Gabriel came up beside Amjad as their mounts crested the hill just beyond the first Inquisition camp they'd come across, the Storm Coast spiraling out before them in the valley below like the ridges on a snail shell. Treacherous terrain funneled down towards the battered coastline, the Waking Sea that so often aroused his imagination --what lost treasure might lay in its depths? what creatures, never before seen?--high on the shore at this hour. Amjad spared him a glance, but only that; since leaving Skyhold he'd kept his counsel even closer than was usual. Dorian's silver mare picked her way up the trail just then, bringing him up on Amjad's other side. The look he got from the necromancer was confusing at best; he wondered what he'd possibly done to offend Dorian so. His stomach instantly balled in to a fist at the thought of having displeased, especially someone so trusted, so close to the Inquisitor who, after all, Gabriel had sworn to protect.
Amjad, about to speak, found himself cut off by the cry of a great beast. The three of them lifted their heads as one and looked out as far as they could, spotting the dragon at the same time. Gabriel's anxiety subsided if only because such an arresting sight left little room for anything else. The creature dipped and rolled, battling a giant big even for its kind. It brought a little smile to Amjad's face; Gabriel could guess that Amjad appreciated such displays of primal nature. He wondered if this was the same dragon he'd once glimpsed, when an ill plotted route had taken him through the hidden hills and caves native to the area, those that had bedeviled many a traveler before him. Pure luck had kept him from withering away in to a skeleton in one of those caverns, lost and forgotten. He'd found more than one such unfortunate adventurer. The flowers he'd left hardly seemed enough.
"A dragon, m'lord!" Shandi said, her warhorse struggling with the terrain. Larger and more cumbersome than the mounts the humans and elves rode (and one rather loquacious dwarf, spinning story after story), the proud stallion nonetheless fought hard to rise to the challenge. "Are we going hunting?"
"I hate to disappoint you, Shandi," Amjad said, his voice warm as if he were charmed by her eagerness, "but we do have a mission to focus on."
"Oh, oh. Of course." Shandi said. She coughed self consciously and straightened up in her saddle, trying to school her features in to something more professional. "Serious business."
"Well, not too serious," Varric said cheerfully from the back, his little pony making quick work of the pitfalls inherent to this region and looking proud of it, no less, its nostrils flared, its mane blowing in the breeze. "Or Shandi might come apart at the seams trying."
"Nothing with you is ever serious, dwarf," Cassandra grumbled.
"Hey that's not fair," Varric protested, holding his hands up as if to say see, I'm harmless. A big grin bloomed as if he were about to launch in to another one of his tales. At the very least ]he stood poised on the edge of another quip, but instead his expression softened and he said, "I take some things very seriously indeed."
Gabriel turned just in time to catch Cassandra blushing right up to her hair. It took everything in him to not gape in shock. He never thought he would see the Lady Seeker so readily undone, but then no one could claim true immunity to Varric's charms. Amjad cleared his throat and Gabriel could see him hiding an amused smile behind his hand. Shandi beamed outright, but-probably wisely-said nothing.
"Let's find a place to make camp," Amjad suggested, and Cassandra sighed softly. Relieved, or so Gabriel thought.
Amjad lead them through the twists and turns, the only major path through the mountains a treacherous, switch backed thing. Amjad clung to Orala like a burr on a sheep, she without any of the fear that might have hobbled a living creature. Gabriel felt gratitude once they found a level clearing, the smell of crushed grass tickling his nose as the mounts filed in. A few ramshackle buildings remained, though clearly they had gone without owners or upkeep for some time. They lay defenseless before the elements, doors and even walls having succumbed to the weather.
They elected to make camp in the lee of one of the houses; what remained of the interior felt too much like a grave. Amjad helped set up the tents, and he was fast at it too. No wonder, with how often the Dalish changed location. Each new spot of temporary respite would require work such as this. Even Dorian pitched in, though he did so gingerly so as to not ruin his polished nails. For a mage Dorian enjoyed a sturdy, muscular body and he had physical strength to augment his magic; never had Gabriel seen someone as athletic with staff forms as Dorian. He prayed whatever had upset the man would pass; he respected Dorian such that he would never want to offend him, especially after watching him take on three enemy mages and prevail.
