Chapter 1: Cum tacent
It is long after the end, winter white and forbidding around Skyhold once again, and Dorian stays.
The Inquisition has outgrown its humble rebel origins and stabilised into a power to be reckoned with; those who would reckon with it are likewise multiplying. Some of the Inquisitor's old inner circle still come and go. She welcomes them all with quiet, warm hospitality, and never asks them to stay for another day.
Neither has she asked Dorian. She comes up almost every day, sometimes with an arcane conundrum she is pondering, a piping-hot pot of tea or just a wordless request for company, but the end is always open. There's no looped rope nor iron ring there to moor him.
Cole haunts the tavern rafters, and Cassandra, the training yard and the forge. He learned only some time ago that she's a passable weaponsmith. Blackwall most likely still broods by the stables. Since Dorian has not stopped finding rude drawings tucked into his notes, he presumes Sera's continued presence. He pens scathing art critique in the margins and pins them to her door in the tavern. She pours vinegar into his Fereldan beer while he's distracted by a book or by undoubtedly tall tales of the Chargers' latest exploits.
The Bull's Chargers have shaped into some of the Inquisitor's favoured agents. As such, they are often gone, and Dorian joins their excursions if there's research to pursue--or parties in need of a fireball to the face--in the same direction. Now the snow has stifled even the more martial of businesses.
The Chargers do what Dorian has come to understand all soldiers do in wintertime: run drills, mend their equipment, have petty rows that are drowned in cheap ale by the evening bell, and play dice and cards and whatever else can be fashioned into a game of chance. One ill-considered evening he offers to teach them chess, and finds himself across the board from a fiercely frowning Stitches for several nights thereafter. They loiter about the tavern and the training yard, and persist in their attempts to press Dorian into their raucous singalongs. If he doesn't get outside the castle walls soon, he may yet lose his mind and cave to the demand.
It becomes his favoured grievance this time of year: if the Empress of Orlais has a Winter Palace, how is it possible the Inquisition lacks seasonal headquarters in a more reasonable climate? The road to Skyhold has been buried for weeks. If it weren't for the abominable cold that hardened the fresh-fallen snow into a layer only fools and Inquisition scouts with snow shoes and mabari sledges dare tread upon, they'd be cut off from the world for good.
"We'd find somewhere peachy warm to call kip. Port. Whatever. You'd carry those books down in your skinny mage arms," Sera says from the next stool over. "You whinge about how"--she makes a game but doomed attempt at mimicking him--"this library's piss and nonsense, but no way you'd leave it behind."
"I could get new books," Dorian ripostes. "Considering anywhere to the north of here is an improvement in terms of both learning and printing."
"And what, carry them back for the summer?" Sera pushes her empty tankard back and forth between her hands. "Bet you could sweet-talk your big Tal-What's-It par-a-moor. He'd carry you and the books."
"Paramour," he corrects without thinking, then pauses. "Which is not the case here."
She makes a face. "Oh, right. I didn't hear you making kissy faces behind the corner. Woke me up last night. Right under my window, you know."
"I shall make an effort to remove my trysts from your presence."
"Tosh," she says magnanimously. "Fill this mug, it'll be bygones."
Some nights he does wonder what he's still doing here. The Inquisitor has to range further and further afield to seal the remaining ruptures in the Veil. Half the old company has returned to reclaim or rebuild their lives in the wider world. While his services as a heretical rebel archivist have bolstered--have saved, on more than one occasion--the scholarly efforts of the Inquisition, it's slow work for scarce gain.
"One more for her." He catches the tavern keeper's eye and makes a little flourish at Sera. "And another for me, at that." The mulled wine he's been drinking loses some of its potency when the spices are mixed in, but the warmth is the main attraction.
"So. Heard we're going back to that lion place. Soon as snow lets up." Claiming her brimming tankard, Sera picks up a fingertip's fill of the foam.
"Hopefully after something other than Red Templars this time." Dorian can't pretend the news doesn't perk him up. Emprise du Lion would at least have a gentler elevation than the Frostbacks.
"Her Glowiness came by. They rustled up another dragon." She crows with disbelief or delight. "Fancy that! That's got to be the worst luck. Two fire-spitting shites in the same town." As the weight of her own words catches up to her, her mouth skews with unhappy determination. "So we're going."
"Did she specify that it was a fire-breather? I'd rather not have a repeat of that disaster in the Emerald Graves." If he had more of a draconologist in him, his bibliography would be burgeoning. As it is, he sends field notes to Professor Frederic of Serault, who procures him a few civilised comforts from his own assignments. Dorian might have to write a note of thanks for the crate of Vyrantine oranges. Half of them were still edible when they were unloaded from the sleigh. He was actually cheerful about that.
"Ehh," Sera says. "Dragon."
"I will never cease marvelling at your ability to disdain the obvious." The evening is yet young. He might catch Lavellan herself at leisure, go to a more reliable source for details. "We've fought several dragons that put the lie to that old preconception."
"You're a precon-shite," she says. "See when we get there, yeah? Go think at somebody else."
"As the lady wishes--" He leans back to duck a dash of ale foam flung at his head. She swears sanguinely as the spatter instead hits Grim, who is slouching his way towards the Chargers' usual table.
Snatching up his wine, Dorian sidles away from the ensuing fracas. The Herald's Rest is thick with bodies and laughter, the minstrel's warbling momentarily muted by Sera's volley of insults at the Chargers, roused to defend their companion. There will be some knocking of heads and trading of barbs, and she might wake up sprawled across their table when Cabot finally closes the bar.
Squaring his shoulders and hiding his smile, he goes to look for the Inquisitor. A spot of dragon-hunting might be the very thing to untangle him.
They lay plans to depart for Emprise du Lion as soon as time and weather allow. Lavellan wants to arrange to meet Cassandra, who is away on a private journey, something or other about reforming the Seekers, and a message must be sent. Dorian accepts that, sufficiently brightened by the prospect of a field venture that he can summon patience.
While they wait for a returning raven, the cold mellows. The commander sends his troops, stewing in their inactivity, out to open the road to the pass and the first waystation. Armed with shovels they trudge out into the snow. All of Skyhold seems to stir from its midwinter torpor.
Then the letter arrives.
The spymaster delivers it to Dorian personally. That makes it a favour, but he barely even mutters thanks before excusing himself to the precarious privacy of the library. The paper is stained by courier gloves, by salt and damp. All the same he thinks he can smell roses and ambergris, daubed onto her wrists, under the stark black ink that his mother favours.
He reads everything with care. It's strange to have written modern Tevene in front of him instead of the antiquated register of his academic or alchemical tomes. He focuses on that so that the contents of the letter stay a little further away.
At dusk he's still ensconced in his chair. The randomly selected treatise he opened in his lap must be gathering dust on the page, a pointless ruse now. In his mind he's drawing distances and weighing the risks of the road--not towards Southwest Orlais, but the Free Marches. Josephine will know which captain to speak to for passage across the Waking Sea. He hates ships. The land route will take an extra month, which he by all accounts does not have.
He lets the book drop where it will and leaves the library. One pool of torchlight blends into another in the corridors, but he's had three years to walk these halls in light and darkness. It was never meant to be that long. The Inquisition, the damnable, freezing, dreary south, were supposed to hold answers.
They held something. Just not the things he thought he came to find.
The door at which he stops is shut but not locked. For a place to collapse at the end of the day, it's deliberately chosen: next to the corner tower with its spiral staircase, and on the second floor. Any assailants have to come from at least two directions. Iron Bull explained this to Dorian once, sprawled on the cool floor in deep summer, the bed too smothering to sleep in by his claim.
The stone exudes chill through Dorian's soft leather boots. He could go. Leave the Inquisitor what barest explanation is required. She would disapprove but she wouldn't stop him.
Before he can turn, the door swings inward. "I can hear you waffling, 'Vint. Warmer to finish your thinking in here."
Blasted qunari hearing. Blasted cold. He can feel it creeping up his calves. The half-open door lets out a wedge of firelight and a waft of heat, and so Dorian steps over the threshold. The fire is built high in the hearth, the shutters latched and the curtains drawn. Bull turns back to the pauldron in his hands, scrubbing at a stubborn bloodstain with an oiled rag.
"Something crawl down your throat tonight?"
Oh, yes. Repartee is expected. Even when they've been at it so long that much of it is mere rhythm, the back-and-forth a habit rather than a true challenge, he should have come with a sardonic comment on the tip of his tongue.
His hand pushes the door back into its jamb. He leans against the roughly sanded wood. His voice catches and he hates it, hates that the splinters of grief and confusion pierce everywhere until there's nothing of him that is not raw. "Make me not think."
"Straight to the point." Bull sets down his work but remains seated on the bench by the fire. "All that reading finally melted down your sparkling wit, eh? I like it. Always good to hear you say what you want."
Dorian almost falls into the old game. He could tch and affect prickly offence, or even admit that on this rare occasion he means what he says and is too worn for witticisms.
If their little-defined arrangement has taught him anything, it is that half the time, Bull reads him better than he gauges himself. That was why he dawdled at the door. The letter is like a hook in his flesh, dragging on him until he heeds its pull or tears apart. Conscious of his gait, of the fear that clings like pitch to his bones and shivers hot in his throat, he crosses the floor. It's not fear of Bull--the idea would seem inconceivable to him now--but of the weight in the air, the unspoken understanding that guided him here of all places in Skyhold.
"I hope you plan to do something about it." Whatever husks his voice will hopefully have the right note of a dare.
"Dorian." Bull's fingers, three whole, two stumped, wrap around his upper arm. The grip steadies rather than suggests. "I'm good with that." The but is implied loud enough, if only in the sound of Dorian's name.
"Then take a hint, you insufferable oaf." Pressing his hand flat on Bull's shoulder, Dorian leans in. With Bull sitting down, their height difference is reversed. This should not be strange. How many times has he slunk into this very room, or Bull stumbled into his, to share anything from a night's sleep to a bed-breaking fuck that threatens to wake their unlucky neighbours?
"Hint taken, no need to worry about that." Bull draws him into the broad curve of his body, right hand on the back of his head, irresistible in a way that once might have unnerved him. "Distract you first, then make you talk. Got it."
"Vishante kaffas," Dorian grumbles under his breath. It seems Tevene comes safer, offers a flimsy screen of deniability if he should say too much. "Mentes simplices, simpliciter delectatas..."
"You want to get more specific, now is a good time. In Common, probably." Bull frees the fastenings of his robes at the shoulder. There is a heartbeat in which Dorian imagines stopping him, derailing them from this predictable, pleasant course and confessing, I have to go.
"No," he says softly. He climbs astride Bull's thighs and kisses the cloven scar across his mouth and then his mouth. If it's too rapt and aching for a first kiss of the night, that blame can be pinned on simple urgency. "Just let me not think for a while."
Sometimes he is blessed by this vexing, impossible bond between them. He can ask and be given reprieve without explaining why. Dorian is astute enough to realise that Bull knows something is troubling him; he only chose to ask his questions later.
Dorian hides behind that spell of clemency and hopes it will last long enough. He came for his goodbyes under the guise of sating a bout of lust. Void take him, but that is the truth. When he fumbles at buckles and laces and spreads his hands across Bull's naked skin, he wills the touch to explain what he can't.
Their clothes go one by one, let fall here and there with a lack of care that would once have nettled him right out of the mood. The bed, its carpentry sturdy to hold a qunari frame, creaks familiar under their tangled weight. Dorian draws himself up to bite at Bull's shoulder. Gently, a tug of teeth followed by an open-mouthed kiss on the same spot. This he learned early: Bull, who wields pain as a weapon, funnels his own agony into controlled, bloody-edged rage at their enemies, does not invite it into bed. All things have their places, he said. Dorian, to hide his bemusement, nodded and carried on.
It makes sense to him now. Bull steers his face up with a hand and kisses him, warm and steady and focused. Bull's fingers stay pressed around the nape of Dorian's neck. In its slow, trembling intensity, the kiss seems meant to reel him in.
Eventually Bull wraps his hands around each of his arms, slides them down over elbow and forearm to his wrists, and pulls Dorian's arms up above his head. He does not resist, not even for the sake of form. He does, however, mutter, "Kiss me," and almost thinks he's ruined his pretence until Bull does. He fits his mouth over Dorian's and it becomes a wet, raw, ravenous thing, Dorian straining up to hold the contact for as long as he can.
Bull leans away. Dorian thumps his head onto a pillow, gasping for breath. The fine hempen rope wound around his wrists is a strange kind of relief: if he's going to pieces, at least something tethers him. He's been here, with the same shadows on the walls and the same rows of stone and plaster along the ceiling, so often before. He's had Bull on this bed and on the floor, and on one memorable occasion in a chair not designed for such abuses. They've broken bread and complained about the lack of fresh fruit in winter over the table with the crooked leg no one ever fixed.
