Every mage, at some point or another, dreamed of one day becoming a magister in Tevinter. And if they told you differently, chances were they were lying.
It wasn’t necessarily outright lying—because it was so easy to lie without realizing it, to ignore a dream as a wisp from the Fade, or to blame temptation solely on demons. It was just that no demon could offer something to a person they didn’t already want. That was rather how the system worked—as it had for years, with no sign of changing.
So every mage, wayward apostate or anxious apprentice, baffled adolescent or senior enchanter, had considered the idea at least once.
Anders was no exception.
He wasn’t sure if his reasons were the same reasons or different reasons or if those reasons even mattered. Mostly, he’d once thought that wearing whatever robes he liked—not being too cold with bare arms and thin silk in the winter—was the epitome of freedom. Tales of balmy Imperium weather didn’t hurt that impression, either.
Acolyte robes were itchy, but more than that they were ugly, not at all impressive, certainly not what anyone thought of when they decided who to be jealous of or impressed by. Mages had it rough in Ferelden—and really, in all other parts of Thedas that weren’t the Imperium—and the robes they had to wear played a significant part in that: muted grays and dull purples and sometimes faded pinks, high collars and shapeless middles and downright depressing cowls.
Anders couldn’t count on the fingers of both hands the number of poor sods he’d seen on a daily basis wearing hats that looked like the back-end of a sickly chicken. Even worse than that was how readily they all accepted it.
In Tevinter, mages could wear whatever they pleased. Anders knew a magister—a battle mage, and a bit of a paranoid eccentric, but then again who wasn’t, these days?—who wore light armor, thinly hammered silverite inlaid with dragon scales, and wielded a staff made of dragon bone. The rules seemed to be that, when you’d killed the dragon yourself, you could do anything with it you liked—such as commission dragonbelly boots from a trusty armorer, or make dragon claw earrings for all your closest friends.
That was why Anders had a dragon claw earring in the first place. It was a bit heavy, a bit ostentatious—and it was probably the best dinner gift he’d ever received, not to mention his very favorite piece of jewelry. No matter how cool the pale, salty breezes were, blown in over the open water, it was always warm, a dragon-forged heat swaying like a secret next to Anders’s pulse.
Only in Tevinter.
There were some nights Anders thought about it, bare elbows resting on the sill of his second floor picture window, just like this—not due to nostalgia or any real sense of loss, because there wasn’t much he missed about Ferelden—but because he could, and that was usually the best reason to do anything. He didn’t think about the itchy robes, or the fussy senior enchanters, or the frequent trips to the first enchanter’s office, the polished templar helms and templar swords, or any of those details designed to put and keep him in his place. He supposed he took the time out to appreciate the experience— the soft, silky feathers bunched around his shoulders, themselves a glossy bottle blue, tickling his arms whenever the wind picked up—and to enjoy the view, all the lanterns being lit along the wide bazaar streets, the black spires blotted against the blacker sky, not to mention the occasional shriek in a nearby cul-de-sac as some proud magister stepped on the toes of another.
Hungry young mages sought to test their mettle against their elders, who were either more experienced or more complacent. Sometimes the former needed healing, sometimes the latter, and sometimes both.
Sometimes they were beyond that.
Anders rested his chin in the palm of his hand, watching the slaves put up the lanterns in the windows of the villa across the way. He could see their dark shadows moving thin and narrow from each bright pool of light to the next, heads bowed, disappearing and reappearing with a rhythm all their own. The same should have been happening in Anders’s villa, only he was in the way, leaning over the windowsill to spy on other people’s business.
His neighbors allowed it, if only because he was so useful to have close at hand—to heal their injured slaves or their injured children, or their gout, or their toothaches, or their duel wounds, or, most commonly, whatever diseases they’d recently picked up from some fresh boatload of untested house slaves.
Anders didn’t mind battle magic—he enjoyed a well-placed fireball now and then; and what mage didn’t?—but being a healer in Tevinter did have its perks. Like dragon claw earrings, and your very own villa by the shore, in the most fashionable part of the city, enjoying the patronage of all the most incorrigible magisters, who were also the most incorrigible gossips. That was the best Anders could say about them, really.
Once he’d promised to keep an archon’s dirty secrets—the reason why the man was so itchy down there—he’d made himself invaluable. Practically a Minrathous institution. He wasn’t dangerous; he was the opposite of that, useful, everyone’s friend, invited to all the parties, enjoying—to a point—the fruits of someone else’s labor.
Anders closed his eyes. He felt a seaside breeze ruffle his hair; he heard the rustle of the curtains and a flash of flint sizzling beside the next window over, just loud enough to be heard above the laughter blooming from the open ceiling in Danarius’s atrium.
Anders opened his eyes.
One of his slaves, the pale, obedient sort with downcast eyes—house slaves were so often local, born and bred into slavery, without any imagination for possibility—stood before him, neither patient nor impatient. Just waiting.
‘I’m in your way again,’ Anders said. It wasn’t a question, because those were never answered, anyway.
True to form, the slave said nothing in reply. That was the way of things, and despite how odd Anders found it—lonely one day, and downright comical the next—he’d learned to work around those silences, pretending they weren’t there or filling them himself, depending on how tired he was, or what sort of weather they were having that day. There were times when a silence could be defeated, pierced, deflated like an empty wineskin, and other times when it had to be accepted, or abandoned, or allowed—when it simply was, at least for an hour or so.
Anders swept away from the window, as though that had been in his plan all along, leaving his bedchamber with a soft whisper of silks.
It wasn’t an untimely interruption. Anders was already overdue at Caladrius’s summer pavilion for that evening’s festivities. He’d skipped the dinner portion altogether—on hot summer days he couldn’t bear the thought of so much oil and fish—but there was bound to be talk if he missed the dancing, not to mention the pouring of wine.
One of the slim advantages of being a foreign magister, Anders had discovered, was that everyone accepted your decisions and flaws as personal quirks—eccentricities to be commented on and even laughed at in the heat of the moment, but not an outright threat, or worse, a challenge. Anders would take being funny over being suspicious any day of the week. And he still hadn’t come around to the Tevinter style of feasting: the noxious fishes and the limp, sauced vegetables.
Anders enjoyed his meals alone, and drank freely with his fellow magisters later. It was a solution that caused no one offense—Anders’s favorite kind of solution, in fact, just like chasind robes were his favorite kind of robes, and dragon claws were his favorite kind of earring.
He left the house that evening with the smallest retinue of slaves: just two, one for serving wine with Caladrius’s household, and one to wait on him as the night wore on. Any more than that, and he risked putting on airs in front of the others; they might start to think that a man with so many slaves was worth a duel or two in the streets, and that was a lifestyle Anders was keen to avoid.
He couldn’t spare the time to heal if he was busy trying to preserve his own skin.
It was a warm night, the wind that blew in off the ocean waves stirring the feathers at Anders’s throat in sudden gusts followed by pointed stillness. Men and women walked the streets with less care than they took during the day; they blundered into their companions on the open road, chuckling as they drank from clay bottles glazed in green. Caladrius lived to one side of the bay, in a slightly less-fashionable manse than Anders himself, but his parties were always lavish and colorful, full of the most ludicrous and inappropriate people.
Anders appreciated that flair, that sense of style over substance.
According to popular gossip, Caladrius had only just returned from a slaving jaunt in Ferelden, where he’d managed to run afoul of an infamous Rivaini pirate along the way.
Typical. Anders wasn’t in the least bit surprised. Some people couldn’t help attracting attention wherever they went, even if that attention was bad, and some people didn’t even realize the difference.
At least it would give them a topic of conversation to avoid all night. Anders often found parties more entertaining when everyone was trying to ignore the unspoken ogre in the room.
The sound of lyre-music filled the air as Anders crossed the threshold to Caladrius’s villa, keeping time with the lower tones of a slave’s sistrum. It was a shame no one put out their lutes anymore. Anders always looked, but there was never one to be found. Most likely his talents as an amateur had halted the conversation too much for Caladrius’s liking.
He always had been the sort of man who hated losing the crowd’s attention, especially in his own home.
There were slaves to meet Anders in the atrium, directing him through to the front hall, lit with tall candles and crowded with magisters and their wives, slaves painted in nothing but peeling gold leaf; dancing girls writhed to the plink and pluck of the sistrums, the metal rounds of their belts clinking in time with the music. There was a half-eaten suckling pig set on the far table, and a glass of dark Imperium wine in everyone’s hand.
Anders tugged at the smooth shape of the dragon’s claw in his ear. It held its warmth, after all this time.
‘There you are, healer,’ called one of the magisters, an older man with a forked beard like a serpent’s tongue. ‘I was beginning to think you wouldn’t show. Been liking my gift that much, have you? She’s always been one of a kind—what do they call them in Ferelden? A real…spitfire?’
‘Adoring her,’ Anders agreed, despite the fact that the gift in question was now more of a scullery maid than a bedtime assistant, a deft hand at classic Fereldan dishes. He waved off a slave to find him wine—to give the girl a purpose that wasn’t getting her ass slapped by a handsy archon—before settling onto the nearest low couch, draped in slippery purple cloth. It slid along the cushion, against the skirts at Anders’s thighs. The Imperium was always so tactile, a confluence of physical appreciation to combat the less tangible but more frequent magics. ‘Besides, miss the festivities and waste my chance to impose on Caladrius’s hospitality? I’d never. No, you must have me confused with some other charming healer. Don’t be embarrassed; it happens all the time. I just have one of those faces, I suppose.’
As the man settled in beside him with a groan, Anders could see the broken veins in his nose, bright red from a lifetime of drinking wine and eating the delightful organ meats everyone prized in Minrathous. He wrinkled his own nose, then pretended it was from the smell of the wine, heady and thick as the late-night dregs, enough to knock a grown nug flat on its back.
The magister’s slave—an elf with dark hair and cheekbones gaunt as a rogue’s twin daggers—looked away quickly, her face betraying a panicked twitch.
Anders was always making other people’s slaves nervous. Since they wouldn’t talk to him, he could never figure out why.
‘Never mind your face,’ the magister said, waving a hand with five glittering rings. They were nice, sparkling, sharp-cut jewels centered in gold, but none of them nearly so impressive as a single dragon claw. ‘They’re about to make the announcements for tomorrow’s tournament.’
‘Delightful,’ Anders murmured.
That was the sort of thing he needed to be drunk for—or at least mildly dizzy, reeling from the scent of the warm Agreggio. The magister offered him his cup, deep but closer to half empty than half full, and Anders steadied himself against it, both hands cradling the smooth dome.
It was always easier to find equilibrium when you had something to hold onto. That was the whole principle behind staffs.
Above the haze of the incense, the flies flitting about the carcass of the suckling pig, and the thick smell that rose from the depths of Anders’s cup, candlelight flickered over the pate of a familiar, bald head. Caladrius was making his rounds in the distance, charming his guests one at a time while showing off for the rest. He had a new scar—just under his left eye, one he kept touching self-consciously despite being proud of it—and Anders sipped at the spiced brew, wishing Caladrius’s tastes were just a hair less sweet, especially in the summer.
His belly was warm, a thick pool of sugar resting just beneath the vibrant hops, when Caladrius clapped his hands for attention. Gossip continued, a few hushed, scuttling whispers, then faded away entirely for the sake of breathless anticipation. Even the plink and plunk of the sistra died down, in all four corners of the square room, while the slaves scattered, and the main doors flew open.
‘Caladrius,’ the magister at Anders’s side muttered. ‘Why is it that bald men always feel the need to show off the most?’
‘Because they haven’t any hair,’ Anders replied.
He’d have thought that would be obvious.
Anders leaned against the scrolling arm of his couch, cup tucked against his chest, watching over the rim as the fighting slaves filtered in. They were all chained together, but that didn’t foster any sense of camaraderie—probably because they were meant to fight one another to the death tomorrow, and as such couldn’t afford to nurture any budding friendships. They had to hate one another, whether or not they knew one another from before the long journey to Minrathous, packed in some dank galleon hold, some of them looking more or less defeated by it.
There were two types of new slaves—the ones who were afraid, and the ones who were angry. Neither of them knew yet that fear and anger were the opposite sides of the exact same coin.
Anders took another pull of his wine, the syrupy liquor burning a narrow path down the back of his throat. He’d be drunk soon, just a little, and that would feel better.
‘Kirkwaller,’ he murmured to the lute-playing slave crouched beside him, a young elf who couldn’t decide if Anders was mad and should be humored, or if it might be all right simply to ignore him. But Anders liked to play this game, whether he had outside participation or not, spotting each member of the lineup by nationality, since their expressions were always more or less the same. ‘And…Kirkwaller. And qunari—oh, that’ll go over well. What a lucky bunch. Elf, elf, elf, Orlesian, and… Fereldan, I’d say.’
The lutist said nothing. He held onto his lute instead. Anders strummed his own instrument, the earthenware cup, swirling his finger around the rim.
Fereldans were no more obvious than qunari, for example, or Orlesians, a bit less of a mixed bag than Kirkwallers, but they were always easy to pick out of the crowd because of how stubborn they were. A man didn’t weather mud and dog piss and Fereldan ale without it affecting his personality in some eternal way. Anders recognized them, those blunt faces and unforgiving mouths.
Usually, Fereldans were the angry type of new slave. Not to play to stereotype or anything, but Anders had seen enough of them to recognize a distinct pattern.
This one did seem angry, but he was also determined not to let it show—as if it could be that easy to outmaneuver his captors where emotions were concerned, or as if everyone in the room didn’t already know, instinctively, when a man was trying too hard. His nose was broken, blood streaked over the bridge and in his unkempt beard, hair matted along his brow with dirt.
‘My money’s on the qunari,’ the magister said, while Caladrius went down the line, turning his fighters’ chins up with two fingers so the magisters’ wives could appreciate their build, and musculature, and also indulge in gladiatorial fantasy. Some of their husbands were doing the same. ‘Before Caladrius kills him for being a qunari, that is.’
‘Ha ha,’ Anders agreed. When the magister looked his way, he offered a tipsy, crooked smile.
The magister shook his head. ‘You never could hold your wine, could you?’
‘But I’m holding it right now,’ Anders replied, wrapping his arms tighter around the cup, embracing it the way some men he knew held onto a slim elvhen lover. ‘The only trouble is, it’s not holding me back.’
The show was all he needed to remain harmless in their eyes, helpful and unnoticed and properly inconsequential. The magister chuckled at him, not unkindly, just bemused—and Anders did so enjoy being funny.
The lutist at his side didn’t laugh, of course—he probably didn’t know what laughing was, since there was no such joy in his music, just a sorrowful undercurrent, not at all appropriate for so fine a party. Anders wished he would laugh, then laughed at himself for harboring such a foolish thought, more foolish than all the others, yet somehow more prevalent.
Caladrius waved him over a little while later—when the main show had ended, the magisters gossiping separately from their wives, some more interested in how handsome the catch of the day was, while others focused on talent, odds, luck, background, who had the most good teeth, that sort of thing. Anders listened in with one ear while he swayed in front of Caladrius; everyone was trying to decide if it was worth the cost of their pride to bet on the qunari, or if they wished to throw their lot—and their backing—into another candidate.
Freshly defeated qunari were always good for Imperium morale. There was nothing the magisters enjoyed so much as a public qunari thrashing, followed immediately by a farcical re-enactment of certain passages from the Qun, followed even more immediately by slaves and song, the perfect end to the perfect day.
‘Well?’ Caladrius asked. ‘What do you think?’
‘You should have asked me when do you think,’ Anders told him. ‘Then I could tell you: practically never.’
Caladrius fingered the fresh line of his scar. It was red and angry and swollen, flanked by a deep bruise, stinking of elfroot, impressively infected. ‘Hilarious,’ he said. ‘I meant about the scar. Can you fix it, healer?’
‘And here I thought you were asking me about your new litter,’ Anders replied, brushing Caladrius’s fingers out of the way to inspect the salty wound. It was never a good idea to practice any sort of magic on someone you liked while inebriated—so it was a lucky thing Anders didn’t like Caladrius much at all. ‘All of whom are impressive, by the way. The qunari especially has the ladies all in a flutter, and some of the men, too. You know what they say about Tevinter women and Qunari fetishes, don’t you Caladrius?’
From the line of slaves, the Fereldan import snorted. The chains looped around his manacles clanked, not exactly subtle.
‘Oh dear,’ Anders said. He jerked his finger lightly against the corner of Caladrius’s eye, pretending to slip in order to prevent the man from turning his bald head toward the source of the noise. ‘It sounds like one of your slaves may have picked up a cough on the trip over, Caladrius. I warned you about those moldy holding quarters, didn’t I? If you aren’t careful, it’ll spread through the whole retinue like wildfire. Have you ever seen a qunari with a cold? Just one sneeze could rock the coliseum’s very foundations—and it’d give him quite an unfair advantage in the battles to come, I’d say.’
‘Your unique sense of humor aside,’ Caladrius said, holding obligingly still, ‘I’m more interested in what can be done about my face, at present.’
‘Of course you are,’ Anders agreed. Crisis averted, laughter ignored, Caladrius’s keen sense of pride maintained—it was rare that any plan ran so smoothly anywhere in Tevinter. ‘It’s such an important face, after all.’ He sucked in a breath, smelling faintly of Agreggio, and drew on the healing magic that rested always at his fingertips. Caladrius was impossibly vain—an unfortunate trait for a bald man to possess. He wouldn’t only expect the infection dealt with, but the scar to disappear, as well.
Anders did the best he could; the wound had been left improperly treated for too long, since all the battle mages scoffed at learning lesser healing spells, but there were ways to make the mark less obvious. Pale light shimmered from the pads of his fingers, drawing out the poison and muting the red tone of Caladrius’s flesh. The scar shrank down until it was a silvery-white flicker against his cheek, no more noticeable than a wrinkle, or a laugh line.
Caladrius, unlike his slaves, had a few of the latter.
When he turned, it was nothing more than a shadow, a trick of the candlelight. Anders allowed himself to feel a keen sense of pride, too, at seeing the scope of his work, the pleasure in a job well done, despite its less-than-savory clients.
Caladrius would always know it was there, of course, but other people wouldn’t. And that was usually Caladrius’s chief concern.
He sighed deeply when it was over, palming his smooth skin, a positively beatific smile beneath, and Anders gladly stepped away, establishing a more social distance between them. He didn’t glance toward the slaves, or more specifically toward the laughing Fereldan, to see whether or not he’d appreciated Anders’s swift distraction, or any of his further jokes.
That was one of his chief eccentricities: looking to slaves, expecting them to be a real part of any conversation. Anders had done his best to stamp the impulse out—he was never rewarded for it on either side of the equation—but the notion still lingered like flies around the dregs in Caladrius’s sweet wine barrels.
‘Mirror,’ Caladrius barked. He snapped his fingers, and one of the house slaves jerked to her feet to oblige him. She disappeared behind a fluttering curtain; Anders caught side of the narrow corridor it obscured, the darkness beyond that, the rat’s warren hidden just behind the house-cat’s favored napping cushion. ‘…You have my gratitude, Anders.’
‘Even before she brings you your mirror?’ Anders fussed with a few of his more troublesome feathers. They were cool against the arcane warmth still heating his skin. ‘I’m flattered.’
‘If I have any concerns, I trust I can raise them with you tomorrow,’ Caladrius said, smoothing a hand over the back of his head, bare skin shining in the light from the atrium. ‘You will be coming to check this midden heap over before the matches start, won’t you? I can’t suffer another embarrassment like last time. All those down-turned thumbs.’ He paused, prodding the flesh where his wound had been, tongue against the corner of his mouth, remembering the insult that it bore.
Anders wished he knew the story behind it. But Caladrius was never the sort to tell tales where he featured as anything but the victor.
‘I’ll be there,’ Anders promised instead. At last, his eyes flicked down the line of chained slaves, from the blond Orlesian to the ashen qunari, through the row of nondescript elvhen, the Kirkwaller with his armor in disarray, all the way to the Fereldan on the end, staring straight into nothing. If his nose was giving him pain, it didn’t show on his face.
That was a Fereldan for you. They were stubborn as their dogs, and just as swift to balk at an unwanted collar.
Anders wondered how he’d fare tomorrow, if that stubbornness was his only weapon and only friend, and felt the red wine in his belly give a twist. Perhaps, for the first time in years, he had a reason to stay and watch the matches, after his preliminary examinations were through.
The coliseum was the jewel of Minrathous, a magnificent stone amphitheater set at the center of town. It was said to be visible from the cliffs of The High Reaches themselves, and when there was a proper battle on, slave and magister alike could hear the roar of the crowd throughout the entire city.
Anders wasn’t its biggest fan.
In earlier years, it had been something of a polarizing topic between him and his fellow magisters, before Anders had learned not to share his opinions with everyone who had ears. The simplest explanation he could offer was that, as a healer, one gained a certain respect for the way bodies fit together, how veins and arteries interconnected to hold life and blood within. Watching that natural phenomenon be hacked to pieces under a barbarian’s blade was disheartening, at least for the person whose calling involved putting everything back in its proper place.
Hearing—and observing—carnage happen to the cheers and cries of a delighted audience was even worse. These days, Anders only visited to certify the health of the competitors, and to see if he could squeeze in a look afterward, to pop someone’s eye back into place, or reattach lost fingers.
It was gruesome work, but the magisters appreciated not having to lose a good investment, and the slaves generally appreciated not having to lose their limbs.
Anders said ‘generally’ because this wasn’t always the case. Some of the ones who wished to die the most were the ones who were denied that right, that privilege, even in the face of monumental, often inhuman pain. They fought not to win but to lose, and yet there was always a moment—just before death came—when some other instinct set in, when they couldn’t quite bring themselves to let down their shields.
Usually, that moment occurred right before a qunari pike came hurtling at their face.
Anders knew it didn’t make him the best person to ignore the whole thing, to try and sneak in a mid-afternoon nap while everyone else indulged in the spectator sport of outright bloodlust. But it didn’t make him the worst person, either, and often that was enough to ease his conscience.
That conscience was always quieter than the roars from the coliseum, in any case.
One of Caladrius’s men saw Anders into the underground, past the many cells, and the champions in said cells, all glistening muscle and dark faces, old scars and missing teeth. Anders recognized some of them but knew only a bare handful of their names; others were strangers, new to the arenas and their purpose within them, trying—bless their hearts—to pace, chains clanking all the way.
For whatever reason, they were never grateful to see him, though Anders hadn’t gone on any slaving expeditions lately—or ever—and his touch was always a healing one, never the hand that wielded the whip. Maybe it had something to do with the feathers, the high, gold-trimmed collar at his throat, while they wore sullied leather trousers and not much else.
Maybe they just didn’t like mages. Or maybe they just didn’t like men who wore gaudy earrings.
It was impossible to tell, probably a confluence of all three details, along with the pretty swish of Anders’s chasind robes as he held them, gingerly, above the dirt-packed floor, the freckles on his pale arms not quite the same as the whip-scars on theirs.
There was no reason for them not to get along, except for the fact that there was also every reason. And so it went, in Tevinter, but especially in the tunnels below the coliseum, where no slave had a friend beyond their daily weapon.
‘I don’t know his name, but the Fereldan has a broken nose,’ Anders explained, while Caladrius’s man unhooked the keys from their chain and opened the first rusty cell door. Anders peered over his broad shoulder to the scene within, hoping—if the Maker still cast his gaze toward Minrathous now and then—that it wasn’t the qunari he had to deal with today.
But it wasn’t—of course it wasn’t; the magisters preferred their qunari fighting handicapped, cut tendons in their ankles to make them stumble, to watch them fall under the blow of a lesser opponent. It was the Fereldan, instead, still bloody, still angry, still Fereldan, wrists crossed between his thighs, chafed skin beneath his silverite cuffs.
‘Gave us a bit of trouble last night,’ Caladrius’s man said. ‘Had to put him in solitary.’
‘And rough him up too, of course,’ Anders replied.
The man—a Rivaini without so much as a pinch of humor—failed, as always, to acknowledge words could ever have a second meaning.
‘Of course,’ he said.
‘Leave us,’ Anders suggested, more straightforward this time.
Caladrius’s man knew, at least, what those words meant. ‘Don’t get too fussy,’ he warned, the door creaking shut behind him. ‘This one’s up first. Against the qunari, too.’
‘Lucky you,’ Anders said, reaching out to survey the extent of the damage.
It wasn’t bad—it could have been worse—just a few fresh bruises blooming in the hollow of a sharp cheek, a split lower lip, and the problem with the nose that Anders had noticed before. The way the Fereldan sat, with stiff shoulders and shallow breaths, suggested he might be trying to hide a few broken ribs as well, more likely due to his treatment here than any older injury.
Anders contemplated how dirty the cot was, how much dirtier the floor was, and how clean his robes were in comparison. Then, he tricked his skirts up somewhere around his knees, crouching to place himself on eye level with his patient.
That was supposed to foster companionship, or at least trust. But the Fereldan’s dark eyes and clenched jaw wasn’t encouraging in the slightest, much less friendly, or welcoming, or inclined to talk.
‘They’ll want the qunari to die,’ Anders explained. The words were subterfuge, a distraction, meant to keep the Fereldan busy while Anders inspected the ribs beneath his dirty leather chestpiece. ‘So you have that going for you, at least. But I still think it’s better to fight when you aren’t considerably handicapped. Three broken ribs? Don’t tell me you tried to escape.’
Anders was met with the same silence he always courted, under the circumstances. It meant nothing, no agreement, no disagreement, neither humor nor displeasure. It simply was, without interpretation or acknowledgement. Even the newer slaves learned quickly when it came to the importance of holding their tongues, when they wanted to keep said tongues from being cut out of their mouths.
At least the cats Anders kept at home had the decency to meow in response every now and then. When that was the best conversation a man could get outside of a drunken orgy, he had to know his social circles were narrow indeed.
Anders smoothed his fingers beneath the worn leather armor-straps, against sweat-soaked cotton and skin that was just a pitch too warm. It wasn’t because of fever but rather hot blood, anger and anticipation, and possibly a touch of dread.
No one could hear they were about to fight a qunari warrior in single combat and not have some reaction.
The heated skin and tight muscle under Anders’s fingertips twitched, but accepted his magic without further protest. Sometimes, his patients cursed, in foreign languages or common, hating the magic they needed to keep them going, to piece them back together again. Sometimes, they acted as though they’d never been healed before—and maybe they hadn’t, too accustomed to clutching elfroot poultices over festering wounds, suffering needlessly without a healer’s touch.