If only we had an aravel, Gabriel thought, gathering stones for a firepit. Shandi took the axe from their bags of supplies and went to find wood, coming back a little while later with a huge log balanced effortlessly on her shoulder. Her armor impeded her not at all. Though it functioned as plate, the enchantments on it made it move like cloth. She set the log down and split it in to manageable pieces, all without breaking a sweat, and a mere flick of Dorian's wrist ensured that they had a healthy fire once she'd finished. Shandi set up the cooking pot, then went off to gather ingredients; she'd made such an ersatz stew many times as a mercenary. When she came back, her helm full of herbs and mushrooms, a brace of rabbits dangling from her other hand, he had to admit that the result tasted good no matter its method of transportation.
Amjad sat near the fire and pulled a map from his pack, smoothing it out on his knees.
"This artifact is either in Red templar hands, or is likely hidden away in one of the caves, forgotten," he said, his finger describing the route as he spoke. "There are no Dalish here just now, and certainly no one of the People who would take the time to seek out such a thing as a matter of course, if they even knew of its existence at all."
Sadly so many Dalish had been forced to think only of survival; many would have forsaken such a relic if transporting it would have burdened them overmuch.
"There's a red lyrium smuggling ring set up here," Varric said, peering over at the map. He jabbed his finger down at the spot in question as if personally offended. Perhaps the thought of corrupted lyrium sent a special fear through a dwarf's heart, as it did a mage's. "We should go there and see. Even if they don't have the artifact, they need to be cleaned out."
"True," Amjad agreed, frowning at the place Varric had indicated. Dorian added, "one of my former associates is overseeing red lyrium smuggling." His usual bluster was nowhere to be seen. He sat stiffly, jaw tight. The cut of his silver-green coat made him look imposing instead of affable, an unexpected change. "If he is here...I would take pleasure in relieving him of his duties."
"Aye, and maybe they'll have a behemoth for me to fight!" Shandi said, as animated as if it were her birthday and she'd just been presented with one of those grand Orlesian cakes in the shape of a swan. Shandi never approached a battle with fear in her, and Gabriel wondered if the dragon blood had something to do with it. The few tales he'd heard about Reavers surely presented them as hungry, even ravening, with fighting their only food.
Cassandra-when had he started thinking of her as Cassandra, instead of the Lady Seeker?-compressed her lips in to a thin line, thinking over possible strategies, no doubt. She had a certain reputation for being brash, but in battle she became more cerebral than she perhaps realized. She had both mind and body on her side, when she willed it.
"It will take us the better part of a day to reach the cave," Cassandra said. "We can head out at dawn."
Amjad nodded. "Very well." He paused for a moment, then a rather wicked look brought life to his features, his outfit of golden scale mail and deep hyacinth leather underscoring the light in his gaze. "Cassandra, do you happen to have any books with you?"
Cassandra blushed for the second time that day. What miraculous air had settled around them, such that Cassandra evinced emotions other than steely confidence and the occasional snort of disgust? For the first time, Gabriel realized that perhaps Cassandra was in her own way uncomfortable with being around this group in particular; Gabriel himself might as well count as a stranger still. Dorian had the dubious honor of being affiliated with Tevinter. She must enjoy Varric's company, but then again any hint of their relationship whilst anyone else loitered in hearing distance seemed to discomfit her greatly. Only Shandi remained, and indeed it was Shandi's exclamation that made Cassandra relent:
"Are you going to teach me to read, Cass?" She asked, setting her now empty bowl aside. In her thick Orlesian accent, the words sent a shiver down Gabriel's spine. He shifted, suddenly uncomfortable in mixed company; Shandi's voice could do things to him that certainly weren't appropriate for casual viewing.
"I could," Cassandra allowed. "I have been fortunate; letters were part of my training as a Seeker. And it wouldn't do to have a Hand of the Divine be illiterate."
"What about Swords and Shields?" Varric suggested. Cassandra opened one of her saddle bags and Gabriel saw several books tucked neatly inside. One caught his eye the way a gem would stand out in a pile of plain rocks; it had a homemade cover, with a handwritten title, Varric's full name described along the bottom in lazy calligraphy. A personal story then? One he'd written especially for his love?
"Does it have any dirty parts?" Shandi wanted to know, wiggling her eyebrows suggestively.