Every line and shape in this room is drawn thick with memory. Bull trails long strokes down Dorian's ribs and chuckles when Dorian bucks against his open hands. No commonplace craving, this, and he betrays that fact in his needy noises. At least the thoughts coiled in his head unspool themselves under Bull's patient hands, even when he no longer knows if their touch is more soothing or maddening.
He tilts his head to the side for a hazy glimpse of the firelight slanting across the doorjamb. It stains the weathered wood a soft, shifting maroon. There he somehow ended up with a splinter in his palm, thwarting one promising encounter conducted against the wall. Bull's mouth, on his stomach, his hip, then sure and slow on his cock, drags him back to the present. Dorian swears, throwing his back into a sharp arc since his hip is held in Bull's unrelenting grip. The pliant, warm strokes of Bull's tongue send white flame surging behind his eyes.
All through Bull's painstaking efforts to drive him blank-minded with pleasure, he keeps talking. It always takes much--verging on too much--before his words falter. First they flow in Common and later, with him far enough gone, in stammering Tevene. It is as if he couldn't hold the complexities of learned language, as if the oaths and entreaties welled from too deep for anything but his first tongue.
His release builds so gradually that it nearly hurts. He could speak, he could ask, he could stop Bull with a word. Instead he digs his nails into his palms and bears the shallow, teetering ascent. Bull doesn't stop, and Dorian thrashes against his mouth and his fingers fit to rattle the bed. The climax unfurls like a sunburst up his spine. He comes with fire licking in his belly, under his fingernails, upon his tongue. The sound that wrests itself from him is ragged and foreign to his echoing ears.
Bull lets out a bark of laughter. "Been a while since you last set something on fire in my bedroom."
Despite his amusement, that is alarming. Dorian inhales. Hard, once, and another time. The indrawn air washes away the lingering sear of mana spent. "Ah. What did I..."
He lifts his bound arms and feels the slight pins and needles in the muscles. The rope comes free, burnt black where he had his fingers fisted around it. Bull intercepts him, tugs the knots open, rubs his fingers over one wrist.
Dorian casts his eyes at the ceiling with a groan. "I will not live this down for a while, will I?"
"Hey," Bull says with a skewed shrug. "It wasn't the curtains this time."
Something hot and stinging wells in Dorian's throat. He tamps it down and turns onto his side to face Bull. "Small victories."
He can hear the rapid, rumbling beat of Bull's heart, its normal rhythm slower than a human's. Bull sets a hand on his lower back as he shifts closer, knocking his knee into Bull's thigh. Bull's muffled breath rasps against Dorian's mouth. He breaks the kiss with a huff of self-denigrating laughter. "And I am, to my shame, getting ahead of myself."
Bull strokes a thumb across Dorian's jaw. "If you're offering, I'm not saying no."
A year and a half on, Dorian is still completing this picture. Bull was clear about the important things, utterly and candidly so. Dorian vividly remembers his ears burning at points in the conversation, and he counts himself neither shy nor prudish. But there are other mandates, unquiet laws of need and desire that do not fall into ready words. One of them is that it pleases Bull best to give Dorian what he wants. Sometimes, that complicates what he wants.
Normally he would jab and tease, mock ponder over the prospect of sucking Bull off or riding him until he is a cursing, gratified mess. Or leave him to his own devices and watch. Something simple and pleasurable, requiring thought only as far as either of them fancies some variety.
Not this time. Grasping the base of a horn for brief support, he leans near enough to rest his heated cheek on Bull's temple. "Let me."
Bull is silent in his watchful way for a moment. Then he kisses Dorian's jaw, a staggered pattern of wet imprints down to his shoulder, before he mutters agreement.
Dorian sighs. He lets his throat work a few times, trying to focus himself only on the here and now, and writes the farewell he could not speak with the touch of his hands and the weight of his limbs, whispering it into the hollow of Bull's shoulder and the angle of his side in murmured Tevene.
The boneless, post-coital lassitude spreads tarrily through Dorian. He arranges himself with his back against a bedpost, knees bent up halfway, protective, in concession to the intractable tightness in his chest.
He fishes up the rope that tied his wrists and runs the woven hemp through his fingers, from the knotted end to the scorched, frayed one. The air is close and heavy, dust and stone, sweat and smoke, the sweetness of the tallow candles.
"In Tevinter they bind the right hands of the couple at the wedding feast." To his satisfaction, he manages to sound as if this were a purely intellectual observation, one he might present over a pint at the tavern.
"Mm-hm?" Bull sprawls, but his hand remains half-curled by Dorian's foot.
"It's tradition. You give your working hand, your... weapon hand, your hand of strength, and join it to your partner's." He has to lever himself from this track of thought before it turns disastrous. "The knot stays on all through the festivities. Terribly inconvenient."
"What if you favour your left?"
"Then you have an easier time getting around at the wedding. Unless your spouse does, too."
Bull laughs. The sound might be tinged with relief. "You're shitting me. No 'Vint I've ever seen would take looking like an idiot at their own party."
"Indeed." Dorian tips his head back against the bedpost, looping the length of rope over his knuckles. "It's just for the ceremony. Makes for a better story if you imagine a couple of supercilious magisters tottering around tied at the wrist for the rest of the evening."
"That is a good one." Drowsy satisfaction vibrates in Bull's rough voice. "The guard's calling second watch. Think that means I'm full up for cultural exchange today."
"Here I was hoping you'd regale me with Qunari bonding rituals." If Dorian could stop thinking--if his tidbits from Tevinter were not laced with unwanted memory and meaning--this would pass for the most common of pillow talks. He prods Bull companionably with his foot. "Ah, well. It might be a very short tale."
"Over breakfast, if I have to." Bull tosses a blanket at Dorian, slides his hand down his calf on the way back, and says, with wry, gentle insistence, "Sleep, kadan."
In the middle of gathering the blanket around himself, Dorian frowns. "I have expressed opinions about Qunlat insults in the small hours, I believe."
He hardly has a leg to stand on when it comes to the employment of native tongues, but he's memorised most phrases Bull throws around in the throes of frustration, passion or a good killing streak. This one is new.
"Yeah," Bull says, a little hoarsely. "Then after a day or ten you've got them figured out. Take it as a challenge, 'Vint."
Slipping down from his huddled position, Dorian abandons all notions of slinking off to his own bed. He'll take this one last moment, to remember, to hold, to puzzle over when he goes. Surely that isn't too much to ask.
Whatever power presides over the implementation of terrible ideas is on Dorian's side the next day. A hunter from a nearby mountain hold brings word of brigands plaguing her settlement, and the Chargers, their stalwart leader included, leap at the opportunity. Dorian excuses himself with slightly transparent mutters of needing to prepare for the high dragon hunt. Bestiaries to browse, protection glyphs to perfect, that sort of thing.
He'll need to make sure that Lavellan receives what notes he's been able to make on the subject. Provisions and a sure-footed horse would also be prudent to have, since he means to head out into the ridiculous surfeit of winter on his own.
His preparations are finished with alacrity. It should be a more troublesome thing to unclasp himself from Skyhold and its myriad minute demands on his time and attention. Or should it? He never meant to linger so.
Naturally he drafts a parting note; it rather is a prerequisite for a stylish exit. Too soon it begins to sprawl and falter, and every blithe turn of phrase rings hollow.
I trust you'll bear my absence. Forgive me if I don't rush back. The weather is so much more agreeable in the north this time of--
He smudges the rest with the side of his hand until only Forgive me is visible.
I am sorry. Wait for me.
At last he drops the torn leaf of paper onto the embers in the hearth. Under whose door would he slide it, anyway? Maybe leave it perched on his writing table or on his chair in the library with studied nonchalance, so the first passing maid or scribe could raise the alarm. The paper flares into fleeting brilliance as the flame eats up his platitudes.
The shadows are purple upon the packed snow, shrouding the castle from the tower tops to the Undercroft, when he makes his way to Josephine's study. Knocking first, he enters wary of his welcome. She has never been his fondest admirer, but she slides a wax-sealed document stamped with the emblem of the Inquisition across her desk to him.
"For your voyage to Cumberland. Ask for Captain de Mesniel in Jader."
"Ah, lady ambassador. So eager to get rid of me."
"I have no such thought, serah." If she--like him--has been up unsleeping, the only signs that betray her are the cooled cup of strong tea on the desk and the faint strain in her voice. "If you are set on leaving, it's my duty to see that you get safely to your destination."
"Your duty to a miscreant Tevinter pariah. I had no idea I had such clout with you. I'd have pressed harder on the library acquisitions."
"Please. Whatever my opinion is, you came to me in confidence." She lays a fresh sheet of paper on her writing board. "I also have a duty to others here. Others who certainly think warmly of you."
Her words settle across his shoulders. Irritably he stiffens his spine to bear their insubstantial bulk. "Right then. I had best be off." His mother didn't raise any philistines, and despite all that he's lost he still has his manners: he dips into his best courtly bow. "Lady Montilyet."
"I will tell them, Serah Pavus." Josephine gives him a look of sloe-eyed sympathy that is as unflinching as it is unbearable. "Go with the Maker's grace."
Dorian closes the door carefully behind him.
Well before the grey and grudging dawn, he rides out of the gate. Being in the Inquisitor's confidence has its advantages; the soldiers on watch accept his departure with scarcely a comment. The snow crackles under the horse's hooves. When the shovelled track peters out, he may have to lead his mount as far as the pass.
He left his words of goodbye smouldering in the fireplace of his perennially chilly room. The only letters he carries with him are tucked into his sleeve under layers of lambswool and leather--Josephine's letter of credit, and the one that chased him into the snow and silence on a northbound journey.
Dorian, it begins, as if his mother were lost on how to address him. It never troubled her before.
I do not know in what kind of health this letter finds you, if it finds you at all. Good money thrown at swift couriers will only do so much.
It seemed clear to me when your father returned that you had made your choice. I am not privy to most of whatever happened between you in Redcliffe.
Is her ignorance spurious or genuine? Very little happened. Clearest of all he remembers the Inquisitor, steel and solace in her hushed timbre, telling him that she had heard enough. The heavy rattle of the inn door slamming behind him. The wind from Lake Calenhad that he drank in like wine after the stifling ambiance of the Gull and Lantern.
He agreed with Lavellan. Almost two years have passed since.
If you have written since then, no word has reached us or those friends of yours in Minrathous to whom I've spoken. But I shall come to my point before I exhaust your patience.
Your father is ill. Whatever it is, it is beyond the healers of any Circle I have been able to ask for favours. You must have your doubts, and I may not entirely blame you. You have my word that what I write is the truth.
Her word, and nothing but her word.
He has not asked for you. Still, it seems proper to me that a son know that his father's time is short. Do with this knowledge what you will.
Perhaps it was that haughty, final note that convinced him of her sincerity. The letter is signed with her name in tall, precise strokes of the quill. He feels the document case, like a hidden weapon, if he allows himself a touch of the absurd, against his forearm.
The air cuts his lungs in a rasping drag of cold as he inhales. It will be a long road home.
Cum tacent, clamant.
When they are silent, they cry out.
-- Cicero, In Catalinam
Chapter 2: Non mortem timemus (I)
A thousand thanks to AntigravityDevice for speedy beta and ceaseless encouragement. ♥
And thank you all so much for the brilliant, uplifting feedback.
The warnings for this story are given before Chapter 1.
When Dorian stumbles off the gangplank in Cumberland, he's ready to never set foot aboard a ship again. Winter storms on the Waking Sea are harsh and rise without warning. The lengthy overland ride to Vyrantium seems smooth as you please in comparison.
He rides with his hood up and the focusing crystals unmounted from his staff, the few pieces of arcane paraphernalia in his equipment stowed in the depths of his pack. It's only been months since Divine Victoria liberated every Circle from Lake Calenhad to the White Spire. In all the lands south, east and west of Tevinter there are to be no walls hemming in the mages. The Templar Order, when and if it's ever reinstituted, will not hold blades at their necks.
Oh, Dorian is impressed by Leliana's mettle. It does little to safeguard his journey. Even with her official bull nailed to chantry boards in thriving metropolises and muddy hamlets alike, hearts and minds are much tardier to shift. A lynching attempt in some charming backwater where he has to ask for shelter for the night might prove enlivening, but he'd rather travel without such diversions.
In Vyrantium he searches for a ship again. The peach trees bloom along the avenues, and swallows nest in the nooks of the crumbling marble statues overlooking the harbour. Once he finds a ship sailing to the Eyes of Nocen, Dorian cloisters himself into his inn room until departure. Vyrantium was his home for five years before he went to Minrathous to study with Alexius. There are faces on these windswept streets that would recognise his own.
His second sea voyage is gentler than the first; he even comes onto the deck on some days. If--when--he sees Josephine again, he must present some token of his appreciation. The Inquisition holds little sway north of the Free Marches, but her connections appear to stretch far enough that the captain who took her letter of credit has a ship that is freshly tarred and swift of sail.
