For years now, Dorian has maintained a collection of half-composed and unsent letters home, the sorts of missives one writes in one’s head when one isn’t able to sleep.
They’re rather good, or at the very least unforgettable.
To My Esteemed Father: I have indeed made it past the boundaries of Tevinter soil having not been eaten by qunari or ruined by ruffians, and I am now sleeping in a charming little hovel that serves its very own home-grown, foot-scented Orlesian cheeses. The place is complete with holes in the roof, through which I may gaze upon the stars, each one of them reminding me that we are now worlds apart, or might as well be. I am very fine and not at all cold, thank you.
To My Esteemed, Estranged Father: Despite your best efforts, I am still myself.
To Magister Pavus, Esteemed, Estranged, Etc: Your reputation may well be worth less than the mabari shit I stepped in four hours ago. I have sold the part of my heritage that weighed like chains around my neck and I certainly do not miss it.
To Magister Pavus: Don’t wait up. You see, I’ve joined the Inquisition.
None of them makes it onto vellum vis-à-vis a quill pen and ink, but not all libraries are the sort to be curated in shelves and stacks.
To Magister Pavus: I’m sure it matters very little to you who thinks so highly of himself, but once outside the Imperium, we have something of a terrible reputation—regardless of how many of the magically inclined wind up marrying the girl from the right family. So many people spit when I’m introduced. Perhaps they’ve already met you?
To Magister Pavus: Felix is dead. Despite what you may think, I never once kissed him. He died corrupted by the Blight, but not by my touch. Funny how that works, isn’t it?
To Magister Pavus: Awfully delightful taking down the most corrupt of us. Half expecting to see you’ve joined the elite numbers of the deluded—but ever proper—venatori masses one of these days.
To Magister Pavus: Don’t soil your smalls, but I’ve bedded a qunari. He has an enormous…set of horns.
It’s possible the letters are petty. It’s probable they wouldn’t have quite the same sting at any hour other than somewhere-past-midnight.
But when you live a thing long enough, it softens—or scars—the bite.
‘You have a look on your face,’ Bull says. Cool air from the splintered half-ceiling above their heads filters downward through the beams with the wet taste of incumbent snow. The black sky waits above, along with hazy starlight. It’s perfectly romantic, which makes it utterly ridiculous. One of these days, the Inquisition is going to have to invest in proper thatching, some kind of roof repair effort, rather than constantly putting its considerable resources to solving every last squabble in the Dales about which duchess wore what frilly hat, or whose great-great-grandmother used the family crest for a chamber pot.
‘A handsome look, I hope?’
‘Hmm.’ Bull’s chest rumbles enormously. ‘No, not that.’
‘I was contemplating the marvels of Thedas,’ Dorian replies. Bull grins. ‘No—not that. Something higher. That is, how you manage to sleep despite those horns, though I do have to pity the pillows for the assault on their livelihood.’
‘They have as much to fear from you sinking your teeth into them as anything.’
Dorian luxuriates the only way he knows how—which is the way a cat stretches while simultaneously extending its claws. ‘Once you nearly skewered me right in the eye, you know. Did you want us to have matching eyepatches? Surely there are other forms of commitment to be—well, to be committed to?’
‘Yes,’ Bull says. ‘There are.’
Dorian wasn’t entirely serious, but there’s so much black sky and so many stars that if he isn’t careful, he might get lost in them. Besides, he doesn’t mind turning onto his side, nudging the hand-axe buried in the bedpost with his toe. Cool metal on hot flesh. The wonders of Thedas, indeed. ‘Such as?’
‘Such as slaying a dragon, removing a tooth from its head, splitting the tooth in half, and wearing matching amulets made of the halves,’ Bull says.
‘Ah,’ Dorian says.
‘But doesn’t it stink of dragon’s breath? All those dead livestock bits stuck in there?’
‘Oh, yes. Magnificently.’
To Magister Pavus: You cannot touch me here. You will never touch me here.
‘Disgusting,’ Dorian says. Mindless of the horns, he rolls over and falls asleep.
