dashed at your feet. You've already attracted the interest, but your suspicions still linger, clinging to the skirts of pride and independence. Ignore those hopeless pleas for clemency masked as reason. Shed them and accept the calling to a great purpose of your own make, lost with abandon to your senses, find yourself fulfilled."
She'd expected, well… certainly not this sort of uneasiness that came from his readings. There should have been relief in knowing how far this man had to reach for his guesses, but Chiyo shifted in her seat, leaning a little further back.
Her lips pursed as he looked for an extended stretch upon the final card, rolling his wrist with a gentle jingle of the metal bands. They flashed, even in the subdued light of his room, tiny stones set in the bracelets twinkled white and palest blue. Opals, perhaps. Chiyo noted several of the same glimmering on posts set through his ears.
"Last, the Chariot. It shall draw you to battle, to conquer your reservations and hesitations. Or shall you use it to run? Love is scary, terrifying, with so much risk and exposure of the vulnerable inner-self. Hurt. Disappointment. They are but one side of the same coin as the passion and thrills you seek. And therein lies it's allure. That perilous chance. Beneath the uncontrollability of love, the freedom that comes when the walls drop and true surrender takes you with tender embrace. Your whole world will open into an endless, rapturous dream. But only if you allow it."
With a sweep, he brushed aside the cards and returned them to the deck, then back into their polished box.
"I'm afraid that's all the time I have for you tonight, darling. But you know where to find me if it so happens I am needed. For any reason."
"Certainly…" A trick played of the mind was a likely culprit, but Chiyo would have sworn she'd seen something dark, like a shadow, pass by the window behind the mystic. With a blink, whatever it was vanished. "I should get going, someone's been waiting for me."
"Yes. Thank you for reminding me. I also have another appointment." Zevran rose from the table to give her a deep bow. "May you find him, that tall elf, amiably and well."
There was seldom a question she didn't want the answer to. How he knew of her companion immediately became one of the rare few.
Two for two. She was going for quite a lucky streak tonight.
"Move your leg!" Chiyo barely made her words audible as she tugged desperately on the doors. But there wasn't room, not for her legs and his both. She'd climbed over Solas' knees and wedged herself into the few inches left around his limbs.
A gap remained, but she refused to look, let alone listen to the gravelly, lust-fueled proclamations.
This isn't happening. This is NOT happening! Chiyo closed her eyes and wished it all away. The indiscriminate flirting, the scandalous teasing, the damned girdle, countless mistakes heaped together, but they shot open again as the adjourning liaison took a boisterous downturn.
Squeals ripped through the air and left her skin roasting. A woman who'd experienced any sort of quality knew that elated noise from their own throats. Of shaking, nibbled thighs and pressing fistfuls of another's hair.
The sudden, squirming move was involuntary, but her legs clenched together-or would have- were there not a third, firm thigh caught high between them. And the rubbing. The horrible, wretched rubbing made unbearable by a complete inability to hold still on either of their parts. Every inch he slipped or regained, every twitch as she tried to lift up on her toes to escape the friction, every venal idea stimulated by what was happening only a few feet away.
Not good. Not good at all.
Her only hope was the kindness of an aneurysm, brought on by the intense pounding in her chest and head, to end her suffering swiftly.
Bright blue eyes snapped to her's, so wide and reflective she could see her own terror mirrored back. The arms pressed hard to either side of her face vibrated with strain, his lips trembled beneath the rapid air drawn through his nose. Solas' entire body looked, and felt, to be shaking down to the core.
Suck it up! What's the matter with… Oh... No… Look what you've done now. What possessed you to force the man who's deathly afraid of dark, tight spaces into a Dark. Tight. Space.
Please, forgive me. Please. Please. Just hold on. Chiyo pleaded until he lurched for a breath that would surely turn into a terrified cry and her hand shot out to cover his mouth.
Shhh. Shhh! Her heart raced on, drowning out the pleasured moans and encouragements from whoever was outside, having an enthusiastic roll.