Dorian tries not to think of the Inquisition. With it inevitably follow shadowed impressions of Skyhold in its lofty solitude, and of rambling journeys there and thence. How is one mind-numbing stint on the road evoking what seem like fond memories of other irksome ventures?
He bends closer over one of the three precious books he brought with him, and shuns the thoughts until they slink away to the back of his mind.
One windy morning breaking after a little-slept night, Dorian is stirred by the lookout's call of "City ahead!" On the deck, he's struck by spatters of rain and, on the southwestern horizon, by the shapes of buildings climbing a steep coastline. Through the rain and the morning fog clinging to the broad-sided bay, he watches the city swim into view like a slowly materialising dream.
He could still, after almost a decade away, name every tiered tower reaching for the sky, as well as the ancient houses that laid their stones.
Qarinus has changed little. The spring downpour at least lets Dorian cowl himself against incidental recognition. The rain washes the ever-present reek of the fishing port back to the sea, and turns the ribbed towers and gilded roofs of the wealthy quarters into blurred shapes against the brooding clouds.
He pays for room and board at the least wretched waterfront inn with a Nevarran sovereign. The years in the south have eroded his Tevinter accent; if he minds himself and speaks only Common, they have disguised the clearest tells that he is Qarinian born and raised. Dorian spends a while taking in the atmosphere. He'd have written to Maevaris, one of the rare allies he'd have trusted with his arrival, but with the coming of spring, the Magisterium will be in session in Minrathous.
There are a few ways to read the pulse of a place, Bull used to tell him. You can always glue yourself to the wall and listen in, but that tends to get people's hackles up. The first thing most of them want to know is if you're a threat. If not, then you already have a foot in the door.
So, Dorian drinks cheap wine in the common room and sidles himself into a few conversations. He lets it be known that he's an itinerant researcher come to study the manuscripts of the famed library of Qarinus. The prestigious establishment is not open to every baseborn lout, but prudent bribery unlocks doors here as anywhere in the world. During these exchanges, in little glimpses and snippets, he also tries to gauge the goings-on among the nobility.
After four days he changes inns, as a precaution.
The city is almost as he remembers. That might disappoint him in itself. How do you walk again the streets you used to stroll bold and free, secure in your ease and privilege? If he ever truly pictured a homecoming, it was not this hiding in plain sight. His dreams of returning were always more grandiose than this, sheened with hope and hubris.
When he finds a clerk willing to write him a permit for the library--for the common collection, messere, the arcane archives are for mages only--he waits until the first day of the next week. Unless the world is toppling, he'll find who he seeks in the reading chambers on that day.
Dorian climbs the stairs of the library with an air of deliberate leisure. This will be, for better or worse, where he breaks his cover of a travelling scholar. His one preserved change of clothes, as opposed to the travesty of what Fereldans view as practical travelling gear, survived the journey mostly to his satisfaction. He's finally shaved off the curly, itching beard he let grow. He's as presentable as he can make himself.
If there is a protocol on family reunions such as this one, proper attire can't hurt. He armours himself in it as he'd wrap into the currents of the Fade in battle.
The rotunda of the building is wide and shallow, its floor made of rare red marble mined in the Hundred Pillars. It rings under his boots. The research rooms branch from the north side of the rotunda, their door jambs carved with wave scroll patterns on the same rust-coloured stone. The air is redolent of ink and dust, mixed with the blossoming trees and flower beds of the inner courtyard. As much as the library is a place of learning, it has its comforts. Few altus patrons are so devoted to study they wouldn't wish to take the air--or find a cushioned bench to lounge on--in between deciphering eldritch mysteries.
He knocks, twice, and folds his hands behind his back as he waits.
"What is it? I requested no interruptions."
Before his feet, which would still leap at her snappish behest, carry him clean out of the rotunda, he turns the handle and enters. The downside to a decisive entrance is that his scintillating opening remark is not yet fully formed, and when she glances up from her scroll stand, he finds himself inconveniently mute.
Her high cheeks have hollowed in a way that the smooth layer of powder on them cannot cover. Her hair, black and thick, is wound into an intricate mass of pins and braids. Blue amber shimmers at her ears and throat in the sunlight that the window lets into the study. She draws herself up and in, until the erect line of her back could support a chantry dome.
That gathered stillness remains his most vivid memory of her. She braces for the sight of him as if for a lashing insult or scornful stare.
"Dorian," says Tamasin of House Valera, renowned practitioner of spirit magics, spouse of over thirty years to Magister Halward Pavus, and the esteemed mother of his only son. "I was not expecting you."
"I'd have sent word," he says, striving for both equilibrium and detachment. "I wasn't sure who to trust. Tevinter has remained wondrously predictable in its backbiting ways."
"The south has left you with a dram of good sense." The goldwork of her earrings chimes with a twitch of her jaw. "The only dram you ever had, but it's something."
"Ah. Now comes the part where you disapprove of all I've done in the last, oh, however many years you feel necessary, and I shall be chastised and mend my ways for the next two days." Briefly Dorian grits his teeth. "Could we skip that?"
"It is a little late for maternal advice, Dorian. Why are you here?"
"I had your letter. Back in Wintermarch, in fact, but the roads were indescribable."
" 'Wintermarch'." She repeats the common name of the month in a tone she might reserve for a fish bone in her soup. "That's almost quaint. Did you brave the journey so you could gloat at your father's sickbed? I hear grand accounts of the exploits of this Inquisition."
The Maker has seen fit to bless his mother with the same verbosity given to him. Or then she passed it on to him instead, and the way of wielding words like a surgeon's razor, too.
"No. You do remember he disowned me."
He's here bereft of the protection of name and family, without even his pawned birthright. The endless miles of his journey gave him ample time to contemplate this.
"Well," she says. "Whatever blew you into the port, I still have a duty to this house."
"What would that mean, mater carissima?" Some day he may learn the virtue of holding his tongue.
"Did I raise a fool as well as a renegade?" She scoffs. "It means everything. Dinners, dances, negotiations, and staving off my own shiftless relatives who would pick at the carrion of House Pavus before it has even fallen."
Magister Pavus's indisposition has tumbled every burden of the house head onto Tamasin's stately shoulders. Dorian feels the faint tightness of chagrin in his throat. The worse his father's state grows, the smoother his mother's facade must be. Any admission of weakness spells an invitation to hammer the crack in the armour without mercy.
The south has made him soft. He did not forget, but he allowed himself to think along other, gentler lines.
"Has he asked for me?" He doesn't want to ask. His heart picks up its pace.
She begins to roll the scroll shut, thin, knob-jointed fingers working with practiced ease. She hates her hands. "He speaks to you sometimes, when he thinks no one can hear. Or in his sleep. To you, and to his dead sister."
So Dorian now counts as company to his aunt, taken by the wasting when he was eight.
"Lady Dirmanis is visiting here." His mother has clearly declared the previous topic over with. "She'll come for dinner tomorrow."
"That dusty dowager from Carastes?" he says. "I see why she might be here. What I don't understand is why you would give a fig."
"Because as pitiable as her own magical talent is, her lineage is stuffed with spirit healers," she hisses. "She's come on my invitation with a collection of their writings that no one's read in three centuries."
When her words connect, relief and dismay mingle in him. His mother, whose purification glyphs and bone-knitting charms are the envy of every healer along the seacoast, is grasping at straws. Favours do not come cheap in Tevinter. Underneath that veneer of strength she must paint on House Pavus, she is working to save it from ruin.
"Will you see your father, then, before you go gallivanting back to Ferelden?" She closes the ivory clasps on the scroll case.
"No," Dorian says, at once. "However, if you haven't burned all my actual clothes in a fit of motherly indignation, I'll join you tomorrow."
As impulsive decisions go, Dorian has made better ones. Midway through the appetisers, he's pasted a look of polite interest on his face and half-sunk into remembering a particularly good one. Last summer in Val Chevin, he found himself in the company of Sera and Blackwall, who'd made a bet on how many harbour taverns they could get thrown out of before dawn. Lady Dirmanis compliments Tamasin on the tartness of her sugared prophet's laurel berries, as if such modest late-spring fare were worthy of accolades. For his part, Dorian pictures Cassandra's face when she found the three of them at sunrise, soaking their feet off a disused quay. The mental image is pricked with a fondness he was not expecting.
"And your son," Lady Dirmanis continues. "He's a strapping young man these days." Dorian bites back the remark that he counted his thirty-third year on the latest First Day. "I'm not sure the green becomes you, young master. It's a little... out of season."
Every article of clothing in his wardrobe here is. No one's touched them in three years, and she had to remind him.
"The word you are looking for is messere." Young master does, after all, denote the heir of the house. Dorian picks up a sprig of mint used to decorate a plate of cheese pastries. He'd steal one--or three--for Bull, he thinks, then drags himself to the present. "I'm sure you're aware of my standing here, domina. You need not dance around it."
"Dashing and honest. Are you sure you sprang from--well, best I don't finish that. Guest-right only goes so far for sincerity."
"All who are invited over our threshold are under the protection of House Pavus," Tamasin says with just enough acerbity to make both her points. "My son's return is a blessing in a trying time."
That is more courtesy than she'd ever have paid to Lady Dirmanis when Dorian last was home. She disguises any trace of consternation well: the food is aesthetic and sumptuous, the wines painstakingly picked. Her polite conversation is immaculate throughout the evening. She inquires after the dowager's children, all three, remembers their names and their spouses and probably their strongest school of magic if it ever became relevant.
"My brood is doing as well as you might expect," says Lady Dirmanis over the first round of dessert. The fresh fruits are sliced, arranged into flower and spiral shapes, and dashed with lemon to keep their colour wholesome. "Elinna has finally bothered to give me a grandchild."
"That makes four in all, does it not?" Tamasin picks a selection of fruit for herself. "May he be in good health until his name day, and beyond that."
Dorian gestures to the nearest servant and holds up his goblet. He knew, of course he knew. If his father dies heirless, the estates will pass to his widow. His mother is well past fifty--too old to have another child to secure any succession.
You have to fight for what's in your heart.
"You are kind to say so, my dear," Dirmanis says with the supreme familiarity of those too old to snatch and struggle for social advantage. "For years I thought that girl had the wind blowing in one ear and out the other. The Circle gave her an Enchanter's title, so she must have something going for her. The marriage was a surprise, all the same."
"Ah, yes," Tamasin says. "Please pass her my congratulations. I understand they met in the Circle."
"I told her that she could find a man or adopt an heir." Dirmanis waves a hand, her rings scattering the candlelight.
The wine is suddenly bitter in Dorian's mouth.
"That's... a very liberal view, domina," his mother says in butter-smooth tones. "I know Magisterium law allows the naming of foster children as heirs, but there is always the question of the bloodline."
"Yes, yes, the high echelons of the alti, always striving for the sky." Such a comment would court the point where Tamasin would have a guest tossed into the sea over the garden wall, the rules of hospitality be damned. Lady Dirmanis seems not to care. "I could have tied myself into knots over every night my daughter spent studying rather than appearing at dinner parties. Not all of us are carved out for family."
"But she is happy?" Dorian hears himself speak before he can curb the question. What does he care for Elinna Dirmanis's contentment? He's seen the woman maybe twice in his life.
"Oh, very. It's a minor miracle they both could put their reading aside long enough to procreate, but she is happy."
He looks at his own hand, three fingers folded around the stem of the goblet. "Good." Across the corner of the table, Tamasin's knife makes a precise clinking against her plate.
"On that note, Tamasin, my dear, it is time for me to retire. It has been delightful, but I'm afraid my strength isn't what it used to be." A servant hurries up to draw her chair back so Dirmanis may rise. Dorian follows suit, snapping to the occasion of seeing her to the door.
As they make their way to the front veranda, Dorian offering his arm like a dutiful host should, the dowager grasping it with her age-parched, ring-encrusted fingers, he wants to say something.
Something to which this wizened, terse woman could probably give no answer. Something that would make sense of the way the conversation swerved at the end.
"I almost forgot." Dirmanis releases Dorian's arm. "Tell your mother that I brought the scrolls she asked for, would you? My guard has them in the carriage."
Not a word was spoken of the scrolls over dinner. A dinner will never suffice to repay a favour such as the loan of several ancient arcane texts; whatever else went into the bargain, Dorian can only make an educated guess. Tevinter power plays do go through the most dextrous convolutions.
"I'll send a servant..." He cuts himself off. "I'll walk you, and pick them up myself."
For a reason he cannot fully fathom, this seems to be the right answer.
Once back inside, he lays the latched oaken chest with scrolls on a side table in the dining room. At the inevitable thump, Tamasin looks across the room. She's still in her chair, one hand falling from her face onto her lap.
"She brought them."
"And they are the genuine article. I checked." Dorian tries for some modicum of verve.