"Really Goldie?" Varric teased, pretending to be rather put out by the question. "I warn you, they aren't the best thing I've ever written."
Cassandra handing Shandi the copy of Swords and Shields, and she opened it on her knees. She followed the sentences with her fingertip, no doubt trying to find any familiar words. She couldn't read or write anything complex, but Gabriel figured she must know enough to understand orders and missives.
"The guard captain..." Shandi said haltingly. Of course she would recognize ranks, but directly after she fell silent, brows furrowed. Cassandra leaned in to see where Shandi was. Between the two of them they deciphered the next sentence. "...had r...rippling muscles--oh I like her already," Shandi declared before going back to the book. "And had a b..bosom so...huge!" Shandi threw her head back and crowed with laughter. "Varric! What kind of book is this?"
Varric grimaced. "Well, I did warn you. Hardly made any money."
"Are you kidding? I love it." Shandi told him, wiping at her eyes. "So...so huge, that she had to have special armor made. Her hair...was...was..."
"A halo of fire," Cassandra supplied.
"A halo of fire," Shandi repeated. "As beautiful...as the..." She sounded out the rest and settled on, "as beautiful as a griffon in flight under a red sun."
Gabriel couldn't help but laugh at that. Never had he heard anything so purple as this. Varric looked rather mortified, a little self deprecating half grin on his face.
"Cass," Shandi said looking up. "What's the dirtiest page in this book?"
"Page 176, paragraph two," Cassandra admitted, pointedly looking at the scenery instead of at any of her companions. Shandi flipped to the page indicated.
"His...his flowering rod? Flowering rod! Was tu-me-scent... What does that mean?"
"It, well," Gabriel tried, "it means he's ready for love making."
"His cock is hard?" Shandi clarified, peering at the page incredulously. "Why doesn't he just say that then?"
"Hey I was trying to be romantic," Varric said, protesting.
"As...as hard as the gift she'd given him," Shandi said, Cass having gone back to helping her. "a metal plate depicting golden magnolias. What he's as hard as the picture? Is he as hard as arithmetic? I was never good at numbers."
"Shandi," Gabriel said, and now it was his turn to blush. "My goodness."
"He entered..." Shandi continued, "he entered her flowering cavern...I hope there's no roses in there, he might get thorns in his dick." She grinned. "I've never met a pussy that smelled like violets."
Cassandra snatched the book away as Shandi laughed, wiping tears of mirth from her eyes.
Dorian stayed close to the fire as the evening sun descended. Blazing rays of orange and pink unfurled across a rapidly darkening sky, and the scent of the ocean came to his nostrils, muted like a perfume worn on pulse points. Shandi had gotten Cassandra to laugh along with her--for awhile, anyway, until the embarrassment became too much--as she did her best to read the bawdiest passages of Varric's romance novel, nigh squealing in delight whenever she found a particularly flowery passage describing some sex act or another. After awhile they all blurred together so that all Dorian could imagine was a knot of sweating bodies squirming and writhing, the men with engorged staves of alabaster instead of cocks, the women with hidden grottos stuffed full of jewels instead of...well, it didn't bear thinking about.
But it wasn't some sort of offense that made him leave the warmth, both the emotional kind generated by his august company and by the fire he'd easily kept crackling and dancing for hours with but a wisp of mana. No, Amjad had left the camp, and Dorian felt the pull to follow after.
He found Amjad on the very edge of the cliff, legs dangling over the side as if Amjad felt little to no fear of falling to his death. Amjad heard him approach long before he reached the spot in question; despite not following the vir'tanadhal much as a youth, Amjad's survival instincts made him an adroit tracker and hunter anyway. He stood, brushing grass from his clothes. His eyes were lambent in the gloom, the violet, gold flecked light also illuminating in some small part the Anchor, wisps of Fade energy emanating from it. Dorian's heart seized; with such power at their disposal perhaps they would be able to clear out the Venatori here. And more importantly, to him at least, the possible presence of one Marius Octavious. The mere thought of the man made him well up with bile, the memory of clashing swords and a door being kicked in took up residence in his mind whether he had invited it or not.
"Amatus, what in the world are you doing?" Dorian knew well enough that trying to keep Amjad from doing risky things was an impossible task, yet fear gripped his heart the same whether Amjad performed a risky task once or a hundred times. Losing another lover...he didn't think he could survive it. And yet he loved the Inquisitor, a man who had to fight life or death battles almost daily, a man so certain of himself that even petty dangers such as where he'd chosen to sit worried him not at all.