For a merciful moment, she thought it all over as what sounded like a tumble off the bed dumped the frisky lovers onto the floor. But the woman's yelp seemed only to instill more panic, not the consolation that in a few moments more they could leave the claustrophobic confines.
Water glistened around Solas' tightly clamped eyes and he began to wheeze through her fingers. Chiyo dropped the slip she'd been covering herself with and pressed a second hand over the first. He wasn't going to make it through the next untold minutes, not at this rate. How much longer until the darkness consumed him, till that ingrained fear of death and the unknown overrode all his senses.
She'd never forget those awful screams that echoed deep down in the corpse-filled dark...
You did this to him! You fix it. This is your fault! Make it go away. Do something. Anything- What?! Whoa! Not that!
Maybe it was a horrible reflex of suppressed craving, or the boldness instilled by a ridiculous fortune telling, or how inexplicably warm and familiar that soft skin felt beneath her fingertips and palms as they swept up the sides of his face.
Maybe it was the cloying scent of sparkling wine on that last, fleeing breath that begged to be tasted, or how he already leaned in, lips parted with petition, or the way she knew how to tilt just so, that the broad tip of her nose wouldn't smash into his but find a comfortable home.
Maybe it was simply because she wanted to.
But it was nothing like how she'd read these moments to be in books, smuggled or not. Where were the explosions rupturing behind her eyes? That desperate, breathless struggle for air as the seconds dragged on? And why, space be damned, wasn't a foot popping up in a giddy curl?
Instead, it was distant thunder rumbling outside of closed doors and homely walls. Lightning illuminating covered windows without threat. A heavy blanket atop a comfortable bed, cozy and dry and secure. The panicked swell inside the wardrobe was swiftly smothered as all else grew silent and still, even that incessant, derailing, chastising voice in her head.
"Are you alright?" Her lips brushed his as they moved. Sliding up, Chiyo's thumbs reached for smooth temples and rolled. Even with his eyes closed, Solas swayed, light-headed and bracing.
The breadth of a hand spread across the small of her back as the sweet smell of champagne wafted again with his slow sigh, "Never better, actually… why do you ask?"
"I thought… weren't you… it's so cramped and dark in here that..." Her eyes stretched wide while her head reeled back, bumping hard against the confines of the box. Someone had been panicking alright, just not the lush elf leaning in for another kiss.
What is wrong with you?! Is that the kind of person you are now, taking advantage of drunk men?
"I'm so sorry!" She didn't step out of the wardrobe, she bolted from it. Solas toppled and plopped onto the floor with a laugh as Chiyo snatched up the layers of her dress.
"This was a huge, huge mistake, a misunderstanding!" The silky slip she yanked down over her head and found it backward. She swiveled in the thin garment, glad for its temporary shield of her scarlet face. Beads clinked on the floor and twisted around her ankles, the stained tabard was returned, though precariously long without shoes.
On his feet after several lackluster attempts, Solas looked to her with a dangerous smile, all the while shaking his head.
"Look. You're drunk, I shouldn't have done that. Let's just forget this ever happened and-" Chiyo swerved when he reached out, but he stood as an effective blockade between her and the discarded heels behind him.
The door, however…
A barefoot escape, her ancestors would have been so proud.
The hall was empty and pitch-dark, yet the only detail that mattered was if it led to a way out. She ducked into the first available turn down a side-set of stairs, constantly looking back to see if he were quick enough to follow.
But as Chiyo turned her head around on the second landing, she was rushed by a solid, black shadow that left her spinning on the next slickened step.
Grasping the rail, her feet shot out from under her and the rest followed. The tumbling writer prepared to strike the hard stone and probably break every bone upon impact, but instead her fall was softened somewhat by something warm and yielding halfway down the staggered slope.