Tamasin sighs--a weary sound, not a put-upon huff or a suggestion of boredom. "This wasn't an entirely wasted evening then. You were polite to her, when she left?"
"This isn't proof enough of that?" He raps his fingers on the chest.
"Now she can see the rest of her friends and distant relatives in Qarinus, and tell them House Pavus was not too good to receive her," she mutters. "Withered hag."
"Looking at yourself ten years from now? Maker forefend."
"She's old and secure enough that she can say such things," his mother says dully. "I was married to Halward at twenty. My house was teetering, but our lineage was impeccable. So my mother chose the best and brightest of her daughters."
He doesn't manage to quip that he doesn't much care for family history. Twenty is young--noblewomen are preferentially married by twenty-five, for the sake of their fertility, but their studies are of equal importance. Tamasin has never, not in the seventeen years Dorian lived in this house before going to Vyrantium nor ever since, made mention of these circumstances. His parents have spent their marriage in a state of highly refined mutual contempt. To him it was part of the order of things. The sun rose in the morning, and his parents subtly detested one another.
"Being late to the marriage bed because you're too busy pursuing learning," she goes on, as if he weren't even present. "It does sound better than avoiding it because you cannot stand your spouse."
He wants to speak, and there are no words in any of the five languages he knows to say what he needs to.
"Well, I must begin on the scrolls." Gathering her whisking silken skirts, she steps over to take the chest. It seems he isn't the only one who'd be loath to let even trusted servants handle it.
Dorian hesitates. He sets his hand on one silvered handle, and touches his mother's fingers in so doing. "May I?"
The days blend into a week, then two.
Dorian moves into his old rooms at the estate. It gets tiring to ride down to the city every evening to slip into whatever inn is next in line, then ride up again at the crack of dawn to try and keep up a screen of discretion.
It'll be known all over the city soon enough: the disowned son of Magister Pavus has returned to his father's deathbed. Except that he buries himself in the estate library, opening glossaries and grammars, shoring them into a wall on the long teak table around the growing pile of his notes. Line by line he reads through the fragile, dusty scrolls and marks passages that warrant Tamasin's more specialised attention. She's tried everything in her repertoire to reverse the course of her husband's illness. Dorian does wonder if what she now seeks is a cure, or only more time.
Sometimes, when it's too late to consider cleansing rituals and rejuvenation glyphs, he opens the Qunlat dictionary he found on a top shelf and skims along the entries. The compiler is certainly a pompous ass, but his lexical efforts align with what practical understanding Dorian has.
He manages to deconstruct several of Bull's usual epithets, but not the one that recalls itself to him in these hushed moments.
" 'Take it as a challenge'," he whispers into the quiet one night. The estate is built on the edge of the Venefication Sea, and a window left ajar lets in the salt smell on the wind. He's kicked off his boots and tucked his feet up on the seat of the wingback chair.
Three months and uncounted miles later is a fine time to realise that he missed something. Something vital. Bull let him step in with his secrets and his silence; Dorian went because Bull never asked him for a damned thing more than he was ready to give.
The enterprising linguist has no section for appellations, and his morphological work looks suspect. Sighing, tired and heartsore, Dorian pushes the book closed. He curls sideways into the chair as if it were deep enough to hide in.
Dawn greets him with a slash of misty light through the half-drawn drapes. The enchanted glowstones that illuminate the library respond to touch and have all dimmed--all but the one at the end of the shelf across the table. One of his legs has spilled over the rim of the seat, and there's a prodigious crick in his neck.
He groans to himself. He can feel his hair tamped into matted spikes by the chair back. His shirt is hopelessly rucked, his eyes gummy with sleep...
And there is someone else in the library.
A few of the long-time servants come here to dust and sweep. Any of them would have woken him up. The same applies to his mother, and she might have clucked her tongue at him for falling asleep at his work like a boy.
Dropping his feet to the floor, he straightens his hair and shirt with a sweep of his hands through both. Instinct braces him to defend himself, while memory murmurs that he's never been safer than in this room, where he learned to read, where he began his studies.
The other occupant steps slowly around the shelf. Another glowstone lights at the absentminded brush of his hand.
Dorian surges up from the chair before he can stall himself.
"I tried not to wake you," his father says, and lays down the book he's holding.
The breath Dorian draws is like a live spark to slow match, igniting as it goes. Andraste's pyre, he is dishevelled and barefoot and the last of sleep has only just fallen from him. A paltry comfort might be that he isn't the only one caught unprepared.
"Spying on me, then?" He reaches for equanimity. "Mother hasn't reported to you to your satisfaction?"
They stand with the table between them, Dorian with his hands pressed tight to the burnished teak. His father was supposed to be bedridden. Secluded in his private quarters, away from prying eyes. Away from anywhere Dorian might cross his path without warning.
"There was a book. The servants could not find it." His father brushes a pensive hand across the tooled leather of the cover. The veins on the back of his hand stand out, the skin thin and stretched over them.
Dorian has to look away. Though not much given to vanities over appearance, his father was always cultured, composed, contained. He is in simple attire now, neatly tailored, but the robes hang wrong on his shoulders. Their line has been worn away by the same illness that's starved his face and darkened his eyes in a way no earthly sleep will restore.
"You have found it, I see. If you want to read here, I'll vacate my research. One moment." It's been two years since Redcliffe and all he can do is spout banalities.
"What?" His voice cracks like a whip, or a shattering vessel.
"Tamasin--" Somehow his mother's name is clumsy for Halward to utter. "She told me of your arrival. That she had written to you. I did not know. We hadn't heard anything in so long."
"I'm sure word of my death would have trickled down. I was in the confidence of the infamous Inquisitor, after all."
Dorian speaks to the tabletop, his father to the window. "You were, you say. Has that changed?"
He wouldn't know. He dropped everything and rode out into the winter dark, hauled in by some stubborn noose of attachment that would have choked him otherwise, pushed by a spectre of filial duty he'd thought long since suppressed. What does Lavellan think of him now--or Cassandra, Cullen, anyone in Skyhold?
He smothers the name that would round out the list.
"You think I've come slinking home because the Inquisitor turned her back on me? Imagine the favour mother would've done for me--an opportunity for the estranged son to show his devotion. Perhaps even worm his way back into his inheritance."
"I think nothing." Halward shifts his weight, and the table nudges as he leans against it. "In the eyes of anyone here, I have no son."
Dorian's nails burrow into his palms. He glances at the notes on the table, scratched until his hand ached, all arrows pitched into the night in the hopes of hitting a distant torch.
"And in your eyes, father?" He'd snatch the words back if he could. Get out. You are no son of mine. His father never raised his voice. Not then and not now. He watches Halward's hand close around the spine of the book he came seeking. There's a slight, irrepressible tremor in his grip.
Every moment the silence stretches, erodes Dorian's own defences. Halward picks up the book and stands away from the support of the table.
"No." Dorian's voice comes thick and tarry, but the word falls firm. "No. You will not turn from me now."
"It was you who left. Every time it has been you, Dorian."
"Maker," he spits, because no old Tevene oath carries the weight of the sudden, blinding fury in him. "Of course. I left you no choice. I gave you no leeway, and so you withdrew behind the only wall you've ever known. The lineage, the family name."
As he pushes back, the solid, antique table creaks in protest. "You wonder which of us wore the thicker scales over his eyes, no? I worshipped you. I wanted you to be proud of me more than anything."
His father has closed his eyes, still and tense, as if set to endure. "I always was."
"Yes, as long as I shaped up into your ideal heir!" Grabbing the dictionary, Dorian hefts as if he planned to throw it, then slams it back down. "I am your son, father. I have always been your son. I became what you made me because I loved you."
It comes to him like an axe blade hewing to the heartwood that this is where his warring parents always stood united. There he was, their only child, their life's work, all their hopes pinned on him. At least he loved one of them for it, much as he knew what it even meant.
Love is not ownership. It is the willing yielding of oneself to another, the placing of another's needs before one's own. A door left unlocked so one may come or go.
"But," he finishes--this seems to be the measure of his homecoming, its raw red core, "I am not yours, and I never will be."
Inhaling dust and tears and morning air, Dorian scoops up his boots from beside the chair. He leaves his father and his work and walks out of the ornate front doors of the Pavus estate, and no one makes to stop him.
Chapter 3: Non mortem timemus (II)
I want to thank you all for your kindness in the comments and your patience while this chapter just kept sprawling on me. Here it is at last.
A heaped dose of extra gratitude to radiophile, for being an inestimable, gracious first reader, and to AntigravityDevice, for feats of beta-reading and excellent writing company.
One day, Dorian muses as he marches down the paved road towards the city proper, he'll make Sera laugh with the story of how he appeared in public in slept-in clothes, his hair a crow's nest and his moustache unwaxed. He's well aware of the giddy, agitated edge to the thought.
The long-formed habits of a semi-professional traveller become his salvation. His belt still holds his knife, flint and steel and coin pouch. He pays the first barber he finds on the morning market for a combing and a shave, and a seamstress for a new linen shirt and vest. Going back to the estate for a change of clothes doesn't even enter his mind. He ends up looking more like a Llomerryn cutthroat than a respectable citizen of the Imperium, but by the waterfront it matters little.
Amusingly enough, in this part of the city he runs little risk of recognition. The alti send their slaves and servants to run their errands in the low quarters.
He's come home, and the place he seeks as a refuge is the one he skirted all his years in the city.
Sera would get a cackle out of that.
He buys a handful of plums, a loaf of warm bread and a cup of olive oil to eat it with from a street stall, and sits by the fountain, tossing the clean-scraped plum stones into a heap at his feet. People jostle by, shouting for their servants or their children, haggling and hawking, utterly uncaring of Dorian's plight. If it can be termed such. He feels tentative, as if he'd shaken off a husk or shell and every sense were imbibing the world a little too loud, rich and bright.
A representative of some laetan craftsman is selling glowstone lanterns in the higher end of the market. Remembering, with a stifled tug of warmth, his debt to Josephine, Dorian pays slightly too good coin for one whose light is a steady pale yellow, suitable for writing by. Given the way she walks around with a candle stuck to her writing board, someone's sleeve will be on fire sooner or later.
His feet carry him to the next canopied stand, draped with hats, scarves and accessories. He picks up a pair of fine calfskin gloves, his thoughts on Lavellan and her desire to conceal the mark whenever possible. It will, all the same, be welded to her flesh for as long as she lives.
It may be the most trifling of distractions, but it works. With it opens, slow as a spring leaf, the resolution that he will deliver these--these mementoes to their recipients.
He is poring over small, sturdily made books of hours, illuminated in brilliant red and green, when determined steps draw up to him.
"Mother," he says without looking up. Would Cassandra punch him into a wall if he dared to present her with a Tevinter devotional text? Or would she do the same because he had the temerity to show his face at Skyhold again?
Out of the corner of his eye, he sees the steely blue of Tamasin's silk shawl, wound assiduously about her head and shoulders. "I suppose I should be glad you're still within the city walls. I was about to send Lyta to ask in the harbour."
"If you came to make a scene, I'm afraid I've filled my daily quota. Maybe tomorrow? At noon or so? I'd prefer to be properly awake for it."
"I am not here to chastise you, least of all in public."
"A moment, if you'd indulge me." Dorian infuses the request with exaggerated courtesy, half hoping to antagonise her so that she'll leave. When that turns out futile, he buys the book of hours, fastens the buckle of its leather covering and tucks it into his belt pouch.
Tamasin waits. Two house guards and her oldest, closest servant, Lyta, trail her at a respectful distance. She'll have a horse or a litter left somewhere outside the thronged marketplace. Not that she requires any protection steel or muscle can afford, and the crowd knows it. She creates a little eddy in the flow of people as they shuffle around her.
"What can I do for you?" He speaks low. They are already inviting stares, even if furtive ones.
"I wanted to speak to you. Without theatrics, if possible."
He bristles at once. "That was not some fit of melodrama, mother. Shocking, I know, coming from me, but do not suggest that..."
"That it was not important?" The austere line of her mouth curves oddly. "I'm suggesting no such thing. Now, may we take this conversation to a more private setting?"
With an imperious motion of her hand, Tamasin claims one of her guards' horses for Dorian. He accepts the reins warily. "Where are we headed?"
A contemplative quirk has settled upon her lips, as if she were absorbed in an entirely different train of thought. "To the estate. I don't know any other place in the city where I might talk freely."
He'd laugh if it were not true. "I suppose I should at least pick up my things."
She guides her own mount up the rising street, careless of the fact that side by side, their horses take up most of its width, and makes no further comment. Unsure what to make of this--of the fact that she went looking for him in person, instead of discreetly mobilising a few slaves, or of her silence--he follows. It isn't as if he can just up and leave.
In truth he could. Take his pack, take his horse, and go. The journey would be more arduous over land, but he traversed the coast to Vyrantium and beyond on his own three years ago.