The Fereldan was accustomed to healing. Either he knew a good healer, or wasn’t as stupid about them as everyone else.
‘Better?’ Anders asked.
Silence again. But the Fereldan shifted in place, and the silence was broken—by the hiss of metal link against metal link in his chain, and the creaking of his small cot beneath him. He took a deep breath, ribcage swelling, before he let it out.
If his ribs hadn’t been better, he wouldn’t have been able to do that without an obvious wince.
‘I suppose that’s one way to answer,’ Anders said. He wasn’t looking forward to healing the nose or the lip—touching someone’s face always made them feel vulnerable, the gesture itself intimate, and he had to time his approach perfectly, also subtly, refusing to be obvious about his intentions until after the first connection. Once the healing began, warm light and an arcane hum, it was too late to pull away, to snarl or—this had happened before—bite Anders’s hand.
Danarius had a slave who’d tried that once. An experience like that made anyone wary—once bitten, twice shy, and all that.
The Fereldan was different, so brittle, so determined not to flinch that even when Anders settled his palm against his cheek he refused to blink. Anders pressed his thumb and forefinger to the bridge of his nose, testing the bruised flesh, and his attempt to avoid reacting was admirable, if unnecessary. Anders finally saw it, just a curl of his lip against the dark bristles of his beard, fresh blood blooming along the dust-caked crack in the flesh.
‘Do what you have to so I can breathe,’ the Fereldan muttered. His voice was deeper than expected, with a wry cut of heat that took Anders by surprise. But it was that same accent Anders knew, if distantly now, a lilt and a curl rarely heard this far into the Imperium. ‘It doesn’t have to look pretty.’
Anders cleared this throat, thumb running over the lump of shattered cartilage in the bridge more lightly this time. It was a handsome nose. Breaking it had done little to detract from the shape.
Down beneath the coliseum’s ring, men wore all kinds of armor: scars from the whip or scars from an opponent’s blade, and each marking told anyone with eyes that its owner had lived through certain kinds of adversity. Come to a place like this without any markings, and you might as well advertise yourself as fresh nug-meat, unspoiled and looking to be bruised.
Anders understood the principle behind that philosophy, even if he didn’t particularly agree with it.
‘Suit yourself,’ he said, injecting a liberal amount of false cheer into his voice. ‘It’s your nose, after all. I could remove it altogether, if you’d like. Really get the air flowing in those passages.’
The Fereldan flexed his forearms, thick fingers clenched tight against his palms. ‘No thanks.’ His nostrils flared as Anders’s healing magic seeped below the skin, healing fragmented bone and bruised flesh, the lean slants of muscle stretched tight beneath. ‘It’d just be another hole in my face for the qunari to kick sand or lodge a spear into.’
Perhaps it had been too much to hope for a laugh. Anders was always expecting too much from his companions—that the slave had spoken to him at all was something of a breakthrough.
Then again, slaves often behaved unexpectedly below the coliseum’s ring. They cried out for their mothers, and in the same breath cursed Anders, cursed Anders’s mother and his magic, then finally the Tevinter Imperium itself. Some were friendly enough, after Anders had healed their gashes, restoring lumps of flesh that had been lopped off, like ears or toes—but those were usually the ones who were killed first, and it was better not to get too attached to them.
It was just Anders’s luck. He could never pick a proper champion, which was why he never bothered to bet on the matches anymore. Betting was such a depressing endeavor, when one had jewelry and prime real estate on the coast to lose, and Anders couldn’t help but feel responsible that, every time he picked a man, the poor fool up and died in the ring within the hour.
His backing wasn’t so much an endorsement as it was a curse.
‘I don’t think qunari ever kick sand,’ Anders said, easing his index finger along the slope of the Fereldan’s nose to examine the bump for any further swelling, something burst below the surface, or shattered bone. ‘It’s too dishonorable for them. Kicking sand: not a part of the Qun.’
‘Just have the spears to look out for, then.’ The Fereldan wrinkled his nose, brows furrowing as he pulled his face away from Anders’s capable hands.
‘Think of it this way,’ Anders said, standing now that his services were no longer required. ‘If you’re lucky, you won’t have to see me again.’ The muscles in his calves were sore from having crouched that long in the dirt, but he was stubborn about some things, and resting face-to-face with his patients was one of them.
Under the ring there were no masters and slaves, only patients and healers. Or rather, healer, in the singular.
Even if Anders was the only one foolish enough to believe that, it was no less important to him.
The Fereldan snorted. Seeing him in profile allowed Anders to better admire his handiwork: the streak of blood remained, as did the lump in the bone, but he was holding himself straighter now, and Anders gauged his steady breathing by the gentle rise and fall of his chest, a calm that descended and strengthened his posture.
Every man prepared for battle in his own way. Anders could scarcely imagine how one was supposed to ready himself for entering into single combat with a qunari, but he was certain remaining calm wasn’t the most common reaction.
Then again, some people had no choice but to become uncommon—if they wanted to live another day.
‘Move it along, healer!’ A guard rattled his club against the cell’s iron bars, loud and unpleasant, while Anders pressed his palms together, trying not to rattle with the sound. ‘Unless you want to be the one to explain to those up top why the festivities have been delayed.’
‘Coming, coming,’ Anders called. He brushed the dust from his skirts, casting one last look at the Fereldan. It was pure contrariness, Anders knew—the same way he lavished attention on his least friendly cat—but despite understanding it, the impulse lingered. ‘Watch the horns,’ he added. ‘They’re just as dangerous as the spears, and no one thinks to look for them until it’s too late.’
The Fereldan’s gaze passed in his direction, eyes wary as a wild hound’s. ‘If I do bring him down, I’ll cut one off.’ Something tugged at the humorless set of his mouth. ‘You can wear it in your other ear.’
‘They’re starting up top,’ the guard said. ‘Don’t act like I didn’t warn you.’
Anders slipped out the cell door, picking up his robes again one-handed as he walked through so much piss and blood and dirt. His fingers rose to trace the curve of his dragon claw, its sharpness dulled over the years, its warmth never fading. Overhead, the crowd had already begun to chant.
For the first time in recent memory, a slim shiver of excitement pierced Anders’s natural dread of the ring.
He wouldn’t cheer for death, but he also knew a nap was right out of the question during the match to come.
Anders had a seat in the coliseum, although it had rapidly fallen into disuse. His neighbor, Danarius, often took ownership of it in his stead, bringing guests along to the matches, then sending bottles of Aggregio to Anders’s house later to smooth over any imagined offense.
‘Anders,’ Danarius said, as Anders settled himself along the worn stone bench, fussing with an imaginary tear in his skirts in order to smooth them out. ‘This is a surprise. To what do we owe the pleasure?’
Anders glanced toward the man and his retinue—only slaves; Danarius had a sense of humor, unlike some, but it wasn’t the ha-ha sort that Anders appreciated, more a low chuckle and a hearty encouragement of fatal twists—then shrugged. ‘I’m as surprised as you are,’ he admitted. ‘It’s too hot to chase the slaves around the house, so I figured I might as well observe while other people sweat it out under the Tevinter sun. Who doesn’t enjoy watching desperate men glisten?’
‘I do enjoy glistening,’ Danarius agreed.
Exactly what Anders had known he’d say.
There was a way to talk to every magister that acknowledged—and often flattered—their individual personalities; that way never required him to actually believe or agree with anything he was saying. Anders drummed his fingers against his knee, the shiver of silk beneath his fingertips far more forgiving than broken bone, and scanned the empty arena, the victorious heroes from last week’s death matches stomping about and shaking their fists to rile the crowd. One of them held a trident and a chain, whipping the latter into the packed dirt and scattered sand, tearing up clouds of dust. Anders covered his mouth, and Danarius handed him a perfumed handkerchief, smelling of amaranthus caudatus, a meaningful—if predictable—touch.
‘So thoughtful,’ Anders murmured.
‘I do try,’ Danarius said.
Anders accepted the gift—Danarius was a dangerous enemy to make; he enjoyed the impact of his peculiar generosity far too much to deny it outright—and held the silk over his nose, to keep from sneezing.
‘You’ve chosen a fine day for it, Anders,’ Danarius continued, leaning back against the bench, one elbow crooked, the heel of his palm against his temple. A young elvhen slave rifled slim fingers through his hair. ‘The best matches are always with the newest recruits. They don’t know the way of it—and you get to watch them learn on their feet.’
‘Or on their backs,’ Anders said.
Danarius smiled fondly. ‘Is there ever a difference?’ he asked.
Anders supposed there wasn’t, but there also wasn’t time to continue suffering his minor discomforts—his social obligations—as the gate on the left-hand side of the ring raised, and the announcer’s voice bellowed what Anders recognized only by association: an ironic excerpt from the Qun.
‘Struggle is an illusion,’ his clear voice rang through the hushed crowd. ‘The tide rises, the tide falls, but the sea is changeless. Will there be victory in the Qun today, I wonder?’
The qunari warrior stepped into the ring, the gate clanging shut at his broad back. He didn’t shield his eyes from the sunlight, nor did he flinch when the audience laughed at the obvious joke—at the idea there would be any victory for him that day, whether he won the bout or not.
That was the qunari way. They faced the future because the future was—or something like that—a combination of intransigence and acceptance. Anders would never understand it, though his lack of understanding didn’t make him hate it the same way others might. Or clearly did, judging by the jeers and curses the crowd had given over to, turning so quickly from laughter to outright booing.
At least they’d be on the Fereldan’s side. It was rare Anders rooted for anyone his peers preferred, but there were exigent circumstances this time—and perhaps some lingering sense of loyalty, Anders’s memory of one kind Fereldan farmer who’d let him hide the night in his barn, and told the templars looking for him that he’d run the other way.
Anders had no way of knowing if he’d have made it this far without that moment of kindness. He only knew that his life had to be better now, especially when he was faced with so many lives that were not better. Like the qunari’s life, a creature with no name and no desire for a name, strong but doomed despite his strength.
That wasn’t preferable. Anders was sure of it.
‘You know,’ Danarius murmured dryly, ‘when they begin with qunari, it’s exciting for the first match, but the rest never quite live up to it. Better a gradual build than all this, wouldn’t you agree?’
‘Absolutely,’ Anders said. Then, to foster his preferred air of eccentricity, he added, ‘But those horns would make terrible jewelry, all the same.’
Danarius chuckled. Anders felt ever more like the prized puppet or trustworthy jester, dancing for entertainment’s sake, but also his own life.
The qunari, on the other hand, refused to abide by the rules of the game—to take glory in this, or even acknowledge the audience at all. They hated him all the more for it, because nothing they said or did pierced his thick skin and even thicker pride, and when the second gate rose and the Fereldan stepped into the ring, it was obvious whose side everyone was on.
That could make or break a man’s will, Danarius had once explained, in Anders’s early years—right before he vomited in a corner of their box—but it could also make an opponent cocky. Just because the crowd was with you didn’t mean the Maker was, or luck, or fate, and especially not skill. Anders leaned forward, fingers braced against the railing, feeling the pockmarks of wind and age in the white limestone.
‘The challenger,’ Danarius said, just under his breath, while the announcer stated the same. Anders attempted to relax, then realized there was no point in trying, and leaned even further over the edge.
The sky was clear above the stadium, no clouds to shift over the sun, no wind to pick up at just the right moment. A line of sweat dripped down Anders’s cheek to his jaw, then plopped against the railing, between the thumb and forefinger of his right hand.
In his side of the ring, the Fereldan selected his weapon, an unpolished broadsword, and tested its weight in both hands. He was too far away for Anders to tell just how badly notched and chipped from other battles the weapon was; sunlight glinted unevenly off the tip, refracted on some nock in the metal, while the Fereldan grabbed himself a shield, then seemed to laugh, and tossed the thing aside.
It skidded to a halt close to the wall beneath Danarius’s box. It was made of some combination of steel and silverite and wood, and as a barrier between a man and a qunari onslaught, it would have proven itself about as much use as an anchor in a storm.
Anders rested his weight onto his elbows. He had no head for these tactics, though he recognized them all the same, understanding only after the gesture was made the motives and inspiration behind its purpose. The Fereldan wanted to fight light, and keep speed on his side.
As though a qunari warrior ever tired. As though that strategy meant anything in the face of the Qun.
Still, it was a clever choice—only as clever as it was successful, but that latter detail remained to be seen. Despite all the anticipation in the air, no one was fighting. Not yet. The announcer attempted to encourage the match to begin, anything more than the qunari standing still as a defiled statue in an archon’s garden, the Fereldan shifting his grip on the sword, the swell of his back and shoulders as he regulated his breathing just visible from Anders’s perch.
At Anders’s side, Danarius gave a disappointed sigh. ‘Of course, the problem with fresh qunari is that they’re always so stubborn. You’ve got to give them a few months underground, until they’re half mad with fever. Then you have a real match on your hands. More wine, I think.’
The elvhen slave crouched at his elbow lifted a bottle, pouring it into a wrought-glass cup.
Anders couldn’t tear his focus from the ring. Tension hung heavy in the air, like the promise of lightning just before a thundershower. Anders felt its weight on his shoulders, though for once the source had nothing to do with him, or any of the other assembled magisters, or any magic beyond what was inherent in the art of a good pause. It was breathless, and it was effective, but it didn’t come from the Fade.
Below them, the Fereldan twirled his sword, hand shifting upon the pommel as he brought the blade around to bear forward. He paced sideways, tracing the bowled shape of the ring behind him. The crowd was calling for blood, urging him forward to cut the qunari’s throat. Take his life if he won’t fight for it, a woman yelled, and her voice was swallowed up in cries of agreement, hungry condemnation for a species that wouldn’t fight even to protect its own skin, who ignored every advantage and every invective with equal measure.
Anders remembered now why he’d been sick all those years ago.
Still, the Fereldan held his ground. A magister called him a coward, and several others rose up in agreement around him. Anders knew it wasn’t that. He’d healed many cowards before in his life; he also had the dubious pleasure of being a coward himself, so he knew the way of it inside and out.
The Fereldan hadn’t been afraid before he faced the qunari. It wasn’t the fight he shied away from, because there was no fight to avoid.
As far as Anders was concerned, a qunari who didn’t fight was probably the best sort of opponent to have. But then, he had no warrior’s gall in him. That was why he was sitting in a box, while the Fereldan paced, burning the soles of his feet in the hot, white sand.
‘You certainly picked a fine day to make your return, Anders. Or did I say that before?’ Danarius scratched his chin with a finger, knuckles swollen with age. ‘Do you think the orator will see fit to make a change, before the crowd revolts on the archons?’
Anders’s fingers tightened against the railing, the tip of his ring finger settling neatly into a dip in the stone. Sometimes, if a match was ruled a stalemate, they slaughtered both competitors outright in favor of moving onto the next. The Fereldan had a clear advantage in this match—all other prejudices vanished in the face of the Imperium’s hate for qunari—but he stood to lose it if he remained on his side of the ring.
Stubbornness was all well and good. Sometimes it was the only thing that kept a man drawing his next breath. But sometimes, like a feral dog, it turned against its master, and defeated him more soundly than any qunari with a sharpened pike.
‘I couldn’t venture a guess,’ Anders said lightly, well aware that Danarius didn’t like being bored, and he couldn’t expect the man to bear the full brunt of conversation alone. Danarius liked to talk, but no one wanted reason to suspect his audience was drifting. ‘I try not to predict the outcome of matches—have you ever noticed it seems to lend a certain aura of bad luck to my favored side?’
‘Mere superstition.’ Danarius waved a dismissive hand, just as graceful as ever, with the affectations of a younger man. In the distance, the orator boomed something impressive about bolstering the Fereldan’s confidence, and about testing the qunari’s dedication to the Qun. Improvisation at its finest—and also its loudest, not to mention its most devious.
The great iron gate swung open again, and more competitors poured into the ring.
Anders leaned forward again, the soft wisp of his silks dragging against the seat, jeweled links in his belt clinking against one another. Under any other circumstances, he’d have been making a scene. Now, he might as well have been invisible. No one was looking to their neighbors in the stands, all eyes fixed on the sudden turn of events down below.
The amphitheater swelled and shuddered with the gathering voice of its spectators, the thundering footfalls of more slaves, come to make a show before the excitement found new channels and new threats.
It was the man with the trident who came first; his chain had been discarded for a flexible net of metal-barbed rope; he was followed by a warrior with two swords, a man with cruel-tipped spiked gauntlets, and a helmeted foe, nearly as large as a qunari himself, bearing a whip and club.
Danarius made a noise of interest in the back of his throat, chasing it with a swallow of pale wine, exactly the shade of his slave’s hair in the sunlight.
‘Now we shall see,’ he said. He offered Anders a smile as dry and insubstantial as burnt parchment. ‘I’ve a feeling you’ve taken a special interest in this bout, Anders—two rare sights, and me lucky enough to witness them both.’ Below them in the ring, there was a clash of steel on thick bone as the first gladiator leapt at the qunari. ‘Let us hope the slave proves himself worthy of all this fuss. I’ve yet to see an inexperienced man dodge the net.’
Anders let his words fade into the background like so much idle gossip; with the rush of pure noise all around them, it wasn’t a difficult task. Half the magisters were on their feet now, cheering the fighters as they fell on the qunari like a pack of ravening mountain wolves. A bright crimson spray of blood spattered the sand, but the bodies were so tangled it was impossible to tell whether it was spilled by human or qunari. The man with the net twirled it above his head, tangling the links in the qunari’s horns and jerking hard and fast in an attempt to bring him off his feet, perhaps onto his knees.
Heart racing with a spike of sympathetic adrenaline, and perhaps some guilty fascination—unable to tear his eyes away from that which he couldn’t abide—Anders spared a look for the Fereldan, to see what he made of all this.
But he was no longer standing at the corner of the ring.
Perhaps he thought now would be the perfect moment to escape—a man who risked punishment at the hands of his slave drivers, who bore broken ribs with the same unflinching determination as he ignored a broken nose, was just mad enough to pull that sort of stunt while believing it might actually work. The crowd was in some ways more dangerous than the trained professionals in the ring, however, and if the Fereldan managed to get up into the stands, he’d find himself besieged on all sides, torn to shreds not by sharpened weapons but clever fingers.
Some magisters didn’t like to get their hands dirty. Others did. They didn’t need their magic—so often a principle of their other successes—and in fact enjoyed it when they could discard that necessity. Bodies and flesh, Danarius had once said, in one of his more poetic moods, at a dinner party, no less, before dessert was even served. Is it any wonder we crave it, those things we know so little of, in the face of our own magic?
Anders knew from experience that the blunter weapons always made for the crueler wounds. At least a blade cut clean, but fingers scraped and clutched and gouged.
His shiver of dread, something cold beneath the silk and even sweat at the small of his back, was unfounded. He searched the crowd for some sign of old leather armor, the flash of metal along the flat edge of a worthy sword, dark hair and sweat-streaked skin amidst feathers and silks—then caught sight of separate movement within the ring, the Fereldan unmistakable as he descended into the fray.
Not, Anders realized, helping matters any. But the chaos was too indistinct to tell what it was he hoped to accomplish just yet.
The cries of pain and surprise that followed only served to rile the crowd even more. Metal clashed on metal, silverite on silverite—except for when it didn’t, when there was a duller sound and a human howl, distress followed by realization followed by a whimper. Grown men were always defeated by unexpected injury, and how surprised they were by the treacheries of flesh. Even men who were accustomed to injury always had the same reaction when first blood was drawn, their first blood, as though they’d thought all along agony and death were things that happened to other people, and being big enough, broad enough, could keep them safe.
Anders’s fingernails dug into the palm of his hand. He realized he was beating it, part of the spectator chant, against the railing below, and tried to still it—but it wouldn’t stop its trembling, just a fine tremor, part of the same pulse of excitement that coursed in time from the base of his skull right between his hipbones, in the center of his gut.
It wasn’t pleasure so much as it was a basic human instinct, the need to know what happened next, and whether or not his involvement—the usual curse levied when Anders rooted for a participant—was more than simple superstition, as Danarius had suggested.
A helmet flew across the arena, followed by a shield, and then an arm. It wasn’t a qunari arm, and Anders wondered if the Fereldan hadn’t chosen—in a fit of pique that could no more be termed bravery than it could outright insanity—to side with the underdog. Not that Anders didn’t recognize the impulse; he even shared it from time to time, before he quashed it completely, knowing all too well where that kind of thinking led him: straight to the losing side.
The underdog was an underdog for a reason. And in Tevinter, they were never given the chance to improve their fortunes in the face of their fates.
In the end, it didn’t matter anyway. There was a noise—a qunari death rattle; Anders had heard enough of those to know he never wanted to hear one again—followed by a heavy thud, loud enough to scatter the assembled fighters, or perhaps knock them back across the sand with the force of impact it caused. Blood seeped against the white-baked grains. The qunari was dead. He’d likely been dead for some time, in fact, while only sheer qunari stubbornness, adherence to the Qun, had kept him standing.
Some people had roots. Others didn’t.
Anders only knew from observance what it was like to be the former.
The slaves, once clustered around their common enemy, all reeled away, save for one: the Fereldan, who stood by the body of the fallen qunari without fanfare and, perhaps, without purpose. His dark head was bent, his sword streaked red, still breathing in that even way—though a bit quicker now from the strain of fighting.
Standing up for a lost cause always did make a man breathless.
It would have been so easy for him to accept the initial graces of the crowd—to give the qunari a clean death, if not an honorable one. Maybe the qunari would have insisted it didn’t mean anything, not to him, not in his world, and that was his choice, but in the end it might have meant something.
They’d never know.
Now, it was only a matter of seconds before the crowd—just as Danarius predicted, they always wanted more—built and turned upon a new enemy, a fresh slaughter, a better and more obvious kill. They knew already that the Fereldan had skill, and more of a temper than the qunari did; he was the perfect candidate, held separate from his peers, the scene already visually him against them. Anders could feel the tide shift, those who’d cheered for him some few moments ago switching sides like the drop of a coin from a fat purse, while those the Fereldan had injured—in an attempt to restore balance to the proceedings, or bring some justice to a place where the concept was barely remembered—ranged before him, knowing better how important it was to curry favor. Relentless. Ruthless. They knew the way, because they had so much experience, and no more imagination to speak of.
Anders didn’t have to look away from the Fereldan to realize every thumb in the arena was pointing down. One death lead to another; some wounds couldn’t be healed. Anders felt guilty and sick, as though it was his fault—when it wasn’t, not unless inaction was obvious enough to accept all blame.
He should never have come to watch. He should never have wanted the Fereldan to win, since—once again—his blessing was little more than fatal.
This time, the other gladiators rounded on the Fereldan one by one, affording him that small advantage, due to a combination of separate prides. The man with the net went first, the net itself partially torn but still dangerous; the Fereldan feinted left, then speared his opponent’s flank from the right side, heel skidding in the sand while he avoided the barbs sewn into the rope.
Next came the man with the whip, cracking it against the dirt at the Fereldan’s bare feet. He didn’t bother with a feint—nor did he seem to notice when the leather sliced into his shoulder, lashing around his throat—and brought his elbow up under his opponent’s chin, killing him where he stood.
Next came the man with the dual blades, a streak of glistering armor in the unforgiving sun. He was quick, but not quick enough for the Fereldan, who bore the force of the twin blades against his forearm even as he gutted his opponent like lesser men refused to gut fish.
Anders couldn’t look anywhere else but to the center of the fight. He still knew the crowd was wavering on the edge of outright condemnation, thumbs pointed downward, demanding the Fereldan’s execution because he’d refused to be the instrument for another.
‘Such children, all of them,’ Danarius said, just loud enough that Anders could hear it over the sound of his own pulse, itself a chanting thrum as base and primal as the shared urges of the crowd. Then, because he was listening, he heard Danarius rise, and stretch, popping something sore in his back before coming to stand at the railing.
Anders couldn’t bear to look. But his traitorous eyes darted to one side at last, belying their interest in something more than the bloody mess of sand below, the Fereldan breaking his latest opponent’s shoulder as he tore the club from his hands.
Danarius raised his thumb, the lone opposition in a sea of those braying for a second, swifter death. They were in a prominent box, and the orator soon caught sight of him, calling for silence. It was not uncommon for an archon or a magister to purchase someone who proved their value in the ring—in fact, it was usually a scramble amidst the audience to be the first wealthy contender to raise their thumbs.
Anders wondered whether the others wouldn’t regret their missed opportunity, once time and a few square meals, some fucking or some napping or some feasting had cleared their heads.
In the middle of the chaos the Fereldan yet stood, blood streaked across his breastplate, dark red soaking through the leather. He was still holding his sword, though the blade was buried deep in the sand; it bore the weight of his left side, and Anders didn’t have to see clearly to tell that he was likely injured.
Then, through the disappointed shouts of the crowd, the Fereldan looked up, sharp eyes fixed on Danarius—the man who’d acted to save his life.
Anders felt the faint beginnings of irritation twist and unfurl in his chest, a lesser emotion to dull the pounding of his heart. How quickly the body turned on a man. He removed his hands from the railing, knuckles stiff from how tightly he’d been gripping the stone. He wished he’d thought to act a bit sooner, or that he was the sort of man who could stand alone, without fear of retribution. Like the Fereldan, or like Danarius—each in his own way.
‘I expect you’ll be very happy with the addition to your household,’ Anders said, speaking loudly to be heard over the crowd—which was cheering now, of course, since Danarius had that power over them, and so did unexpected turns of bitter fate. He let his eyes fall on Danarius’s retinue, all of them fair-haired elves with wide, limpid eyes. The man had a type. The Fereldan wasn’t it. ‘You’re sure he isn’t a bit...I don’t know, ostentatious?’
‘For a man who wears a dragon’s claw in his ear?’ Danarius asked. His face turned secretive as the meaning of his words settled over Anders like a gladiator’s net, another thin smile pulling at the wrinkles in his face. ‘Why Anders—I should think he’d be all too fitting. Tell me: how do you like my gift?’
No one had ever presented Anders with such an expensive present before, not even Danarius, in his more generous moods. Such distinctions usually came with hidden chains attached, expectations that were only revealed once the wrapping had been torn off—but Anders didn’t have much to fear from Danarius.
That was what he told himself, in any case. He valued his sleep too much to imagine otherwise.
Anders wasn’t an elf, and he wasn’t a blood mage. He was a healer Danarius liked having at his beck and call, and therefore he could rest comfortably in the sphere of people Danarius viewed as only meager amusements, faces and bodies to laugh at and toy with between his more serious pursuits.