One drawn-out, terrified shout echoed from the top of the well as she fumbled on hand and knee over what felt like stocky limbs and crisp clothes and… something hot and wet all over the floor. The revolting scent of iron and copper struck her nostrils and made them curl. It wasn't until she blundered against the coarse hair of a beard and a breathless mouth that the picture became clear.
Not something, but someone had broken her fall.
And they were dead.
I just wanted to add a quick thank you to everyone who has encouraged me thus far with your kind words and support. It really means the world to me, but knowing that people get anywhere the amount of joy that I get from this story just makes it all so much more worth it. <3 I love you all.
Chapter 19: A Night To Forget
"Go away… I didn't do this… it wasn't my fault!"
Chiyo sat up, blinded by the brightness of morning. She reached for her head and cringed to touch a throbbing goose-egg beneath her hair. Fingers probing the lump, her mind reeled in search of a marker on time lost. There was no doubt to where she was, in the same bedroom she'd woken up the last few days. But the how, now those were the details that needed to be sifted out through the sands of sleep.
With effort, she followed them back where they'd last left off, murkiest of all. The rest came up in scattered dredges, tangled in the net cast out into memory.
The glassy gray, accusing eyes. Collapsing naked into bed. Clothes and jewels shed off. The swish of running water. A hot drink. The stretch of empty roads. An engine's roar. A door clicking. White teeth offering help and sympathy. Midnight-colored dresses covered in starlight. An interruption. A hazy argument that roiled. The strength of two arms aiding her down the stairs. Hands that shook as they found her. The numbness that took hold while she stared at that face in the dark. Blood.
With a groan, the little elf drooped with an unsatisfactory, soundless flop.
She was beginning to miss the hard, squeaky coils of an old bed, the welcomed lumpiness of her pillows, the rougher grain of bargain-bin sheets that had been bought on sale and washed until the stitches pulled through.
Perhaps, what she wanted most was the comfortable sameness that came with each day. Of slippers waiting exactly where she placed her feet on the floor, the folded paper crammed into the slot on the front door, and a toaster that had to be pushed on twice but always left the bread perfectly golden.
Of not finding dead bodies and spooks and conspiracies around every corner.
That was home, miles and miles away, behind two national borders she couldn't cross.
Waking up on satin atop a mattress that was probably stuffed with down plucked only from the rarest, fluffiest birds by the hands of consecrated maidens might have been a luxurious dream for most. And for a moment, as Chiyo's kohl-smeared eyes were rubbed open, she hoped that the prior evening- the entire trip- had been just that.
A dream, and a bad one too.
The bruises on her shins hadn't come from fretful tossing and turning. And the dress soaking in the reddish water of the bathtub served as a bloated reminder while Chiyo splashed her face and scrubbed at her hands until they felt raw from cleaning.
So much blood. Stained into the beds of her nails and the bottom of her feet. Slick and viscous and nameless, belonging to a dwarf with his ribs carved up.
She remembered but bits and pieces now, reveries unraveling from reality. He'd haunted her dreams, hung from a meat hook through his ankle. Pointing a finger in accusation, swinging in the cold air. The dead man was waiting to be butchered.
Her stomach made no ardent demands for breakfast today, quiet and clenched behind the tight knot of her robe. She didn't deserve those tasty comforts anyways. A cup of tea, however, might manage to set something right. Though she was sure to mess even that up one way or another.
After your behavior last night, you shouldn't get anything but stale crusts for a week. Disgraceful. It's all the good food you've been eating, going straight to your head. Oysters. Of all things… and crabcakes. Oh, and whatever those little, crunchy lobster cup-things were. Shellfish makes one selfish. Or did you forget that too, right up there with manners and dignity?
Regardless of exactly whose voice berated her this morning, mistakes, awful, wretched ones, had been made. Apologies or not, it was too late to take any of it back. The best she could hope to do was not make them again.
With bleary eyes and several deep yawns, she trudged through the house to the kitchen, still dark and silent. Fumbling about on the wall, her hand found the light switch.