The painted-glass windows of the dining room are open into the garden, the thin muslin curtains drooping in the breathless noon hour. Tamasin hands her shawl to Lyta, pausing to prise at her blue amber earring when it hooks into the silk weave. Lyta's deft hands free it before Tamasin even asks for assistance, and then she ducks away into the cool interior of the estate.
Dorian finds himself a chair. What does it say that his mother wants to talk here, instead of a more private room?
"Are you planning to leave?" She folds herself into an adjacent chair, hands in her lap, still and statuesque.
"Would you stop me?" he retorts. "I don't think father would be up to the task."
"He isn't. I... was surprised he was up at all today. I'm not sure how many more healing spells I should dare try. They take their toll."
He finds his fingers fussing with his sleeve and presses them to his leg instead. "Is that a plea for sympathy I hear there? Quite unexpected, I might point out."
"For Halward?" The webs of wrinkles around her eyes deepen as her lids drop. "You committed yourself to my attempt to help him, yet refused to see him. I don't recall that I ever asked you to explain yourself."
He allows himself a fleeting fantasy of making his escape. It's as if dark water were lapping at the rim of his mind, threatening to spill over. Getting to his feet, he paces around his chair, away from Tamasin.
"Have you..." He tarries. "Has there ever been someone you loved that let you down? In mostly every way imaginable?" The setting is preposterous. This is his mother. He does not have heartfelt conversations with his mother. Not with anyone, if he can help it, but least of all with her.
"Yes," she says.
Dorian almost, almost opens his mouth before she goes on, "The trouble with that is when the love remains. As I suppose you are learning."
"Who was it?" He can't conceive of such a scenario, but she seems, for lack of a better word, sincere.
"After this morning, I don't think we should discuss that today."
"Perhaps I should threaten to leave. It seems to get the secrets out."
"If you want to go, you can go," she says simply. "I would be careful on the road. You may no longer be Halward's heir, but some would count you a threat."
A disparaging noise breaks from his throat. "They think he'd take back that declaration? Because by some stroke of chance I had the gall to reappear?" The next words ache more than he thought they would. "I'm as good as dead to him."
"No, Dorian." She tilts forward and up, her posture not opening but softening the slightest bit. "He thinks he has lost you."
She makes it sound self-evident. For all the vitriol between his parents, she's lived in this marriage of reason for over thirty years; it's a long while to learn to understand someone, even in the absence of any affections.
"That's not on my head," he finally says.
"What choice did he have, when you didn't come home?" Tamasin still speaks soberly. "Disowning you was the only seemly thing to do."
"The world doesn't begin and end with the Imperium." Wayward anger ripples in his chest again. "Going south, stopping the Venatori--that was the most important thing I've ever done. I will not be sorry for it. And I'm not here to make amends for offending father."
"I know." Her teeth, pulling across her lower lip, leave a smeared groove in the dark red paint there. "He could have reversed that decision. It'd have been a blow to his prestige, but... it'd also have meant admitting to the hope that you might yet return."
And Dorian did--like a fool, like a misguided dreamer, he did return. To this hollow, shadowed house, to pick at scabs long since healed. His heart beats too hard against ribs that are taut with the effort of holding himself straight. The nervous energy in him is building up again.
"Tell me one thing." His fingers curve to the edge of the chair's back.
"Did you know about his plans? About the ritual?"
Her initial silence is his first confirmation. In a way he hoped she'd try to deny her knowledge; that'd justify the sick, sharp fury that's still ready to rise at the memory.
She lifts her eyes, a dull shade of blue, to his face. "I did. We argued over it. The risks would have been terrible. I... I have seen enough blood magic victims to know that."
He had to ask, he snaps at himself. As long as he didn't, there was a shallow vein of hope that she'd been ignorant of his father's intentions.
"Yet you didn't stop him." Maker, has he tipped past some dearth of self-preservation that makes him unable to stop speaking?
"I would have lost either a husband or a son," Tamasin says. "You took the choice out of my hands. I don't know if I'm thankful that you did."
"You detest him, mother. You always have."
"You assume he thinks more dearly of me?" Steel threads through her voice. "When your aunt died, Halward's became the last living line of House Pavus. There was no room for mistakes with you."
He exhales a wavering breath. "I am right here. If you would not speak of me like a damned grafting gone awry." His jaw hurts; his teeth want to grit together. "Oh, we wanted a clever, strapping son, but we stuck 'rebellious' on him instead of 'docile'. He might need a bit of pruning."
"Dorian, please." With that, the stiff note melts from her timbre. "You aren't blind or stupid. You know what you were raised to be. If you were to survive, to succeed..."
He's tired--and so is she. If he slept ill last night, her last calm repose is probably much further in the past.
"I have survived." He stares dead ahead at the time-flaked portrait of some distant ancestor in the mosaic on the far wall. "I dare say I've succeeded, too. Nothing like closing a few holes in the fabric of the world to put your travails into perspective."
He waits for the dismissive reply, for her to spurn his efforts and the deeds of the Inquisition. Seen from the trade routes and the clement, bountiful climate by the Venefication Sea, Ferelden presents itself as a backwater with delusions of grandeur because it's been the setting for two calamitous events in the last decade: the Blight and then the Breach.
"So you have." Tamasin's chin dips. Her earrings chime. When he was a boy, he'd listen for that sound with dread, for being caught at mischief, or with longing, for her to notice and linger on him even once. "And you are as you were. Foolhardy, short-sighted, and temperamental, but as you were."
It takes him a long slow moment to recognise the sentiment roughening her voice. It is gratitude--hoarse, almost unwilling, but clear as the light pouring in through the open windows.
Dorian packs his things, rucksack and saddle bags, slipping his small spoils from the morning market into side pockets and loose corners. He draws warding glyphs on the door and the windows before he goes to bed, then unravels them the next morning, uncrossed, untouched.
Dawn tints the sea and the sky a lustrous, breathtaking blue as he takes his horse, a Free Marches ranger that the stable master eyes sidelong, on a ride along the shore. The estate adjoins orchards and a substantial span of untouched woods that spread onto the headland behind the house proper.
It was once a hunting ground, but neither of his parents is given to that entertainment. On the landward side of the tallest hill he finds the stone pavilion, long since abandoned, save for the curiosity of a lone child in a house of busy adults. The roof of his boyhood hideaway is yielding itself to the elements. Rain has upset the colourful tiles of the floor and broken the sinuous back of the sea serpent winding across the mosaic.
Across the crumbling roof climb ropy vines of arbour blessing. Lifting one wide, waxy leaf, he realises they shelter hanging clusters of buds, a few of them spreading with pale petals. By southern wisdom, the Inquisitor remarked one time, arbour blessing heralds peace and plenty.
This batch seems to have taken root behind the wrong house. Dorian withdraws his hand. Lets the vine fall back against the sun-warmed stone.
When the day grows sweltering, he retraces his path to the estate and leaves the happy, sweat-drenched horse to the stable master to tend to. After a bath he heads to the library.
He does not fear a repetition of yesterday morning. Neither has he ever liked to leave things unfinished. On a clean sheet of paper, he cobbles together as coherent a summary as he can of his latest findings. Some of it is rounded with maybes and if this, then thats, but he takes it to Tamasin.
She looks at him with narrowed eyes, interrupted at work in the study she's always kept next to her quarters, and thanks him quietly.
It takes three days before he feels secure enough to drink himself into anything like a state of numbness. Then he does that, too. Skipping the cultivated reserves of Rowan's Rose and Aggregio Pavali in the wine cellar, he steals a dimmed bottle of West Hill Brandy to his room and sits on the floor and lets himself wallow. It's not even the greatest of his current ironies that coming home has made him homesick for another place entirely. Or that he remains in the house of his father because leaving his mother to deal with the situation has become unthinkable.
In the morning there's not a drop in the bottle to drown in. Dorian drags himself for a swim in the mirror-smooth sea and doesn't sink in it, either.
The tail end of Cloudreach--Eluviesta, his mother would insist--passes in the haze of an early heat wave. The terrace, cooled with heaps of conjured ice set in the wintertime braziers, becomes Dorian's refuge.
Over a few days Tamasin has first another chair, then her own research, then an additional table carried onto the terrace. Distantly it rankles that he can't assist her much in the actual magic: his own knowledge of spirits clashes with the purpose of her restorative spells.
They don't speak much. She pours a second cup of tea or glass of wine and sets it by his papers. He nudges the inkwell her way when some rearrangement of their notes has removed it from her reach.
Before she retires, she pauses by his chair and lets her hand linger on the crown of his head, a careful, gradual curling and uncurling of her fingers. He sits still, aware and unspeaking, and tips his temple into her fragile touch.
Tamasin strides onto the terrace well behind her usual punctuality in starting the day, and slaps a letter onto the table as if it had the bulk of a tome to it.
Dorian listens to the silence where most people would drop a blistering epithet.
"They've started," she says. "My darling eldest sister has remembered that my husband is ill and will come visit as soon as she's able. In the least, she'll send one of your cousins over posthaste."
"I suppose I should congratulate myself for being the root cause of this sudden familial devotion." He twirls a quill between his fingers.
"That is likely." As dark as her voice is, a parched trace of humour twines into it.
This shift in the status quo means someone needs to broach a thorny subject--only the third or fourth of his sojourn, so perhaps enumerating them is pointless by now.
"Are we... What do you think? Of attempting this?" He taps the gathered papers with a fingertip.
This is a healing ritual scraped and scavenged from the scrolls that have occupied the better part of Dorian's days for the last month. Tamasin has given him curtailed comments on how his father is, and he hasn't asked for details. Something tore out of him with his outburst--his truth-telling--in the library. He's trying out his changed balance, like a man with a sawed-off limb, though there the analogy falters. A quiet, calm feeling stirs in him, as if layers of salted earth had been swept away to let it grow.
And the fact remains that their time for the ritual is running low.
"He is worse by the week," Tamasin says. "If the illness had a clear cause, I could excise it, but I don't fully understand the problem. There are descriptions that fit in several medical texts. None of them prescribe a cure."
Magic has its limits. It will seal sword wounds and cleanse infection. It can deaden pain and keep a fighter on their feet far past the natural point of exhaustion. If Dorian feels the borders of his own expertise keenly, he can only guess at his mother's frustrations.
"Is that a yes?"
"A conditional one. It might also kill him. The author warns of the strain on the subject of the spell."
"That's a bracing way of putting it," he says, too soft for his own comfort.
"There are two ways to be a healer." She jots down something in the margin of her latest glyph sketches. "You can be kind to the suffering. Or you can cure what ails them and not weep if you must be cruel to do it."
He could grab onto several meanings in her statement and take issue. One by one he lets them go.
"What about Aunt Rialla and my beloved cousins?" Dorian barely remembers his cousins. They'd be in their twenties, ripe for marriage, and rather more steerable by their parents' ambitions than he turned out to be.
Except that here he is, throwing back and forth the topic of his father's life, trying to mute his own crystal-clear understanding that that is precisely what's on the table.
"They can get in line behind those pretenders to the Pavus name who are already fighting me for the Asariel holdings." She squares herself in the chair.
"You mean father's... is it his third cousin? Of course you do." He bites his lip. "And the estate?"
"I will not let it fall to ruin, if that's what you ask. I didn't spend thirty years on this wretched heap of marble just to see all my efforts undone."
Pride, always pride. It's no wonder he has such an excess of that particular blessing.
"You make it sound like this plan involves avoiding your own eventual demise." Dorian intends it as a gentle barb. She surprises him by averting her gaze.
"The women of my family live long. I might have another two decades left." Her voice is inscrutable. Does she mean to fight them all, tooth and claw, word and deed, out of sheer spite for the fate she was handed?
"So might your sister." Stepping over to the terrace railing, he watches the sun skim the sea beyond the cliffs. "I'll stay until we have results. Whatever they are."
"But?" The word is cool and light as the morning breeze.
"I left someone--I left my friends--with hardly a word. Unforgivable manners, really, but I do hope there were extenuating circumstances."
"Such as a dying parent?" she says. "You left to come home."
"Yes," Dorian says, and leans deep over the railing, like a wistful child, "and no."
Her silence goes from expectant to taut, then to muted and mollified. He stands up, pushes back, looks at her.
"The longer we wait, the greater the danger will be to your father." She's focused her attention on a leaf, tracing a precise circle with a length of drawing charcoal.
"Is that a prompt of some sort?" He thought he was fortified for this reality. It has lurked in every succinct report Tamasin has made on his father's deteriorating condition.
"If I start on the glyph plans today, I can have them ready tomorrow." The pair of compasses in her hand turns smoothly. "Could you bring me Enchanter Solenus's encyclopedia of symbols, please? The bookcase by the window--"
"Third shelf from the top. I know." He breathes in until his ribs are tight, caging his lungs. "I know."
