Buildings and landscapes come easily to him. He can reproduce an accurate view out a window if given two minutes to study it. They’re three weeks into these lessons, and he can already draw most of the important buildings in Par Vollen from memory. The Tallis in charge of the unit praises his ability to gauge distances, to draw straight lines without using an edge.
She’s less pleased with his portraits. To describe a place with words is easy, she says, but if he is going to pass along information about unfamiliar people, bas or qunari, a sketch of their face would go a long way.
Practice is the key, Tallis tells him. Observation, which he’s always been good at, and practice. In some of his free hours, he goes to a square with a fountain, determined to draw everyone he sees.
It is empty at first, the sun not directly overhead. Water gurgles out of the fountain in three streams, pooling in a large raised basin and then in the wider base, dug into the ground. Ashkaari sits with his feet in the water on the northern side of the fountain. Each side is longer than he is tall, and the water comes partway up his calves when he sets his feet on the tiled base.
A group of imekari come along when he’s finished sketching the building across the square. There are eight of them, and a Tamassran who comes and sits next to him while the children play in the water. They’ve come from the western wheat fields, and are covered in dust. It was a successful outing, he can tell. Most of them are chattering about farmers and millers and weighing the benefits of pursuing those roles, though a few are stubbornly clinging to the hope of every imekari-- to join the Triumvirate-- and the smallest seems to have developed an ambition to be a windmill, rather than a miller.
Ashkaari laughs with their Tama as the child spins their arms enthusiastically, and sketches the movement on his page, trying to capture the excitement on their small faces as they splash in the cool water. He wants to join them as they play, but he’s been given a task. Instead, he does his best to document Tama’s tired satisfaction, the smudge of dust across the chest of the future windmill, the way the tallest imekari rubs at the base of their stubby horns.
A young acolyte comes to the fountain with a clay jug to fill. Ashkaari watches the way she balances it on her hip, how she has to adjust her grip every few feet. He draws the folds of her trousers when she bends down to let water pour into the vessel’s mouth, and the way she cups her hands to catch a drink for herself.
“Gestures are valuable practice to build your skill,” Tallis says when he shows her his papers. “But portraits are worth more to the whole. You can send a face across a continent, and everyone who sees it will know that person.”
Ashkaari understands. He finds a place with more people, an intersection on a main thoroughfare with a baker on one corner and a tinsmith on the other. He watches the smith and her young apprentice tin pots and pans for a few moments, how they beat the metal across the pans until they shine, but they’re moving too quickly, and the firelight is too faulty, for him to draw them well.
He sets himself an easier task: the baker’s assistant has morning portions laid out on a bench in front of the building, a pitcher of water, and nothing to do except shoo birds away from the bread and hand out early lunches.
Ashkaari sits on the bench beside the bakery, and begins. She is shorter than him by at least a handspan, and clearly older. He draws the breadth of her shoulders, how they slump when she leans her hands on her table. He tries over and over again to get the angle just right-- she puts slightly more weight on her left foot, and bends her right knee, which in turn shifts the bearing of her body all the way up her spine.
Her face is turned slightly towards him, for the most part, as she watches the road for anyone who looks hungry. He struggles with the bridge of her nose-- not as steep as his own, but nearly-- the curve of her horns, and the thick bow of her lip. Her eyes come easily, round and gentle, and he wishes he had more color than plain charcoal, to capture the deep brown of her irises and to draw the white of her eyelashes, rather than shade around them.
There are scars on her right side, long-healed but evident. Bright splashes of whitish-pink on her dark skin, like seafoam, and a long gash from collar bone to hip, with attendant stitches that waver at the widest point. Her draws them faithfully, and wonders what caused them.
A Sten pauses in his purposeful walk down the hill, and approaches the baker hesitantly. She greets him with a smile far more genuine than the polite greetings she had been passing out, and they clasp hands like old friends.
“I’d heard you’d been sent to the city,” Sten says. “They didn’t tell us where, of course, but they never said not to look.”
Aqun-athlok, Ashkaari realizes. That explains the scars. She had been a soldier.
The baker smiles. “I’ve been enjoying the quiet. Did you know that there are eighty ways to bake bread?”