"Ohh, my head! Would you turn that off? Now."
Tucked into a nook with the curtains drawn, Dorian sat with his face hidden behind his hands. Wrinkled refinery littered the floor from the doorway where she stood to his table. One leg still bore a gartered sock, striped shorts bunched around his hips, and a collared shirt lay wide open to his navel.
"Did you sleep in here?" Chiyo asked, stepping around the shiny leather shoes left out to be tripped over.
"If it can be called sleep, I've only been back an hour or so." He groaned, using the tablecloth to shield his face.
"I spent more of my night looking for my guests than anything else. And then I come to find that snake of a woman loaned a pair of nobody-elves her coach and driver. I was distraught. What if you'd been kidnapped and forced to do her dirty work! It was awful. That alone gave me ulcers and conniptions, for your information."
"You don't know the half of it. And Lady Vivienne was nothing but pleasant and thoughtful… I think. She said something nice about you… or maybe it only sounded like a compliment. It will come back to me. Something about your hair..." Chiyo closed her eyes for a stretch, recalling the kindness of a lacy handkerchief, the warmth of a silky my dear whispered with concern, and a clandestine offer for a quick escape.
"I'm sure she spun it exactly as intended. Dear old Vivvy might call herself a patron and critic of the arts, but she's no better than a Chantry-loving, power-hungry, double-crossing whistleblower." With his little finger, he peeked behind the window shade at the front yard. "She has ears everywhere and now knows where we are staying. There goes the rest of my holiday… ruined."
In the sink she began to fill the copper kettle before searching through the cabinets for cups, finding everything but. Rows of spices labeled in neat Tevene, pots, pans, dried lentils, plates, tureens, and last, at the cusp of her limited reach on stretched toe-tips, she snagged a pair by their delicate handles.
"Well. If you are going to conspire with my enemies and make off with my scant friends, you should at least enlighten me as to why…" Dorian covered his mouth with a sickly gurgle that passed once his bearings were regained. "...Why I was blatantly abandoned while you did Maker know's what with our darling photographer? I'll know an excuse if I hear one. And I want details. Lots of them. A man that outwardly reserved must be an absolute savage in bed."
The tea tin she'd just popped open struck the counter, scattering sachets in all directions. Water began to overflow the kettle and the fine porcelain cups were nearly sent toppling in the upset as Chiyo reached for every calamity at once.
"My, my. Still a bit cattywampus are we? You're too easy to play with. So predictable and prim. Or… did I actually guess correctly, hmm?"
She refused to answer him as she slammed the wet pot to the stove and cleaned up her mess.
What would have happened if you'd stayed? Bite marks instead of bruises? Not waking up alone for a change? Would you even be standing here, when your morning could be better spent- Tea. Boiling. Scalding. Right now.
Everything she needed for the morning ritual had been found, but it wasn't any good to her if she couldn't get the gas burner lit. Chiyo pulled out drawers and opened canisters to no avail, but just as she began to mutter in frustration, a box of matches rattled as they were offered over her shoulder.
The red-faced writer turned to see Solas shoving his hand back into his pocket, wearing the same green-gilled exhaustion as the man still watching for spies outside in the bushes.
"You must be cursed to forever be an impossible ass. Give it a rest. Our night was trying enough as it were." The elf grumbled as he took a seat.
"And yet I'm still waiting for an explanation. Were you so successful in your quest that taking the rest of the day off seemed appropriate?" Dorian asked, given a cup that he took to spinning like a top once the window had lost his interest.
"We saw a wraith." Solas had no hesitation with his proclaim. "It killed someone."
"You think you saw a ghost." Chiyo corrected, standing close to the lit stove. "I stumbled upon a murder. A dwarf had been stabbed to death."
"I'd be more shocked if there wasn't a dead body or two produced, this is Minrathous after all." Mustache twitching, the Tevinter aristocrat took turns in glancing at them both. "So which is it? Were there spirits or not?"