The more Dorian considers the encounter with his father in the library, the more nebulous it turns in his memory. A few frozen heartbeats shine out like shapes seen in the cut of a gem, and the rest blur. He'd rather not consider it at all, but there's a deplorable paucity of diversions at the estate. He could dig out his travel attire--practical and deathly dull--and blend into the sailors and wayfarers of the port for an evening. He could still run.
All in all, it's worse than being trammelled by snow in Skyhold for two months on end. The library was largely piss and nonsense, but Cullen could be persuaded to set aside his reports for a stint at one of their slow-moving chess games; Blackwall would grumble yet never refuse when Dorian had a mind to brush up on his staff fighting. At first Dorian went to Bull to find a sparring partner, but their bouts tended to get sidetracked. Creatively and pleasantly--in ways he had best not dwell upon.
He heaves himself up from the chair where he's slumped. His old bedroom is twilit, errant dust dancing in the thick sunset light. The corridor is empty when he ventures into it.
The longer we wait, the greater the danger will be. Dorian is not the praying sort. Even if he were, he'd be hard pressed to muster up a sincere plea to the Maker, or to Andraste in her mercy. He has faith in the skill of his mother.
Is this a chapter in his life that can end on a happy note? Whether his father survives or not, will this house hold anything for him but grief? Tamasin's influence and sheer boldness keep the wolves from the door. Her defences can be chipped away, as anything can.
The guard at the end of the hallway gives Dorian a nod: courteous, not deferential. "Messere." No doubt he was once a youth chosen for his discipline, prowess at arms, and ability to stare at a wall for six hours without developing murderous impulses.
Dorian keeps his voice level, which means he sounds flat and toneless. "I would see my father."
"Master Pavus is resting."
"Did he forbid you to let me in?" At least he manages haughty quite well.
"Not specifically, messere."
"Then I will see my father. Now, if you please." Shouting at the slaves was the mark of a master unable to win respect, Halward used to say. The memory pricks deeper than it has any right to.
The guard opens the door for him. Dorian walks through the sitting room with its west-facing windows; his father received those guests intimate enough to be invited into private rooms here, in long evenings. A fire crackles in the grate despite the balmy weather. His father's staff, heart of oak riveted with dragonbone, rests in its rack by the fireplace.
These quarters were always an inner sanctum, rarely permitted, in his childhood. Dorian stops himself from lingering. A veranda hems the sitting room, and the door leading there has been propped open.
Halward is not asleep, but sitting so still he might as well be. One of the heavy armchairs has been lifted onto the veranda, and it seems to swallow him. The small table of polished wood is stacked haphazardly with books--poetry, not theory of magic.
"Who is it?" Halward's voice is thin, disused.
Dorian halts three paces from the chair. It seems that the certainty sprouting in him cannot shield him from this meeting. "Hello, father."
"I knew your steps." In the ebbing light, the swelling shadows accentuate his father's sunken features."Though they have changed."
"It must be all that world-saving and clean living that's put a spring in them."
"Your penchant for glibness has, I see, remained the same."
"I didn't come here for mockery." Dorian sighs. "At you or from you."
Halward is nearing sixty years of age, but Dorian couldn't even say how old he looks. Now his first glimpse of his father in the library seems glowingly healthy in comparison. In some sense, one's parents always loom larger than they are, and he loved his father to the point of adoration. His mother was stern and stringent, her favour a capricious creature Dorian only ever spied as a benign nod of her coiffed head. But his father was warm and generous in his praise even as his lessons were demanding.
Loved, he repeats to himself. In the past tense. Like a story he might have read once upon a time.
"Why are you here?" Halward's voice nearly peters out.
After a silence, Dorian understands he will not append the question with a cutting remark.
"Mother wants to try the... healing ritual tomorrow." It's a pretext. "She was a little circumspect about her chances of success."
"She is determined then." A soft scraping breath. "Very well. I would not have the strength to refuse her even if I had the will. Is that it?"
A brief rush of nausea delays Dorian's answer. The moment persists as a cracked mirror: would not have the strength even if I had the will.
"You don't want her to make the attempt?" he asks, more as a stalling device.
"There are risks. If it goes poorly, our enemies can use it against her. Frame it so that she tried to be rid of me. Deliberately perverted the ritual."
"She did mention something like that." Dorian shifts his weight, then fetches a carved stool left in the corner and takes a seat. The table is solidly between them.
Halward knits his hands together. His hair falls lank, more grey than black, over his temples. "Then she gauges the risk acceptable. Your mother does nothing without purpose."
"Oh, indeed," Dorian says. "Shall we go on like this? Pleasant enough to agree that mother is a shrewd, pitiless woman? No mention of our last conversation?"
Damn his own quick tongue. The question smoulders like a hot coal against his flesh.
Strange how exhaustion can lay bare someone's face: his father struggles to school his expression. "I do not know what to make of your return, Dorian."
"That's a start. Given that you vastly prefer to know best in everything."
"I thought I would go to my grave without hearing your voice again."
"I swear," Dorian says, ragged, on an abrupt swell of anger, "if you try to justify yourself with half a word, I will burn every page I've spent the last month translating. And you can--"
Die for all I care. Those would not have been his next words, but they amount to the same thing. Forcibly he smothers his temper. He casts a sideways look at Halward, whose eyes are fixed on his hands.
The anger provides a bulwark. If Dorian forgets or quells it, room is made for other emotions.
"I have had more than enough time to think. Think on why you left. Why it was so impossible for you to adjust."
"Adjust," Dorian repeats woodenly.
"Dorian--" With a shiver of effort, Halward sinks into the chair, as if sitting up were too great a strain. "We come into the world and then we must live in it. Very rarely do we get to remake it as we'd prefer it to be."
"Do not condescend to me."
"I am not. You know what it means to be born an altus. We are bred into an image of how life should go. When someone dares to rattle the cage, we load them down with ever heavier stones."
"Andraste's sanctified ass." He has to thank Varric for that one, some day. "If you know that..."
"But those stones are the foundation of the Imperium." Halward speaks that like a sister would recite the Chant, low, sonorant, drifting. He should tell his father to hang the Imperium, hang his legacy, hang his stone-hewn preconceptions.
"All that--status, wealth, your good name." Dorian stares at the ceiling of the veranda. "Did you value them so much more highly than me?"
The moment seems to stretch out of joint, unbearably, dragged between two unyielding forces.
"I valued them because they protected what I loved. You... chose a different path. I had to make my peace with that."
"I did. Rather that than let you warp me into something that'd fit your view of what the world should be."
"We heard the stories," Halward says. "Stories of a rogue Tevinter mage in the ranks of the Inquisition. My son's name, spoken in the same breath as those of the Hands of the White Divine. Or that Dalish leading them."
"Oh, for--" Dorian makes a sound through his teeth. "Are you quite done?"
"You couldn't come home." His father's tone grows laboured. "I knew you could not. I could not say so, to you or to anyone, but I was proud."
The stiff, separate strands of the conversation whip back together with such force that Dorian can't help his stifled gasp. Not a story, happened in the past; his life, his parents' repressed, twisting lives, wound together in knots beyond unravelling.
"My choices cost me you." He can't see his father's face, could not bear to look at it as Halward speaks. "Yours brought you back before my death. I am sorry, for mine, though it is very late now."
Dorian can't remember that he'd ever have embraced his parents. He'd kiss his mother's cheek or accept a clasp of his shoulder from his father. Felix used to hug him, now and then, and he has seen the Chargers pile joyfully into each other's spaces or Lavellan lean into Cassandra after a hard scrape or a rough day. He longs for some equivalent: some forceful, clean expression for all that rushes through him.
He rises, only to crouch beside the chair again. Halward's breath flows barely perceptible, and his eyes are shut. I forgive you is too immense, too tangled; Dorian doesn't know if he might ever be ready for it or even want it. I understand might be closer, yet again out of reach.
It comes down to this suspended moment of twilight, with the sun fading into the sea. All he has, all he can do, is here. This will never come again.
He takes his father's dry, fever-touched hand between both of his own, and kneels there until the last of the day is gone and the faint answering grip slackens with fatigue.
Tamasin weaves through the estate with hawkish focus. She orders the gates locked, the doors barred, and all visitors turned away. No, she does not care if her own kin is rebuked at the gate. If it is the Archon himself, Lyta is to pour him a goblet of Tamasin's best wine and see to his comfort, and she'll make her apologies in due course.
"Really?" Dorian tries to make himself unobtrusive--not a task that comes to him naturally--in his mother's study. "The supreme ruler of the Imperium, made to wait at the gates?"
"All eventualities, Dorian," she says archly, bent over her glyphs and circles. She's changed out of her billowing sleeves and skirts into a narrow-lined robe. "Are we ready?"
"As ready as we can be, I imagine. This is all rather hopelessly experimental."
Not that he is preparing to cast anything, unless things go sour. The ritual is lengthy, and its heavy reliance on spirit magic means that it will abrade the local Veil. So he'll stand guard while she works, to thwart any unwanted attention. It isn't a glamorous duty; it might well be a necessary one.
"And you remember what we discussed last night?"
He's had a few hours to sleep on the conversation, conducted after he saw his father. "Yes."
She accepts his truncated answer with a nod. Her final notes and designs in the crook of her arm, she goes to the door. They exchange a look. As if she saw something in his eyes Dorian is not aware of divulging, she lets her lips curl in the closest thing to a smile he can remember catching on her severe face.
He touches her arm with the flat of his hand, quick and steadying.
Dorian settles to wait on the veranda outside Halward's quarters. Tamasin decided the best place would be where her patient is, and so room was made there. Through the panelled windows his parents appear as distorted silhouettes, his father sitting, his mother standing, speaking in voices too soft to emerge through the wood and lead and glass.
He should not intrude, even if he'd admit to curiosity.
He tries to fall into the state that works best for the watches of the night: a sustained alertness, like an arrow notched but not drawn, his staff not in his grasp but one movement away. It was always better to watch in pairs, when the Inquisitor's party could afford it. Company both soothes your mind when it strives after phantom noises in the dark, and keeps you from dropping off as time seems to drag.
What he would not give for someone he trusts to share these hours: Cole nattering to the trees and the grass by the fire; Sera perched nearby, elven eyes shimmering with the dark-sight of her rejected heritage; Bull whittling or humming off-key, lending a shoulder when Dorian needs to cheat and catnap for a spell.
No, he chastises himself. Better that they are far away, in whatever safety Skyhold can grant.
Tamasin's magic, when she begins, is not conspicuous. When Dorian senses it at all, it is as a continuous hum at the limit of his perception. Sometimes there's the flare and tug of a spirit brushing by, then a coil of power to bring it under control.
The sun wheels across the sky. The shadows trail the light. He paces the veranda, watches the guard change at the posts on the seaward wall. He's always hated waiting--more so when he can't fill the time with something useful or distracting.
A kitchen girl brings him bread, fruit and water, inquiring in hushed tones if he needs anything else. He shakes his head, thanks her, and turns a slightly raw apricot over in his fingers.
The fruit tumbles from his hand when an unseen wave of released magic buffets against him; instinctively he shields his face although the sensation is purely mental. Something thumps and creaks, and Dorian dashes for the door to the sitting room.
"Mother?" Ready to fling out a glyph or a barrier, he peers inside.
Tamasin emerges from the bedroom, supporting herself on the wall. Her fingers tremble on the doorjamb. Her face is masklike, rigid with control, but sweat streaks her brow and cheeks. She wipes it with her sleeve. At any other time, he'd gape at the casual evidence that her perfect poise can be so shattered.
He offers his hand, and she lets him help her to the nearest chair. Her hands are smeared with chalk and pigment. After several agonised breaths, she mutters, "I am done. I do not know if it was enough."
"I'll get Lyta," he says, trying to focus on the immediate. "Clear out the mess--it is safe now, yes? Nothing that could explode when you try to sweep it up?"
"Yes. No, no unspent glyphs." Her countenance slowly surrenders to weariness. "Oh, Dorian."
"I'll stay with him." He promises that more for her sake than that of his father. "You rest."
The alti are keen on the perception that magic is consummate, effortless, and near all-powerful. Dorian shares that view insofar as it concerns his magic being a gift, a talent, a blessing. It is also backbreaking work, word and will balanced against the everpresent danger of it. The bedroom is a mess, shaken by ritual energies shearing through the Veil and into the physical world, littered with the vestiges of meticulously crafted and deliberately splintered summonings. With the carpets rolled aside, Tamasin used the stone floor as her canvas.
Dorian rights a toppled chair, puts it by the bed--standing as an odd islet of calm in the disorder--and sits down. Halward sleeps, whether due to the spell or to the illness. Does it make all children ache, Dorian muses, to understand in their hearts that their parents are as fallible, weak, and vulnerable as anyone?
The footfalls and whispers of the servants fade into the background. Lyta sets freshly cut, flowering boughs from the garden into a vase and lights a row of beeswax candles, as if those touches of cheer and care could alleviate the tension.