Meanwhile, he went about his business with no notion or care of how difficult he made the lives of others.
Since Anders had no experience in receiving fighting slaves—the most costly of the bunch, save for documented virgins—he also had no experience in refusing them.
That, he supposed, was how he’d wound up with the Fereldan deposited on the floor of his atrium like a Feastday goose, trussed up in chains and squinting into the bright sunlight. He was lying on his side next to Anders’s favorite place for quiet contemplation, a marbled fountain that opened onto a false stream, running out amidst ferns and fronds into the back garden. No one had seen fit to patch him up since the morning’s battle, and even at a distance Anders noticed the mottled bruises beginning to form on his sunburned skin, the deep cut at the back his thigh and—judging by the cringe that crossed his face every time he drew breath—more cracked ribs.
Anders moved toward him, allowing his sandals to clack noticeably against the tiles, so the Fereldan would hear him coming, and wouldn’t have to panic. He didn’t seem like the sort of man who appreciated being snuck up on, and the horrified cries of his opponents in the coliseum still rang in Anders’s ears, fair warning against any future indiscretions.
The Fereldan turned his blunt head in Anders’s direction just once, eyes cast upward to his face, before he returned his attentions to the fountain.
‘When you said you’d see me again, this wasn’t what I pictured,’ he admitted.
Anders tugged his robes to his knees, careful not to let the hem fall in the nearby stream as he crouched. It was the second time that day he’d been faced with healing this particular individual. He was starting to wonder if that didn’t say something disturbing about the man.
‘Would you believe it’s not what I was planning either?’ he asked, hands traveling to the taut muscle of the Fereldan’s thigh. The skin above his knee was caked in dried blood and the cut was oozing sluggishly with the pulse of his heart. ‘Life’s funny like that. Well, not funny. More like: entirely out of our control sometimes. I’m not sure what the word for that is. Terrifying? Exciting? Awful?’
‘Ha,’ the Fereldan said. He grit his teeth as Anders’s fingers brushed the wound. ‘I’m no help to you there. I can’t imagine what that’s like; I lead a charmed life, as you can see.’
‘And Fereldans don’t have much imagination,’ Anders agreed. A soft glow of white light stretched from his fingertips, sinking into the cut, mending flesh to flesh, ultimately grateful the wound wasn’t so deep as bone. ‘I won’t hold it against you.’
The Fereldan went still, manacled wrists clanking together in the quiet of Anders’s home. Beneath the dark beard, it was impossible to read the set of his jaw.
‘…How did you know that?’ he said at last, only half a question. The other half was a demand, an impressive feat for a man bound and bleeding all over the floor.
‘I’d have to be blind not to,’ Anders replied. ‘If you’d prefer not to talk about it, you’re going to have to give me something else to call you. Fereldan is a bit of a mouthful, and if it’s a point of contention, I wouldn’t want to offend you by constantly bringing it up.’
The Fereldan—still the Fereldan, although he was soon to earn himself another moniker, the stubborn slave or the mad gladiator or something even more unwieldy—didn’t offer a name. Anders wasn’t surprised, although he managed to be disappointed anyway.
‘Suit yourself,’ he continued, checking to make sure certain important tendons hadn’t been severed by any rogue’s blade. ‘But I warn you, when it comes to making up names, I tend to be enthusiastic. That’s a polite word for downright weird, in case you didn’t know.’
Muscle jumped beneath Anders’s touch—he was used to being gentle, knew how to keep his hands steady no matter the arterial blood flowing between his fingertips—as he surveyed the damage, healing minor scrapes and bruises along the way. Nothing too important, but nothing too comfortable, either; no wonder the Fereldan was in such a dirty mood. It was because he was dirty, streaks of sweat and sand swiped over his cheeks, caked gritty over the gash in his arm. Anders reached out, but the chains got in the way, and the Fereldan made no move to help him, fascinated once more by the architectural elements of the nearby fountain, the flowering vine wrapped around its base.
‘For example,’ Anders said, knowing the man was bound to catch on eventually to this unsubtle distraction tactic, ‘take my cats. None of them could tell me what to call them, unless you count all the sweet noises they make when they’re hungry or having funny dreams, so I had to improvise. There’s Mister Wiggums the second, and Mister Wiggums the third—a bit awkward, since the latter was meant to be a tribute to the former, only as it turned out he wasn’t dead at all, just very serious about napping.’
Anders paused, presumably in a moment of fond recollection, but he took the opportunity to slide his hands under the Fereldan’s elbow, cooling the hot skin to numb whatever pain he wouldn’t acknowledge he felt.
‘Then there’s Ser Pounce-a-lot, and Ser Trounce-a-lot, and Ser Flounce-a-lot,’ Anders continued. ‘All from the same mother. Tabbies. They like to put on airs; I suppose knighting them didn’t help that any. And Lady Talia Lyonne and Chevalier Garren and King Cailan. Cailan’s the runt of the litter,’ he added meaningfully, ‘and he can be a bit slow at times, but he’s really very sweet. You have to make sure he’s fed separately from the others, or else they steal his supper, and he meows outside the bedroom door for hours.’
‘Hawke,’ the Fereldan said.
‘Need a handkerchief?’ Anders asked. ‘Catch a cold from a qunari, by any chance?’
‘Hawke is my name,’ the Fereldan clarified. ‘Not any variety of Wiggums, nor any tragic Fereldan king.’
‘And here I was going to call you Fluffy,’ Anders replied.
‘You could try,’ Hawke said, in a way that suggested Anders shouldn’t.
The wound on his arm was nearly mended now; the flesh surrounding it was still sticky with half-dried blood, and the scar hadn’t quite returned yet to unbroken flesh. When he realized what had happened—a flash of teeth against his beard and the blood at the corner of his mouth staining one tooth dark red—he reclaimed his limb, allowed the scar to remain, stark against the tensing muscle of his forearm. He flexed his hand, then clenched it into a fist, rubbing along the length of the sullied flesh, testing to see if it still hurt. But that was never the way of it—the scar itself was all dead nerves, the skin just alongside it more sensitive to compensate, a confounding conference of separate instincts, or rather, how a body attempted to heal itself.
‘You’re being very stubborn, Fluffy,’ Anders told him.
Hawke, with sudden, unreadable humor, grinned at him, the expression so tense it looked as though he was about to grind his molars into dust, then choke on it.
That was one way to solve a problem, though it wasn’t a medicine Anders ever thought to prescribe. Not even for the most terminal personality cases.
Still, there was something to be said for not antagonizing your patients—especially the ones backed into so narrow a corner they couldn’t help but lash out, even at the people who were trying to help them. Anders scuttled closer, slipping one arm around Hawke’s waist and looping his thumb in an unfathomably-placed buckle, then hauled him up so he was sitting, and perhaps so he’d feel more comfortable. Less prostrate, at the very least; less prone, and marginally less defeated.
Hawke hissed, hot breath through clenched teeth. Anders remembered the ribs, and steadied his free hand on Hawke’s chest, a peace offering as unrefined as it was thorough. Raw healing magic—a flood of warmth that tingled Anders’s fingertips and shocked the little bits of metal wound here and there through the leather—had its purposes, and making a man feel comfortable, relaxed, at ease rather than in searing pain was never a bad thing, surely.
But Hawke wasn’t the sort of man who valued or appreciated feeling relaxed. His back stiffened—Anders could feel the small of it arch against the crook of his elbow—and he tipped his chin up, mouthing a friendly Fereldan curse to the sky, something about dog-blood-nug-mud. The usual fare.
‘Feel better now?’ Anders asked.
‘I feel like my ribs are still broken,’ Hawke replied.
That was true—Anders could also feel them, all knotted and cracked beneath overcompensating muscle, bloody leathers and equally bloody skin. The network of veins above and marrow within were all naturally angry at the assault, and Anders stroked another healing touch along Hawke’s flank, soothing and slow, mending each like some people took the stairs in the morning: two at a time. When he finished, he found a tear in the armor, and more blood beneath, and it was his turn to hiss, to crouch closer and peel back the fabric to get at the wound beneath.
‘You act as though you’ve never seen a man take on an entire host of trained gladiators before,’ Hawke muttered.
‘That’s funny,’ Anders said, ‘because I have seen men take on entire hosts of trained gladiators before. Happens every Monday, here.’
‘Tevinter,’ Hawke replied darkly.
After that, he seemed to lose track of his capacity for humor; Anders regretted it, and wished he could mend it as easily as he could bind skin to skin, or put those other, quieter assets back as they belonged. Unbroken, uninjured, untouched—but that canvas wasn’t his to work with, and never had been.
He did sneak in an added burst of warmth after the cold—the cold to numb angry tissue, the warmth to soothe its owner when the more serious work was done. Sometimes, despite themselves, his patients let out an appreciative sigh—or an appreciative groan—but Hawke worked the muscles in his jaw again, something rumbling but ultimately silenced deep in his chest.
‘Any other near-fatal wounds I should know about?’ Anders asked.
Hawke fixed his eyes on the falling water ahead of him. ‘You’re the healer,’ he said. ‘Why don’t you tell me?’
He was mouthy for a slave—just another sign that he was new to enslavement in general, as a concept as well as a lifestyle—and Anders minded only insofar as he knew it was dangerous. He didn’t care, but others did, and the bruises under Hawke’s cheekbones were still fresh, his nose still crooked by a fraction of an inch where it’d been broken, probably by the back-end of Caladrius’s staff.
Some people didn’t know how to look after themselves. They also didn’t know how to need other people to do it for them.
Anders sighed, leaning back on his heels, then tutted when he heard the snap of his sandal pop open. ‘Tevinter,’ he agreed, a bit too late. ‘Full of blood mages to the brim, but not a single man among them knows how to craft a proper sandal. Funny, isn’t it?’
‘Ha ha,’ Hawke agreed.
Anders didn’t take the lukewarm reception personally. Fereldans were infamous for their terrible senses of humor.
A dainty yellow bird began its evening song in a nearby tree. Eventually, Anders’s other slaves would start to wonder where he was; lacking confirmation, they’d serve dinner with or without him, poor things, since a slave always erred on the side of caution. Better to have the food hot and ready than to have Anders return home with an empty belly to an empty table.
The fact that Anders never protested a late supper was inconsequential. He was the master, so naturally his meals had to be on time; what his temper was paled in comparison to what his temper could be, the only possibility his personal retinue chose to consider. It was an old habit, and weary, beaten into them by men more assured of their place than Anders had ever been. Since he didn’t share their conviction, he couldn’t hope to correct the impulse.
In the long run, it wouldn’t help anyone. That Anders didn’t indulge in fits and bouts of unpredictable punishment didn’t matter simply because he might; that potential was always there, and was it any wonder, no matter how nice he was, that his kindness was always swallowed by reality?
Anders tugged at the split strap, rubbing the frayed cord between his thumb and forefinger. ‘I’ll have to have it fixed,’ he said, when it seemed Hawke wasn’t inclined to uphold his end of the banter. His heel shifted over the limp strap, resting loose against the slim leather sole. ‘Shoes don’t heal as easily as people, for some reason. Do you ever wonder why that is? It seems unfair, since they’re far less complicated than a body.’
Hawke shrugged, lifting his broad shoulders clumsily. It hurt Anders to see that heaviness, after observing his grace in the ring.
Even after a good healing, it took a man some time to remember himself—what he was capable of, rather than what he wasn’t, and all the pain that came hand in hand with the latter.
‘Some work’s made for a pair of hands, not a flick of your fingers.’ Hawke wiggled his own, long but thick, and stained black with dirt and blood. There was sand caked under his nails, a few grains buried beneath a torn cuticle. ‘Just because it’s magic doesn’t mean it solves all your problems.’
Anders straightened with a swish of silk. He wondered whether Danarius had known he was giving Anders a slave who answered rhetorical questions—and answered them well, at that. It’d been years since he’d heard an opinion like Hawke’s voiced aloud—because in Tevinter, magic was the solution to everyone’s problems. And if it wasn’t, then you simply weren’t a good enough mage.
But Anders remembered a time when that hadn’t been the case. The chill winds of a Fereldan winter stirred at his memories, the mud calling him back, templars and dogs at his heels, sleeping every night in a different barn, on a different patch of soft earth.
He’d escaped all that, but even the swiftest man couldn’t leave his memories behind him.
Hawke cleared his throat, and Anders returned to the atrium. The soothing trickle of the false stream filled his ears; a warm breeze skirted his bare arms, blowing in off the bay, while tender fronds whispered something delightful to each other. There were clean tiles—not thick mud—beneath Anders’s feet, glass chips winking up at him in the red light from the setting sun.
‘You were just leaving,’ Hawke reminded him.
‘Right,’ Anders said. When he turned, the familiar weight of the dragon claw swung in his ear, against his throat. ‘If I don’t start now, I’ll be late for dinner—and someone I know is in need of a good scrubbing.’ A pointed grin flashed across his face, sharp at the corners of his mouth. He knew what it was—he called it his party look, something he practiced in the mirror now and then to make sure it meant just the right amount of absolutely nothing. ‘Let’s get you in a bath, Fluffy. You’ll feel much better once the manacles come off.’
Anders turned toward the house with a spring in his step, nearly tripping out of his sandal when he forgot to compensate for the broken strap.
In time, Hawke’s willingness to talk back would wilt and shrivel like the dried elfroot leaves Anders crumbled into Magister Hercinia’s tea every Wednesday. The stubborn ones, Danarius liked to explain, actually learned the quickest of all.
But until then, there was no one to say Anders couldn’t enjoy the change of pace.
Supper at Anders’s villa was a sedate affair compared to his neighbors’. He had a small household of one, no socially-minded wife or politically-minded children or even a wicked aunt or demanding uncle, and he didn’t care to host late summer parties on account of the inevitable mess that came after.
In Anders’s experience, his slaves were much happier when they weren’t discovering vomit in the potted plants, or fishing Magister Valeria’s best summer robes out of the fountain.
The dining room was grand, the dining table always impeccably polished, but Anders only ever used one-half of it. He took the seat nearest the window, and allowed the cats free reign of the rest.
Ser Trounce-a-lot and Chevalier Garren had a particular liking for roast quail, and the slaves already knew to keep an eye out for small, furry bodies hurtling toward the dinner platters.
That evening, Ser Pounce-a-lot had taken up residence on Anders’s lap, sensing Anders’s desire to set a good example and doing his part to ruin it. The cats always knew when there was a new slave, and acted out accordingly—not the same way dogs did, by pissing on vases or breaking expensive statues, but through subtler means, specifically social intimidation tactics. Ser Flounce-a-lot and Lady Talia Lyonne were nowhere to be found, but Anders liked to imagine they were secreted away in a slave’s passage, meowing a serious discussion on how best to assault the newcomer.
Hawke was standing at Anders’s left, hair damp from his bath, and the scent of clean soap rolling off his skin. Someone enterprising had provided him with fresh clothes in place of his torn, bloodied armor; they were simple cotton, trousers and a shirt with the sleeves torn off, and they smelled faintly of dried lavender. Anders packed sprigs of it into his winter storage, to ward off unwanted insects, the hard-backed beetles that so plagued the Imperium and feasted on the homespun.
It was awkward—the business of slaves in general was always awkward, if only because they knew what to do and how to maintain their boundaries so much better than Anders did, even on a good day. Sometimes he knocked into them because he forgot they were there, or because he wanted to forget they were there; sometimes he moved to help them clean up the spilled wine or the splattered gravy, and their looks of unbridled horror only compounded the awkwardness, until it settled into every corner of the villa. Not even the most dutiful of dusters could sweep that feeling away.
At least the older slaves recognized Anders’s eccentricities, and put up with them just as patiently as his peers—if not for the same reasons, then with the same narrow expressions, humoring him by pretending he wasn’t as different as he was.
But new slaves were never prepared for him, and sometimes Anders wondered if it wouldn’t be better if he was cruel after all, since that was what they continued expecting.
Pounce butted his head under Anders’s palm, and Anders rubbed his thumb along the bristly fur between his ears and above his nose, where it was soft and short and oh-so sensitive. The smells from the kitchen, wafting in through the house’s drafty windows—known in the summer as ‘ventilation’ and in the winter as ‘a chilly nuisance’—were pleasant; the smells of soap and skin and Hawke’s faint sweat even more so.
Hawke was going to make a terrible house servant, Anders decided. Not that he’d made an excellent gladiator per se, since at first he’d missed the point completely and nearly got himself killed because of it—but Anders couldn’t imagine him pouring wine and slicing red meats, lingering at Anders’s shoulder obediently, holding his tongue whenever a rogue elbow knocked the pitcher from his hands.
Though it might be nice to be scolded for a change. Anders did so miss a good scolding.
The Imperium didn’t have any sharp-eyed senior enchanters roaming about—lessons were taught through other measures, a stricter set of practical rules. Learn on your feet or die on your back: that was the Tevinter motto.
Anders dabbed at the corner of his mouth with his napkin. His dining slaves, including the latest before Hawke—a clever elvhen girl off a Rivaini ship, who had a gift for mimicking foreign cuisine with local ingredients—adjusted the food on the table, according to some secret standard Anders knew nothing about. Then, they stood at the far wall, hands clasped behind their backs, neither watching nor not watching Anders’s dining rituals. They were simply there, not for compliments or appreciation or idle chit-chat to make the food go down more smoothly, but to wait for the exact moment to clear the dishes away again, and disappear into the kitchen Anders had never actually seen for himself.
Once again: it was awkward.
Anders didn’t want to presume anything, to be so self-aggrandizing that he thought they were paying attention to him—or even anything real in the room, like the roving kittens getting their whiskers greasy or sweet smells rising from a fresh batch of traditional Fereldan dinner rolls. It would have been nice if they did, but Anders knew the way of it better than he let on.
‘I’m afraid you’re not going to get a very good idea of how a Tevinter magister lives by serving at my table,’ Anders said. His voice echoed over the low, rectangular ceiling. None of his retinue shifted or coughed or twitched or cracked a smile, but a bead of water from the bath dripped from one lock of Hawke’s dark, curling hair, down the back of his neck and onto his shirt. He shook his head, a faint splatter of something damp misting onto Anders’s cheek. He lifted his hand to rub it thoughtfully, then reached for the bread instead, letting the beads of condensation settle against his skin, not quite evaporating in the humid air. ‘Normally, you can expect some combination of fish in oil sauce and slow-oiled fish and roasted fish oil on fishy fish. I’m paraphrasing, of course, but you’d be surprised just how much fish they eat. And just how much of it’s been left in barrels to bake in the sun, at that.’
Anders tore a corner off his roll, rescued it from Pounce’s questing nose, dipped it in gravy, and sighed as he ate.
It wasn’t quite as down-to-earth as what they served in Ferelden, not nearly as common as the slop he had on the regular in the Circle Tower. He suspected the trouble was its key ingredient—mud—couldn’t be found in the same proportions in Minrathous; no one imported it, and his new master of cuisine wouldn’t have guessed to add a pinch or two to her broth.
It was better than fish. At this point, Anders was beginning to suspect anything was, including—but not limited to—pigeon and rat.
In fact, both were staples of Fereldan dinners, in various parts of the country.
Anders cleared his throat, making sure he’d swallowed before he spoke again—lower, this time, and secretive, hoping Hawke would bow his head to hear him better, while the breeze carried some of his hearty Fereldan scent through the narrowed space between their bodies. But he didn’t, standing tall and stiff and broad as ever, feet planted evenly on the tiles.
‘The other slaves are going to be cross if you don’t serve me some wine, I think,’ Anders explained. ‘That’s just the way of it. I don’t mind, but for whatever reason, they do. One time I got up to pour it for myself, and it nearly killed my body-slave. The shock made him faint, you see, and he hit his head on the corner of the table… Changed him forever, I’m sad to say. Now he just sits in the garden and stares at the leaves.’
Hawke’s capable hands shifted along the bottle, the hemp-woven basket holding the sleek, dark glass. He lifted it to his mouth, biting the cork and tugging it out with his teeth, then spat it to one side.
Lady Talia Lyonne, of course, shot after it, quicker than one of Hessarian’s own fireballs, King Cailain in hot pursuit. Both of them skittered into the far wall; the cork bounced high in the air, and Talia, all claws, raced after it, out the window with a screech into the garden, while Cailan, confused, licked an invisible dust-ball in the corner.
Anders very nearly applauded.
‘Your wine, ser,’ Hawke said, tipping the bottle forward against Anders’s glass.
It had been a long time since Anders had heard that word—and it had been approximately forever since anyone had called him by it. In Ferelden, unimportant circle apprentices were the ones calling everyone else ser and, fun as it was to use the word and mean something else—like ‘bastard’ or ‘flaming arsehole’—it was somewhat less fun to have the tables turned, and to experience the double meaning himself.
Payback, Anders supposed. For all the times he’d done it to other people. He couldn’t say it was undeserved.
He took his drink, swirling the wine, watching the legs slowly descend along the curve of the glass, and doing his best not to feel small in Hawke’s shadow. But it was an impressive shadow, especially catching the full lamplight; he was so tall, and Anders was sitting at a low table on an even lower stool, and the wine looked darker than usual, not at all the pale golden brew he craved.
‘The trouble is, you can’t replicate good whiskey,’ Anders said against the edge of the glass. ‘It’s all agreggio this and pavali that in this corner of Thedas. No one wants dwarven piss with a bit of sawdust thrown in for flavor around here, so everyone drinks the good stuff, the bastards.’
‘You’re not missing much,’ Hawke replied.
‘And yet I still feel like I’m missing everything,’ Anders said, breath disturbing the surface of the wine, little ripples sending up a heady bouquet to mask all the other, more foreign scents.
‘Ha,’ Hawke said, not for the first time.
Against the far wall, Anders saw two of his newer slaves exchange a glance. They didn’t dare move their heads, but their darting eyes gave them away; Anders was so accustomed to no movement at all that even the slightest gesture felt as grand as a Llomerryn scarf dance.
The other slaves were as in awe of Hawke as Anders himself—but more than that, they were waiting for Hawke to be punished for his insolence. Maybe, when he wasn’t, they’d all see that being a slave in Anders’s household was not like being a slave anywhere else.
Anders wouldn’t get his hopes up. In Tevinter, the only thing more resilient than blood magic was the status quo.
‘They’re going to gossip about you tonight,’ Anders said, lowering his voice again. Without turning his head, he could see Hawke’s tanned hands clasped around the swollen glass curve of the bottle. A scar ran from his right knuckle to the base of his thumb, but it was an older wound—not something he’d earned during his abnormally short career as an Imperium gladiator. ‘And not just because you’re new. Someone who actually talks in this house? Besides me, I mean—if that doesn’t start their tongues wagging, I really don’t know what will.’
‘One of them doesn’t have a tongue to wag,’ Hawke pointed out.
When Anders glanced in his direction, to ascertain whether this was a joke or a condemnation—the two were so alike in this part of Minrathous—Hawke’s face remained impassive, profile handsome despite the damage he’d incurred on the boat ride over.
The broken nose actually enhanced his looks.
But then, some people were lucky like that.
Anders fingered the narrow stem of his glass, eyes traveling from Hawke’s beard to the natural curve of his throat. Beneath his dark hair, the nape of his neck was red and peeling; his skin disappeared below the loose shift of cotton before Anders could tell whether Hawke’s shoulders were suffering the same fate, uneven strips of raw flesh left unprotected by damp leather in the noonday sun.
Hawke coughed, rocking forward on the balls of his feet. His eyes never left the far wall, but Anders knew he’d been caught out. Duly chastised, he turned his attention back to the unwanted spirits in his glass.
Yet he could still feel Hawke standing at his elbow, far too animated to be mistaken for a statue, although Anders had seen men of stone in his neighbors’ gardens that didn’t match up to Hawke’s live musculature.
A contrary warmth flared in the pit of his stomach, though it had nothing to do with the fine wine, or his purposefully Fereldan dinner, always designed to get the blood ho. Anders had been observed staring in the arena—the entire time, in fact—but there was no one to chastise him for his poor behavior then. While there had always been a senior enchanter or a frowning mentor back at the Circle, to tap Anders lightly on the shoulder and refocus his energies, he’d existed entirely without rebuke since traveling to Tevinter. Generally, his natural tendency to court indulgence was outright encouraged, the same way pets were spoiled. Because it was quaint.
There were different dangers to be mindful of in the Imperium, but Anders must have missed the open simplicity of Fereldan etiquette more than he realized. He’d forgotten his manners at the table countless times, but only Hawke had ever brought it to his attention.
Unless one counted Ser Pounce-a-lot—who nipped Anders’s fingers often enough, though that was usually when he stopped feeding him treats.
The criteria for reprimand wasn’t exactly comparable.
‘No tongue, you say?’ Anders scratched his chin, feeling the beginnings of fresh scruff growing along his jaw. ‘That’s wonderful news! And here I was taking it so personally when no one thought to keep up their end of the conversation.’
Hawke’s mouth twitched; a hidden smile darted across his face, swift as the little black fire-salamanders that hid in Anders’s garden and lived in terror of his cats. But it soured after that, stiffened, Hawke’s jaw harder than marble, a man whose constitution—if not his body—was sculpted of stone.
‘I wouldn’t rule out your personality,’ he muttered.
A dry laugh escaped Anders’s throat, nearly startling the life out of the elvhen girl who’d come to take the bread basket before its contents grew stale. Perhaps Hawke’s words should have acted as a warning, just like a summer constitutional—plunging headfirst into the Nocen Sea, heart and mind cleared with the cold salt water.
Instead, they felt like the promise of something more. Anders’s days in Tevinter had grown complacent, and while he was loath to admit it, there were certain aspects of Fereldan life he’d missed. If he’d known they could be imported on the nearest vessel, he’d have done it years ago.
Then, remembering the veiled rage in Hawke’s eyes when they’d crouched together in his prison cell beneath the ring, and how Hawke had thrown himself into battle only when it seemed like a cause already lost, Anders wasn’t so sure.
‘More wine, ser?’ Hawke asked.
‘No, thank you,’ Anders replied. He cleared his throat into the curve of his knuckles. ‘I’ve had too much already, I think.’
It was only a matter of time before this minor enjoyment—distracting as it might have been, improper as it certainly was—came to a crashing end. That was one of the first rules of life in Tevinter: don’t get too used to anything, especially the pleasant bits.