“Too quiet for me, kadan.” Sten laughs. “I’m glad to see you’re well.”
“I am,” she smiles again, and Ashkaari decides to draw that expression, rather than her earlier boredom.
Tallis nods over the new drawing. “I’d heard of her,” she tells Ashkaari.
“Where was she stationed before?” he asks, made bold by his success.
“Seheron.” Tallis touches the scars Ashkaari drew. “The bas captured her, Vints. She escaped, and turned herself in for reeducation. The blood magic--” she swallows the last of her words.
Ashkaari nods, solemn. Everyone knows that the Vints’ cruelty runs deep and bloody, and those on Seheron are the worst of their countrymen.
“Practice your noses.” Tallis dismisses him. “Draw your fellow students next.”
His first two years on Seheron, he draws all the things he sees. The hesitant seaside towns, half-shack, half-tent, ready to scatter when the fighting comes too close and hits too hard. The stretches of white sand at the south of the island and the rocky cliffs to the west. The waves and the sunrise and the twisting jungle vines.
He draws the people of Seheron, when they’re still enough to catch a glimpse: his own kith around their evening fires, the merchants who peddle food to all comers, the fog warrior’s hands and blades when he sees them through the mist. He draws the Vints in their uniform camps hacked out of the jungle, the scarred shoulders of the slaves and the hard hands of the Magisters, and the grim faces of the soldiers, suspended somewhere in between. He draws the children of the island, qunari, elven and human alike, with their tamas or their parents or their older siblings. For months, he draws the skinny face of the one-eyed alleycat who begs him for fish, until she stops appearing.
He draws the faces of the Tal Vashoth, how they stare through him at something else, far away and terrible. He learns to recognize that look on the faces of anyone, Tal Vashoth or not, merchant or soldier or vint, child or caretaker. He starts to burn the drawings of those faces, and then stops making them altogether.
By the time Vasaad dies, Hissrad has stopped drawing for pleasure. He includes a sketch of each member of his unit in his files, kept rolled up in a watertight cylinder in his small box of personal effects. He stashes his reports there until he sends them, as well, and his files include profiles and portraits of every informant and identifiable enemy commander. All in one place, of course, and only he knows for sure which is which, just in case it ever falls into the wrong hands. It’s the only thing in his box aside from his clothing, pens, and vitaar pots.
Everyone has one. Gatt keeps whetstones and poisons in his, along with a mortar and pestle and vials of oil for making more. Ashaad keeps cuttings of the local plants; he wants to compare them with the species on the mainland. Little Tama, who’s taller but younger than the last Tamassran billeted with them, keeps files on the kith, much like Hissrad. She’s not Ben-Hassrath, but she’s trained for Seheron, and part of that is tracking their behavior, watching for signs of asala-taar.
Hissrad wonders, in a vague sort of way, what her notes on him say. Maybe she’s predicted this, enough that she won’t be shocked by how he’s reacting.
Vasaad’s box is the same size as everyone else's, the same sturdy wood and iron hinges. Hisraad has never opened it, never touched it before today. Their camp is small and utilitarian, and personal space is too precious to violate.
There are books inside. One abridged copy of Koslun’s teachings, two books from the libraries of Par Vollen, detailing lives of great servants of the Qun, and one purchased from a sailing merchant who’d spent less than a day moored by the island. Hissrad remembers how Vasaad read the unit the tales that Bas in Nevarra tell their children, and how they’d all laughed together. Vasaad had told him they’d hunt a dragon together, like the great Nevarran warriors, and split its tooth between them, like Qunari soldiers of old. Hissrad remembers promising him that they would.
Underneath the others is a slim sheaf of paper, folded in leather and stitched along one side. The pages inside are filled with writing. Vasaad is-- Vasaad was-- no scribe, but the text is legible. Hissrad traces one line with his finger and mouths the words to himself.
It isn’t a daily log, like Hissrad keeps, straightforward events in a simple cipher. It’s poetry. He imagines Vasaad sitting on the western cliffs, searching for the perfect words to describe-- well, he says: silver waves touching the sun as she falls past the edge of the world. Fire flickers, clear, unfogged, and safe. Liars lying on their backs, tracing dragons in the stars.