To Magister Pavus: Rid a charming little place called Crestwood of its undead infestation. But since I haven’t a ring on my finger and a wife I despise, I suppose that means nothing, does it?
To Magister Pavus: Well, at long last, we’ve fought our first dragon. Not dragonling; not wyvern; none of the smaller variations that pop out of the dunes and wiggle about for attention. No; this was a high dragon. Positively enormous. But, I must inform you, I am still not at all what you had hoped for, and I remain, therefore, a terrible disappointment.
To Magister Pavus: Adventures with the Grey Wardens are absolutely nothing like the storybooks would have you believe. Then again, neither are sons. To clarify, this latest endeavor was a complete mess, but also a glorious one, full of matching sets of armor and temptation and, what else? A little reminder of home. The venatori would destroy this world—but for the sake of your reputation, have you even wasted breath to stop them?
‘There it is—that look again.’ Bull stoops to remove the buckles on his leg brace, or loosen them. Dorian isn’t sure which, since he always averts his eyes; it’s simply what’s done. Large warriors who daily wield weaponry that weighs more than a dense and well-fed dwarf don’t tend to prefer reminders of their own vulnerability, now do they?
‘You could have the decency to stare at other parts of my anatomy, if you must scrutinize.’
‘Well, it isn’t as though the face is hard on the eyes.’ A terrible joke is coming. ‘Or the eye.’
‘No. No, it isn’t.’ Dorian brushes the hair at his temple with his fingertips before he bends over to inspect the damage to his leather boots. How a place manages to offer snow and mud in equal measure is beyond him. ‘Very well—I accept your explanation.’
‘And I am no longer staring at your face,’ Bull says.
The floorboards creak, Bull’s shadow falling more and more near. When his hands make contact it’s inevitable but no less sudden; he grips Dorian by the hips and pulls him close, backside to front, with an answering flare in Dorian’s gut of heat that rivals even the summers in Seheron.
Better this than talk of the Grey Wardens and their sacrifice. Better this than the dark sky that watched it all in silence.
‘Bull, do you remember the time you got your Vitaar on my—’
Bull laughs. He remembers.
‘—and I swelled up like an angry nug and I thought—’
‘It’s good for you,’ Bull says, still laughing, fingernails raking through the dark hair that trails Dorian’s belly and travels between his legs. ‘Exposure to poison builds your resistance. Might even come in handy someday.’
‘You mean for the next time I’ve a qunari’s clever mouth on my ass?’
Bull’s still laughing when he spreads Dorian’s thighs, jealousy something that happens in other places and to other men. His breath gusts the dark hairs, making them shiver on end. ‘It was funny.’
‘Oh, for you it was.’
‘I was poisoned. Is laughter a side effect of poison? Hysteria?’
Dorian chuckles at his own joke, but it soon scatters to breathlessness. He bites his knuckles as Bull’s mouth murmurs come, come.
To Magister Pavus—
It’s impossible to concentrate with the racket of the ravens and crows in Leliana’s rookery, full to bursting as it is with sordid secrets and nefarious spy activity. Dorian wonders if anyone else is disturbed by the implications of a relatively decent young woman who actively chooses to surround herself with birds. If the deception and the subterfuge haven’t driven her mad, then surely she’ll be done in by the incessant squawking.
‘I’m going to light them on fire,’ Dorian says. ‘Just wiggle my fingers and poof! My headache’s gone, and the Inquisition can afford to feed an entire battalion with all the freshly roasted poultry.’
Sweat drips in rivulets down the center of Bull’s back, gray skin damaged by a cartography of scars. Cassandra pauses in their drills to drink cool water from a bucket; when she hands it to Bull he gulps it down in powerful swallows before pouring the rest over his head.
‘I am still thirsty,’ Cassandra says.
Bull pounds his chest. ‘Again!’
To Magister Pavus—
Bull breaks one of the practice shields with his shoulder; another pause in the rhythm of blow on blow is necessary to re-arm. In the interim, he tugs at the leather strap tied around his horns and rubs the skin flanking his ruined eye. Or is it lost, not ruined? There’s a difference—probably.