The crash itself was literal, startling Anders out of an in-depth reading of The Raven and the Crow, a tale—naturally—about Lady Raven Willowayne and the man assigned to kill her. The Crow in question had been just about to bare his ‘hidden dagger’ when the sudden sound of shattering pottery from downstairs interrupted the intimate moment.
Fortunately, it hadn’t been an intimate moment for Anders. The story wasn’t good enough for that.
Ser Pounce-a-lot disapproved—if the prick and stab of his claws in Anders’s thigh were anything to go by—and he was certain the slaves would be in an uproar, crowded together on the first floor in their nightshifts, brandishing fire pokers and lanterns and the like, by the time he managed to unhook the cat’s paws from the silk without tearing it.
They weren’t. When Anders descended the wide steps into the front hall, he found it empty and dark, sultry wind blowing in through the open columns of the atrium, only the soft whispers of gauze curtains to keep him company.
That, and the shattered remnants of an antique vase—a fat one with a Vyrantium design, a gift from Caladrius for the last slaving scar Anders had healed. It wasn’t his favorite—in fact, some of the geometric shapes reminded Anders of a whole gaggle of tits, like an illustration of a broodmother, and he couldn’t help but giggle every time he remembered the resemblance—but now it was broken beyond repair, and Hawke standing in the midst of the carnage. One hand on a nearby column, body framed by moonlight, wearing his mismatched armor instead of his homespun slave fare, he observed the scattered pieces accusatorily.
‘Shit,’ he said.
‘Absolutely,’ Anders agreed.
Hawke stepped backward; what had once been a graceful vase-neck, now only half of it, crunched into dust beneath the heel of his boot. It was a quiet noise, soft and muted between leather and glass-chipped tile, while Hawke righted himself and retracted his other arm—the one with which he’d tried, and failed, to catch the vase before it fell.
‘You’ve got quite the collection here,’ Hawke said. ‘Practically a museum, this place.’
‘Gifts from admirers,’ Anders replied, off-handed. He gestured vaguely toward his earring, a few more vases ranged in another corner, and the griffon statue by the fountain. ‘That one’s my favorite,’ he added. ‘If you didn’t break it, too, I’d be grateful.’
‘I’ll see what I can do,’ Hawke said. ‘But I can’t make any promises.’
‘Not as though you wanted to break this one, is it?’ Anders asked.
‘Not an original part of the plan, no,’ Hawke agreed.
He coughed again—reprimanding himself this time, Anders suspected, instead of someone else. Anders was coming to recognize the sound, though he was also coming to recognize the scene for what it was: the beginning of an escape, so near and dear a thing to Anders’s heart.
Anders knew those well enough from his own experiences—it was an impulse he recognized and a state he deplored, the war lost before the first battle had really begun. So many escapes ended with the mere impulse to escape in the first place.
At least Hawke had come as far as the back door.
‘Running away, are you?’ Anders leaned against the column nearest him, bare feet cold on the tiles below, careful not to step on any far-flung porcelain shards. He wiggled his toes, then poked the big one on his right foot at a nearby hunk of plaster. It was rough on all its edges, and it tickled his sensitive skin. ‘Eventually, I’ll stop taking these things so personally. But it’s hard not to feel slighted somehow. You do your best—try to be understanding, let the slaves have free reign of the house naked if they so please—but still they all want to leave me. Is it something I said? Is it because I smell? …Do you think it’s the cats?’
‘I’d say it’s the slavery,’ Hawke suggested. He shifted a leather strap on his shoulder, a burlap sack swinging between his hands; Anders thought he could smell Fereldan dinner rolls, just the slight, sweet, doughy scent amidst all the blossoming night flowers and weeping trellises of the atrium garden. With charming Fereldan practicality, Hawke had also managed to appropriate some kind of weapon—Anders suspected it was a cooking knife, a very large one, but not quite so suitable as a warrior’s broadsword.
‘Intriguing theory.’ Anders tapped his lower lip with his forefinger. ‘I suppose I’ll have to consider it. I think there’s a chest with some old weapons in one of the storerooms, by the by, unless you’re planning on dicing a few magisters tonight, in which case, by all means: take the breadknife.’
Hawke, predictably, was wary of the sudden offer. Anders didn’t blame him. He’d been the same way whenever he’d encountered unexpected and inexplicable help along the road—one of many that led to the Imperium, as the old saying went. Hawke’s road led away from the Imperium, but Anders often suspected it was just the same road with a different perspective for everyone.
Then again, he never had been good with old sayings, missing the point more often than not and in the process annoying the people who recited them.
It wasn’t their fault if their mantras were often so vague.
‘Sword or breadknife, it won’t matter much in the end,’ Anders continued, hands clasped, one thumb running over the other, a weary routine. ‘In case you hadn’t noticed—although I rather think you have—you’re in Minrathous now. You won’t get very far. You’re good, I’ll give you that—not exactly subtle, but if you keep an eye out for any sudden vases, I give you…about as far as the docks. Still, these are Tevinter magisters you’re dealing with. One slave runs away, the others get ideas. They can’t have that.’ Anders licked his lower lip, mouth suddenly dry. ‘It isn’t going to work.’
‘Probably not,’ Hawke replied. ‘But that’s never stopped me before.’
‘Of course it hasn’t,’ Anders said.
‘Quite,’ Hawke agreed.
‘Absolutely,’ Anders confirmed, taking it all one step too far. In the silence that followed—awkward, yes, but in a different way from how all the other silences were awkward—Anders heard his toe scuff against another porcelain shard, Hawke breathing even and calm in the ample moonlight. ‘…Are you sure you don’t want more dinner rolls to bring along?’
‘For a short jaunt down to the docks?’ Hawke rearranged his pack over his shoulder, then reached out to remind himself there was still a blade at his back. It was the same way an archon touched the head of his staff during a long dinner party—to let everyone know who he was, and sometimes to remember it, himself. ‘I don’t think extra provisions will be necessary.’
‘Watch out for the vases, then,’ Anders offered.
‘They’re trickier here than in Ferelden,’ Hawke muttered. With only a few more unavoidable crunches, he made his way out from the eye of the storm, fading backward between two distant columns.
Anders wondered where all his other slaves were—pretending they hadn’t heard the crash, no doubt; equal parts hopeful and spiteful, both wanting to aid Hawke in his escape while simultaneously praying he might not make it past the front gate. Anders, too, felt the same way. He and his slaves had so much in common—they just couldn’t admit that those shared instincts mattered any, and to be perfectly honest, they probably didn’t. Certainly not in the short run.
‘That’s Tevinter for you,’ Anders called, voice softening, but Hawke was already gone, neither as quiet as a rogue nor cloaked like a mage, just a large, bleak shadow pacing through the far end of the garden before it was gone.
Then, Anders released a breath he hadn’t meant to hold, and headed back to the master bedroom, where Pounce and his luxurious bed and a good night’s sleep were waiting for him.
Anders slept late—one of his favorite indulgences, something only a Tevinter magister with no real affinity for politics and therefore no real obligations could do—and woke sometime after noon, at which point Danarius arrived, bringing Hawke back to the villa in chains.
‘Really, Anders,’ he said, using his free hand—the one that wasn’t holding Hawke’s leash—to pluck a few grapes out of a fruit bowl and eat them. ‘What would the neighbors think?’
‘You’re my neighbor,’ Anders reminded him, not yet able to look at Hawke’s face. It made him think too much of other things, other times, other people—notably himself, his past and his problems, in a selfish convergence of emotions that he was still too tired to grapple with. Instead, he rubbed the sleep out of his eye with the heel of his palm too hard, so that white stars exploded behind his eyelid when he finally stopped.
‘I like to think I’m an exceptionally good one,’ Danarius said.
‘Not too loud, not too quiet…’ Anders looked everywhere else he could, counting the wrinkles on Daranius’s brow and around his mouth—not quite laugh lines—and the buttons in his collar, the grapes in the bowl versus the grapes in his palm. ‘Always inviting me to the best orgies…’
‘Always catching your runaway slaves,’ Danarius added.
‘The best neighbor I could hope for,’ Anders concluded. ‘Have I ever told you that?’
‘Not as often as you might.’ Danarius made the last few grapes disappear with a wave of his hand, one of them bursting succulent between his teeth. ‘But of course, that makes the rare occurrence so delightful.’
The links of Hawke’s chain clanked against the loop in his steel collar, making him even more difficult to ignore. Danarius had a perverse affection for qunari customs. He liked to mock their collared saarebas by outfitting his best slaves with heavy rings of iron, branded with geometric markings that interlocked where the metal sides fit together, piece by hammered piece. Perhaps he wouldn’t have dared collar another magister’s slave this way, but Anders was a healer—not a blood mage, and certainly not an equal.
He’d taken great pains to prove he wasn’t someone to fear.
‘Thank you,’ Anders said quickly, as if the words were an incantation that would make Danarius disappear. The sound of metal-on-metal had drawn his attention to Hawke at last, to the purple bruise blooming along his cheek like blotted wine, and the dried blood in his beard, at the corner of his jaw. Now that Anders had glanced his way, it was impossible to divide his focus, to look elsewhere again.
Danarius would see it, but then, Danarius had already seen it. That was the reasoning behind his ‘gift,’ and no doubt why he’d gone to such lengths to secure Hawke’s timely return.
‘Please.’ Danarius held up an empty hand. ‘Gratitude demeans us both.’ A thoughtful look passed over his face; when he turned to examine Hawke, Anders found himself grateful for the man’s size, for his presence, for his breadth of shoulder, the muscle proud beneath the tear in his armor. Danarius knew intimidation—he lived it, breathed it, slept with it wrapped like a downy blanket around his body—but even collared, Hawke refused to be intimidated. He should have been, but he wasn’t, and that made all the difference. ‘You do realize I could resolve your problem quite neatly, Anders? You never see any of my slaves tramping through the oleanders and trying to barter passage on the nearest fishing vessel.’
‘That’s very true,’ Anders said. His eyes fell to the grapes in the bowl. There were seven left, round and dark, one of them too ripe and split finely down the center. This variety was sweeter than the tart green grapes that grew in spring, like a fresh burst of wine in Anders’s mouth. Normally they were his favorite because of that sweetness. Now, they only served to remind him of the bruises coloring Hawke’s skin. ‘But then…not everyone has your way with people. Also, I’m pretty sure your slaves prefer petunias. Isn’t that right?’
Anders’s reward for this song-and-dance, a routine where he praised what he most wanted to deride, was a quiet chuckle, dry, like Danarius’s well-tailored robes slithering over dead autumn leaves.
But it was all worth it when Danarius finally passed Anders the lead-chain.
‘You’ll find a slave is much more docile if he can’t remember a time when he was anything else,’ Danarius said, unable to let the moment pass without commentary, his usual sour brand of advice. ‘Give it some thought. I’d hate to see your violets suffer next. I’ve always loved that garden; you really have to invite me over more often.’
‘You can’t stay?’ Anders asked. He managed to make his voice sound regretful.
‘Business, as always,’ Danarius replied. ‘This was the day’s sole pleasure, I’m afraid.’
He retrieved his darkwood staff from the doorway before he left; Anders wrapped his fingers through the chain resting heavy in his palm, hand twining around the unforgiving metal as the links pressed into his skin. His chest felt hot and too tight, and he could hear his own pulse thudding dully in his ears, as though he’d been holding his breath too long. A common enough occurrence, when Hawke was involved.
When he lifted his eyes, Hawke was watching him.
His right eyelid drooped beneath the weight of his swelling brow, and there was a bright crimson split in his upper lip. It wasn’t Danarius’s handiwork—he left other, more subtle scars—but rather those under his command. Anders wondered briefly how many of them there’d been, and how hard Hawke had fought before he surrendered to the inevitable, before he allowed anyone to clamp that collar around his throat.
In the end, it didn’t matter. Those details were never important because foiled was foiled, and however hard one fought only served to increase how hard they fell.
‘We have to stop meeting like this,’ Hawke said. His tone was flat, and he turned away to observe the fountain, water running over into the tiled stream.
A startled gasp escaped from somewhere deep in Anders’s chest, and with it went the weight bearing on his ribs. He drew in a grateful gulp of air, glad that Danarius had met him in the atrium, where his peculiar, old man smell would soon be swept away by summer breezes.
‘Oh, I don’t know about that,’ Anders tutted. He released the chain, setting his palms against Hawke’s shoulders, working his fingers beneath the heavy collar. On Danarius’s slaves, the restraints wouldn’t come off without a key. Since this was just a loan—another kind favor Danarius would accept no thanks for—it merely required the right angle to lift off. Hawke couldn’t do it himself, because of the way it rested against his shoulders, keeping his arms pinned at his sides. ‘A little variety every now and then adds flavor to life, don’t you think? Oof.’ Anders rose up on the balls of his feet to lift the collar; Hawke ducked free the minute he felt it leave his shoulders. ‘For example: you seem bound and determined to change the shape of your face every time I see you. A suspicious man would think you had something to hide. Maker, why is this thing so heavy?’
‘Not my idea,’ Hawke said. He didn’t offer to help Anders with the collar—beastly, unwieldy contraption that it was—but neither did he try to crack Anders over the head and run away, or to bowl him over with a fingertip, pinning him under the collar he held, and steal his favorite pair of sandals before attempting a second escape.
It was the little things, really. Anders had learned to appreciate them.
‘How far did you make it, then? Was I right about the docks?’ There was nowhere to put the collar, but it was far too enormous for Anders to continue carrying it for no reason. After a cursory glance through the sitting room, he realized there was an empty spot after all, where the remains of the broken vase had been cleared away, sometime between that night and that morning. Anders struggled magnificently, lurching toward the far wall and dropping the damn thing with a powerful clang. When he turned around again, Hawke was holding two sides of a broken leather strap in his large hands.
‘They’ve absolutely ruined my armor,’ he said.
‘I’d think you’d be more concerned about what they did to your face,’ Anders replied.
Hawke shrugged, one-shouldered, his left side suspiciously stiff. ‘Last I checked, you couldn’t heal armor.’
‘Your priorities don’t seem to make much sense, Fluffy,’ Anders murmured. He observed the glint of sunlight off metal, the intricate carvings and even more interesting locks set into the side of the collar, then measured those details against the dents in Hawke’s armor. What remained of it, anyway. He was going to need new clothes—the new personality that Danarius implied would come later, possibly, depending on how much Anders chose to root for him.
That was always the kiss of death, not only inside the ring, but out of it as well.
‘Just the ones that count,’ Hawke said. ‘Like not being held captive against my will. That is what I’d been focusing on, primarily.’
Anders gestured him toward one of the low couches by the picture window. Outside, along a flowering walkway, a few tiny birds flitted from blossom to blossom, wings beating so quickly they were little more than a blur of pale color. Hawke lingered by the puckered velvet cushion, then eased himself down onto the tiny piece of furniture, one of his knees refusing to bend.
‘Looks like they broke it after all,’ he said, thoughtful, sounding almost surprised. ‘And here I was hoping it was just a sprain.’
Somewhere in the house, the slaves were already talking about this fresh offense—the dirty gladiator receiving special treatment, whatever it meant as opposed to whatever they thought it meant, the preferences he was clearly being shown. That was the trouble with being so different—almost nobody ever saw fit to like you, not even the very people who should have been on your side. Anders didn’t know how to change that sorry state of affairs, but he did know how to heal a broken knee, and he cupped his palms against the twisted bone, at the soft, vulnerable back, where Hawke’s pulse beat uneven in response to his silenced pain. Hawke held on to the scrolling arm of the couch, dirty fingernails pressed into the velvet, and his knuckles were whiter than the unspoiled sand in the coliseum, whiter even than bone—but he didn’t make a sound to commemorate the occasion, nothing more noticeable than his unlabored breathing steady in the afternoon breezes.
By the time they were finished, Anders dabbing at the last of the blood on the back of Hawke’s neck with one of his linen breakfast napkins, Danarius had likely spread a thousand and one rumors about Anders’s latest act of peculiarity. Anders sometimes wondered if Danarius didn’t enjoy putting people in their place half so much as he enjoyed gossiping, and magisters had so much more time to waste than slaves, so much more energy to devote to idle rumors.
None of that mattered particularly; Anders had endured worse accusations than taking a bluff Fereldan gladiator as a sexual companion, and it wasn’t as though some of those details might have been true—in some other world, where justice and morality and common decency weren’t factors to consider. Anders tried to consider them, sometimes, occasionally, in between Hawke’s limping trip to Anders’s private bath and his subsequent return, damp once more, the dark hair at the back of his neck curling with the heat.
He didn’t seem more relaxed, definitely not more demure, but again, he hadn’t turned any of Anders’s favorite statuettes into weapons, nor had he tried to drown himself amongst the sizzling stones and shallow waters of the bath. It was impossible to feel unhappy about anything, Anders privately suspected, when one was clean, skin warm and flushed from hot water, joints relaxed, body freshly healed—and though happy wasn’t a state of affairs Hawke seemed ready to encourage, he did look different somehow. No longer all lean tension, but rather a network of scars upon skin upon muscle, each shifting in a play of shadow as he moved, rolling out his left shoulder, wiping a fresh towel over the right.
Anders should have left all this business to his slaves to take care of. No matter how much they wouldn’t appreciate it, they knew the way of it so much better than he did; it was their duty, not his, and the idea that Hawke might be their master’s favorite would garner him decent treatment, at least until his back was turned.
After that, all bets were off. But Anders had already stopped caring, so long as no one literally stabbed him between his shoulders.
Anders shifted, tugging the clasp at his collar. He knew, logically, that wearing all the fine Tevinter robes with equally fine Chasind sensibilities, that having the dragon claw earring while other people had none, should have made him feel more comfortable than Hawke looked, wearing nothing but a clean set of linen trousers, reaching for his clean linen shirt. Yet Anders’s villa was one where logic so rarely applied—if ever—and he could do no more than his best, as always, to appear nonchalant, while never actually belonging in his own home.
Hawke—who picked up on that discomfort the same way a cat picked up on instinctive dislike—lifted both hands, one still clutched around the towel. ‘All healed,’ he said. ‘Satisfied with your handiwork, I hope? Really, you magisters do know how to treat your slaves. Beat them one day, force them into single combat the next—try to kill them in the ring, then heal them up so nicely. It’s almost like you can’t make up your minds.’
‘All the magic crowds out all the reason,’ Anders explained.
Hawke huffed, glancing away, observing the mosaic on the fair wall, the pretty colored tiles beaded with the air’s natural moisture. ‘So I’ve heard.’
‘And now you’ve seen it for yourself.’ Anders toyed with his earring, then decided that was hardly so attractive as sitting on the window ledge, leaning back amidst the play of the curtains. They fluttered against his legs, tickling one bare ankle, and he reminded himself of how lucky he was, how much he had, how little he wanted. Then, he reminded himself what he did want, all of it encapsulated by the single droplet of sweat perched in the hollow of Hawke’s throat, disappearing the moment he swallowed. Some people were so greedy—Anders included. They were never satisfied with anything, such as not being a slave or not being murdered outright in the streets. ‘The trouble with Tevinter is that its reputation precedes it so much. No matter what you predicted, or tried to predict, you’re always bound to be surprised.’
‘Oh,’ Hawke agreed, ‘all this did come as something of a shock.’
‘Really?’ Anders asked, sitting a little straighter on the ledge. He crossed his legs at the ankle, eyes suddenly keen as he watched Hawke from beneath lowered lashes. It was a trick all the best—and therefore wickedest—characters in his novels employed. Strangely enough, the narrators failed to mention how difficult it was to see someone when you were also so busy keeping your eyes down. ‘Were you minding your own business one day, then snapped up with a burlap sack over your head the next?’
That was the way Caladrius always described taking Fereldans, but Anders had never believed him. The man was an impossible liar—and Fereldans like Hawke were far more difficult to overpower than his countrymen in the alienage.
Perhaps that explained Caladrius’s latest scar.
Hawke grunted, fastening the laces on his trousers. ‘You must be bored here, if you’re looking to a slave for entertainment.’
‘A slave and a Fereldan,’ Anders reminded him. He slid sideways along the window-sill, doing his best not to seem overly eager. ‘Some would say the latter’s far more unforgivable. I’ve probably taken leave of my senses, if I ever had them at all. Tell me—did you ever visit The Pearl? Is that where they took you from?’
Hawke’s shoulders tensed, and Anders tucked his foot back against the billowing curtain, trapping the gauzy fabric as it slipped and dragged like pure-spun torture over his bare skin. He waited, palms sweating where he’d folded his hands on his knee.
Every magister had his or her preferred method of extracting information, when it came to enemies or allies, to friends or slaves. Anders’s required no fancy tools, no pain or threats of violence against the captive, or any imprisonment of loved ones they might have in the vicinity. No; his was a simple technique he’d perfected in the Fereldan Circle, hammering at an object of interest with foolish questions until finally they cracked, like a rock worn smooth beneath the crash of the tide.
Hawke may not have been a statue, but Anders had experience with turning even the most determined man to aggravated rubble without chisel or mallet, through the sheer force of his unavoidable conversation.
‘Denerim,’ Hawke said at last. He drew the linen shirt over his head, dark, bristling beard disappearing beneath the cloth before the mussed crown of his hair poked through again. ‘Took a job with some mercenaries—it didn’t go so well. If you ask me, it was a set-up from the beginning.’
‘But no one thought to ask you, did they?’ Anders said, suddenly sympathetic. That explained why he’d come in with so many different sorts. Slavers weren’t known for their love of geography; they hit one city, then left with their galleys full, before some poor idiot could kick up a fuss. That impeccable sense of timing was what kept them in business. Caladrius had probably been to Denerim and Amaranthine and even Kirkwall, ship packed below deck before he set his course for Minrathous again.
‘They never do.’ Hawke straightened the seams at his shoulders, the shirt a scant few inches too small for him, then rolled up the cuffs of his sleeves, baring tanned forearms, the scars on his wrists already beginning to fade. ‘That’s how I wound up in Denerim in the first place.’
Anders chuckled, though his throat felt tight. The success of one moment could just as easily become the ruin of the next. Despite the clear disparity between Hawke’s position and his own, there was nothing that could make Anders feel like an equal in this conversation. Not when he was the one so obviously begging for scraps, for real attention that might burnish to interest in time, with the proper polish applied.
‘Bet you had a bit of a stop-over in Kirkwall, too,’ Anders said.
‘The slave statues were a nice touch.’ Hawke’s hands stilled. ‘Really put us in the mood for our final destination.’
‘I’ve never been there, myself,’ Anders admitted. He bent to examine the scrolling gold bracelet wrapped around his forearm, in order to keep up the pretense of not staring at Hawke. ‘Far too many templars there, for my liking.’
‘You’re right,’ Hawke said. ‘I feel so much safer here.’
There were days when Anders thought it unfair that Tevinter was so reviled by the rest of Thedas, and days when he didn’t. This was one of the former, an old ache that made itself known from time to time, a sore spot, that part of him that didn’t know when to shut up. ‘That’s only because you’re not a mage,’ he replied, pushing off the window-ledge and smoothing out his skirts.
Anyone else would have watched him do it. Hawke didn’t.
He huffed again instead, a deeper and more consequential sound, possibly imbued with hidden meaning. But as much as Anders knew his body—its gravity and its shortcomings, what it was capable of and what it wasn’t, every line of powerful muscle and every old scar fitted with new ones—he knew very little else, beyond a name and a not-uncommon course, the same one so many slaving vessels charted from Kirkwall to the port at Minrathous. New ships came in every day; new gladiators flooded the arena regularly in the summertime, when the ocean was balmy and the weather fair in the less temperate parts of Thedas. Hawke was just another face, as far as Anders was concerned—but a good face, a bit scuffed up here and there, hidden by a thick beard, a stubborn jaw and an equally stubborn mouth, only the occasional flash of white teeth, and an even less occasional hint of mirth.
It was there. And Hawke was right—Anders craved it, despite how little it made sense, and how small it made him feel.
‘It’s not as though I started out here,’ Anders said, the barest of offerings to break the uncomfortable silence.
‘Really? Because I’d never have guessed,’ Hawke replied.
Anders rolled his eyes—a relic from a distance past, feeling young and scolded and, for whatever reason, actually enjoying it. Hawke stood firm in the center of the room, one hand rubbing the opposite wrist, not in pain but in thought. Remembering the cuffs that bound him, rather than preserving the moment of suffering that went along with it, and the ideological chains that still bound him. But he was no more a piece of furniture or a handsome statue than Anders, all life and breath and surly looks that faded to a quirk of curiosity, the slant of a challenge, whenever he caught Anders staring at him.
And Anders was staring at him a lot.
‘I’m in Tevinter by way of Ferelden, actually,’ Anders continued, picking his way across the floor, the soft soles of his new sandals—not his favorite pair; he’d always know those were ruined—scuffing the tiles. ‘That’s one thing we have in common.’
‘Idiot Fereldan sensibilities are another, I’m sure,’ Hawke replied.
Anders paused, not enough distance between them, still hoping he didn’t come across the same way Caladrius did, or any of the magisters and their spouses, interested gamblers, gladiatorial fanatics and the like, inspecting the latest stock, comparing their muscles and contemplating their prowess—or like Danarius, bearing down on some hapless body slave in the height of summer, Danarius, who liked to watch his slaves sweat. Even the elvhen ones. Maybe especially them.
Sometimes, the hope was enough. That Anders didn’t want to be that master had to mean something; a good impulse wasn’t completely inconsequential.
But sometimes the hope wasn’t enough; it was the good action following the good impulse that proved a man’s worth, and confirmed his morals.
Anders wasn’t sure if, after all this time, he still had any of those left. He healed slave and master alike, mages and humans and elves and the occasional, bridling qunari, a gift he was meant to have, as natural and obvious as breathing. It wasn’t anything personal. At least, that was what he told himself.
‘…Did you just call me an idiot?’ he asked.
‘I find it helps to soften the blow when you show some camaraderie while insulting someone,’ Hawke replied. ‘Which is precisely why I called us both idiots.’
Anders asked himself what Danarius would have said to that—how he would have treated such insolence; as though the man was any sort of appropriate measure for basic human guidance—and was relieved to find he had no answer for it, not even a very close guess. That meant they were different enough that Anders could still waver, shifting away from Hawke’s body rather than closer, and feel decent, even if decency also made him feel like a fool.
‘All Fereldans are idiots,’ Anders ventured, testing the waters.
Hawke shrugged—one-shouldered again, bearing the memory of his hurts more acutely than he did the hurts themselves. ‘I won’t argue with you there.’