The answers were offered simultaneously, but they were far from unanimous.
With a shared narrowed gaze, a heavy silence deadened the air but for the bubbling on the burner. It was the first time either had looked the other in the eye since the snafu in the wardrobe. Or spoken even, since they'd forsaken the Magister's estate bewildered and smeared in blood. They'd thought it prudent to leave, empty-handed, before any blame could be dealt for the death.
As the entire torrid event returned to her senses in full, the strained hold on their mutual decision to agree to disagree was promptly lifted, or more appropriately, blown off like a pressured lid.
"It was glowing and walked straight through my body then into a wall like nothing was there." Solas had already crossed his arms over his chest.
"Maybe if you'd had less wine I might've believed you." Her lips pinched and nose scrunched as she watched him bristle. "But that's not what I saw at all."
"Says the woman who fainted." Well, that certainly explained the bump.
"I didn't faint, I'd remember something like that. I must have slipped again." With a hard toss, she forcefully returned the matches. "Hitting my head still doesn't change the facts, my imagination isn't that good."
"Facts? Ha! This isn't some mystery novel scene playing out for entertainment. To even think that there were hired assassins present with such a singular goal is ludicrous. Going through all the trouble of becoming involved is overly complicated." His blue eyes turned hard and critical while he clutched the tiny cardboard box.
"And that's less plausible than a ghost cutting through a man's sternum?" Chiyo's hands found a hold on her hips. She too, could be stubborn. And he was pushing to see how much. Even hours later, after an entire night to process soberly, Solas' mind seemingly hadn't changed one bit. "It was dark. They were dressed in all black. Something physically knocked into me on those stairs."
"Maybe it had the energy or rare ability to manifest so corporeally. No flesh and blood person could possess the skills to pass unharmed through solid wood and stone."
"Oh come on. Where is your evidence? Precedents? Reason?" She could see Dorian hide a gleeful grin behind his fingers, but her focus remained unbroken. "You told me yourself that you've never seen a spirit present like that, not even what we saw in the catacombs. And that was also a first, out of how many hundreds only ever seen on film?"
"It could have been summoned. The mystic you mentioned-"
Chiyo cut him off, already her blood began to boil, whistling between her ears.
"That fraud probably did this himself! That's what my gut says. He had an 'aura about him'. It bothered me so much that I thought I'd been the target, remember? Funny how that came to mind, only for someone else to actually wind up dead."
There was no logic in this, in anything that he'd tried to debate. She'd accepted so much of his bizarre tales already, yet there was nothing to convince her of homicidal spirits working on behalf of sinister people. Greed, revenge, jealousy, any number of motives would have borne more weight.
"Not everything is paranormal. Conspiracy is far more likely. Are you honestly going to sit there and claim without a single shred of doubt that it couldn't be just normal every day, old-fashioned murder? He was a dwarf, well-off and of high standing by how much gold he wore. Someone is probably profiting from his death right now as we speak."
"Ms. Lavellan…" Dorian tried to interject.
"Not you too. Don't tell me you're on his side." Steam felt like it was billowing through her lips as the rest of her body cooked from within.
"No," he waved his hand, too far away to reach her. "Only that the water is done and your elbow is going to catch fire if you lean any closer."
"Oh... oh! Hot!" She was quick to turn off the gas and rescue the kettle as the hissy cry turned into a spitting, sputtering wail.
"Alright, let's pause this thrilling dispute for a moment, shall we?" Dorian held his cup steady as it was filled with a rose-tinted tea. "Do either of you have proof to support or refute anything that happened that can't be clouded by liquor and head injuries?"
Chiyo joined them at the table, her own cup in hand and welcomed the first piping sip of the fruity, floral blend. "Not exactly… The recorder gave us nothing and without the camera, we couldn't take any pictures. No one else was around when this happened to corroborate with either. Not anyone still alive."