Dorian looks away and over the golden foliage of the courtyard.
He’ll never understand warriors, not really. There’s a fundamental divide that can’t be bridged, not even by a handful of Cullen’s hopefuls and bundles of makeshift planking ordered into place by the Inquisition itself.
‘Come.’ Bull throws a sweaty arm over Dorian’s shoulders. ‘Let’s celebrate.’
‘Celebrate what? The forthcoming murder of crows?’ Dorian asks.
The Chargers are away on some sort of business—clearing out Adamant Fortress, this time—and it’s almost like the children are gone, the tavern comparatively empty.
‘You tired yourself out today,’ Dorian says.
‘If you want,’ Bull replies, ‘I can show you just how false that is.’
To Magister Pavus—
One of the more interesting things about Bull, as if there weren’t enough already, is that he’s never broken a buckle. He could, and so easily, but he undoes every last one with painstaking attention instead, as though each is a Dwarven Puzzle Box. His giant hands and callused fingers don’t make short work of the task but take their damn, self-satisfied time, sliding leather straps loose of metal loops and hooks while Dorian sits on the corner of his bed and arches after each. It’s nothing at all like sitting still for a portrait. When Bull wants him to stop wriggling, he lets Dorian know with a palm to the belly or the small of his back.
‘I’m getting cold,’ Dorian says.
‘Not for long.’
‘Yes, but for now.’
Bull’s breath when he huffs a patient sigh smells of the ale they shared, the southern sort Dorian likes mainly because he shouldn’t like it. Unrefined, unpleasant, unfamiliar—that’s the stuff that heats him from the center outward to the fingertips. He wiggles them.
‘Maybe I could light a little fire—’
‘The last time you did that, you destroyed my curtains.’
‘They deserved it.’
‘Like the crows “deserve it”?’ Bull tsks. Dorian touches his chest, thumbing a scar that curves beneath a thick and heavy muscle toward well-padded flanks. It must have been a sword, not a dagger, which left this deep and bloodless groove. ‘I submit the curtains were innocent.’
‘In death, sacrifice,’ Dorian says. ‘They kept me so warm while I was hopping about trying to put the damned flames out.’
To Magister Pavus—I laughed while I was naked with him. And for once, it wasn’t entirely at myself.
‘I’ll get you new curtains,’ Dorian says after. He thinks, though he isn’t certain, that Bull might already be asleep.
‘Better not,’ Bull replies. ‘Given your taste, they’d be too gaudy.’
Dorian’s heard the story of how Bull rescued Krem seven times now—and seven different ways—but he’ll admit to taking some delight in it when the firelight is low in the taproom and the bard is weary enough to forget the lyrics to her best songs, strumming half-tunes with lazy fingers. Dalish tells the tale with the most flare, but then, she wasn’t actually there, and Krem never fails to remind her of the fact.
‘It was my eye,’ Bull says good-naturedly. This is the eighth time Dorian’s heard the story, and he can’t help but point out the unlikelihood of a Tevinter tribune bringing a fully armored retinue after a single army deserter. It would never happen, no matter what Bull remembers. ‘And there was plenty of armor.’
‘With only one eye, one would think you might not have had the best view of the affair,’ Dorian says.
Bull remains undaunted. ‘Two mages with them, too. They went squish—just like my eye!’
‘Lovely,’ Dorian says.
‘Don’t worry, Altus.’ Krem lifts his tankard magnanimously. ‘I won’t hold it against you.’
‘How fortunate it I am,’ Dorian replies, ‘that every one of you is so forgiving.’
Skinner leans in. ‘Not all of us.’
They all laugh, except for Dorian and Skinner, the former for obvious reasons and the latter because she’s clearly never laughed a day in her life.
‘She likes you,’ Bull tells him, drawing Dorian onto his lap. Krem pulls a face and Grim grunts and Dorian stands, maybe too quickly, but not without resting his hand on Bull’s shoulder first. It isn’t a refusal or a rebuke; it just isn’t a display, something too obvious. Dorian doesn’t know what it is instead, but at least he knows what it’s not. His fingers linger and Bull’s knee bumps the back of Dorian’s thigh, the warmth from his body flushed outward, the whole, big sense of him fully irreplaceable in what would otherwise be chill, empty air.