‘Finally,’ Anders said, ‘we’ve agreed on something more than baked goods. Did you ever get to eat the rolls, by the way?’
‘Couldn’t find the right spot for a picnic,’ Hawke replied.
Anders sighed. ‘No—of course not. The docks are too splintery for that, aren’t they? I’d have more made for tonight, but it’s one of Caladrius’s parties, and I’m afraid we can’t miss it.’
‘We,’ Hawke repeated.
It didn’t seem like a question, but Anders accepted the urge to reply anyway. ‘It’s not as though I can leave you here, is it?’ he explained. ‘You might try to run away again, and I already know you don’t have the proper respect for physical pain, especially your own. Danarius was kind this morning—that was his way of showing it—but he rarely ever makes the same mistake twice, so it’s for your own good, really.’
‘Are you going to try and cover me in oil?’ Hawke asked. ‘Make me stand around in front of your friends in nothing but my smalls?’
‘I have no idea where you’d get an idea like that.’ Anders hid the flush in his cheeks by pretending to be fascinated with one of the traditional Rivaini dance-masks on the wall. It had spooky eyes, not to mention a downright obscene mouth, and that was why Anders kept it out of the way, hidden from everyday sight, not the sort of thing he wanted to wake up in the middle of the night to find looming over him, watching him drool onto his pillow. ‘I didn’t peg you for the type to believe all the rumors you’ve heard. That’s quite the dirty little imagination you’ve got.’
‘It matches your dirty little friends.’ Hawke shifted his attentions to his throat, the back of his neck, tracing the faded lines in the flesh where the collar pinched, all but gone now, except that they both remembered it was there. Anders mimicked the motion without thought, running his fingers along the faint line of dark hair beneath his chin, over the bob as he swallowed, then tugged at his collar to give himself an excuse, or at least a purpose.
‘If they oil you up, there won’t be anything I can do about it,’ Anders admitted, moving quickly toward the door. The fresh air would do him some good; there was no better cure for a cluttered mind than the brisk stroll to Caladrius’s villa. It was too hot inside, even with the open breeze, and smelled too much of Hawke’s skin and fresh-laundered linen. ‘We’ll all have to suffer through it, I’m afraid.’
‘I do so love the Imperium,’ Hawke replied
Fortunately—or perhaps unfortunately—Caladrius’s vanity prevented him from having all the slaves rubbed in glistening oil that evening. He did so hate being outshone, literally or otherwise, and Anders worked hard to conceal his disappointment, which was simpler than usual, because it was weighted with equal parts relief.
He should have known better. It wasn’t as if they were attending a summer feast at Danarius’s pavilion, after all.
That was where Anders had learned there was such a thing as covering your slaves in oil and stripping them down to their smallclothes, having them wander from guest to guest while hoping their hands weren’t so slippery they dropped their pitchers. It had been a revelation, almost a good one, but ultimately one Anders never indulged in personally. It was one thing to admire someone’s figure when they’d willingly undressed for you, and quite another when they were pacing the crowded halls of someone else’s atrium, eyes listless behind the bowl of fruit or jug of spiced wine they carried.
The lack of consent killed the mood. At least, that was Anders’s opinion on the whole thing.
Such wild ideas didn’t occur to Danarius, who was the sort of man who liked to observe and admire—or perhaps observe other people admiring what they couldn’t have.
But Anders, on the other hand, was far too self-involved to bother with the interests of his neighbors, and encouraging them to slip it to his slaves seemed like bad manners all around.
More importantly, Anders didn’t know how to encourage anyone to slip it to him, these days. As far as he was concerned, everyone was on his own when it came to the business of romantic entanglements. If such a thing as romance still existed, in Tevinter.
Caladrius’s ego couldn’t bear the notion of his guests drooling over slaves all night instead of crowding around him like moths to a scented lamp, complimenting him on his décor and his clothes and his smooth, shining head. Anders confided as much to Hawke as they slipped through the gardens to the atrium, fine white gravel crunching beneath their sandals. There were lanterns lit all along the path, and in the distance Caladrius was holding court with a Magister Valeria and a few others, already well-into their cups, laughter curling like incense smoke toward the clear sky.
‘I expect you’ll be able to keep your clothes on, after all,’ Anders added. His bare arm brushed against Hawke’s loose sleeve; Hawke hadn’t yet mastered the slave’s art of keeping three paces behind, so that the walk seemed almost companionable.
‘Don’t sound so excited,’ Hawke muttered. Anders’s pulse throbbed to life in his chest, beating faster at the unexpected reply. It had been ages since he’d enjoyed a good spot of banter with anyone, since in the Imperium, conversations tended to resemble an intricate web of oil slicks and poison gas traps. Blunder into the wrong topic, and you’d be dueling for your life in the streets before you knew it. That level of danger sapped the joy out of things—took away their harmless pleasure by imbuing them with untold peril. ‘I’ll start to think you’re ashamed of my figure. I’m no radiant elf, but someone around here must appreciate the classics.’
Anders’s laugh became an abrupt cough as they descended into the shallow basin where Caladrius’s couches and wine had been set. There were guests lounging on every available surface, reaching clumsy hands back for another goblet, which their slaves obligingly poured, and which they obligingly spilled.
Anders was late, but that wasn’t uncommon, and no one ever remarked on it. Anders often enjoyed showing up after everyone else got roaring drunk; that way, he could pontificate at length to anyone he chose, and they’d listen as if the secrets of Thedas itself were spilling from his lips, then forget about the whole thing come morning.
‘Well,’ someone said, in a voice like cut glass, ‘if it isn’t the healer.’
Anders smoothed the skirts of his robe, seating himself on the end of a couch that was only half-occupied by a magister and his elvhen lover. Judging by the jeweled tiara in the latter’s hair and the necklace at her throat, she was not a slave, but she’d likely been one, before—collars were still collars, even if this one was wrought in filigreed gold. It had seemed safe enough—they were far too engaged with one another to notice or greet anyone else—but that didn’t take into account some other magister’s penchant for melting out of the shadows.
‘Hello, Hadriana,’ Anders murmured. He didn’t lift his head, knowing she would come to him.
Danarius’s apprentice shared his keen interest in the lives of other people, but it wasn’t muted by an old man’s selfish pleasures, or an old man’s frivolity. Hadriana was a little too sharp for Anders’s preferred company, but she was also prominent enough in society that Anders couldn’t just turn her aside and pretend he didn’t need to humor her attentions.
The only thing worse than bearing her company with a smile would be making her into an enemy.
She approached him on the couch, parting the crowd like the figurehead lashed to the prow of a slaving galleon. Hadriana had that look to her—as if she’d been carved from wood by a clever man with a large knife. Anders had to bite down on the corner of his mouth not to smile at the notion; perhaps he could share it with Hawke later, if they were still speaking to one other at the end of the night.
‘Danarius told me he’d fixed you up with a gift from that entertaining run-around in the ring,’ Hadriana said. Her gaze found Hawke over Anders’s shoulder—he hadn’t bothered to fetch any wine, empty hands holding only each other, thick fingers fitted against thick fingers. ‘I knew it couldn’t be the qunari. Not your style, is it? And it died, anyway. I suppose he considered this the next best thing…?’
‘The next biggest thing, at least,’ Anders replied. He kept his tone light, just foolish enough that Hadriana might be able to overlook it. And she probably would have, save for one mitigating detail: Hawke, whom she didn’t want to overlook.
It would have been a struggle to do so, since he was so tall, and so broad, not to mention so obviously new. Hadriana was drawn to such immaculacy like gossips to Caladrius, like an artist to a clean canvas, though her skills lay in sculpting people as though they were little more than clay. Perhaps they were as hard to shape as stone, but some enjoyed the challenge, and were incapable of thinking about flesh the same way a healer did.
Anders stared into his empty cup, while Hawke stared into the fire and Hadriana stared at Hawke. It would have been funny, the sort of triangle Anders enjoyed, but it had a meaning that soured in Anders’s mouth.
He smiled anyway.
‘Danarius,’ Hadriana sighed, then tsked softly, leaning against the couch, all draped silks and well-placed jewelry. She didn’t wear more than she needed—not the sort to accept a dragon claw earring, much less cherish it amongst her prized possessions—and she was beautiful, if what a man wanted was to sleep with a viper. Anders pretended there was wine in his glass, rich and dark, swirling the invisible brew in circles to keep his hands busy. The idle flicks of his wrists betrayed a nervousness Hadriana would probably sense. In fact, she’d probably sensed it already. ‘He used to give me gifts, you know. Good ones—though never as good as this.’
‘And it’s not even my birthday,’ Anders agreed mildly. ‘Sometimes I ask myself how I got so lucky.’
‘You’re not the only one who asks yourself that,’ Hadriana said. Afterward, she laughed—it was meant to be a joke, only not really, but Anders played along and laughed too, refusing to tilt his head back and show her his throat. ‘Don’t listen to me,’ Hadriana continued, a painted nail pressed against the corner of her mouth. She was watching Hawke again, with pale eyes almost tender in the lamplight. ‘I’m only jealous. You can’t blame me for that, can you? You’ve no idea how much I gave Danarius, how long we worked together. Since I was just a little girl who didn’t know what she wanted—but now I know, and Danarius knows, and he gives me jewelry instead of gladiators. Do you think he does it on purpose?’
‘Maybe he’s jealous, too,’ Anders suggested.
Hadriana brushed her lower lip with the tip of her thumb; it came away red, paint that was meant to mimic the color of blood, so much the fashion after the long, hot summers. In the dead of the season, it was far too humid to feel riled by anything, but after all the feasting, so many afternoon siestas, a period of hibernation meant only to preserve equilibrium, everyone woke anew to quick, salt breezes in the autumn and a renewed interest in carnal pleasures.
It was still, arguably, Anders’s favorite time of year. But he could have done without all the violence that came along with it.
He watched as Hadriana surveyed the bloom of color on her thumb, then lifted it high to touch the bridge of Hawke’s nose. That same color smudged red and raw over the lump there, the half-healed bone handsome not despite, but because of, its crookedness.
‘This healer didn’t finish the job, did he, gladiator?’ Hadriana asked. ‘Honestly, Anders, I understand leaving a few scars here and there, but his nose? How could you be so obvious?’
‘Not obvious,’ Anders murmured. ‘Just careless. You know me.’ He wished for more wine; he wished that Hadriana had more wine; he wished that Hawke would lose his temper and go into a rage, that dealing with Hadriana was as easy as fending off a slew of gladiators, or that someone might choke on a fishbone and require immediate healing attention. He almost wished a slave would trip on a tassled rug and spill a platter of little fish into someone’s lap, then realized that was a cruel wish indeed, and wondered why he had so many of those thoughtless impulses—thoughtlessness turned toward cruelty just as easily as all of Hadriana’s thoughtfulness combined.
But Hawke remained as still as he had in the arena, without even a sword to hold, one hand wrapped loosely around the opposite wrist. The flash of red arching over the bridge of his nose reminded Anders of when they’d first met, while the expression he wore was an eternity away, neither patient nor uncomfortable nor angry. None of those quick emotions, surly at one turn and amused despite himself at the next, registered on his features—which to Anders seemed a wicked shame, since they were clearly designed to register everything: wry humor, dark moods, dirty jokes and all.
It was the same shield all slaves learned to wield—not a weapon, but a defense.
‘It doesn’t seem to me that you’re appreciating him properly, healer,’ Hadriana continued. Anders decided that her personal guards—two of them, currently forgotten at her back—were relieved not to be the focus of her full attentions, at least for a time. ‘Wasting your gifts, as always. That doesn’t seem fair.’
‘Oh, I’ve been appreciating him,’ Anders said. ‘All day long, in fact. So much appreciation that we’re both positively exhausted. Well—he doesn’t get exhausted, do you, Fereldan?—but I do, so there you have it. Come sit next to me,’ he added, patting the silk cushion by his side. He hoped Hawke would forgive him, even in the same breath as he knew Hawke wouldn’t.
With far more grace than he would have shown if Hadriana was, for example, an antique vase, Hawke stepped out of her shadow and around the couch. He lifted a dark brow in Anders’s direction—not in gratitude, naturally, but with a hint of the sharp absurdity Anders so enjoyed, as bemused as he was offended by the prospect. The couch creaked under his weight as he sat, and Anders tucked himself in at his side, enjoying the feel of warm cotton on his bare skin, the way the silk whispered as it rubbed against Hawke’s trousers.
Anders patted the back of Hawke’s forearm, feeling the muscles flex in warning beneath his touch, but the act was necessary—the show meant more to these people than the truth, anyway—and Hadriana watched with pursed lips. It was only a game to her, not the sort of slight she’d kill someone over.
Hadriana shifted her folded arms, long sleeves of dyed gauze the same icy shade as her eyes. It was a precision that lacked subtlety, but then subtle had never been Hadriana’s preferred method. ‘Really?’ she asked, tucking a soft fall of dark hair over one ear.
‘I’m afraid so,’ Anders replied. He went still as Hawke slid an arm around his waist, hard, corded muscle warm against the small of his back. Slaves weren’t supposed to make the first move, or any move unless they were puppeteered into it by a jerk of the chains, but Anders couldn’t begrudge him the inspiration, or its effects. The flush in his cheeks after that was entirely genuine—an artifice that even the most talented mummers couldn’t produce on cue. ‘I’ve become terribly particular about my bedfellows in my old age, Hadriana. I suspect Danarius recognized that, being the generous soul that he is, and finally took pity on me. You have to admit, this one’s rare—even among Fereldans.’
Hawke’s hand tensed against Anders’s waist, knuckles digging in at the soft curve of Anders’s lower back, as if counseling him not to oversell it. Anders felt, then dutifully ignored, the slight swell of guilt as it rose from his belly to his chest.
The lie was coming much too easily to him, as sure a sign as any that he wasn’t lying.
Hawke was uniquely handsome. Anders wasn’t forced to pretend he found him attractive.
‘I don’t have to admit anything,’ Hadriana observed. She traced the corner of her mouth with one white thumb, making sure she hadn’t smeared any paint on her own face. ‘Fereldans are so unfashionable these days.’ Her eyes found Hawke once more, and Anders considered the absurd urge to throw a blanket over him, or hide him behind the nearest fig tree. ‘Still… I’d have been willing to make an exception for that one.’
‘I certainly don’t blame you,’ Anders said. Somehow, he managed to restrain himself from crawling fully into Hawke’s lap, shielding him with his body and enjoying the friction it produced. Knowing how little it would be appreciated went a long way toward bolstering Anders’s self control. But sitting this close, Anders could see the color in Hawke’s skin, pink beneath the collar of his shirt, and the bristles on his neck where he hadn’t shaved. He wasn’t used to the heat yet; heavy Tevinter summers were a long way from hard, frozen mud-lands. ‘But a healer can afford to be unfashionable. Someone as important as you, now—an up-and-coming magister under Danarius’s wing? People might talk.’
‘Indeed,’ Hadriana said, rising at last. ‘In this season, people rarely do anything else.’
Anders watched her go, pulse thudding in his ears for reasons other than being tucked against Hawke’s side, bound securely in Hawke’s tight embrace.
It wasn’t an intimate gesture, but one that anchored them both. Anders didn’t dare presume that Hawke felt any gratitude for what had happened, but he’d still thrown their lots together when the cards fell.
That Hawke. He was nothing if not unpredictable. Anders didn’t know what it all meant, but he felt the rise and fall of Hawke’s ribcage with each breath he took, and felt comforted by the notion that it could remain so steady despite everything else.
‘Are your parties always like this?’ Hawke muttered through his teeth. Despite their proximity, he still wouldn’t look Anders’s way. Instead, his gaze was fixed on the flowering vines that twined around the garden trellises. The lanterns flickered along the path, and Anders knew Hawke was imagining another escape already, kicking up white gravel beneath his sandals, wielding a long torch as a flaming weapon.
They were alike—or the person Anders used to be had more in common with the person Hawke was today. Anders wanted to explain that, but he doubted it would make the same sense out loud as it did in his head.
‘Not nearly.’ Anders tore his gaze from the path, hiding his face in the feathers at his shoulders. ‘None of my slaves draw attention the way you do.’
‘Right,’ Hawke said. He slipped his arm free from Anders’s back, standing without warning, and leaving nothing but empty space for Anders to lean into. ‘In that case, I need to find the wine.’
Anders dropped his cheek against one hand, hiding his smile against the curve of his palm. At the center of the room, he could see Caladrius’s newly-minted face, the man happily occupied with entertaining his guests, not a thought spared for the healer who’d kept him so pretty. In some respects, it was good to be known only for one’s abilities, rather than having a likeable personality or any meaningful reputation, traits that meant you were swarmed with admirers the instant you crossed the threshold.
It could also be lonesome, intimidating, aimless—but tonight, at least, Anders wouldn’t be returning home with no one at his side.
He never once saw the wine pass Hawke’s lips, but by the end of the night they were both three sheets to the wind, Anders stumbling off the path as they strode home together. The garden lanterns had long since burnt out, and a few of Caladrius’s poppies were crushed beneath Anders’s sandals before he found his bearings.
He could feel a petal caught between his toes. It tickled, smooth and half-crushed against his skin.
Hawke, on the other hand, was surefooted as a Frostback mountain goat. The only indication Anders had that he’d been drinking was the gradual relaxation of his expression; the lines in his face had eased as the night progressed, until he didn’t scowl nearly so much whenever his fingers brushed Anders’s, pouring his wine into an increasingly unsteady glass.
Anders had no such class when it came to drunkenness. He had no such style, either, no such flair, nor anything other than bouts of the giggles, friendly hands—sometimes too friendly—and obvious looks. The night passed into nothing more tangible than the curls of incense smoke, ribbons rising from the glass pots, the taste of Agreggio, the spice in the dregs and the blithe laughter of the other guests. Anders never wanted it to end, if only because he knew it had to.
His villa, by turn, was silent as the grave, empty and cool as a marble tomb erected above the corpse of some long-dead hero. Or perhaps a long-dead villain, depending on which part of Thedas you were in. Anders leaned against a cold stone column to get his bearings, while the room spun and the chips of glass in the floor-tiles caught the moonlight, dazzling him.
Then, the dizzy spell was over. Hawke passed him by, sturdy as ever, heading deeper into the room, and Anders wondered why parties only ended once they’d finally gotten pleasant. When he wanted to leave was never when he did leave; only once he was having a roaring good time did he finally stumble away from the rest, returning to a quiet household with no one there to greet him.
Hawke paused in the distance, palm flat against the wall with the naughty mosaic, fingers spread wide between two breasts. A relic of the villa’s previous owner, and not one Anders had thought to abolish. He liked it. It made him laugh. Anders was too drunk to feel embarrassed by it, in any case, and just drunk enough to stare and lick his lips as Hawke’s hand drifted along the dark curve of a dancing girl’s hip, thumb crooked at the widest swell.
‘So you can see,’ Anders said, continuing a conversation that hadn’t yet begun, leaning back against the column and clasping his own arms tight; he could feel himself swaying, just like a breeze, savoring the moment and the distance while at the same time wanting so much more, ‘Tevinter is everything they say it is. And more.’
‘Charming company you keep,’ Hawke agreed. ‘That woman reminded me of a mercenary I once knew, back at Ostagar. Cut twelve purses and three throats before he also cut and ran. Very enterprising.’
‘Please.’ Anders breathed. It sounded louder than usual. It might have been a laugh. ‘Don’t insult that poor—poor mercenary.’
‘You’re right,’ Hawke said. ‘And his hair didn’t smell nearly so nice, either, now that I think about it.’
Anders frowned. He didn’t want to think about how nice Hadriana’s hair smelled—or how smooth her skin was, how rich her clothes were, how much more easily or quickly she would have had Hawke beneath her than Anders. How loud she’d laugh to see this, head thrown back and vulnerable throat bared, not afraid of anything because she never had to be. Anders rubbed at his own throat, the hair he’d missed while shaving that morning, and felt the thrum of his pulse, the way it jumped each time he stole a glance at Hawke’s back.
At least, he told himself, Hawke knew it was all right to turn his back to Anders. Whether or not it was because he didn’t respect him or didn’t fear him—there was a distinction, no matter how much Danarius would’ve insisted otherwise—didn’t matter. Not this time. Anders didn’t need either.
‘I bet he wouldn’t have looked half so fine in the pretty robes, either,’ Anders murmured. His throat felt too dry, and he supposed he wanted another, inadvisable drink.
‘No,’ Hawke said. ‘But at least he wasn’t pretending to be something he wasn’t. Not after recruitment, in any case.’
There was something important about the topic of conversation—not just that they were having a conversation at all—but Anders couldn’t think beneath the haze, the lingering smells and the familiar tastes on the tip of his tongue, or the way the shirt fell open at the back of Hawke’s neck, the collar too wide and baring one sun-burnt shoulder. Anders moved without thinking, footsteps not altogether silent on the floor, just a dull thump, thump of a loose sandal hitting the hard tile as he crossed the room. He pressed his forefinger against the wall beside Hawke’s hand, running the tip over the funny bumps of each painted chip, the mortar that held them together, then traced the curve of Hawke’s palm, the rise of each finger, and the dips between them.
He didn’t touch Hawke’s skin—the suddenness of flesh on flesh would have ruined everything—even though he wished he could. If only he’d been able to pretend the pauses weren’t necessary, or accept he could take whatever he wanted as though it was also what he needed.
He did, however, breathe out against the back of Hawke’s neck, then breathe in again, the scent of wine on his lips and sweat in Hawke’s hair, the soap and the cotton and the sun-warmed body beneath. Then, leaning closer, he sensed something deeper than that—not blood, but close to it, the hard-packed earth of Ferelden, all its mud and dogs, alongside the rotting planks of an old slaving vessel, and something resembling elfroot, probably from a poorly-crafted poultice. Anders savored that breath, nose so close to the curling hairs above the nape of Hawke’s neck, lips closing in on shadow and a cluster of freckles and skin rubbed raw—the last not a symptom of idle hands content to ignore the burn there, or the pain of it.
Anders’s thumb slid alongside Hawke’s thumb. He rubbed the crack by the nail, the broken nail itself, the sword callus along the side. Hawke breathed in, and his back swelled with the air in his lungs. Anders rested his cheek and chin on Hawke’s shoulder, the skin hot with trapped sun-heat, the one bright light in Minrathous proper—even with the bonfires that night, the lantern-lit walkways, the parties twinkling late into the night and straight through the palest hours of morning.
And Anders, helpless to resist it, drew closer still, wrapping his free arm around Hawke’s waist—the same way Hawke had done for him on the couch at Caladrius’s villa.
‘Anders,’ Hawke said. Not healer, or master, but Anders—a lonely relic from a distant homeland, one of the few actual belongings Anders had brought with him to the Fereldan Circle.
The name should have recalled him to himself. But he didn’t want to be Anders just now. He wanted to be someone else, someone whose fingers could slip along the linen waistband of Hawke’s trousers, feeling the hard planes of muscle beneath the fabric there. His breath was warm against the bulk of Hawke’s shoulder, but Anders could see gooseflesh prickling along his skin in the moonlight.
Hawke hadn’t pulled away, and his body was pliant, no longer rigid as a statue’s. The wine had seen to that, but it had been Hawke’s choice to drink it, just as it was Hawke’s choice to sway against Anders’s body at his back, weight braced against the tiled wall.
That was what Anders told himself. But even through the cloud of midsummer wine, he couldn’t make it sound convincing. Hawke was a slave here, taken by force to live in a country that bore him no love. Perhaps he’d drunk too much in order to cope with that reality, and Anders was taking advantage of his sorrow.
He’d turned his back to Anders because, in some small way, he must have trusted him, if only a little. Hawke didn’t know that Anders had been telling the truth to Hadriana—that he would have been all too glad to welcome the man into his bed, that it was no more an act than Anders was ever capable of giving. He might have been smarter than he looked, but it wasn’t that hard to play stupid, either.
Hawke lifted his shoulder, nudging Anders’s cheek and the bristly hairs on chin. Anders pressed his lips to the strong cord of muscle there, light enough that it could be taken for an accident.
‘Stairs,’ Anders murmured, voice muffled by Hawke’s back. He needed to move away, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it just yet. Denying one’s pleasures was anathema to Tevinter living—which was why it seemed so important for him to do it, here and now. ‘Why did I choose to live in a house with stairs?’
‘Only one flight,’ Hawke observed. ‘It’s better than a tower.’
Before he could formulate a fitting retort, Anders felt Hawke move, the brawny heat at his chest suddenly shifting as Hawke’s arms slid behind his back. His senses were dulled enough that he didn’t startle when Hawke’s hands grasped his thighs, but a gasp escaped his throat when Hawke took it a step further, hoisting Anders clean off the ground, back sliding against the uneven tiles of the mosaic. Some small section of embroidery caught on an edge, but didn’t tear, silk dragging along Anders’s skin.
This time, he did tilt his chin up and bare his throat, and felt Hawke’s beard bury rough against it in return, trapped breath and hard teeth scraping against his pulse.
It was good. Maker, it was more than good; Anders would never have admitted to anyone how dire his straights were if he hadn’t been so long without this, it, someone he could trust to touch him because of nothing more or less complicated than want, someone who could trust him in return. It was one thing to pay for it—which Anders did, sometimes, less and less in recent years—because at least that transaction laid it all on the table, as honest as it could be if you knew the right people. It was a fine distinction to make, one that probably mattered very little as far as morality was concerned, but it was Anders’s to make and so he made it.
But this skirted an even finer line, a dangerous one, neither one thing nor the other. Hawke had acted, but at what cost? Did he feel Anders’s weight pressing down on him now, a symbol of the burden he carried, a sign of the chains that might at any moment close over his wrists and tighten around his neck?
Neither of them moved. Again, Anders felt the even rhythm of Hawke’s breath, slower than the life-blood racing beneath his jaw.
‘I’m too drunk,’ Anders announced. His voice sounded throttled, as though he was the one wearing the saarebas collar now. It also didn’t sound real, and so he had to laugh, a mean noise, also desperate, just enough to ruin everything. He knew the moment Hawke realized he’d somehow changed his mind, feeling the shift in his muscle as he set Anders down again, and saw that hooded anger range sharp over his features, twisting at his mouth. Hawke flashed teeth when he grinned, but the expression lost focus somewhere between intent and execution, and offered neither of them any succor.