Solas sighed and folded his hands in his lap. "We've merely our own accounts to go by, colored and skewed by separate experiences."
"Say what you really mean. We're biased." Another tongue-burning drink dislodged a few more heated choices in word for his particular regard. Obstinate. Paranoid. Fanatical. "But there has to be an answer in this. Somewhere."
"You know, I would almost be inclined to agree with you if I hadn't encountered what I did in the hallway." At least he appeared to be smoothing out his own ruffled feathers as they returned to not looking directly at one another. Maybe they could be civil so long as their eyes never again met.
"Hmm?" Chiyo left the hot edge of the teacup against her lips. Perhaps it would help burn off the tingling, phantom sensations that lingered on her skin while she stole a few lowered glances as he spoke. That mouth of his spelled trouble, even when it remained perfectly mute.
"That was the same dwarf. We saw him just before his demise, in the arms of a paramour." Solas ran his thumbnail along the rough striking side of the matchbox. "I have been curious of her involvement, whether she used their relationship to draw him away from the crowd for ulterior purposes. Betrayal comes from those kept closest and she had quite the knack for diversion."
"Now you're starting to sound like her," Dorian said after a long, curative sip. "I was wondering as to why I didn't see either of you at the séance-you missed a very heartfelt message from Felix's mother. It seems you were too busy peeping through keyholes like lechers to be bothered with the main event."
"Oh no, the view was much more-" Her foot struck out beneath the table and collided with his leg. She didn't let him even attempt to disclose what had happened in the slightest.
"Coincidental. Just a chance crossing of paths while we investigated, wasn't it, Solas?" Her laugh sounded fake even to her own ears as the other elf rubbed his sore shin. "They were drunk and messing around. What of it. People do all sorts of asinine things with bellies full of booze."
"Certainly. And many more do well enough sober." She'd never been so undone by such a minuscule quirk of a mouth before, curled just enough in the corner to make her heart leap high into her throat.
"Goodness, look at the time. Is it that late already? Excuse me, I really need to pack my things before we have to leave. Best get out of here before the Templars come knocking with questions, you know?" Tea left hardly half-finished, Chiyo pushed back from the table. She made it part way through another unbecoming chuckle and turned to march out of the kitchen.
What a professional! Astounding performance. They believed every word of that for sure!
There had to be something useful in her bedroom, like a long pair of stockings or a thick bag to smother herself with. If she weren't so terrified of drowning, there was already a bathtub waiting to claim her miserable soul.
[C.L.- Greetings from Redcliffe. Stop. Got your draft in this morning. Stop. Didn't I just warn you about chasing nug holes? Stop. Not sure what you were thinking when you wrote this. Stop. It's too risky to publish. Stop. Let me get back to you with a final decision. Stop. Tried to get you a temporary visa forwarded. Stop. But everyone in that office is a useless prick who couldn't wipe their a- without the proper stamp of approval. Stop. You should probably find another way home or somewhere to stay if you have any friends in that neck of the woods. Stop. We don't have much in the budget to keep you posted there on vacation. Stop. -V.T.]
She hadn't honestly thought this would happen, when she'd submitted her article in a last minute rush with enough extra postage to have paid for a week's worth of overnight fees.
And for them to respond so swiftly…
Solas needed to be the first to know. It was only fair.
But that also meant she had to speak forthrightly with the man.
The second message was postmarked hours later, nearly at the end of the business day. Had she been there to receive them so far apart she'd have likely wept her eyes out with the failure.
[C.L.- You're probably going to shit yourself. Stop. And yes I paid this guy extra to spell that word out. Stop. Your piece is going to have to be edited pretty heavily. Stop. But I think we can just barely slide under all those pesky censors if we handle it right. Stop. I'll print it as a teaser only if you have more to follow up with. Stop. Stay with this lead if he's got anything else to offer. Stop. The story is great but we need some real hard proof if it's gonna pack any punch. Stop. See if there is any solid evidence you can bring back. Stop. I want an anchor to all this that will really put grit in a few Chantry panties. Stop. There's some money being sent your way (not a lot) but you've worked on a shoestring before. Stop. -V.T.]