His father's hand is too warm, like worn, cracked vellum. The sheets pulled over him rise and fall, fall and rise, in the barest, most fundamental indication that he is there, dreaming mind fettered to his body.
Eventually someone stacks the bookcase in the room with the evacuated books, before leaving with minimal disturbance. Dorian couldn't recall half the people who have moved across the room, and most of them have served his family since his childhood. He doesn't touch the books. His back complains of his forward lean with a disagreeable pop when he straightens it.
All he can do is wait. Wait and hope, but hope seems too audacious now.
Two days later, Dorian is dozing in the same chair, the candles flickering in the hot breeze from the sea, when his father dies.
He jars awake to the absence, rather than presence, of hoarse breaths mixing into the sound of his own. His father's eyes are half-open. Dorian presses them closed with gentle, shivering fingers. Lays the hand splayed on top of the sheet over his unmoving, hollowed chest and draws the sheet up to cover his face. Allows himself a moment to stand there and hear nothing. Just the warm, whispering night and the tiny rustles and rattles of the garden.
In that quiet, the foundations of the world are shifting. He doesn't feel their creeping yet, but he'll need to find his footings when they are done.
The next thing he does, however, is wake up his mother. A shawl wrapped over her nightgown, she sends someone to saddle his horse, another servant to the kitchen to pack provisions, and a third to fetch her the captain of the house guard. She moves with the same economy with which she would arrange a ball or demonstrate a spell; not a wasted gesture or syllable.
By the time he's checked his equipment and got into his riding kit, she is given her orders to the captain in the pillared front hall of the house. Dorian stops and waits for her to come up to him, with even, muffled steps.
"You will go then." She puts it as a statement, but it rings like a question. She's found a moment to get dressed, though her hair remains plaited for bed. "As we agreed."
Dorian leans on a column, the contours of the carved pattern nudging his spine. Perhaps he needs the support. "It seems I should, since I remain rather attached to my life."
"I cannot keep this under wraps," she says. "Halward had a seat in the Magisterium. That can't pass on through marriage. There will be hopefuls drafting messages to the Archon as we speak."
From a skewed point of view Dorian has been a guest at her table, protected by her hospitality. Disowned, his blood ties are annulled by the letter of Imperium law.
"You're sure?" He hears his voice soften. "That you don't want me to stay for the funeral?"
"I am sure that I want you safe." She folds her arms, fingers cupping her elbows.
If the Maker ever listens to the world and its goings-on, would instances such as this amuse Him? Tamasin's greatest act of maternal care will be to send her son back into exile so he might survive the unrest to come. At present he has no house, few friends, and ignominy in place of influence. She cannot, at the same time, fight to restore his status and cement her own as the head of a house into which she married rather than was born.
"All right." In every outward sense he's prepared. He's had his equipment more or less ready. It was an emblem of a hope he couldn't fully verbalise--a hope of finding a welcome even after his unexplained departure.
"Do you need another moment?" She gestures back towards the southwestern wing and the family quarters.
"No." This time his refusal is born of honesty rather than deflection. "I wish things were different. I wish it hadn't taken us so long."
She gives that quirk of her mouth that approximates a smile. "We all live in the house of ash and salt here, Dorian. That'll hardly change because one wayward son declares his freedom from tradition."
"Do you know how many times he frustrated me with that parable?" He rubs at his eyes. Thankfully the moon is waxing; he'll be able to ride some distance tonight. "Ash for the fields, salt for trading. Isn't it obvious?"
"Only once you learn," she says. "The person who holds precious things must understand how to handle them, or they lead to ruin."
He almost chuckles. "Which of them is it that has seasoned your bread, mother?"
Her chin firms, but her voice remains easy. "Do you truly want an answer to that?"
Scathing honesty would resonate with the general tenor of this visit. While he is mulling that over, the guard at the door admits a stablehand into the hall. The girl bows to Tamasin, then to Dorian. "The horse is ready, domina."
Tamasin recognises that with a nod, waving her off, and pins a steady eye on Dorian. "You have everything? The coin and the papers?"
He picks up the rucksack at his feet and slings the saddle bags over his shoulder with a gesture that maybe shouldn't be so practiced on even an erstwhile Tevinter aristocrat. "Mater carissima." He means it with affection that is still strange to him. "I do. Try not to fret. I'll write, as soon as I get across the border."
She walks loosely beside him to the opened door, a careful circling that she must allow to spiral out. "Ride fast. I will see you again." She says that as if she could dictate to fate that it is to be so.
Dorian flattens his free hand to his heart. "Goodbye."
His horse is tied to the post by the stables, visible by the lanterns placed around the courtyard. He starts down the staired veranda, his staff making a third thud beside his boots. He'll have to strap the staff to the saddle; carried on his back it won't be easy to access while mounted. As if someone would be on his heels. As if his mother's fears were concrete. She wastes no time on imagined threats, when there are real ones aplenty.
Halfway down the steps he turns. The light from inside casts Tamasin's fluttering shadow across the veranda. He bends to set down the things in his hands.
Coming back up, in ten hasty, resolute paces, Dorian reaches out. His mother gathers him in, her narrow hands pressing tight into the backs of his shoulders. She rests her chin against his shoulder and lets him hold on for a slow-turning moment.
"You must go." As she stands back, her hands stay on his upper arms. He clasps one of them, solid through his riding glove. As if they could mend anything more in this last breath before his leavetaking. "Go on."
He dredges up a smile and then turns away, out of her arms, out of the light, where the road beckons him again.
Go on, it seems to whisper. Go home.
Non mortem timemus, sed cogitationem mortis.
We do not fear death, but the thought of death.
-- Seneca, Epistulae
Chapter 4: Si vis amari (I)
Okay, here we are at last. Remember this story? :D
I want to thank all of you who commented in this long meanwhile, or sent me tumblr asks, or left lovely notes in reblogs. They quite kept me going.
Above all, I'm grateful to my brilliant cadre of writing partners: Neeks, Joan, Adri and Jo, all of whom witnessed bits and pieces of this chapter as I wrangled it down at several hundred words a day. Thanks for having my back. You're the best.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Dorian rides south through Tevinter in its summer splendour. Everything spreads verdant and fragrant under the rains, before the heat peaks and parches the rushing rivers and ripens the waving grain. The seal of a noble house--that of his mother--on his writ of passage sees him past the scarce checkpoints on the road. Upon a resigned decision he empties his pack of obvious ritual components, burns everything that will catch flame, and tosses the crystals from his staff into the nearest stream.
If someone is hunting for him, his best protection from discovery will be not to look like a mage. At least he'll get the jump on them that way.
The clement nights let him sleep rough, bundled into his cloak. When it storms, he steals into a roadside barn to shelter, but he doesn't sleep a blink. The clouds dissipate towards morning. He unties his drowsy horse from under the eaves and coaxes her into a trot again.
He keeps moving. To stop would be to stagger, collapse, crumple.
I am sure that I want you safe. It's the one uncalculated request his mother ever made of him. He has to try, no? Stop in any given place only to buy supplies and gather some news.
At the south hem of the Silent Plains his horse throws a shoe. He leads her, both of them hot and malcontent in the dust of the road, onto the yard of a caravanserai squatting by the highroad. One end of the ancient stone building holds a courier outpost, whose blacksmith remedies the situation without squinting too much at Dorian's Tevinter coin.
Because he's bedded on the roadside for the last month, he offers the same Imperium silver to the innkeeper for a room and a bath. He wards the door and soaks in the cloth-lined tub until the water is tepid and his head swims with the lassitude brought on by the bath. He barely remembers to towel himself off before slumping into the bed.
Two thirds of a day later, Dorian wakes from deep, dreamless sleep to someone banging on the door. The voice on the other side is more timid than insistent: messere, it's nearly dawn, and other guests need the bathtub.
Dissolving the glyph he planted inside the threshold, Dorian lets the two serving boys in to lug away the tub, and starts his day. His beard itches in the heat, but it also conceals his dashing good looks, so it has to stay for now. He ties his hair back with leather twine to lift it from his neck.
Outside the caravan yard stirs, horses whinnying and tamping in their tethers. The fenced pasture behind the caravanserai holds a few mounts belonging to travellers that care to pay extra to let their animals graze. A small market has sprung up outside the courier outpost. In the dottily inhabited hills, the caravanserai must also serve as a hub for local trade.
Dorian wends his way towards the stalls. Extravagant purchases are off the table--his coin has to get him across the Waking Sea--but he hasn't had fresh fruit in a week. In midsummer that'd be enough to drive a man to petty theft, if only he'd passed any orchards.
There is a seller with crates of Tantervale peaches, but she hardly spares Dorian a glance. Her stall is crowded by four qunari. Their cobbled-together armour and stark vitaar mark them out as Vashoth. Neither would followers of the Qun display such liveliness in front of foreigners. The seller glares with an air of growing horror at two young men whose faces are tinted half red, half black. As far as Dorian can follow their effusive Qunlat, they appear to be debating the quality of the fruit.
It might be a while until the woman recovers enough to sell him a peach.
Another of the qunari is repeating a Qunlat phrase over and over. He keeps changing the stresses, as if trying to fit the words to a tune. Next to him loiters a woman with a slashed nose, one nostril split macabrely wide. With a roll of her eyes, she lobs a cheerful string of profanities at him. Dorian draws a sharp breath at the last word she snaps out.
At the caravanserai they're all bound by travellers' peace. No one that hopes to show their face here again should start undue trouble. Dorian diverts himself towards the qunari woman.
"Not such an impressive recital?" he says in Common.
"It's supposed to be a sestina." Her mouth twists up. Her Common is grainy, seasoned with Qunlat and Nevarran. "It is a pain in the ears. He picked up some funny ideas from the last Antivan merchant we guarded."
"A sellsword with artistic aspirations." Dorian takes a chance and smiles at her in answer. The yard must have seen more outlandish conversations unfold. Sometimes long distance and endured solitude suffice to lower the walls between strangers.
In his case, restive, recalcitrant interest has done the same.
"One of my company. What I don't know is what you are. You sound like a Tevinter."
Keen qunari ears. He should've remembered. His accent has reasserted itself in the last months.
"I came down that way. Right now I am fascinated. If you'll indulge me?"
"That depends on what for." She shifts so the haft of the hooded mace on her belt taps against her thigh.
"There was a word you used when you tired of his verses. A Qunlat one." He swears silently at his own clumsiness. If he can't even turn a few words on a sovereign, what's becoming of him?
"You want language lessons, stranger? Do I look like a tamassran?"
Dorian judges it best not to highlight the fact that he knows what a tamassran is. "You look like a deserter--a Tal-Vashoth, no? So does your poetry-composing fellow."
"Vashoth," she says with a sibilation of irritation. "If you ask after Qunlat words, at least learn the difference. We were not born into the Qun."
"My apologies." He nods his contrition. He rues his miscalculation rather than his ignorance, but her offence is real either way. "I wasn't aware of that nuance."
"Eh." She tips her head so her plaited hair swishes with the motion. "You're not the first and you won't be the last, human. Kaariss is just weird."
"Is that what you called him? 'Weird'?" He half-shrugs as if to admit that he may be wasting her time. A graceful retreat may be all he can salvage. What will it change if this stranger solves or does not solve his conundrum? He has so many other things over which to lose sleep.
"Kadan, you mean?" Her voice is blithe. Dorian has to set his teeth to keep his facade of casual curiosity.
"I rather fancy myself a connoisseur of languages, but..."
"You're not likely to hear that one from one of us." She glances at her two other companions, who have managed to wrangle themselves into possession of a peach crate. The seller's terrified expression has mellowed some.
"That's why I was intrigued." Dorian takes a step back. "Qunlat in its natural habitat, you understand. It's a rare beast here in the south."
"So it is." With a laugh like a trickle of dark wine, she indulges him.
Wildervale in the Free Marches must be so named because it's the furthest from any decent civilisation Dorian's ever been, the Hissing Wastes naturally excepted. The dirt road--not the Imperial Highway, which lies under a flood on the plains of Nevarra, which in turn is the cause of this detour--snakes on and on through the highlands.
On top of that it rains. Thankfully mostly in the afternoons, in hard spattering showers, so the road remains some kind of passable. He's beginning to forget what dry feels like.
The rain comes in a grey drizzle that day, the earth exhaling cool mist that couches everything beyond a few hundred paces. The road coils along the base of a trailing cliff that sometimes rises sheer, then lessens into a gentler ascent. His horse plods along gamely, although he's been riding since dawn.
The mare's ears prick, stiff with fear. She shies forward before Dorian can stall her. Though his staff is only a length of wood without the focusing crystals, it's solid and riveted with silverite. He reaches for it when a low, ululating bellow cuts through the air.
The slope on his left is staggered, coated in scree and the odd shrub hanging on by straggling roots. Something massive shifts beyond the top, the rakes and thuds of its movement audible through the rain. Is he only imagining the clash of metal mixing into them?