Amjad came over to him on soundless feet. A little smile curved his full mouth, and the light in his eyes could not be completely explained by Elvhen physiology. The touch of Amjad's hands on his chest made his cup overflow with complex emotions, fear, love, want. He covered Amjad's hands with his own, wondering if Amjad could feel him trembling.
"Something troubles you, emma lath," Amjad said, in that gentle, velvety tone he reserved for Dorian alone. Well, there was his answer.
"This red lyrium smuggling ring...I think we might find one of the Venatori we are hunting. Blasted fools; every one of them used to answer to the Black Divine instead of...of this."
He wouldn't admit, not even to Amjad, but the thought of red lyrium took the strength from him so great was his fear. He had encountered it before, once at the spring they'd investigated in the Western Approach, and many times in battle as corrupted creatures surrounded them.
Amjad's brow creased, a sure sign of his concern.
"This is personal, isn't it? That list of names...it's not just Tevinter pride that motivates you to end their lives."
"Amjad," he started, trying to explain what had happened, why the potential to find Octavious mattered so. Amjad looked up at him, his expression a study in sympathy before Dorian had even begun the tale. "When I still lived in Tevinter, in my old life, I found something with another man. I hesitate to call it love--what do those with my preferences know of love in such a place?--but it was...it was important."
It felt as if he were under a compulsion, heart whirling in his chest, a bloody awful tremor in his hands. He swayed and for a moment, he actually thought he might collapse. Amjad hugged him tightly, and it kept him on his feet.
"Tell me more," Amjad prompted softly, his head against Dorian's chest as if were trying to hear Dorian's heartbeat.
Dorian felt hot tears sting the back of his eyes, and the accompanying rage made him grind his teeth.
"My father sent thugs to recover me, as if I was a lost bauble to put on his shelf and admire from afar. As if I were a fine piece of furniture or a carriage pillow, to be collected from its maker." And without information, passed to Halward through the whisperings of a little bird named Octavious?
His throat closed and he didn't know how in all the hells he could finish the story. The scent of blood and incense filled his nostrils, a memory that went deeper than anything he could only picture.
"Emma lath, I wish dearly that I had been there to protect you." Amjad's tone hit the ear in a level, almost placid purr, but Dorian could hear the unspoken.
"Is that why you're out here by yourself?"
Amjad pulled back enough to turn his gaze to Dorian's face, his own so very solemn.
"I...I couldn't protect you, Dorian." He stepped back, wrapping his arms around himself as if he could ward off the shame he so clearly felt. Well, it was clear to Dorian, anyway.
"What? From Decadence?"
"She came in to my quarters," Amjad practically shouted, a sudden burst of fury that spoke to how violated he felt. "in to my home. And nearly possessed us both. And I could do nothing to aid you."
"I don't need you to protect me," Dorian protested, though he remembered how he would be dead, his corpse littering the Hissing Wastes, if it hadn't been for Amjad's quick blades. "Surely you don't think my magery as poor as that practiced in the South," he said, with an artful little sniff of half-meant disdain.
"Don't," Amjad growled. "Don't you dare try to wriggle out of this through making light of it. I won't abide it."
"What would you have me do?" Dorian said, his own voice a little fire that could readily burn hotter. Amjad couldn't know it, but he felt stretched thin, the pull of his memories and the anxiety about whether they would find Octavious like two dragons battling within him. And as much as Amjad had been torturing himself over not protecting Dorian, Amjad hadn't realized how much that same torment lived in Dorian's heart and mind. Taken in so readily by a demon! By temptation.
"You know full well that I have nothing but respect for you and your magery," Amjad said, some of the anger draining out of him. Dorian thought that was a bad sign; normally Amjad's rages, no matter how strange, at the very least imparted some passion and energy. Now? He seemed diminished somehow, small and thin. When had Amjad gotten so thin? Maker, had he forgotten to care for himself in the midst of so much? Dorian felt like an ass for not realizing before now, and him the one that loved Amjad the most. "And you also well know that it is not the point. It is my charge to protect you, to love you, to hold you in the highest esteem. And she took that from me."