That was who Hawke was—hard because he had to be. Not everyone could manage that, either, despite necessity. Anders knew it wasn’t a luxury at all, impossible to mimic, not a delicacy he could import from overseas, tucked away in the hold of a Rivaini pirate ship come all the way from Orlais. When Hawke rubbed his beard the motion hid his mouth behind his hand, split knuckles gray in the moonlight.
Anders sagged against the wall, but found his footing more quickly than he thought possible. He knew his knees would betray him at any moment, or the loose sandal strap tangled around his ankle; even if his head was clear, everything in his chest wasn’t.
‘Beg pardon,’ he said weakly, stumbling past Hawke’s shoulders, bumping into him as he fled—not looking behind even once as he tripped all the way up the single flight of stairs, and crashed face-first into bed before he knew it, drowning in silk pillows and humiliation.
He woke to some commotion outside in the garden, which only served to make his not-inconsiderable headache that much worse.
Despite his curiosity—despite the clamor from somewhere just beyond the window, unsheltered from bright sunlight—It took a while before he was prepared to open his eyes, and even longer before he could bring himself to slither out of bed. There were times when humiliation was worse than a hangover, and when disappointment was worse than humiliation—but Anders was currently nursing all three, and none of them was inclined to fade no matter how he yawned or stretched or shielded his eyes from the glare.
Anders braced his hands against the windowsill, then peered into the leafy canopies below, one eye twitching, mouth dry as a fresh roll of cotton bandage. There was hair stuck to the side of his face, and a few feathers on his chin, and his robes were a mess of comfortable wrinkles, far softer on his skin than they were nice to look at.
For a moment, all he saw was garden: leaves, leaves, and more leaves, disturbed only by a lofty breeze and the infernal trilling of local birds.
Then, he caught sight of the grounds-slave, who’d managed to wrangle Hawke’s services for the afternoon. The former was a small elf who knew far too much about topiary; the latter was shirtless, wiping the back of his neck with a red kerchief before returning to work planting new stakes in the vineyard.
Anders paused in the middle of an ungainly yawn, covering his mouth with both hands. When he realized Hawke couldn’t see him—and, despite his preternatural instincts for that sort of thing, also couldn’t tell he was being watched—he felt sheepish, but continued his yawn against his palms nonetheless, cringing when he smelled his breath on them.
He’d had finer moments. At some point, he must have.
None were so fine as this: peering out the window like he was the trespasser on his own grounds, watching Hawke wrestle a pike into the ground, then pass his forearm over his brow, giving the wood a firm kick to make sure it was centered nice and steady.
Even inanimate objects knew better than to argue with Hawke. It held.
Anders had never cared much for the vineyard; it, like the naughty mural downstairs, was a remnant from the villa’s previous owner, and it took up far too much space behind the house. Anders preferred to buy his wine, not make it himself, and the multitude of overripe, unused grapes attracted flocks of squawking, hungry birds in the spring. But now it was his favorite part of the garden, and he took back everything he’d said about the place before—he was grateful to have it, after all.
He’d keep the damned thing forever if it meant he could watch Hawke like this, feet squaring off on the ground, powerful shoulders flexing as he jammed another stake into the dirt. There was something particularly sensual about the way he penetrated the earth with those phallic pikes—not that Anders was going to quit his job as a healer and become a romantic poet, but he couldn’t help but draw a few obvious parallels.
Or perhaps Anders was lonely, and reading far too much into the situation.
That unexpected moment of self-reflection wasn’t enough to keep him from lingering at the window just a bit longer, to watch Hawke dab the handkerchief down the front of his chest, red fabric bright against dark hair.
A strangled moan of longing passed Anders’s lips, louder than even his most garrulous yawn, and he clapped a hand over his mouth, breath hot between his fingers. Fresh warmth pulsed through his body, pooling between his thighs, where it couldn’t be mistaken for the sun’s glow at midday. Anders wriggled his hips, knowing the gentle drag of silk against his smalls would only aggravate the problem.
What he needed was a good bath, to wash the scent of last night’s perfumes from his skin and scrub the taste of old wine from his mouth.
In the garden below, Hawke raised his head as the grounds-slave approached, like a dog hearing a whistle. Anders threw himself to one side, ducking out of the window frame, tangled momentarily in the curtains. The elf had sharp eyes—good for spotting worm holes, or catching a fruit-bearing tree the moment it contracted a rare fungus—and Anders had already humiliated himself quite enough in public this week alone.
In the safety of his master bedroom, the marble was still cool to the touch from nighttimes shadows; he pressed his back against it to soothe his fevered thoughts, before sallying forth in the direction of his private bath.
He stripped free of his robes as he walked, already resolved to take care of his own needs that morning, without calling on any of his body slaves. Their job was the most awkward of the lot, as far as Anders was concerned—awkward for the slaves, and awkward for the master, and why anyone encouraged that sort of thing was beyond him. And why certain magisters felt the need to pretend they were too helpless to tie their own boot-laces—not so helpless they couldn’t conjure shades from the streets, though—was an Imperium peculiarity Anders hadn’t yet grown accustomed to.
Being dressed by someone else made him feel like one of the Tranquil; it wasn’t the ideal note for a free mage to start his day on.
Likewise, Anders didn’t feel quite right calling on anyone to draw his bath—not when he was planning on being naughty in it. For that, he required a certain amount of solitude.
Once, during his youthful days of blissful indiscretion, Anders had thrilled to the idea that there might be someone watching him from the next bookshelf over as he had a wank in the stacks.
Now, the idea that a slave might be lurking nearby in case the master needed fresh rose petals or fragrant tree oils or sweet salts in his bath was more of a mood-killer than anything else.
Fortunately, bathing was one of the few tasks Anders didn’t mind taking on alone. There was always a ready supply of hot water available, a full pitcher next to the hot rocks in case he wanted steam, and a low, tiled tub that was large enough for a man to swim in.
The house’s previous owner had thrown lavish orgies, which was probably the true reason behind the size of the bath. Needless to say, Danarius was much happier with a neighbor whose style he didn’t feel compelled to compete with, and Anders kept the bath all to himself—a private, greedy indulgence he was deserved, considering everything else he denied himself.
He poured a liberal amount of water over the rocks, pulling the tie from his hair and shaking it loose in the thick, rising mist. Condensation beaded the walls just as it beaded on Anders’s skin, running together and dripping down the ceramic in a way that mimicked the sweat on Hawke’s neck, and where Anders had imagined it at his chest.
He slipped into the bath, letting the hot water envelop him up to his neck, scalding his flesh. It was almost too hot, like being engulfed in a burst of dragon fire—far hotter than any of Anders’s fireballs—but heat was what he craved at this hour. The memory of Hawke’s hands on his thighs, and Hawke’s beard at his throat—lips soft beneath the stiff hairs—was all Anders needed to send a tingling throb of pleasure through the growing erection he’d been nursing since appearing at the window and seeing Hawke below.
It was his own fault. That was what made his longing all the more infuriating. He’d had what he wanted, Hawke in the palm of his hand—or rather, Anders in the palm of Hawke’s hand, up against a wall, fingers against his ass—and, like a true escape artist at last, Anders had turned tail, cut his losses, and run.
And that was the danger of indulging in a lifelong habit. It always manifested itself at the worst possible times.
Anders leaned his chin against the wet tile behind his head, the smell of the water too hot to be anything but clean, the faint mist of oils and a bowl of unlit incense on the ledge behind him. Underneath that, he thought he could remember Hawke’s skin despite all those other, stronger smells, just the palest aroma of cotton and sweat. But it was no more than an illusion—he knew that, just as well as he thought he’d known how to give himself up to want—although he kept the memory with him as he slid one hand between his legs, only the splash of the water against the sides of the low-set tub and the hitching of his breath betraying what was happening just below the surface.
He didn’t feel all better when it was over—it helped in the same way a healing poultice helped, a sorry excuse for the real thing—but he didn’t feel worse, either. He felt calm, and clean, and he smelled incredible, drying his hair with extra care, trying not to note the few spots where the color was lighter than it once was, not yet gray, but on its way.
He had a few years yet, if he was lucky, and if they didn’t have a politically charged winter like the last few.
There were wrinkles at the corners of his eyes—laugh-lines, he liked to call them, but whatever they were, they were still there whenever he smiled—just barely noticeable in the steamed glass of the full-length mirror. He gave up on poking at them soon enough, smoothing his hair back from his brow instead, and dressed in one of his house robes: something comfortable and easy and not at all like he was trying to impress the one person he hadn’t the night before. Somehow, it didn’t look as good on him as plain cotton on other parties, people who could wear nothing at all and remain as comfortable as an archon in a high-collared robe during a mid-season oration.
Anders paused at the window again on his way out, a faint breeze stirring the sweet smells on his skin. A group of elvhen gardeners had gathered; Hawke was gesturing at them, then at a tangle of vines, fresh stakes having popped up like daisies while Anders was busy elsewhere.
Now seemed as opportune a time as any to pop down to the dining room to grab a bowl of fruit and honey without being caught in the web of any awkward morning-after conversations. Especially since those were always worse when they came upon the heels of a tryst that never was, that only might have been.
But Anders was no more than halfway through the atrium when he heard some noise from beyond; he told himself it wasn’t necessary to hide behind a column when he heard Hawke’s voice filter above the rest, currently discussing manure and leaf mold. Not exactly Anders’s favorite topic, but a heated one, nonetheless.
‘What you really need,’ Hawke said, rounding the corner beyond the fountain, ‘is some good, old-fashioned mud. Ferelden has its drawbacks—that little problem known as the Blight being one of them—but what it doesn’t worry about is the stock of its petunias.’
‘Hard to make proper mud out of water and sand,’ Anders said, tugging at the collar of his robe. It was soft and silky against his skin, which was also soft and silky, save for a few rough patches here and there, the occasional bristle of hair, and for a moment it almost seemed as though Hawke was looking. Or noticing, which was another beast entirely.
Then, he glanced away, his gaze nothing more than a flicker of heat, a flint being struck before the light faded twice as quickly.
He was suddenly interested in the fountain again. Anders couldn’t blame him—it was a very handsome fountain, the water dancing and burbling and catching the sunlight and doing all the good things a proper fountain should. It wasn’t wearing nearly so nice an outfit, though, nor did it have a dragon claw earring.
Hawke smoothed his hand along the back of his head, fingers through his hair, his arm streaked with dirt from his elbow to his shoulder. His cotton shirt was dirty, as well, patterned from holding the wood close to his chest, and half-untucked from his trousers, one of the laces trailing loosely over his hip.
‘Hungry?’ Anders asked, voice suddenly narrow in an even narrower throat. When he swallowed, he imagined himself choking on his own tongue right there in front of everyone. The slaves would say nothing—and if Hawke continued his passionate study of the fountain, he might not even notice Anders had died.
‘Thirsty,’ Hawke replied.
Neither of them knew what to do next—Hawke didn’t seem to care, but Anders did, and all he had was a retinue of garden-slaves and no idea how to get to the kitchen. That part of the house was off-limits to a master, simply because he shouldn’t have to see the mechanism of hard work upon which the entire household turned. Anders waved a hand vaguely, aware of how churlish it was, and the others melted away to do his bidding, while that faint, sultry Imperium breeze picked up again, Hawke’s hair too sweaty to be stirred by it at all.
‘I took a bath,’ Anders said into the silence. At least there were no other, older slaves about to ask themselves why he was bothering to say anything in the first place. According to most, what they thought shouldn’t have mattered, but Anders couldn’t help but wonder about it anyway. He’d never learned any better, and now, he probably never would. ‘I’m so much more…myself now. A healed man.’
‘Yes,’ Hawke agreed. He still didn’t look Anders’s way. Anders thought he recognized some of that old anger: the hardening of his jaw, the shifting of the muscles just above and just below his throat, while his shoulders tensed as though he was about to lift some heavy blade. ‘As I recall, you were feeling under the weather last night.’
‘Nothing a good nap and a hot bath can’t cure,’ Anders replied.
‘Sounds just lovely,’ Hawke said.
Anders swallowed again, with the same amount of difficulty as before. ‘Oh, and it was. No matter what you say about the blood magic and the dirty politics and all the slavery, the Imperium has at least one thing right.’
‘And here I thought that one thing would be ‘ridiculous piece of jewelry,’’ Hawke said. ‘And sandals. No—of course not sandals. They never know how to mend those. So it’s just jewelry, then. How silly of me.’
Anders knew what a mess they looked—what a courier or a magister might think if they walked in upon the scene. Then again, people found slaves to fill all sorts of empty roles—lovers and protectors, gardeners and children. Why it would be so impossible to imagine one as a companion—someone to talk to, rather than to ignore while they rubbed the calluses off your feet—was a prime example of why Tevinter was so confusing to the rest of Thedas. And to Anders, too, when he allowed himself to really think about it. He rubbed the chain and the claw, the cold metal and the hot keratin, and tried not to flush.
‘I didn’t know you were a gardener,’ he said.
‘I’m not,’ Hawke replied.
‘Just rolling about in the dirt, then?’ Andes asked.
Hawke folded his arms over his chest, burying his hands underneath his elbows, streaking fresh dirt along the simple cotton. ‘Much better at breaking bones and lopping off limbs, actually,’ he said. ‘But that’s where they put me. Do you suppose they’ll have me planting seeds, next? What would my mother say?’
Anders couldn’t help but feel like a drowning man. He wanted to say something about seeds, but for the first time in his life, he didn’t. ‘Don’t mothers generally approve of gardening?’ he asked instead.
Hawke’s jaw tightened even more—if such a thing were possible—as though he’d forgotten he was the one who brought her up in the first place. ‘Not my mother,’ he said.
It was obvious he was going to be impossible to talk to like this, but Anders had always preferred impossible things to possible ones, or so he thought. It was one of his finest qualities, and also one of his gravest character flaws. He flexed his bare toes against the tiles, then pressed them down onto the stone as hard as he could, while Hawke remained—naturally, infuriatingly—still as the marble basin of the fountain, or the pocked column Anders currently leaned against for support.
‘Bit slow, the service you have here,’ Hawke said.
‘That’s probably because I prefer not to beat anyone,’ Anders admitted, choosing at last to leave, and take his breakfast alone.
Sometime between breakfast and the courier who’d come with a note about the current state of one of Anders’s wealthier patients, Hawke had seen fit to squeeze in a bath.
Perhaps his keen warrior’s instincts had led him to suspect they’d be leaving together: Anders on unavoidable errands, and Hawke because Anders couldn’t trust him alone in the house.
It wasn’t as though Anders didn’t instinctively sympathize with anyone’s desire to escape captivity, bound or otherwise. Some people just weren’t meant to be locked up all their lives. But Anders could only stem the tides of his own retribution, and nothing more. He had no control over Danarius, or Caladrius, or even Hadriana— who, in all the time he’d known her, had never been above knocking someone over the head and taking him for herself when she liked the shape of his jaw or the muscles of his forearm.
Anders simply couldn’t stand for it. If Hawke wouldn’t protect his own skin, then someone else had to do it for him.
As a rule, Anders hated acts of selflessness. He liked everyone to know exactly what he was doing for them, not to mention how difficult it was, so he could bask properly in their well-deserved gratitude. The pats on the head from local magisters might have been demeaning, but at least they recognized his hard work.
The only thing Anders got to bask in around Hawke was a series of simmering glares that only occasionally softened to something more curious.
It was the curiosity that stuck under Anders’s skin like the thistle-barbs in the bushes around Lake Calenhad. It made him nervous, acting as a constant reminder of how close he’d come to taking advantage—and how badly he wanted to do it again.
Hawke met him in the atrium wearing another loose shirt, but he’d tied the kerchief around his neck, like a splash of blood at his throat.
It recalled to mind their first meeting, and what might happen if Anders let Hawke out of his sight for longer than a moment. Magisters were like children, after all, who didn’t know better than to break their favorite toys.
‘Don’t you have slaves to do this for you?’ Hawke asked, halfway down the long, hot stretch of road from Anders’s house to the neighborhood bazaar. He’d waited until the nearest man to them was three alleys away and upwind, with no chance of overhearing a magister and his slave conversing; Anders didn’t know whether his sudden interest in propriety was better or worse than the agonizing silence that preceded it. ‘You could have a whole host of them—poultry slaves and meat slaves, fish slaves and melon slaves and everything.’
‘I’ve never really cared for melon, you know,’ Anders replied. ‘Certainly not enough to devote an entire slave toward acquiring them.’ He cleared his throat, checking to see whether Magister Valeria was lurking in her garden, beneath the bower of flowering amaranth, sipping cool water from a narrow glass while being fanned by body slaves. She wasn’t, which only meant she was being fanned indoors, and probably in the nude. ‘Anyway, it would never work. I can’t send anyone else to shop for me because I have such specific and discerning tastes.’
‘Ah,’ Hawke said. He scratched the bridge of his nose, thumb delicate over the lump of healed bone. ‘I can’t say I blame you, in this place.’
Anders smiled brightly, but bit down on the corner of his lip before he became too carried away and thought the statement was anything more than the truth—anything like praise. When he said he had discerning tastes, what he’d really meant was Fereldan tastes: meat and bread and a bit of good stew every now and then, thick as the mud he remembered so fondly now. He didn’t care for all the fish, twice-cooked and left to ferment in its own juices overnight.
He’d acquired a taste for Tevinter, but never for its delicacies.
Perhaps Hawke understood that, despite Anders’s late night attempts at sabotaging the feeble connection they’d forged, however drunkenly, between them.
The marketplace was sweaty and crowded as always, with colorful canvas tents erected to shield its patrons from the sun, and open crates of dead trout stinking like skin-rot. For the first time in days, there was no room in Anders’s mind for doubt or hopeful flirtation with the handsome man at his back. He was entirely in his element, haggling and wheedling with the various purveyors of fruit and meat for a better price. Most shopkeepers were immune to the art of the deal, but Anders was in the unique position of having healed their wounds, nursed their relatives and—on a few notable occasions—delivered their babies.
If the resident healer wanted a cut rate on sweet summer grapes, then he got it.
It was good to be Anders.
Or at least, it had its moments.
He was halfway into a rather long list of purchases, brokering a better price on a basket of scrumptious-looking figs, when someone gave a strangled gasp of surprise from behind him. Anders glanced over his shoulder, and saw a courier in a brown leather cap, his arm pinned behind his back by the ever-present Hawke, who grinned when Anders caught his eye.
‘He cut in line,’ Hawke said. The courier struggled, sweat dripping down his forehead, but he remained unmoved. ‘And I thought he had a knife.’
‘It’s a message,’ the courier wheezed, red-faced and exasperated. ‘Just paper—a message for the healer!’
Hawke looked at Anders, who wasn’t swift enough to avert his gaze and avoid responsibility. He offered a half-hearted shrug instead, and Hawke tightened his hold until the courier howled. Then, he let him go.
‘It looked like a knife,’ Hawke insisted. But there was a crooked tilt to his mouth that reminded Anders of laughter.
Now there was something he hadn’t thought about in a while. There was plenty of laughter in the Imperium, but it never came in its most genuine form, as more than a gesture or a transaction, just as important to social obligations and precarious political hierarchies as a bow, while at the same time far more demeaning.
Anders cleared his throat. ‘You’ll have to forgive my new gardener,’ he said, though the courier never mattered. As a rule, no one cared when the messenger’s throat was slit, or his arm broken, or his hamstrings cut—which was how people chose them, because they were disposable; at least they didn’t have to worry about Hawke offending anyone on his first proper day out in Tevinter.
His jaunt to the docks didn’t count, since he’d never had the chance to enjoy his picnic.
The courier rubbed at his shoulder. Anders knew from experience he was making more of a fuss about it than it warranted, and that Hawke had been gentle, especially for a man nearly twice the size of a letter-runner. ‘Coliseum,’ he said, and unfurled the letter in his hands—with the loose twist of ribbon, it did seem momentarily knife-like—then cleared his throat dryly. ‘Your services are requested before the afternoon’s match—’
‘Understood,’ Anders assured him quickly, before he lost all momentum with his figs. ‘It’s no trouble—I’ll be along as soon as I’m able—so what do you say to the same price for twice the figs, and no one gets angry that I arrived late for my gladiatorial duties?’
‘Your wicked tongue would be better appreciated on this side of the stall,’ the merchant replied, happy enough to take Anders’s coin.
Hawke carried the figs as though they weighed nothing; Anders ate a few of them on his way to the coliseum. They were chewy and sweet and full of all the bumps and nubs and seeds that made them so delicious, so much fun to eat, but also got stuck in his teeth afterward, and plagued him all day long. He spent the rest of his time trying to pick them out with his tongue and, more subtly, with a fingernail, turning away from Hawke and pretending he was interested in some dropped coin or large footprint in order to flick what he found to the side of the road.
When the coliseum took form against the late-afternoon sky, Hawke simply held the basket of figs tighter, face hidden behind the fruit, ears burned red from so much time in the sun.
Anders didn’t like the place either, but their reasons for that dislike were hardly comparable. As terrible as it was down below the ring, it was even worse in the ring proper—and Anders at least got to go home at the end of the ordeal, smelling of other people’s sweat and other people’s fever, never his own. He got to wash that smell off, to spend an hour if he liked in his private bath steaming and pruning, until he forgot, because of his own comfort and his own pleasure, or allowed himself to forget, because anything else would ruin his day.
If it bothered Hawke to return to this place—where he’d been hurt, beaten, locked up in chains, forced to fight an enemy too proud to accept the terms of their imprisonment—then all that was obscured by a bunch of bloody figs, wrinkled bodies no longer delicious but infuriating to look at now.
Anders weathered the usual sullen gazes and the perpetual stains; his first patient had—what else?—a qunari pike buried in his left flank, and he was kept chained for the duration of his treatment, with a dirty gag stuffed deep in his mouth so he wouldn’t bite off his own tongue. There was blood all over Anders’s hands when he finished, up to his wrists, one streak gone as far as his elbow, reminding him why he chose not to wear sleeves.
The whimpers were honestly worse than outright screaming.
‘I miss looking after your cuts and bruises,’ Anders murmured, pausing to catch his breath, and to drink lukewarm water from the skein at his side. ‘What I wouldn’t give for a few, simple broken ribs.’
‘People always appreciate me more in comparison,’ Hawke agreed. ‘Story of my life.’
For a moment, Anders allowed himself to lean against him—just in passing, little more than the same bump of their shoulders that had occurred, accidentally, the night before, when Anders did what he did best by fleeing him. But it hadn’t been the same then because it hadn’t meant the same thing; this time, Anders lingered, the water not nearly cool enough to clear his head, but the flex in Hawke’s upper arm more than strong enough to ground him while he waited for his mana to replenish, for the dizziness of a real challenge to fade. Little white bursts exploded behind his closed eyes. He squeezed them together, knuckles brushing the back of Hawke’s arm, and when he opened his eyes again, everything was the right color, not half-brown and murky from the lingering effects of the Fade.
‘I got blood on your arm,’ Anders realized, drawing his hand back quickly.
‘As long as you don’t get any on your precious figs,’ Hawke replied.
Anders laughed, the wrong noise to make given his current surroundings, and couldn’t hide the sound with his palm, the smell of fresh blood making him wrinkle his nose. Someone unimportant brought him a towel to wipe his hands, while Hawke watched him—honestly, for the first time—and Anders didn’t know what to do with it, not entirely a burden, but not entirely sensible, either.
‘Is there something on my face?’ Anders asked.
‘Only your nose, I’m afraid,’ Hawke said.
Anders held tight to the cloth, pressing his fingers into the weave, for lack of anything better to do with his hands. ‘Ah. That explains everything.’
‘The new shipment’s this way,’ one of the wardens said, coming up on them with a length of dirty chains clanking in one hand. Anders wondered if he noticed the conversation; he certainly didn’t notice the blood, because it was common as air to him, along with the silence that lingered, now that Anders’s patient had fainted, deathly still instead of twitching and moaning. ‘Don’t get too close. They’re proving a bit…rowdy.’
‘Not qunari, I hope?’ Anders asked. His words felt trivial, inconsequential; he didn’t want to be saying them where Hawke could hear him and know how little they meant.
‘Rivaini,’ the warden replied, which explained everything.
Anders didn’t know much about Rivain, beyond its place on the map, reasoning in his youth that it was far enough from Ferelden that he wouldn’t have minded living there. That was the only criterion, once—and it was difficult to remember there was a Rivaini Circle, since all outsiders ever heard about were its fearsome island raiders. Anders caught a glimpse of the new arrivals through their cell bars, black hair oiled and braided, or bound back from their heads with brightly-colored scarves. They were a sea-faring people, but it chafed at them to travel in the hull of a ship, instead of on-deck with the wind stinging their eyes.
For that, Anders couldn’t blame them—even if he was the sort of person who got sea-sick above and below.
Unless one of them had an obvious injury, Anders didn’t often tend to Rivaini. They were too clever by half—the latest gossip before Caladrius’s return from Ferelden had been about a Rivaini gladiator who’d broken the bars of his prison by pissing on his shirt and wrapping the fabric tight around the iron.
But things were different with Hawke at his back, watching his movements with newfound interest. Anders couldn’t help but remember a time when it had been Hawke crouched in the dirt, body curled around his wounds like an injured dog, prouder still because of his injuries. It wasn’t fair to skip anyone—even if that someone spat at him through the bars, then grinned, sharp gold canines winking in the torchlight.
Anders winced, then side-stepped the bulk of the splatter on the ground nimbly, as though such degenerate acts didn’t fundamentally disgust him. He had to remind himself that he’d wanted Hawke to pay attention to him, and there was no point in cultivating that attention if he couldn’t then use it to impress the man with his milk of human kindness.
Healing someone who hated you was the ultimate act of charity. Most didn’t bother with it.
Anders patted his face dry with the towel before moving into the nearest Rivaini’s cell.
‘An excess of saliva, is it?’ he asked dryly. ‘I could mix you up a potion for that. I’ll need some sela petrae, of course, but luckily for us, they sell it nearby.’
The Rivaini grunted, face contorting in pain when Anders approached. He’d put on a big act for his comrades, but at the expense of a real injury. Anders fought to keep from rolling his eyes. If he was ever in need of someone’s services, he didn’t think to woo them over by spitting on them.
Anders could be contrary, but he wasn’t a total fool.
‘It’s not that,’ the Rivaini said, wheezing, so that Anders had to step closer in order to hear him. The hard-packed dirt was silent beneath his sandals, but Anders could feel his toes getting gritty nonetheless. ‘One of your charmers out there broke my collar-bone. I can’t move my arm, healer. You got a poultice for something like that?’