Chiyo sat on the stairs with the thin sheets of paper unfolded over her knees. She was trying not to read them, again, as she'd done since finding them on her bed once they'd returned to Qarinus. The telegrams and receipts left her with no freely-given answers, only choices, with but one she could decide on her own.
To leave and find a way home as a stowaway or vagabond, digging tunnels or hiding in a freight car full of sheep to blend in.
Otherwise, stay and earn her keep by continuing to work with a drifter who was almost more hassle than he was worth.
Chewing her cheek, Chiyo raked her fingers through her hair and stared at the door down below. She'd thought that if she sat there long enough, some form of enlightenment might find her and offer a sense of direction. There had to be a guideline or rule learned long ago that would serve to end the confusion, to return her to professionalism and impartialness.
Think of your job, your career. What's more important, some bizarre infatuation that will run its due course or making a name for yourself, one that they'll put in brass on those little placards for a desk that you don't have to share with three other people who leave crumbs everywhere. This is a chance to get your ridiculous little head out of the gutter, seize it! On your feet! That'a girl. Just go in there and act like nothing happened. Kiss? What kiss? Be professional, be calm, be a journalist.
Hesitant knuckles struck the wooden door. Chiyo waited, creasing the pages in a clenched fist.
Allowing herself inside, she came upon the photographer fixing an older, heftier camera to a tripod. He'd done some rearranging since they'd come back, having pushed the sofa away from the wall to drape a bright green curtain from the ceiling.
"You have good timing. I was about to find you myself." Solas didn't look up as he made several calibrations. "If you would, stand there in the center so I can check the focus. I'm worried about the color, though. Some shades of gray are difficult to reproduce."
"Doing portraits now?" Chiyo stepped in front of the fabric and adjusted accordingly with the guiding motions of his fingers as he peered through the lens. "Don't tell me you've given up on ghost hunting and have picked up a new vocation."
"Are you going to tease me all night, or shall you let me do this favor before I change my mind?" His clipped words were muffled from beneath a heavy cloth flipped over his head, but he snapped a few test shots even while she frowned.
"What kind of a favor? My nose keeps me off the front cover of magazines and I don't need any pictures with my dead relatives." It was then she saw a vivid stack poking out of plain brown paper and twine on his desk. Having traveled as far and wide as she had over the years, she'd know those colors anywhere.
Orlesian cerulean. Antivan emerald. Tevinter gold. Free March slate. And just like the one that had been stolen with her satchel, Ferelden crimson. "Are those passports?"
"Please don't… move." Solas sighed as she left her position and picked up one of the empty folders.
"What are you doing with all of these?" Chiyo held the red one up after flicking through the blank contents.
Official, right down to the stamped leather edges and seals, not an eyelash would have been batted if she'd seen someone present the booklet. If they were forgeries, they were damned good ones, but if they were stolen or smuggled, she almost didn't want to ask how he'd obtained them or by what means.
"The circumstances of my life occasionally require a certain degree of... untraceability. From time to time, when I know I am being followed, a new name and a few borrowed numbers go a long way to leave a cold trail. Though I seldom do this anymore, I believe there is reason enough to craft a new set."
"That and…" His hands remained on the camera, fingering the little buttons and twisting the bulb of the flash. "You said several times, very adamantly, that you wanted to go home."
"I was also coming too in a dark stairwell, laying in a dead guy's blood. And crying, thank you for reminding me of that part. Forgive me for the hysterics and the waterworks… and the yelling." Chiyo set the passport down and looked up to watch him fidget quietly with the instrument.
The swell of his lower lip slipped between his teeth. What words was he also trying to retain? Did any match those waiting in bondage behind her own tongue. But where had the pride gone from his shoulders, to make them so slack. What had dulled the normally honed edge over his brow and the charm that left her keen.