Dorian found himself about to protest again, a haughty quip dancing on his lips, but then he felt his memory more than mere seeing.
The Abrexis estate lay quiet, the scion, his wife, and a generous compliment of servants having taken their leave just that morning. The heavy ceremonial incense they'd burned in Andrastae's name that morning hung thick still, even creeping in under Quintus' bedroom door. Dorian rather fancied it; it gave their coupling an appealing forbidden quality, as if they were doing so in the middle of some long forgotten barbarian temple. Maker, but he had rarely felt so involved in--was it lovemaking?--his world narrowing down to Quintus' shining silver eyes, the way a skein of rich sable hair described a loose comma on Quintus' forehead. Yes of course their bodies had come together, too, while they both laughed easily, without mockery. Only moments later such mirth had been replaced by moans and cries--what point was there to hiding their enjoyment, with everyone having left or retreated to servant's quarters?--never had Dorian experienced such freedom.
Their involvement in one another made the scent of fresh blood come slowly to his nostrils, far too slowly...
"What is it?" Amjad asked, appearing suddenly as terrified as Dorian felt. Amjad had an uncanny ability to experience his emotions right alongside him; if Amjad were cold to others, it was only in part because so much of his warmth he made available for Dorian's comfort. Amjad approached him slowly, as if trying to keep an injured animal from lashing out with hoof or claw. Part of him wanted to push Amjad away and run, run as he'd fled the blasted Quaranis estate and the imprisonment it represented. And yet he felt bound to the earth, as surely as if an entanglement spell had wound furtively around his ankles. "Please, Dorian--"
The door shuddered, then gave way. He separated from Quintus, a spell ready. He barely felt the magebane dart.
He found himself on his knees, the shock of wet grass through his breeches not enough to wrest him fully free of the past. Amjad knelt and caught him up in an embrace so hard it made his ribs creak. All he could do was cling to his amatus --Maker! If Amjad felt as if he couldn't protect Dorian, then how much greater in return...!
The sell swords were on him then as the flames sputtered and died in his hands. A scream--and then his own cry: Quintus! The man gripping his wrist--too hard, too hard--told him to shut up as he struggled, managing to dislodge one or two would be jailers through pure physical strength. The rag went over his face and he took two heaving breaths, struggling even as the smell of the ether clogged his throat. As if he were drowning, he passed out.
It was Amjad's hands in his hair that brought him back, slowly, as if each lessening of that awful memory represented a turn of the earth, sunlight in to nighttime and back once more. He had wept hot tears in to the collar of Amjad's shirt, and he trembled as if he were the smaller out of the two of them. He pulled back far enough to search Amjad's expression, hoping for some kind of anchor point. Amjad had fixed him with that utterly solemn look Amjad got sometimes, where whatever he was about to say would be intoned like an oath.
"I swear to you, I will find this Venatori and make him pay for whatever he has done to you," Amjad said, that killer's light back in his eyes such that he looked strange, as if he were a darker version of himself most appropriate to how full the night had become over the course of this sad little mess. "You needn't speak of it to me if you don't want to, emma lath. Just know you will see this deed done." Amjad's look softened and he said, "and one day, I will slay that dragon out near the ocean, and I'll present you its hide. I'll be the best hunter my clan has ever seen. And then I will ask you to be my bondmate forever."
"What, only one dragon?" He said, managing a grin as it surfaced, pulled free by Amjad's words. Amjad laughed, one of those lovely unfettered laughs.
"You are an ass," Amjad declared, but any mock annoyance he might have felt lost out to a soft warmth that Dorian knew was love, though it had taken him a solid year to fully believe it. "Luckily I know how to put up with you. Now come back to the camp and dry off. If you're ready."
"All right," Dorian agreed, and when he stood he kept his feet. "Did Shandi finish her book?"
"I think she skipped right to the dirtiest parts," Amjad said, only just remembering not to reach for his hand. It made Dorian ill with guilt and defiant too; he wanted to announce their relationship to everyone, or at least part of him did. But then? The danger would follow, and he knew it. The fact was that loving Dorian Pavus was a dangerous thing to do indeed, and he wouldn't subject Amjad to its consequences if he had anything to say about it.
"I knew I liked her for a reason," Dorian said, letting his more confident, irreverent side come forth. No need to worry Amjad more than he already had.