‘Even better,’ Anders said, not without some glint of pride. He cocked his head, noting the Rivaini’s right arm where it hung limp and useless at his side. ‘Just give me a moment, and you’ll be back in ship-shape.’
He was spared the embarrassment of laughing at his own joke when the Rivaini twisted at the last moment, grabbing Anders’s hand when he moved to rest it against his chest, and bringing up his disabled right arm. Clutched in the palm of his hand was a curved knife, no bigger than the dragon-claw in Anders’s ear, but forged of metal and not dulled by time or circumstance. Anders didn’t want to think about where he’d hidden it; then, he felt the sharp kiss of steel at his throat, and such details became meaningless.
The Rivaini bent Anders’s arm behind his back, pulling at his shoulder joint, while the knife remained at his throat.
‘Now, here’s how it’s going to work,’ he hissed, salty breath hot against Anders’s ear. The warden had disappeared to deal with some ruckus at the end of the corridor—no doubt part of the Rivaini group, all separate pieces of one master plan. ‘We walk out of here nice and easy, free my friends in the last cell, and no one gets his throat cut. If he plays nice.’
Anders nodded slowly, arm tingling fiercely where it was trapped between their bodies and starting to go numb. He contemplated a bolt of lightning or two, but in these close quarters, he’d just as soon knock himself out along with the man holding him prisoner. Hawke, meanwhile, was nowhere to be seen, perhaps taking advantage of the impending chaos to attempt another escape, and Anders bit the inside of his cheek, shoring himself against the sudden wellspring of disappointment he couldn’t help but feel, plunging deep through his chest.
Of course Hawke wouldn’t see fit to help Anders against a fellow slave. They’d banded together in the face of the magisters, but he was clever, clever enough to know when the getting was good, and Anders had to accept the truth about where his loyalties were.
Hawke wasn’t the type to bet on the underdog—not to pretend to himself such triumphs mattered, that he was a good person because of some trivial gesture at solidarity or support.
‘Start walking,’ the Rivaini suggested.
Anders rolled his toes against the dusty sole of his sandal, telling himself this would all be so funny when it was finally over.
Then, there was a hollow thud from behind them, and the Rivaini slumped forward, knife clattering loose from his clutch. Anders pulled his arm free, struggling clear of his increasingly relaxed hold, not to mention the full weight of his unconscious body. He darted to the side just as his captor toppled forward, falling face-down into the dirt, nose buried in his own spit-stain.
Hawke was standing in his wake, one brawny elbow leveled, prepared to hit him again if he made a stunning Rivaini recovery.
Anders put a hand to his chest. It seemed appropriate to the moment, but no matter how he tried, he couldn’t heal the rhythm of his own heart.
‘You did that with your elbow?’ he asked finally, kicking the knife as far away from the Rivaini’s curled fingertips as possible. Not that he seemed on the verge of a miraculous recovery anytime soon, but Rivaini were a tricky sort, and Anders was feeling particularly paranoid about them, at least for the time being. He had his reasons—good ones, even.
Hawke shrugged, rubbing the join. It looked red from the impact, but otherwise unharmed. ‘Needed a blunt object,’ he explained. ‘I have big bones.’
And big shoulders, Anders thought; and a big body, and presumably big other things. He cleared his throat while Hawke lowered his arm, rolling the Rivaini onto his back.
‘Might want to get this taken care of,’ he said, just as the warden appeared at last.
Anders could sense all the unimportant questions already on his lips, and he rearranged his collar, bringing himself up to his full height. ‘This poor man appears to have fainted from the pain,’ he said, not knowing why he’d lie for a man who would have happily slit his throat, not even knowing if that lie meant anything. ‘Best to put him back in his cell for now and let him recover, don’t you think?’
He could feel the eyes of the other gladiators on him as he made his way out of the holding cells—those that had seen what happened for themselves, and those that would soon learn about it through the grapevine of lightning-quick slave-gossip—but for all he wondered about the importance of the cover-up, he knew no one would ever be grateful for it, only confused and mostly unimpressed, which was generally the reaction people had to him.
It had been a long day. Anders pretended he was very drunk when one of Caladrius’s slaves arrived to invite him to that night’s debauchery, far too drunk to leave, then retired to his room with a bowl of figs, though he hadn’t the zeal for them anymore. Not after everything.
The smallest of incidents could ruin a man’s taste even for a favorite dish—a fever afterward, for example, or a sour experience, like a Rivaini pirate slave smelling of under-arms and soiled leathers pressing a makeshift blade to his throat.
That he’d spared the man was just one more shining example of how little he was suited for Tevinter life; when he thought about what Danarius would have done to the man, what little would be left in the hollow body he’d never again own, it made him shiver, along with the cool evening breeze that rolled in fresh off the water, so much better than anything else that blew in through the docks.
It wasn’t that Anders wanted to be more like Danarius. Perish the thought. But he didn’t know if he wanted to be more like himself, or even what he wanted—beyond the small things, carnal and immediately satisfying, pleasures he could name rather than ideals he couldn’t understand, and therefore couldn’t trust.
The curtains shifted in the easy breeze, shadows splayed over the patterned tiles. They curled and unfurled in the lamplight from the garden, where pretty paper lanterns were hung at measured intervals in the trees, candles floating in glass bowls, which in turn lined the slim path winding its lazy way across the grounds. Anders had never imagined he’d own his own grounds, a garden this well kept, or a single pretty paper lantern, or even anything at all. It made him happy now and then to remind himself as he leaned over the window-sill, and rubbed his dragon claw earring between thumb and forefinger. When he thought about what he had, he could focus—if only for a short time—on that, instead of what he didn’t have. And the reminder was so pleasant, the rewards so obvious.
The feeling of satisfaction came and went like the summer breeze, air hot and still one moment, then quick and cool the next. Such were the subtleties of Tevinter weather, and everyone—even Anders—knew to search for those pockets of relief, to make them last as long as possible before they disappeared as though they’d never existed in the first place.
From far-off, Anders heard the sound of laughter from Danarius’s villa. He had small parties, generally, for a rare few guests, carefully selected because of how well-suited—or sometimes how poorly suited—they were to each other’s company. Anders had been called in specifically to mitigate the consequences of those salons on multiple occasions, and he looked away from the direction of the noise, out into a different part of the garden, where a dark shadow moved beneath a trellis in the vineyard, between two freshly-planted stakes.
Even though Anders recognized the way that shadow moved—not like a shadow at all, never so insubstantial as that—his first thought was intruder. After all the excitement of nearly being killed earlier, his nerves were frayed, and anxiety was usually his first instinct, not hope.
But hope came after, almost too quickly, while all the leaves of the fruit-bearing trees some peculiar elf had planted—the fruits themselves too small and too bitter to eat, but forming a bower of bright colors in the late summer and early fall—shivered, then fell still.
it was Hawke in the garden. Anders knew the way he moved by now, not by heart, but by instinct—and it might as well have been the same thing.
He rested his weight more heavily on his palms, the same way he’d leaned forward into the ring when Hawke was fighting; though the moment was calmer now by leagues, Anders’s pulse was no less hurried.
Hawke didn’t pace, nor did he have a weapon in his hands, but the shadow he made, too far from any of the lanterns or the candles to be seen properly, leaned against a stake, and crossed its legs and arms, and stilled. The vantage point, Anders realized, wasn’t directly underneath his window, but it was along a simple line, and a straight one, from vineyard to master bedroom.
It was possible Hawke was watching him. It was possible that they both knew where the other was.
Something about that reciprocation made Anders feel dizzier than even Caladrius’s strongest wine.
He reached for the oil lamp on the low table by the window-side, setting it down on the sill, enjoying the warmth from the single flame against his palms, the light on his face. Then, he touched the top clasp at his robes, feeling his blood flutter beneath the raw skin at his throat, where the blade had almost broken through.
The shadow in the garden didn’t move. That meant it didn’t leave, and Anders undid the delicate clasps of his collar one by one, until the stiff fabric fell open and fresh air fluttered across bare skin.
There were reasons why Anders declined the services of his body slaves, beyond the obvious awkwardness and his natural desire to be contrary. Circle mages learned to do nothing for themselves, so that even the smallest tasks done independently were something to be proud of. The simple act of undressing was intimately satisfying—undoing those clasps himself, shrugging free of the feathered shoulders, sent thrills of delight over his skin, and those thrills traveled deeper still, straight into his belly, like steam rising from a bath-stone.
Of course, so much of that pleasure had to do with his company, far-off as he was. Even hidden in the vineyard, Hawke’s very stillness was a presence all its own. The pikes he’d set earlier held firm under his balanced weight, because Hawke had been the one to put them there, and Anders knew first-hand the strength in his arms and the grip of his fingers, what it meant to be held by him not as a weapon or as an enemy, but something more, or at least, something else.
He’d used that same strength to save Anders’s life—as though it had been so easy, inspecting a broken nail afterward, lips quirked, mouth unreadable—and there hadn’t been a proper moment to thank him. Perhaps thanks was what he was seeking now, lingering below Anders’s window like a lover from The Dragon and the Maiden, although there were moments in that novel where it seemed as though the two title characters were one and the same.
It didn’t matter now. This wasn’t someone else’s story, but Anders’s life, and he couldn’t flip to the final pages to be sure of what happened, that it all turned out right in the end.
He felt a tug of longing in the pit of his stomach, hands brushing past his navel. The distance between them was as alluring as it was insurmountable, and the only thing preferable to undressing himself would be having a lover do it for him.
While it had been a while since Anders had one of those, a shadow in the garden was better than nothing at all.
He imagined Hawke’s hands on him anyway, rough-callused palms snagging in the silk as they undid the metal rounds of Anders’s belt, sending it skittering to the floor like a pile of discarded fish scales, burnished golden in the lamplight. The waist of his robes came next; without the belt to hold them, they dropped to the tiles in a flurry of muted silks, and slithered for a bare second before they stilled.
Cool breezes tongued at Anders’s body, skin most sensitive where it was damp with sweat. Anders drew a hand up his stomach and over his chest, fingers far gentler than Hawke’s.
It wasn’t the touch he craved.
The shadow among the grapes remained steady, fixed in place like a vine lashed to the garden trellises. He was waiting for something, an unspoken desire yet unfulfilled. Maybe he’d wait forever. Anders didn’t know how stubborn he was capable of being; very seemed the most reasonable guess. He wished Hawke would step into the light of the lanterns, wished he would offer warmth in his eyes or the quick curve of his mouth, anything more than shadows to go by. But he was met with nothing more than silence—silence, and the unconcerned dusk.
At least Anders could be assured that Danarius was tending to his dinner guests that evening, and wouldn’t catch a free show from the east wall of his summer pavilion.
Slowly, Anders’s hands tricked down to his hips, thumbs hooking beneath the narrow cotton band of his smallclothes.
At last, Hawke shifted in the dark.
Anders tried to picture him, bare feet in the damp grass—he’d discarded his sandals as soon as they returned, claiming they were giving his ankles blisters—straining through the dark to watch and remain, for the most part, unnoticed.
He had to know by now that Anders knew he was there. But this was an act that required both men to keep up their roles, to feign indifference even while they felt anything but.
Drawing in a deep breath, Anders lowered his smalls. Despite the faint chill in the nighttime air, he felt warm all over, color touching his chest and belly and burning in his cheeks. Even in his younger days, he’d never been so wanton; there was never any distance like this in the Circle—no room to get fully undressed before the templars rounded a corner and caught you at it, wrist-deep in your own smalls. Moments like this were when Anders most appreciated his freedom. He felt it always—he’d never stop feeling it—but there were times when it made itself known more than ever, a blush he didn’t have to hide, a touch he didn’t have to fear.
Simple luxuries—like undressing for his slave in an open window—were all Anders had ever desired from Tevinter in the first place. Not fame, not power, not glory.
Just freedom. Something nice to wear, then not wear it at all, whenever he saw fit.
He stood at the window for a few, long moments, drinking in the sweet smell of the vineyard grapes and the salt-air of the ocean beyond. Hawke never moved, but Anders knew he was there, drinking in a different sight entirely, besieged by flitting bugs, not noticing them long enough to swat them away.
The winds picked up, and Anders shivered, gooseflesh prickling along his skin and raising the blond hairs on his arms and chest.
At last, he moved away from the window, finding his house-robe folded on a nearby chair. He slipped into its soft embrace, then wrapped his arms tightly about his body, falling into bed.
Against safety and common decency, he left his window open that night. No one slipped over the sill, but he knew Hawke would see it, the curtains billowing outward before they were blown back in.
Perhaps the man needed a more obvious invitation when it came to breaking into a place, instead of breaking out of it again.
They didn’t mention it that morning—they didn’t have the time, barely passing one another in the wide front hall as Hawke left the kitchens for the garden and Anders left the atrium for the study—or after, when Hawke accompanied him on his daily rounds, safer obligations than visiting the coliseum, since the coliseum was closed on senate-days so the archons wouldn’t have to worry about missing a good fight. Anders saw to an old man’s gout and a young wife’s pregnancy and a few of Caladrius’s body-slaves—and told Caladrius he was a mage, not a miracle-worker when the man demanded to know where that rash had come from, and whether or not it was transmittable from elvhen body to human.
Caladrius didn’t even recognize Hawke—or didn’t acknowledge he was there, one or the other, both equally unfathomable to someone who felt Hawke’s body the entire time: each shift of his arms folding one over the other, each swell of his chest with a deep, easy breath.
Someone like Anders.
He was keen to even the smallest of movements, the shift in temperature, the sun-trapped heat in his skin and the shadow he cast, long over the well-packed dirt of the main thoroughfare, all the way back home. When Hawke poured him his wine at dinner he leaned just close enough that Anders could smell the dirt on his skin from the garden, something fresh and leaf-green, the soap and the cotton and the sweat, what was clean and what wasn’t, all those contradictions that comprised him, and his own chest swelled. He could feel Hawke’s breath against the shell of his ear—but only for a moment, before he straightened again.
The formless caress disappeared exactly like the summer breezes when they fluttered in, brief and teasing, through Anders’s window, to cool his warm body in a tangle of silk sheets each night.
Anders was full and eager when he went to the window again after supper that night; he set the lamp by his side and saw the shadow melt through the dark, just one small shift of darkness amidst so much more.
But Anders knew what to look for. He saw Hawke settle into place, ease into his posture for the night, and the rest was no longer up to him—really, neither of them was in control, not anymore. Anders undid himself lace by lace and clasp by clasp, threading the silk strands of his wide belt loose from their loops and hearing the muted thunk of each metal cinch as he sloughed every spare inch of cloth from his body. He trailed his hand down his chest all the way to his belly and below, fingers against his hair, and didn’t imagine that touch was Hawke’s touch, because he knew it would be different.
If it ever came at all.
He went no farther than that despite being aroused, very, body framed for long seconds in the window. He wound his free hand around the silk curtains—partly for the way it felt, all slippery gauze bunching against his palm and tickling his wrist, and partly to keep his knees from buckling whenever they trembled.
Waiting was all well and good, but it was better when you knew you were waiting for something—something that would come, instead of promise after promise, and only promise to show for it.
That was the trouble with being such a prodigy, Anders thought. All the promises that he’d made, all the promise that he’d shown—and it amounted to this, waiting in the window until the lamp burned through what little oil remained, then retiring to bed with no one to join him.
Hawke finished his work in the garden three days later.
‘I tell you, it’s nice having a solid Fereldan around,’ Anders said at dinner, watched by his cats and his slaves with equal parts mild tolerance and ultimate indifference. He’d requested a second cup, one for Hawke to take if he wanted, and twice as many rolls because Hawke had seemed to like them—if him stealing them was anything to go by—but Hawke made no move to join him.
Of course not.
Because Hawke was a slave.
Anders needed to remind himself of that, even if he’d never agreed with what it meant, or that it should mean anything at all. What he thought and what was were never in order anyway, and just pretending something didn’t matter when it did was what got him into so much personal trouble in the first place.
He still paused whenever he passed by that stupid, wonderful mural. Sometimes he reached out to splay his fingers against the tiles just where Hawke’s hand had been, but that had been days ago, nearly a week now, and of course no heat from his touch yet remained.
‘Danarius stopped by earlier, while you were…whatever it was you were doing with that fig tree,’ Anders added, swirling his wine in his cup, making himself sick on dinner roll after dinner roll. Someone had to eat them. They’d go to waste otherwise, since the elves would never dream of taking the leftovers. ‘Nice touch, by the way. The fig tree. Old what’s-his-name is getting better at this whole gardening-for-Anders thing in his old age.’
‘Elvhen intuition,’ Hawke agreed. ‘You can’t replicate that for anything.’
‘No, thank the Maker, you can’t,’ Anders said. He took another liberal pull of his wine, the red spices heating him through from chest to gut. ‘That would be worse than blood magic. Far more sinister. Everyone wandering about not wanting to wear boots in the winter, trying to commune with violent, cruel, uncaring nature…’
‘Stop,’ Hawke said tartly. ‘You’re making me shiver.’
Anders wanted to make him shiver—but that was beside the point, and he gripped his glass one-handed, until his knuckles turned white. ‘He wanted to see how we were getting on,’ he continued. ‘Danarius, I mean. Speaking of violent, cruel, and uncaring natures.’
‘And sinister blood magic,’ Hawke added.
‘Exactly,’ Anders said. The rhythm was so familiar, as steady as the way Hawke breathed, and just as natural. But it didn’t mean anything tangible, not the way slave and master did. ‘I told him we’ve spent every day chasing one another around the bath stark naked. ‘Fereldan mating ritual,’ I believed I called it.’
Hawke huffed. ‘Hardly. Not enough dogs and mud, for starters.’
‘What Danarius doesn’t know won’t kill him,’ Anders replied. ‘At least, what he doesn’t know about Ferelden won’t.’
‘Or maybe it will,’ Hawke said, and Anders could practically hear the flash of white teeth in his voice.
‘It’s awfully tricky, trying to convince a man like that he should mind his own business,’ Anders added, encouraged by Hawke’s quick replies. Discussion of Danarius’s potential death had put him in a jolly mood. ‘I think he was disappointed that he hasn’t been hearing our throes of passion every night and once again in the morning. I told him the acoustics in the bathroom weren’t very good for that sort of thing. …Maybe he needs a hobby. You know, now that I think about it, he could take up gardening.’
‘Or maybe it’s the wrong room,’ Hawke said. He leaned in to top off Anders’s glass, pouring one-handed, while he snaked a roll from the basket. Interest stirred in Anders’s chest, unfurling like the wide, green leaves of his new fig tree.
The bread disappeared up Hawke’s sleeve as he pulled away. He wouldn’t eat it at the table, but it was a start.
‘No, I’m fairly certain it’s the private baths,’ Anders said, still playing along. ‘You fight me like a dog beforehand, but once we’re inside you’re paddling about, happy as—well, as a mabari in mud, I suppose.’
He laughed, the sound echoing down the empty dining chamber, fading as it refracted off the smooth marble.
Hawke cleared his throat. The silence that gathered in the absence of his reply made Anders feel itchy, as though Mister Wiggums the Third had picked up another round of fleas. He took a liberal swallow of his wine, wondering whether he’d gone too far—or not far enough—or if there was a coded message in Hawke’s statement that he’d failed to detect.
‘Not that I’m comparing you to a dog,’ Anders said quickly. ‘You’re not nearly so…furry. And the whiskers are all wrong.’
Hawke’s rumbling sigh sent a jolt through his body. When Anders straightened, he could feel Hawke’s breath at the back of his neck. ‘I’ve heard you leave your window open at night, though,’ he said. ‘If something went on in that room, I’m sure it’d satisfy his curiosity.’
‘Oh,’ Anders murmured, realization making him stupid. He’d lost the thread of the conversation like a dropped stitch; there was a reason he didn’t sew his own garments, but talking was a skill that was supposed to come naturally to him. ‘Well, you can’t believe every bit of gossip you hear about eccentric, ex-Fereldan healers, you know. It’s not the sort of information I’d trust to word of mouth. Tevinter magisters love gossip just as much as they love blood magic and slaves, if not a little bit more.’
‘Hm.’ There was a soft crunch of bread as Hawke tore into the roll with his teeth. When he spoke, his mouth was still full. It was charming. ‘I suppose I’ll have to check for myself, then.’
‘Would you?’ Anders heard himself ask. ‘I’d hate to give anyone the wrong impression.’
His stomach was roiling now, but for different reasons than the excess of bread and wine he’d consumed. Fereldans were terrible at saying one thing when they meant another, but Anders had learned not to expect anything when it came to Hawke.
He’d resigned himself to a miserable stretch of showing off and not being able to look in return, of being seen but not being touched. After that night with only the flute-players in the mosaic to bear witness, Anders had been sure he’d effectively crushed any grudging desire that might have been sprouting in Hawke’s chest—like one of Caladrius’s petunias under his sandal, in an equally drunken moment, too thoughtful rather than not thoughtful enough.
What he hadn’t counted on were Hawke’s resilient skills as a gardener, that sprout flowering into a full-blown plant.
Anders had little faith in his own threadbare scruples carrying him through a second time.
‘Don’t drink too much,’ Hawke suggested. ‘Wouldn’t want you to be too drunk for anything later.’
Anders set his glass down on the table, only half-finished, and wondered why Hawke had bothered topping him up all night, why there was no brew or poultice strong enough to calm an eager heart.
And an eager something-else, felt just beneath the shift of silks in Anders’s lap. He stuffed a roll in his mouth to hide whatever stupid words he muttered next, and to give him something to do later while he was waiting by the window—namely picking the crumbs out of the feathers at his shoulders.
Anticipation was one of the most important spells anyone had at their disposal—whether they were a magister or a slave, or any of the countless in-betweens. It didn’t take magic, just a well-timed insinuation, an idea or two thrown in for good measure. Punishment, for example, was so often unnecessary when someone might merely anticipate punishment instead—and the same could be said for pleasure, except Anders so much preferred experiencing it to waiting for it.
That wait could only go on so long before a man started to tear out his hair and rend his own garments.
Anders waited by the window, lamp with fresh oil on the sill beside him, but the shadows in the garden were their usual fare: trees and their shifted leaves, bushes and bowers and blossoms, and vine-stakes hammered firm and solid into the soft Tevinter earth. No one melted from behind a corner into the next, or took up his familiar vigil in the appointed spot. Anders’s throat was dry, and he didn’t know whether to undress or possibly drown himself, though the latter was impossible. He needed to know what came next.
But for a long time, there was nothing, and Anders resisted the urge to pace if only because he was too busy sitting on the edge of his bed and drumming his fingers against his knee, collar too tight around his throat, dragon claw earring swinging beneath his ear. He felt it tickle his skin, as warm as he remembered Hawke being, the man himself not like a dwarven forge but something more special, more arcane, dragon fire lingering in a treasured scale.
Anders clenched his skirts beneath his hands, then released them.
Hawke wasn’t coming.
It was the perfect ruse—he was a genius, capable of planning and executing the sort of brilliant escape Anders had never managed to pull off. He’d only ever accomplished his by accident, despite the clever plans he cooked up in a private corner of the Fereldan Circle library, amidst the dust motes and brown vellum and sleepy stacks. Hawke had carried his out to perfection: patient build-up, inevitable rewards.
Anders did hope he made it farther than the docks this time, then wished he hadn’t been used so efficiently or so well, that he hadn’t fallen for it because he’d wanted to so badly.
The night breeze was as cool as ever. Anders extinguished the lamp and undressed in private; his hands didn’t linger where they might have some other night, and his skin was flushed with a combination of embarrassment and disappointment more than anything else. He reached for his robe and stubbed his toe on a footstool, and hissed loud enough that he didn’t hear the first thud at the window.
He did hear the second.
Hawke’s second foot, bare and dirty, fell onto the tile, one wrist wrapped in the curtains just like Anders had done a few nights back, pausing to catch his breath.
‘Window’s higher than it looks,’ he said. When Anders stared at him, he shrugged, one-shouldered. ‘Better than a tower by a good ten stories or so, though. I suppose I can’t complain too much about it—then again, that whole could be worse excuse is rather a poor one, don’t you agree?’
Anders held his night-robe over his body. He almost dropped it, but his hands were better accustomed to holding onto to something than they were to letting go. That was the principle of his magic. That was what made him such a good healer.
‘Oh.’ Hawke swung forward, easing his grip. ‘I see you got started without me. I’m not sure what to think—should I be honored, or disappointed?’
You should be in my bed, Anders thought, but he was already in the bedroom, and the rest would come. The rest was already coming.
‘If you want, I could put it all back on again,’ he offered, voice too light, but not high at all. Rather, it was deep, and so Fereldan of him, in a way it had never managed to sound before. ‘It’d only take a moment.’
‘I’d rather see you take it off, if it’s all the same to you,’ Hawke said. ‘Oh, wait—I already have, haven’t I?’
‘Several times,’ Anders agreed.
‘Did you know I can see right into your bedroom from the garden?’ Hawke asked. He glanced over his shoulder, into the dark of the vineyard. ‘You should close your curtains more often. You never know who’s watching.’
‘Really?’ Anders’s fingers twisted in the silk, thumb rubbing an embroidered hem, worrying at the corded stitching that lined the sleeves. ‘How scandalous.’
‘Well, when in Tevinter…’ Hawke grinned, twitching the drapes shut with a jerk of his hands. They fluttered, shadows from the garden cast along the pale fabric. Then, he stepped closer, with a subtle grace such a large person shouldn’t have. It wasn’t a trait he displayed all the time—not on his first escape attempt, smashing into Anders’s least favorite vase and sending it skittering into pieces on the marble floor.
Anders had never liked that vase anyway. He vastly preferred Hawke’s presence, muscled calves skirting between the columns downstairs, or navigating the space that stretched from Anders’s window to his bed.
There were no stray vessels to come between them this time.
Anders should have taken some initiative, but instead, he found himself backed up against the bed as Hawke crossed the silver slant of moonlight that trickled beneath the curtains, drawn between them like a line in the sand. His shirt collar was loose and unlaced at his throat, baring his chest, one slim scar interrupting the dark hair.
There were several possible conclusions to the sentence Hawke had begun. When in Tevinter, become a blood mage, or when in Tevinter, drink too much wine, or when in Tevinter, embrace slavery, but Anders suspected he knew its implied meaning, one of the lesser known but just as common Tevinter life mottos.
When in Tevinter, enjoy a proper scandal. And what better way to do that than embracing one’s slave individually, instead of the more general concept?