She saw then in him her own constant friend. Misery. The kind that only existed in obligatory honor and duty.
"I can't ask you to do this."
His offer was no small act of kindness, not with the weight of spending a decade or more in prison were he ever to be caught. Likely incarcerated without being given a trial. To do it for himself was one thing, but for someone he'd known scarcely more than two harried weeks…
"Innocence means little in Tevinter, so long as justice is conveniently served." The initial spark in his words had vanished, the lovely lilt turned at once dim and serious. "You should get away from here. Before anyone connects you with that hellacious death."
She could always recognize the heaviness of a farewell, long before being spoken. But this one was doing everything in his power not to say it.
"Then if you are going to be this generous, I'd like to ask something before you start finalizing all these goodbye plans." Chiyo brandished her own documents. She didn't need to consider her choices anymore. There'd never really been one to begin with.
Her path had been chosen long before she'd descended those stairs, or before the messages had been typed out across a wire.
"Would your tune change at all if I told you we are on the verge of being published? There's just this one little catch."
"Seriously?" Whatever plagued him lifted like a fog, he reached for the dangled papers and frowned as they were pulled back. "What do they want, a ghost mailed to them in a bottle? A member of the Cartel spilling everything on tape?"
"These are confidential, sorry. You don't have the clearance." She smiled wryly, shoving the whole wadded mass into her pant's pocket. "But you aren't far off. Proof. It's what everyone wants. They've also asked for a second article that's more than just your personal story. I need to see these connections for myself."
"What?" Her jaw dropped with the blunt rejection. "And why not? Is this because I still don't believe your theory on killer-spirits?"
"It's because you're already in enough trouble. I'm not going to lead you through more just to pad a career and give your boss fodder to sell a few more prints." Solas shook his head. Returned to his camera, he gave a solemn point towards a spot on the floor.
With a huff and a stomp, she took her place again. "If I wasn't writing an article, would that change your mind?"
"Not likely. I'd simply believe you mad." Back beneath the hood, Chiyo struggled to discern if he was actually mocking her before the light flashed.
She crouched forward as he made one last tweak while the bulb recharged and stuck her face but a few inches before the wide lens. "And if I said please?"
Flipping the black fabric away, he lifted his head with a narrow glare. For a moment, he simply stood there in contemplation. Then his fingers rose to rub his forehead as a lengthy breath hissed through his nose. "Then I would say you're not going to like where we'd have to go."
"Let's see, we nearly got thrown in the can when you and I first met. We've spent the night in a nasty old cemetery. You made me play tourist for four days with a busted nose. Jumped out of a hotel room you set on fire, and now I could be pulled into a murder investigation. Honestly, I doubt anything else is going to rattle me at this point." She skipped mentioning the interlude in the cupboard. It was easier to breathe around him without that idea plaguing her every thought.
"Come on, cameraman, give me your best shot." Chiyo held out her hand for a strictly business-like shake, a grin stretched near ear to ear. "I might just make you famous yet."
"Fine, but only if you never call me that again." His eyes rolled as he indulged in the gesture.
Hmm. She liked a fellow with a firm grip, even if it did last just a little longer than what would be considered polite. Or Necessary. But not a spot of pink mottled her cheeks like some infectious disease from touching him, and that alone was worth celebrating.
This was wonderful. Brilliant. Stupendous! A clean start, professional once again without any nuisances or hang-ups. Her chest felt light, her heart at ease. All her troubles vanquished. She'd finally conquered the demons that had threatened to ruin everything she'd worked so hard to attain for herself.
"So where are we going?" Chiyo beamed as he released her hand.
She deserved that one, she'd give him that. But his joke cast a small shadow of doubt on her short-lived reprieve.
"And pack your boots. Or get taller ones, actually."
Her smile promptly faded.
Just what, exactly, had she signed herself up for now?