Pasted to the leather binding is a drawing of Vasaad. Hissrad barely remembers giving it to him. He touches the lines he had used to describe the bend of his shoulders, the vitaar brush lifted in his hand as he laughs, sharp and angry. They had been preparing for an ambush, Hissrad remembers. He forgets who they had been ambushing, but he remembers the feeling of Vasaad at his back, a sword in his hand, and the rush of blood in his veins.
He wipes the tears from his face before they fall onto the paper, and like every Qunari does, has done since childhood, he goes to Tama.
She takes the boxes he brings, both Vasaad’s and his own, and sets a kettle of water on the morning’s coals. She listens, as he stumbles through his requests, and wipes the vitaar and blood off his face with a wet cloth.
“When a sword is broken, Hissrad, do we throw it into the sea? Do we hurl it to the ground and grind it under our heel?” She holds his larger hands between her own as she speaks. “No. We bring the broken blade to a smith, and she forges it anew.”
“I’m not sure I’m able to be a sword any longer, Tama.” His voice does not shake as badly as his hands.
She nods solemnly. “You’ve been here a long time. There’s no shame in being tired, no shame in feeling pain. Changing your path is not failure. Knowing when to step away is wisdom.”
He remembers learning this tactic in training. He knows what she’ll say next, and that is as comforting as the words themselves.
“The wise smith knows when the sword must be turned to a new purpose. She knows how to shape it into a scythe, to harvest food for our people, or into nails, to build our homes. She knows when the people need shells for the gaatlok cannons, or shields, or the iron bars that build the seats on which the Triumvirate sit. Sometimes, she will look around her smithy and see that the greatest need is a new hammer for herself. You have not failed, Hissrad. You are tired and hurting. The Qun will care for you and guide you, as you have always cared for and followed it.”
If the book’s still at the leather-worker’s stall when the Chargers move out, he’ll buy it. It’s not that he needs a book of blank paper, exactly. The Beh-Hassrath usually send him a few sheaves in each dead-drop, along with information.
He prefers the paper from home, of course. Few basra know it, but the secrets of the Qun’s papermakers are guarded as carefully as gaatlok or vitaar, and nothing in the South has been able to compare.
So this book, with the dragon tooled on the cover, with the pages stitched into the spine and cut a little raggedly at the edges, is not at all something that he needs.
He buys it anyways, and pays too much for it, really. But there’s a kid peaking out from behind the merchant’s skirt, and the little human smiles at him. It’s an underhanded tactic, he tells Krem.
“What’s it for?” Dalish asks, slinging an arm over Krem’s shoulders as they walk.
The Iron Bull shrugs and thumbs through the blank pages.
“He draws,” says Krem. “He’s embarrassed by it, but he’s a pretty good portraitist.”
“I’m not!” The Iron Bull says. “Embarrassed, I mean. I am pretty good with my hands.”
Dalish giggles when he wiggles his fingers at her, and Krem groans. The Iron Bull’s not going there, though. She’s a mage, after all. And Skinner might gut him.
“Can you draw me?” she asks.
He already has, of course. Not the day Skinner found her warily watching their camp, hidden in the trees, but the day he hired her, and paid her with the first coins she’d ever held.
It had only been her features: the steep slope of her Elven nose, the curls of her vallaslin, the cut on her eyebrow that would scar without careful attention, permanent aspects of her face that would endure over years, so any other Ben-Hassrath who saw the image would know she was one of his agents.
He hadn’t drawn the way her forehead wrinkled when she frowned, or the lopsided way she grinned when Krem bit her new coin to teach her how to catch a counterfeit.
“Sure,” he says. “I was planning on getting my pens out tonight anyways.”
He smiles at her excitement, and at the way Krem’s ears have slowly been turning pink the whole time Dalish has been hanging onto him. She sticks around to ask The Iron Bull a battery of questions about his techniques, and then rushes off to find Skinner.
“You actually want to do that, Chief?” Krem asks. “You’ll never be able to sit down without someone asking you to sketch their new sweetheart now, you know.”
The Iron Bull laughs. “I don’t mind. Maybe we can set up a new stream of income for the company. The Bull’s Calligraphers. What do you think?”