Anders suspected he was the only man in the Imperium whose handsome Fereldan garden slave had climbed the trellises to get into his bedroom. These things never happened in real life, which was why people read about them in books instead.
But every now and then, a man bet on the right gladiator—it had to happen sometime—and got lucky.
Hawke’s hands came up to cover Anders’s; his skin was still warm despite the late hour, palms rough and cracked from their work in the garden, one knuckle freshly scraped, possibly from his climb. Anders thought of his dragon claw earring, the way it held its heat despite being cut off from the whole—but Hawke wasn’t a dragon; he wore simple linens instead of glittering razor scales, and Anders could touch him without risking injury to either of them.
Anders could touch him. His ears flooded with the drumming of his pulse, louder still than the morning interruption of Hawke and the garden-slaves hammering stakes into the earth.
Hawke flexed his arms, and pushed Anders’s hands down, lowering his robes between them. He waited for the chill of night air that never came, because Hawke was standing so close, body shielding him from the window.
‘Anders,’ Hawke said, voice rasping, like a wisp of fine fabric caught on a nail.
‘Hawke,’ Anders replied.
Finally, he let the bundle of robes in his hands fall.
He wasn’t fooling anyone, and there was no chance of anyone putting more clothes on now. All his self control was spent, undone by desire and impatience and the other staples of his personality, and he shed it, dropping like a sheath of sweet silk on his feet by the floor.
When Hawke seized him by the shoulders, hands on his bare skin, it was hard to conceal a whimper of selfish relief. He hid it against Hawke’s mouth, buried it in Hawke’s hot breath at his throat, legs wrapping around the backs of his thighs as Hawke lifted him off the ground—not against a hard wall this time, but high into the air, before the maneuver switched and the bed hit Anders’s back with a huff of silks and feather-down.
Hawke had all but thrown him, but if Anders was winded, it was only because he had Hawke on top of him, thick forearms braced at either side of his head. Heavy, hard muscle weighed Anders down on all sides. It should have been uncomfortable, but it wasn’t; instead, it was every demand and ever callused touch Anders had wanted so badly: undressing alone at the window, left with no hands but his own, soft and just a bit too small for his purposes.
He wriggled beneath Hawke’s bulk, enough to free his arms and wrap them tightly around Hawke’s neck, leeching heat from the sunburn. The pulse in his wrists beat against the pulse at Hawke’s throat.
How was it possible for one man to be so warm? It wasn’t Fereldan constitution—Anders had lain beneath many Fereldans in his day, and none of them had ever been built quite like this.
‘This seems,’ Anders began, gasping when Hawke’s hips rested against his own, revealing a growing erection through the fabric of his trousers, ‘a little unfair, don’t you think?’
‘Mm,’ Hawke agreed. His beard scratched Anders’s throat as he moved down his chest to do something utterly obscene with his teeth to Anders’s left nipple.
‘That’s not—ahh—not an answer.’ Anders raked his fingers through Hawke’s dark hair, nails drawing over his scalp. It made a noise, one of many, joining the creak of the bedframe and the whisper of the sheets, the rub of cotton on Anders’s bare skin and the hitch and rise of his quickening breaths. ‘You’re all dressed, and I’m all naked. Not that I’m complaining—except I am complaining, because when you’ve got a body like that, it seems a shame to keep it all covered up.’
Hawke tugged at the hardening rise of Anders’s nipple with his teeth. Anders made all the appropriate noises and felt all the appropriate lightning, one quick beat to the center of his belly, and he arched his back, as though it was something he could chase, or lean all the way into, or keep.
‘Does that line always work for you?’ Hawke asked, tonguing over what Anders could only imagine was a bite-mark. Hot breath hit cool moisture on warm skin. The dragon claw fell back against the pillow, and Anders’s hair tangled in the chain.
‘It killed in the Fereldan Circle,’ Anders said.
‘So that’s what the Fereldan Circle gets up to. I’d always wondered.’ Bristles of dark, coarse hair tickled the skin between Anders’s ribs, tangling in the softer, paler hairs that lined his chest. Hawke paused, then turned his cheek, lips against that trail, following it until it disappeared, then began anew, just below Anders’s navel. He felt each pant against the curve of his hip, inward to his thigh, and along the head of his dick—but Hawke was stubborn; Hawke never began when he should; Hawke was all dark looks, angry or funny or both, all square Fereldan shoulders and stingy Fereldan sensibilities. He lifted his head, finding Anders’s eyes over the length of his body, while Anders fisted his sheets against his palms, clenching and unclenching, legs spread wide.
‘The stories I could tell you,’ Anders managed, levying his weight onto his elbows. He reached out to brush the hair off Hawke’s warm brow, little finger grazing the shell of his ear, thumb against the work-lines and the laugh-lines. The latter were deeper, and hidden beneath the former—but they were there, and at the corners of Hawke’s eyes and mouth, which quirked at intervals, or whenever Anders did something silly: like catch a raw breath or part his lips or twist one heel against the slim, soft mattress to signal his impatience.
‘Maybe some other time,’ Hawke said.
He drew away; Anders’s body felt cold, and he lifted himself higher, not moving quick enough to keep their bodies pressed together. Hawke tricked his fingers under the hem of his shirt, and when Anders reached out to help he batted his hand aside, patient but firm, the same way Anders scolded a naughty kitten playing with the end of a long sash.
‘My turn,’ he said. All his low anger was replaced with heat, the flash of his teeth as he grinned, a light in his eyes Anders knew he’d never be able to predict. Cotton lifted, rising over the shadows, over bare moonlight on rough-lived skin.
Anders had seen Hawke without his shirt before; he knew each shift and slant of thick, hard-earned muscle by sight and by touch, palms against each fresh wound and noting each old scar. There was a little one that cut low on his belly, just a nick too shallow to bother with healing, and a thicker one beneath his bottom-most rib, knotted like the cord that hemmed Anders’s night-robe. The newer bruises had all but faded, though there were a few cuts here and there, from clutching splintered wood stakes, and a blister on his thumb from wielding a hammer to drive them in, rather than a more customary sword.
Each inch of flesh revealed itself agonizingly slowly, Hawke’s knuckles running up the center of his belly to the center of his chest as he went, leaving prickling skin and stiffening hairs in their wake. Anders saw the third scar, the one he recognized whenever the collar of Hawke’s shirt fell open, sliced vertically just below the dip in the center of his collarbone. Then, Hawke twisted, hips shifting, joints in his elbows rolling, all the muscles stretching over the bone as his arms rose and he lifted the shirt clean off at last. He wiped the back of his neck with it before tossing it over the side of the bed, free palm resting at his jaw.
He didn’t look sheepish. He did look self-satisfied.
‘You’re enjoying this far too much,’ Anders said, touching himself because he couldn’t touch Hawke. He traced the same lines over his body, downward instead of upward, knuckles brushing an uneven line from chest to belly, but no lower. Not yet. He was waiting for Hawke’s hands now, and Hawke knew it.
Hawke was making him wait.
‘Payback,’ he replied. ‘Justice. Revenge. At least I’m not letting you stand in the garden while I do it.’
‘No,’ Anders said. ‘I’m far too delicate for that. I’d catch cold out there, not to mention all the dirt and bugs and everything.’
Hawke snorted, an equally indelicate sound. He rested one hand behind him, hips pressed forward, trailing his blunt fingertips over the half-loose laces of his trousers. They were home-spun, so much simpler than the network of belts and sashes and clasps and ties on a good set of chasind robes, but Hawke was more patient than Anders, and he curled one narrow tie of frayed leather around his forefinger, rubbing the very tip with his thumb, a moment so slow and exquisite and frozen in time that it might just as well have lasted forever.
Anders couldn’t help himself. When it came to Hawke, he always leaned forward, closer, fascinated by the slightest detail, so eager to watch.
When Hawke gave the cord an inevitable tug, Anders felt it jolt through him, the assured flick of Hawke’s thick wrist and the clench of his fingers. He wondered how much longer it would last, how much longer he could last, before Hawke slipped the waistband over his hips and his ass and down his thighs, bunched at his knees, barely parted and propped against one lucky, embroidered pillow.
‘Now we’re even,’ he said.
It was important to believe, even if it wasn’t necessarily true. Hawke leaned back onto his elbow, and reached out with an open hand, and Anders took it as he surged against him, naked skin on naked skin at last. He buried his face in the crook of Hawke’s throat, while Hawke’s touch fell along his back, shoulder to ass, down and up and down again, almost an apology for not doing it all sooner. He gripped Anders’s ass and Anders held their dicks together two-handed, messy and hot, palms steady. The arcane warmth was second nature to him as he rubbed both slits until they were slick, trapped between their bodies, pressed against the hard plane of muscle that was Hawke’s hip. When he bit down on the vein pulsing in Hawke’s throat, the uneven rhythm, breaths unsteady at long last, Hawke’s entire body lifted and shuddered, bucking Anders into the air, hard-forged as a weapon.
But Anders knew better than to think of him like that.
The man Hawke was trembled only once when he spent himself, fingers digging deep into the clenched muscles of Anders’s thigh, and Anders no more let him have his way than he let himself follow soon after. It was out of his hands, though Hawke’s dick was in his hands, rutting rather than enchanting, with no refinement and no plan, and none of Anders’s usual seduction present in their final, messy gasps.
Sometime later, in the palest hours before dawn, Anders lay in the crooked curve of Hawke’s arm. He was still pressing lazy kisses to the man’s chest, right in a patch of hair next to a half-budded nipple, whenever he remembered to. Hawke patted his thigh like some other man might pet a dog, but Anders knew how Fereldans could be about their mabari, not to mention how he felt about petting in general.
Mercifully, the cats had let them be. That might have been because Anders had locked them out—though that alone never stopped them if they were feeling inquisitive—displaying rare foresight, back when he’d still believed Hawke would appear for an evening tryst. He could be grateful for that foresight now—and also that Hawke hadn’t cut tail and run at the eleventh hour, that mutual want had been enough to even the field, if only for the duration of a few quick, sweaty, mindless fucks.
It was what Anders would have done, but not everyone shared Anders’s self-sabotaging nature.
He shifted in Hawke’s loose embrace, fingers trailing over the narrow scar at his hip where the flesh was white against his tan. Hawke tensed, then exhaled, reminding himself to allow the touch—there was no one to see them, and anyone who might have been listening had long since retired to bed.
‘My father was a healer, you know,’ Hawke said. His voice was casual, as though he was continuing the thread of a pre-existing conversation, softened and sweetened by their activities, and just as loose as his arm, with just the same strength behind it. It rumbled in his chest, and Anders’s fingers stilled at the tapered base of the scar. ‘He used to stitch me up after all sorts of scrapes and scraps. Which, as you can imagine, I got into only occasionally.’
‘Ah,’ Anders murmured against Hawke’s damp skin. That explained why Hawke hadn’t startled or snarled, or fought him in the prison below the coliseum. He’d been healed before, just as Anders suspected. His body was used to the magic; no wonder he didn’t shy away from it. He might even have thought it welcome—a rare thing, even in Tevinter, where magic spilled more blood than it saved. ‘No wonder you’re such a good patient.’
‘I never used to be.’ Hawke’s hand slid from his thigh, running warm up his back, cracked fingers tangling in Anders’s hair. ‘I’d squirm like anything and cause a big distraction. That’s how I wound up with that scar. So it must be all the pretty manners I’ve picked up here that make me so polite.’
‘A little squirming wouldn’t go amiss,’ Anders admitted. A shiver rippled through his body as Hawke obliged, rubbing their lazy hips together with none of the frantic need he’d displayed earlier.
In the wake of the afterglow, their movements were languorous and syrupy; already, Anders could feel the promise of the next day’s heat in the air, rising in the distance, just before the sun. The silence was tempered by Hawke’s beating heart, a steady rhythm in a sturdy chest.
His father had been a healer. The unspoken implication was that Hawke’s father had also been an apostate, since Anders knew well enough that the Circle mages weren’t allowed to keep families of their own. He couldn’t help but wonder what life had been like on the run with an apostate—or what life had been like for that apostate, on the run but never alone. Apparently it hadn’t occurred to them to flee the country, which had been Anders’s first and only aspiration ever since his first escape, unsuccessful as it was.
Maybe something—family, loyalty, stubbornness—anchored them there.
Anders ran his fingers over the scar in question, wondering now whether its source was a templar blade rather than a smuggler’s cut, or a highwayman’s parting gift.
It was a high act of art how the smallest of revelations could make him look at Hawke in this new light. Like the mosaic walls in the sun room downstairs, each separate tile went toward creating the larger picture. When most of those tiles were missing, you could never tell if it was a seaside shore or the curve of a woman’s dusky cheek, but piece by piece, everything was starting to make quiet sense.
Beneath Anders’s palm, Hawke’s chest rose and fell, marking even time.
‘The rest of your family…?’ Anders asked, mouth breathless on the curve of Hawke’s throat. The tendons in his neck jumped, and Anders felt Hawke go still beneath him.
‘They died in the Blight,’ he said, not curt, but not inviting discussion on the matter. ‘My sister was a healer, too—but it seems it didn’t help her much, in the end.’
Anders swallowed, feeling as though he’d blundered into one of Senior Enchanter Sweeney’s fire-traps, greedy flames sucking all the oxygen from the room. When Hawke didn’t pull away, Anders wrapped an arm around his broad shoulders, smothering the cool breeze against his skin with their sweaty bodies. He’d never sacrificed his own comfort to hold someone close; healing required proper distance, despite what some might think.
But then, no one had ever climbed through his window and touched him the way Hawke did. The memory of the night before—and the scent of grape-leaves and fresh dirt on Hawke’s skin—sent a flush from Anders’s cheeks to his toes. He wiggled them against the slippery sheets.
He didn’t know what he’d imagined waiting for Hawke back in Ferelden, but he’d just assumed it was more than what he had—which was nothing. Anders supposed he’d thought Hawke was so desperate to cut and run because of a family, or a lover, or both—when he should have known better than anyone that it wasn’t the destination that mattered to some.
Sometimes a man needed freedom that much more when he didn’t know what freedom was.
All anyone ever wanted was that freedom. Even mabari were allowed to choose their masters, before they were fitted with their collars.
It was wrong to keep Hawke here.
That much, Anders understood. Perhaps he’d always known it, but he’d never allowed the idea to convince him, holding it at bay for as long as possible. Hawke was a person who’d had a family once, an apostate father and a mysterious mother, siblings who’d been cut down by the advance of the darkspawn horde, which were more than bare stories in the Imperium; they were a life Hawke had known, and lives taken from him. He liked fresh rolls, and ornamental fountains, and he’d planted a fig tree in Anders’s backyard without needing to ask whether or not it was Anders’s favorite fruit.
He’d broken Anders’s least favorite vase in the den.
He deserved to be his own man because he was his own man.
‘Do you know what your problem is?’ Anders asked. He ran his hand up Hawke’s belly, fingers tangling in the dark hair below his navel. ‘You have no idea when all the best ships sail into port. Leaving in the dead of night? You might as well announce to everyone ‘I’m a runaway slave! Clap me in irons and spank my bottom soundly for my efforts!’ No—if you want to do things properly, you’ve got to leave midday. Carry a basket and look like you’re running an errand for your master and no one’s going to look twice. If they do say anything, you tell them, ‘Anders is fond of dried figs and he eats twice his own weight in them every day,’ and then you find the first Rivaini ship you see and stow away in a barrel of pickles or something.’
‘Pickles,’ Hawke repeated.
‘Pickles,’ Anders agreed.
‘I don’t much care for pickles,’ Hawke said.
‘Well, if it’s a Rivaini ship, it might not be pickles at all,’ Anders amended. ‘It could be fertility talismans or…potatoes.’
Hawke huffed, a gust of air tickling the shell of Anders’s ear. ‘Don’t need the former, don’t eat the later.’
‘Did anyone ever tell you you’re as stubborn as a mabari in heat?’ Anders asked. He shoved at Hawke’s chest, then spread his fingers wide, over the beating of his heart. It betrayed nothing, no skip in the rhythm, no jump of muscle or twitch of skin, and Anders rubbed a lazy path through the hair to the dip in his chest, where the ribs met like two clasped hands. He dragged his nail against the soft skin there, the bone beneath the leaner muscle, knowing all the while Hawke understood his meaning clear enough. The man was clever—as clever as a stubborn mabari in heat, in fact, the prime example of Fereldan manhood, a combination of the countryside’s most virile and most detrimental habits.
‘I didn’t know you were such an expert on the fine art of escape,’ Hawke said finally. He cupped the back of Anders’s head and kissed him lazy at the temple, beard snagging on the finer wisps of hair, still damp from exertion. Then, he set his lips against the crown of Anders’s head, and Anders wondered if it was on purpose—a distraction tactic of his own, so that Anders couldn’t lift his eyes and see his face.
He needed to cherish it, this honest moment—honest as it could be, with eyes that wouldn’t meet—because it was probably the last. Anders kicked the thought to the side and shrugged, limp, wrapping one arm around Hawke’s thick waist, the small of his elbow fitting perfectly against the hard bone of his hip.
‘I’ve had some experience,’ he said.
The next morning, Anders was sure all the slaves knew—but they acted admirably, or frustratingly, the same as always, almost as though nothing had changed.
Maybe nothing had.
The cats weren’t so obedient by half, and some of them gave Anders the cold shoulder about it, turning their tails up and presenting him with their backsides before they stalked away primly down the hall. They’d forget about it soon enough, after a few hours or a few days, depending on the weather and how long Anders’s resolve not to spoil them rotten lasted, but Anders wouldn’t forget about it ever, and even the sight of their indignant grooming didn’t cheer him the way it might have.
He had a long breakfast, picking at his grains and his honey and his fruit, eating too many of his figs until he managed to sour himself on the taste.
Outside the breakfast-room—which was well-positioned to have the best view of the gardens—Hawke was instructing the master gardener on how to take care of the fig tree.
But by noon, he appeared in the study, where Anders was reading. Or trying to read, and failing, all the words blurring together, while King Cailan—not persistent enough to keep up the sulking act—threaded between his ankles, knocking his head into Anders’s foot over and over again.
Anders shifted on the couch. Hawke’s shadow fell over him, and he noted the clean cotton clothes, the sweat at the back of his neck, the cracked cuticle at his thumb, all the familiar details friendly but foreign at the same time. It was difficult to pretend he didn’t know what this meant, that this was goodbye, but it wasn’t impossible. Anders leaned against the arm of the couch, but he didn’t close his book, forefinger pressed against a random line to pretend he was holding his place, that he even had a place to hold.
‘Thought you might like more figs,’ Hawke said, and rubbed his thumb over the weave of the basket.
He’d bathed—probably the last bath he’d see in a long time, making himself useful on a packed Rivaini merchant ship, or pirate ship, if the two had any meaningful difference from one another in the first place.
‘Yes,’ Anders agreed. ‘Because I’ve eaten so many. That’s exactly what I want. Fluffy, go down to the market and get me the freshest figs you can find.’
‘Wears a dragon claw in his ear and eats figs.’ Hawke shook his head. ‘You’re the worst Fereldan I’ve ever met.’
‘And also the worst Anders,’ Anders agreed. ‘Not to mention the worst Tevinter magister. Now, stop being contrary and run along down to the docks—you wouldn’t want to be late, and get your bottom spanked.’
‘No,’ Hawke agreed, shifting the basket to one arm, rubbing said bottom thoughtfully. ‘I wouldn’t.’
He left with an easy stride. Anders noticed he was wearing boots at last, instead of the bare feet he preferred when walking across the cool tiles or working in the garden, and if Anders hadn’t known he was leaving before, that made it all painfully obvious: a knot that wound itself tight in Anders’s belly, and still wasn’t gone by the first hint of evening.
Anders was half-expecting Danarius to burst in with a retinue of guards at any moment, Hawke trapped in a saarebas collar again. He had his excuses prepared, an indignant Where are my figs, Danarius? right on the tip of his tongue, but—probably because the line was so good—he was never given cause to use it, spending most of his day in the study anticipating a knock that never came, jangling his knee whenever his mind drifted from his reading.
He could smell fresh rolls baking from the other side of his house. Supper wouldn’t be ready for another hour; he was tired of waiting and worrying and watching the sunlight creep in narrow slants across the floor. He needed a bath, hot water and even hotter stone, something to scour himself clean, but at the same time, his skin still smelled of Hawke, distracting and wonderful every time he turned his head and caught the scent, hidden like a secret in the crook of his neck or the curve of his arm.
He changed in his room before eating; there was a party later that night at Caladrius’s, a fresh boatload of gladiator slaves to inspect, some not-so-fresh fish to pretend he was eating, while instead he snuck it away to the lean, gray hounds Caladrius kept as pets, who were so skinny they’d eat anything.
A cool wind was blowing in off the water, sea-salt tang overwhelming the smell of grapes ripening from the vineyard. Anders felt a tug in his chest, like a fishing master’s errant hook snagging on flotsam, as he did up the final clasp of his robes. The metal was warm against his throat.
Tonight, he wouldn’t undress before the window. He’d close the curtains and douse the lamps, and if there was anyone lurking in the garden past sunset, they’d be catching the wrong end of a healer’s trusty fireball up their backside.
Anders smoothed the feathers at his shoulders, brushing his knuckle over the warm curve of his earring. It, at the very least, remained constant.
It was no longer attached to a dragon, so it couldn’t fly away.
Behind him, there was a thud at the window. Anders’s fingers jerked, nearly tugging the claw straight out of his ear.
‘Look,’ said a low voice from behind him. Anders glanced over his shoulder, feeling a surge of arcane electricity jolt through his veins, from the pulse in his wrist straight to his fingers. Bright sparks prickled at his fingertips, and he pressed them hard into the palms of his hands. The soles of Hawke’s boots were gritty against the marble floor, leather toes damp and cracked—that was what Anders saw first. His gaze traveled upward, over dirty knees and a broad chest, a neck damp with sweat, to hair that was mussed from the wind, black bangs combed back over a square forehead. ‘Do you know how difficult it is to have a picnic by yourself?’ He shrugged his shoulder, revealing the covered basket he held in the crook of his elbow. ‘People look at you funny. And the conversation’s terrible.’
‘Oh,’ Anders said cleverly. If Hawke was looking for witty repartee, he might not have come to the right place. ‘The picnic wasn’t actually a serious suggestion, you know.’ He wished now that he hadn’t done the top fastening on his robes—it was making breathing too difficult, quick pulse heating the metal. ‘If you were really that desperate to have one, you could have waited until you were on the ship. I’m sure there’d be an obligingly hungry cabin boy—or a bo’sun with a mean-looking scar, who turns out to have a heart of dwarven gold.’
‘You’d think that,’ Hawke agreed. He braced his elbows against his knees, legs splayed comfortably wide on the sill, as though he broke into villas all the time. Some men had the virtue of looking as though they belonged anywhere; Anders could picture him on a pirate vessel just as easily as he could picture him naked in bed, although one fantasy was preferable to the other. ‘But the captain’s a bit short on crew, as it turns out. In point of fact, we could use a healer.’
Anders blinked. He closed his mouth with an audible clack of his teeth that nearly injured his tongue. Hawke wasn’t the type to return willingly to a life of slavery; that he was there for some other reason shouldn’t have come as that big of a surprise.
And yet here Anders was, struck dumb as a dwarf in the Circle.
Hawke was ruining Anders’s opinion of himself as a cynic. They’d have to talk about that later, when—not if—they had the chance.
‘And here I thought you’d come back because you forgot to give me a proper goodbye.’ Anders bit his lip against the swell of sudden desire in his chest. Hawke’s eyes were on his face, not the wall over his shoulder, or the bed, or the lamp, or a fountain, or a window. He was looking at Anders without any pretense—there was no need for it, now that Anders wasn’t his master.
Now that Hawke was no longer his slave.
It was difficult to face the attention he’d fought so hard to win. But Anders knew he didn’t want to run from it; not this time.
‘Nothing like that,’ Hawke said, waving his free hand. ‘Fereldans are hardly so romantic. But this ship—the Siren’s Call—she doesn’t even have a lucky cat, Anders. Can you imagine? When I told her captain I knew a man who could increase her fortune eightfold, well… Her eyes lit up like a pair of gleaming galleons. I ask you: who can say no to a face like that?’
‘Not you,’ Anders murmured. His cheeks felt hot, yet there was a curious chill flushing the rest of his body cold, and he was frozen in place, unable to advance or retreat.
‘Not me,’ Hawke agreed. He slipped off the window-ledge, narrowing the distance between them, as though he knew—as though he cared—that Anders couldn’t.
This close, Anders could smell the salt-soaked wood of a ship on his skin. He’d made it all the way to the docks this time, only to turn back before weighing anchor.
Only a Fereldan.
Anders reached up and pressed his thumb gently against the deep wrinkle in Hawke’s brow, smoothing out the furrow there.
‘I get awfully sea-sick,’ he warned.
‘Still, there’s no Circle of Magi on the open water,’ Hawke replied.
It was a wonder how even a warrior could master a spell or two—the words were like magic to Anders’s ears. ‘When do we set sail?’ he asked.
‘As soon as I can roungd up you and your blasted cats,’ Hawke said. ‘And your slaves, if they want to come. Captain Isabela’s got some contraband cargo of her own, bound for Rivain. More than a few injuries in the lot—I wasn’t kidding about needing a healer. You should see the elf she found; poor bastard’s got lyrium sewn right into his skin.’
Anders winced. There was no limit to the deprivation of the magisters, what could happen when they grew bored with a lifetime of simple duels and petty blood magic. He’d lived in Minrathous long enough to view men like Danarius as a cautionary tale, someone he couldn’t be, because he didn’t want to.
He cherished his freedom, but what did it mean in the end, if he had to hide everything he was in order to keep it?
‘Lucky for you I just so happen to be an expert when it comes to implausible escapes,’ Anders said, affecting a heavy sigh. There were boots in his closet, and more sensible robes than the ones he had on. Silks were ideal for balmy Tevinter nights, but they wouldn’t hold up on a ship’s deck. That didn’t mean he couldn’t keep it—bring it with him to trot out from time to time, whenever the air was warm, and Hawke’s eyes started wandering. ‘I’ll share a bit of advice with you, since you need the help so badly,’ he continued, undoing the clasp at his throat in front of Hawke once again. ‘The first rule of running away is: don’t come back.’
‘Not ever,’ Hawke agreed, and the warmth in his smile was almost arcane, like the pulse that still beat through a lost dragon claw.