‘Tell me, Bull,’ Dorian pretends to be very interested in one of the seams on his vest, ‘because I’m terribly curious: do I have a nickname?’
Krem’s face lights up. ‘You’ve had three, actually.’
‘Three, is it? How flattering.’
‘You think so, Altus? Just wait until you hear ‘em.’
‘Krem,’ Bull warns.
Dorian shushes him with a wave of his hand. ‘Krem, I absolutely insist that you tell me all of them at once.’
‘Well, where to begin?’ Krem evades a kick of Bull’s that never intended to connect. ‘It’s like I said—there were three of ‘em. Most the boss has ever had for somebody, long as I’ve known him.’
‘Start at the beginning,’ Dorian suggests.
Bull groans, but again, he doesn’t mean it.
‘Well, first you were Peacock—Cock of the Walk when you were being mouthy about your footsies.’ Krem ticks one off on a finger. ‘Apparently you’ve done that a lot. Bit of a delicate flower, aren’t you? But because of that, then it was— What was it again, boss? Remind me. I can’t seem to remember—’
‘Hothouse Orchid,’ Bull says.
‘Because of the footsies,’ Krem says.
‘Yes, I rather picked up on that,’ Dorian replies.
‘And now you’re just Hothouse,’ Krem concludes.
‘Because you are hot,’ Bull says.
Heat makes itself known on Dorian’s throat, his cheeks, between his ribs. ‘And a house. Apparently.’
Grim’s eyes convey a sense of the time-honored, traditional phrase ‘get a room’.
Halfway up a grassy incline, Cole drags the rawest pieces of the past from Dorian’s heart for all to see—the birds in the trees; the nugs in the bushes; the sunlight; everyone. They might as well lie upon the ground like the remains of a red templar encampment once Bull’s axe and the Inquisitor’s daggers have passed through. A veritable whirlwind of bloody guts and sundered meat.
To Magister Pavus—qunari don’t have parents; not exactly. It might have seemed barbaric once as a practice, and perhaps it still is, but what’s less unpleasant, really: losing someone you never knew because they were taken from you, or leaving someone you thought you knew because of what they tried to take away?
The rest of the afternoon is uncomfortable, to say the least. Dorian lights a fox on fire when he sees it moving out of the corner of his eye and the stench of burning fur and flesh follows him, along with the other, less pleasant shadows.
Cole apologizes. Six times, in fact. Dorian doesn’t respond to the last three. He’s being an ass and it isn’t Cole’s fault, but all words of forgiveness stick in his throat like the burrs on the hem of his robes. Picking them out afterward when they finally return to Skyhold pricks his fingers to stinging.
He flicks them out the window one by one.
De-burred, he buries himself in Brother Genitivi’s always fascinating Tales from Beneath the Earth—which, coincidentally, is where he’d currently prefer to be—until Bull turns up, leaning against one of his bookshelves and threatening to topple it.
‘Forgive the kid,’ he says without so much as a hello.
‘But you see, when one apologizes too much, it has the opposite effect of conveying the remorse intended.’ Dorian refuses to look up from a diagram on Dwarven hexagonal murals. Hideous. ‘Rather, it makes everything about the person who did wrong, as opposed to being about the person who was wronged. There’s a lesson for the spirit. It would do him good to learn it.’
‘Forgive the kid,’ Bull repeats.
‘I’m not sure you would understand the nuances of the—’
‘Family shits everything up,’ Bull says. ‘Like demons, only demons have the excuse of being demons. You expect them to ruin everything. So you take measures. Bring a big weapon.’
‘Speak for yourself.’
‘I already forgave him, you know. Multiple times. That’s enough forgiveness for one day.’
Bull folds his arms over his bare chest, leather creaking, scars suddenly sanctimonious. ‘Let me guess: you don’t want to talk about it.’
‘Bravo,’ Dorian says. ‘You are a master spy.’