Krem thinks it’s awful, but he’s not the only one watching over Bull’s shoulder that evening, when he sets aside his bowl of stew and opens his new book to the first page.
He has Rocky hold a lantern next to Dalish’s face, partly for lighting, and partly because he’s the most likely to bump the Iron Bull’s elbow, and sets to work.
It’s strange, working in front of an audience. His Chargers are unusually quiet, and it’s a little creepy and distracting. Usually when he has to draw something, he’s in the same privacy that he likes to write his reports in, without Grim watching the end of his pen like a cat.
Even though he tells Dalish she doesn’t need to hold perfectly still, she sits and stares at him with fascination, meeting his eye every time he glances up at her. He’s more familiar with her face than the first time he’d drawn her, and it’s easier to draw her open grin and wide eyes.
She looks strange on paper until he adds her vallaslin and her hair, and then Stitches nods like he hadn’t been on board with this until just then.
The Iron Bull only draws down to her shoulders that first night, but by the end of that job, Dalish is fully on the page, one leg tucked up with her knee next to her face, and Krem and Skinner are slowly coming to being on either side of her. Before two months are up, he’s used half the pages in the book and his full company grins up at him from the first page, as true to life as he can make them.
He keeps that sketchbook, long since filled, on a shelf in his room in Skyhold, sandwiched between a one off Varric’s books (signed) and the box he keeps his vitaar pots in.
The box is a gift from Ma’am, which she’d pressed on him when she saw his brushes and pots lined up on the lip of his washbasin, neat but precarious. His Ben-Hassrath reports used to be on that shelf as well, hidden inside a hollow copy of a book on mathematics, but… not anymore. With those gone, there’s more space for the small bronze statuette of a dragon, which Dorian had given to him after a trip to Val Royeaux. Dorian hasn’t commented about how prominently the dragon is placed, almost alone in the middle of the shelf, but he looks at it sometimes when he’s in Bull’s room, and he smiles.
Bull’s finishing up a sketch of Scout Harding-- he’s planning on teasing Krem with it-- when Dorian opens his door without knocking. He’s not sure why that doesn’t really bother him as much as it might.
“You would not believe what I’ve had to put up with today,” Dorian says as he drops three books on Bull’s bed and tugs off the outermost layer of his robe. “Sera put something in Solas’s paint, and it smelled like fermented dracolisk dung no matter how many spells we tried.”
“Hello,” Bull says.
“And then, just as it was starting to dissipate, an entire troop of Cullen’s little helpers came barrelling through like a pack of mabari chasing a hare and one of them knocked an entire bottle of ink onto the book I was trying to translate.”
“Nice to see you too.”
“And then Lady Montilyet asked me if--” Dorian stops abruptly. “What’s that?”
If Bull hid the drawing like he suddenly wants to, Dorian would never let him hear the end of it. Instead, he says, “it’s Harding,” and turns the paper so Dorian can see it.
Dorian picks it up carefully. “It certainly is! You drew this from memory?”
“Yeah.” Bull resists the urge to rub his horns like an embarrassed imekari. “It’s just a hobby I picked up along the way.”
“Just a hobby, he says.” Dorian scoffs regally. “Bull, this is beautiful.”
Dorian prods his side with one gold-ringed finger. “Accept the compliment, you oaf. I don’t hand those out like candy.”
That’s not precisely true, but Bull catches Dorian’s hand and kisses it all the same. “Thank you,” he says, and levels Dorian with a look that usually ends conversations he’s not totally comfortable with.
But Dorian doesn’t bite his lip and let Bull steer them towards bed-- he’s still looking at the paper, face thoughtful.
“May I see more?” he asks, hesitant. “If you are amenable to sharing them, that is. I don’t want to-- what I mean is--”
“Sure.” Bull’s up and moving before Dorian figures out how he wants to end that sentence.
He keeps his old books in a chest under his bed, along with his gold, his whetstone and a spare dagger. Dorian watches from beside his desk as he tugs it open and pulls out one of his more recent books, one that has drawings of places and people that he’s encountered since joining the Inquisition. He doesn’t move to take it from Bull, but opens it slowly when it’s handed over.
“I never knew,” he says as he turns the pages. “Do you draw everyone you meet?”
“Just about.” Bull shrugs again.