‘Was,’ Bull replies. ‘Not anymore.’
‘One never stops being what one was. One simply becomes something else in addition.’ Dorian snaps the book shut, which scatters the crows roosting on a nearby banister in a flurry of black feathers and ear-splitting caws.
‘Going to light them on fire, too?’
‘One of these days—you can bet good coin on it.’
‘Then they’ll stop being what they were.’
‘No,’ Dorian says. ‘They’ll still be crows. Just more on fire and less loud.’
Bull chuckles, a ready sound, quick as flint, but his lone eye is anything but bright. ‘It’s the same with poison. Best to get used to it—if there’s no antidote.’
‘Well, if you have any Vitaar handy—’
Bull steps closer. Dorian considers throwing the book—not necessarily at Bull, just in a vague direction to signify disgust and frustration and the desire to end this topic of conversation forthwith—only it’s one of the rare few decent histories Skyhold’s libraries offer and he can’t risk ruining the binding in a fit of pique.
‘Good book?’ Bull asks.
‘Not his best work,’ Dorian replies. ‘Not as good as Kirkwall: the City of Chains. Less disturbing, however. Which, after the day I’ve had, is a welcome relief. He wanted to reconcile, you know.’
To his credit, Bull doesn’t ask if Dorian means Ferdinand Genitivi.
‘Vints,’ Bull says.
‘Tell me about it.’
‘Damn Vints,’ Bull says.
‘He stood in front of me and pretended—who knows? Maybe he even believed himself when he said it—that he would have done it all for my own good, not just for his.’
‘Damn stinking Vints,’ Bull says.
‘Our greatest enemies.’ Dorian wants to laugh, but he knows how ugly it will sound if he does. It takes every last ounce of restraint, but he swallows it whole. ‘The Qunari. With your re-educators. Savages, wiping the minds of those who don’t adhere to the status quo. He would have done that to my mind.’
‘A good mind,’ Bull says.
‘For a damn stinking Vint, you mean.’
‘For a damn stinking Vint, yes.’
‘There it is,’ Dorian says. ‘Yes. Yes, it is remarkably like poison.’
‘Hmm,’ Bull replies. Sometime between his unwanted advice and cursing Dorian’s people, he came to kneel by Dorian’s chair, which leaves them face to face. Eyes to eye, Bull would say. He tilts Dorian’s chin up with the rough tip of his forefinger. His hands smell of Dalish dirt, if that’s even separate, distinct, from dirt anywhere else. ‘Seems to me it worked.’
Dorian swallows. ‘Beg pardon?’
‘No swelling this time,’ Bull tells him. ‘Must have built up a resistance after all.’
Dorian laughs—he’ll thank Bull not to mention the snort that accompanies it—and grabs him by the shoulders, and crawls into his lap. There are only traces of the Vitaar left on his face, wiped clean from the day’s fighting, so all Dorian tastes through his kisses is skin, skin, skin.
‘I still forgive you, Cole,’ Dorian says the next morning. ‘I will continue to forgive you; I have already forgiven you; I am in a state of forgiveness; and, if you apologize one more time, I will…be very cross with you, yes, but I will forgive you again. However, to repeat the process ad nauseum will be annoying for everyone, not just me, if perhaps especially for me, so on that note, how about you stop?’
To Magister Pavus—
Bull smiles. ‘Hothouse didn’t do it for you,’ Dorian tells him, ‘so don’t look so smug about it.’
To Magister Pavus—
Sunlight dapples the Dalish earth, which does have a separate quality, Dorian thinks. He only gets stuck in the underbrush twice. A new record.
‘Do you suppose a dragon’s tooth will clash with a Tevinter house amulet?’ he asks Bull between battling giants, Bull’s shoulders heaving not unlike sex, felled trees all around. The foxes know to give them a wide berth. ‘Since you’re such an expert on what is or isn’t gaudy, I only thought I’d ask for some of your invaluable insight.’
‘Why do you ask?’ Bull’s lone eye is bright, very bright. ‘You don’t have either.’
‘Not yet,’ Dorian replies.