Dorian lingers over a sketch of the road near Val Royeaux, Sera leaning on her bow in the center of the picture, facing towards the city.
He turns another page. Bull stands by, tense.
But if you’ve already painted on your vitaar, why not go to war, as the Beresaad like to say. He takes the book back from Dorian, who lets it go without a sound, and turns back a few pages.
“This is you,” he says, and shows him.
It’s a drawing of Dorian in battle, face hard and teeth bared. He’d nearly worn through the paper erasing failed attempts at the fire pooling at his feet, licking up around his knees. It had been easier to describe his staff held in front of him, hair blown back by the dragon they’d been fighting. He’d kissed Bull for the first time that night, lit up by their victory, and he’d tasted like magic.
Dorian looks at the page, and then at him, silent.
Bull flips nine pages forward. “And this one.”
Dorian curled up in his chair in the library, a cup of tea balanced on the arm, a book in his lap. There was a smile on his face that he rarely showed anyone, small and genuine. Bull had drawn that smile so carefully, trying to recreate the soft curve of his lips, the way his eyes crinkled at the edges.
He doesn’t look at the Dorian standing in front of him, holding this book.
There are more, of course. Dorian in the tavern drinking with Sera and Krem, his legs propped up on Bull’s empty chair when he left to get another round of drinks. Dorian leaning over the war table, pointing at some city on the map, mouth open as he debates priorities with the Inquisitor. Dorian with his hands on the reigns of his horse, staff slung across his back, head turned to scold Bull for some terrible pun or other.
And still others, scattered in the margins of his reports and journals, drawings that are less portraits and more small studies of Dorian’s body. These only ever seem to be Dorian, even when it’s nothing more than the way a hand lies on the page of a book, the shading on the knuckles and rings just so.
In these, his hands feature heavily: long fingers wrapped around his staff, thumb curled against his lips as he reads. There’s also his eyes, laughing, sharp, intent, with kohl smudged dark around them or washed mostly off. The curve of a smile in profile, the bridge of his nose, the sole of a foot escaped from a nest of blankets.
It adds up to Dorian fifty times over, captured in glimpses. The arch of his back, the bend of his knee, the mole below his eye. All the places that Bull’s gaze lingers, skin that he’s kissed, moments he’s collected, opalized fossils of Dorian in motion.
He only shows Dorian one, the drawing on the last page of this book. It was hastily done, but every time he looks at it, he knows he captured something important, that had only lasted a few moments anyways.
The light in the room had been terrible, since the sun was only just starting to rise, but he’d grabbed the book anyway, as quietly as he could. He’d drawn Dorian, asleep in his bed, curled under his three heaviest blankets. He’d been so still, apart from the soft rise and fall of his chest, his face calm in a way Bull had never seen.
Bull had stood in nearly this same spot, pen in hand, and traced the curl of Dorian’s fingers on the pillow, the mole on his shoulder, the smudge of kohl below his eye. He hadn’t known how long the moment might last, and had desperately needed to hold onto it. He’d shaded in the lines of Dorian’s face and wondered why, and had reached the obvious conclusion by the time he finished with the tips of his mustache.
“I, uh, I know the nose isn’t quite right but, uh--”
Dorian puts a hand on his chest to shush him without looking up from the sketchbook. “This is me.”
“Supposed to be, yeah.”
“You made my hair look awful.”
“It always looks like that in the morning,” Bull says. “I should know.”
Dorian makes a noncommittal sound. Bull watches his face until he finally looks up, and then he wants to hide. He feels like he’s spilled his heart on this page, and he wonders if Dorian really can’t see it.
He puts the book down an eternity later, and cups Bull’s face in his hands. Dorian kisses him firmly, and Bull can’t help but wrap his arms around him and pull him closer. It feels different, somehow, the way they fit together, and he’s reluctant to let go when Dorian does.
He wants to keep this moment-- not on paper, something more solid than that. Marble, maybe, or bronze, if metal and stone could hold the feeling of Dorian’s hands on his skin and his mouth against Bull’s.
“Will you come to my room tonight?” Dorian murmurs. “I suppose it’s only fair that I read you some of my poetry. You’ve become something of a recurring theme as well.”
Bull nods. “Anything you want."