"We might make our exit," he tells the horse. One develops unfortunate habits of talking to one's mount while alone on the road. She neighs with alarm, and that's agreement enough for him.
He's about to urge her on when a spray of earth erupts over the top of the slope. Someone stumbles, shouts, and teeters off the yielding lip of ground. In a clatter of mail they careen down, flailing for purchase. Dorian doesn't think. A wave of his hand layers a barrier under the tumbling body that should blunt crushed bones into bruises.
Apparently he's the kind of man who will break a stranger's fall, then decide if they are trouble. The armoured figure thumps into a stop with a muffled groan, maybe twenty paces from Dorian's horse. He cants his head up for a better glimpse of what's happening.
The sting of someone else's magic prickles his senses. A crackle of cold, then the unmistakable grind of ice coalescing into being.
"Venhedis." Whatever is going on--a battle--there's another mage up there. He'd best make himself scarce and leave the battered fighter to wonder at their stroke of luck.
Another silhouette cuts across the line of the clifftop. For a stupefied, spinning heartbeat, Dorian forgets how to breathe.
"Krem!" Bull's voice rings harsh with worry as it carries down the slope. The pouring rain blurs details, giving Dorian only the shape of horns and shoulders, but he knows that voice, knows it in his bones, knows it like the earth beneath his feet. He can't even admonish himself for the cliché.
Reality lashes back to him. Krem. There on the ground, stirring and moaning for his effort. The other Chargers, no doubt embroiled in the fight. He drops down from the saddle.
"Are you--hey!" Alarm jabs into Bull's voice. With his poor depth of vision, the rain must hinder him even worse. He might well be seeing a stranger moving towards his fallen second-in-command.
Dorian yanks off his hood, grabs onto all the squirming parts of his mind that are trying to burst in a hundred directions, and shouts, "He's alive! You can thank me later! Can I lend a hand?"
You might blink twice in the silence that follows his call.
Ice splinters somewhere behind Bull. A shriek rings out, the agonised roar of some wounded beast. Someone curses, sharp and high-pitched.
Bull moves. "Stitches, get down there now! Look after Krem!" He hefts the greataxe that hangs loose at his side with a two-handed grip. "And you, get up here, Dalish is running out of tricks and this blasted thing's still kicking!"
This would be the story--told for Sera's entertainment somewhere down the line--of how Dorian found himself fighting a wyvern in the Vimmark foothills armed with a stick of wood. He never mastered Vivienne's art of propelling oneself ahead via the ambient Fade. He settles for scampering up the slope as fast as he can. Stitches slides down past him, drenched in mud and rain, surgeon's satchel slung over one shoulder, sword over the other.
The flat area above the climb is grassy earth churned by magic and by the thrashing beast. The wyvern has an arrow jutting from its eye and three others in the soft flesh under its flared collar spikes. Blood mars its mottled blue-and-yellow hide, flowing from gashes left by Bull's axe. Atop a curved rise beyond the clearing, Dalish conjures a tattered spurt of ice to paralyse its hind legs.
Bull is already circling to swing at the hampered limbs. Skinner covers Dalish with a steady array of arrows, one more nocked as she seeks an open line of fire. After heaving himself up over the edge, Dorian takes three more cautionary steps, all too aware that the rain has softened the earth.
Threads of venomous spittle dangle from the wyvern's jaw. Bull's greataxe arcs down through the ice and into frostbitten flesh, and the creature spews forth a gob of venom at him.
Dorian sends out a snappy barrier to make the liquid mass scatter, inches from striking Bull's side. Magic is heavier without the staff to channel and solidify the casting. As Bull takes his axe to the wyvern's plated shoulder, Dorian props his staff into the muddy ground and pulls himself back to the basic principles: gesture, breath and will alone. That's all you truly need to steer a spell.
Another of Skinner's shafts punches into the beast's neck. Dalish assists with bursts of frost from her staff, poised with a stiffness in her lithe limbs. While Dorian may lack her easy flair with cold spells, another element suggests itself as he watches the wyvern thrash away from Bull. It hobbles on three healthy legs. The rugged hide glistens with quick-welling wounds. The lethal venom still makes it dangerous.
"Give me room!" Dorian calls out, and Bull falls back, allowing the wyvern its short-lived escape. A sense of comfort and confidence wells in Dorian. They've fought together times beyond counting; the familiar lockstep of complementary manoeuvres remains the same.
Lightning whips from Dorian's outstretched hand. He maintains a fist, a gesture of control, forcing the branching bolt straight into the wyvern's bulk. In the damp, with metal and flesh in close proximity, storm magic poses a greater risk than fire.
Right now it's also vastly more effective. The spasm of lightning overwhelming its body, the wyvern plows snout-first into the ground.
"Now!" Bull hardly needs to give the order. Skinner leaves her bow and darts in to assist Bull, who severs the wyvern's other hind leg. A few strings of venom fly from the creature's maw, but they land short of Skinner's path. Dorian hovers, ready to lay a barrier over her if needed.
She swerves around a blindly gouging forelimb, and her curved knife slashes the arteries of the wyvern's throat. With a last fierce downstroke, Bull chops through the back of its neck. It shudders once and is quiet. Skinner makes sure of its death with a kick to its jaw, then whisks around and back towards Dalish, who has succumbed to rapid, exhausted gasps. Dorian knows that sort of weariness, when even lyrium seems insufficient to renew one's reserves.
They have won. Which leaves Dorian no more spells to sling.
His face runs with rain that's long since plastered his hair to his scalp. The echoes of fire and thunder dim from his mind.
Past the dead wyvern, Bull breathes hard, dropping some of his weight onto his axe haft. He's smattered with dirt, blood and ripped wyvern scales, his chest heaving as he methodically gets his breath under control.
He looks around, one gimlet grey eye seeking and finding Dorian.
Dorian doesn't think he's ever been happier to see anyone. Not that he pauses for comparative analysis. He takes the several rushed steps he needs to reach Bull and steadies his hands by clasping Bull's head, the wet leather of his gloves grazing scarred cheeks. The welcome weight of Bull's free arm wraps across his shoulders. He leans up without thought and closes the distance left between them before it becomes unbearable.
The rain soaks the kiss and them both. For this one moment Dorian doesn't give a damn. He allows himself the unabashed joy at the fact that Bull is here, alive, real, warm under his gripping hands. Bull gives a throaty sound that courts a laugh and answers the kiss in kind, breathless and intense, until they have to duck apart for air. For air, and everything else.
Dorian closes his eyes and draws and expels a shuddering breath.
"You look like a bandit," Bull says, his arm still around Dorian. "Thought you were one."
"I rather do, no?" I missed you, I missed you. Hide it away. Tamp it down. There's a cooling wyvern corpse three feet away and he has precious little idea what's going on. "It's a safer garb than 'last heir of House Pavus' when you're riding through these parts."
"Right. Smart move." Bull can be opaque when he wishes, hardly a twitch of muscle betraying his true thoughts. Dorian sees the change, the sore breath that escapes before Bull's face firms. He drops his arm--not quick, but purposeful.
Dorian takes the cue to step back, fighting his own expression into submission. "It seems we both have stories to tell." Later. There will be a later.
"Yeah." Bull turns to gesture at the others. "Skinner, get the venom sacs if you can pull 'em out whole. Don't lose any fingers."
"We get paid extra for that?" She gives him a skeptical glance from under her dripping hair.
"No, I'm just making busywork for you 'cause I can." Bull takes quite a bit of cheek from his trusted fighters, and his timbre is harsher than what Skinner would usually get for a gibe. "Dalish, you all right?"
"Lovely," she says, reedy. "It's probably not wise to go through that many lyrium potions in one fight. You're sure that was a normal wyvern?"
"Shit, if it was magic, we'll squeeze another hundred sovereigns out of that squeaky lordling."
"Shall I take it that I caught the tail end of an encounter worthy of song?" Dorian puts in. He has to say something.
Bull jerks a thumb at the wyvern."This wily bastard was stealing sheep north of Cumberland. Cullen sent us there on a job for the Inquisition, but we finished up fast. So, a spot of good old-fashioned monster-hunting."
That explains the Chargers being on this side of the sea strait, and even the uncommonly small team.
"I see." Dorian's mouth feels coated with grit. He speaks on anyway. "And now? That is one wyvern expertly hunted."
"Take the valuable parts back to Riddler's Dell--uh, that's where the client is--then collect the bounty and get back to Ferelden from Cumberland. It's trading season, there'll be some ship to take us."
"I was counting on the same fact." Dorian yearns for a moment to think. The four months he's been away from Bull seem unfathomably wide. He thought he'd have time. Time to come to terms with himself and the changes this journey has wrought.
There's Skinner, shoulder-deep in the wyvern's slit throat to harvest the venom. Dalish has padded out to the cliff edge to peer down after Stitches and Krem.
Here's Bull. He seems to be waiting, half-turned towards Dorian. Dorian looks up at his face and does not flinch. He has months of silence demanding to be filled, and so much to explain that he despairs of ever unravelling it all. He might as well get started.
"My father died on Summerday. I have no claim to the Pavus name now."
Krem turns out to have a dislocated shoulder, a bevy of bruised ribs and a cracked shinbone. The others have escaped with scratches and contusions, although Dalish leans on Skinner as they prepare to retrace their way to the Chargers' camp. Dorian volunteers his horse for carrying the spoils: the venom sacs, deposited in an airtight casket; the fangs and talons; a square of the hide that was spared damage. The wyvern led the hunting party on a wild chase, and they have several miles to cover on the way back.
Dorian never asks. No one offers. He joins up with the Chargers' party at an unseen, unheard accord. Being her sweet self, Dalish sneaks him a one-armed hug in greeting. He pats her shoulder, then lets her return to Skinner, who graces him with an outright suspicious glare.
He might deserve it.
The Chargers have made camp at a tumbledown hunting lodge. The building looks long abandoned, but someone has unclogged the chimney and a hearty fire blazes in the grate. Rocky and Grim, left to guard the camp and the horses, meet Dorian's appearance with a leery inspection and a short grunt, respectively. After his horse has been divested of her load, Dorian takes his time tending to her, scrubbing off the mud and water, indulging her with the last of his bean bread.
Quietly he wishes he could do the same for himself; strip off his clothes and sink into a hot bath for a few hours. He makes do with the ancient rainwater barrel, which has been hoisted out behind the building to catch the downpour. A gossamer shaft of afternoon sunlight splits the cloud bank as he pulls on his cleanest shirt. What a thing it is to delight in simply being dry.
A log fence hems the lodge; Dorian is arranging his boots to dry on the fence posts when steps come up behind him. He digs his bare toes into the thick, sweet-smelling grass. There's a word for the scent of the soil after rain, but it won't come to him.
Wordless, guileless, he turns around to face Bull and a bowl of stew held out towards him. A chunk of dark bread is balanced on the rim. "Dinner," Bull says. "Grim made it, so there's no weird stringy bits. Serious about his cooking, that one."
"Thank you." Dorian is in fact ravenous; combat magic exacts its toll. He drops the bread halfway into the bowl to soak in the broth and fumbles for the spoon at his belt. His thoughts churn like grain being threshed, chaff and seed flying in the same billowing confusion.
"Same to you." Bull rests his forearm on an adjacent pair of fence posts. By rights he ought to look less imposing without his armour and greataxe. His only visible weapon is the Fereldan dirk at his belt. A length of twisted cord is wound around his right bicep, opposite the ever-present pauldron, in a pattern of knots that Dorian associates with Qunari adornment. If this were an ordinary chat in an early evening, he'd ask.
Bull goes on, "Stitches is pretty sure you saved Krem's life."
"My pleasure. It wouldn't be the first time on either side." Dorian almost adds, or the last, but he can't afford that postulation. "It was a fortunate accident, so to speak."
"The outcome's the same. He'll live. Might even talk straight tomorrow. He's so full of elfroot right now he called Skinner his mother."
"She must've enjoyed that."
"The others did, at least."
They lapse into silence, Dorian eating, Bull staring at the fleet white clouds being ushered in by the wakening wind. Four months is a long season. It might as well be a lifetime. Dorian wants--he wants impossible things, he has a damned history of desires that became his downfall, that have left him nameless, rootless, buoyed by the charity and goodwill of others. He looks at the bowl in his hands. Thinks of the diminishing coin tucked into his packs, of the letters of passage signed and stamped by his mother.
"I am sorry." This remains in his power to do. "You deserved better from me."
"Family thing, right?" Bull speaks over the line of the half-fallen fence to the copse of spruce and hickory beyond it, ripe with the smells of damp needle and leaf. "I may not get the blood tie part, but I get the principle."
Don't you dare let me off easy when I'm trying to make amends. Dorian's teeth prick his tongue. He made a coward's choice, put his need to shield himself above whatever blow he dealt to Bull.
"I suppose so." Dorian sets the bowl down. Fine whorls of mist steam up from the ground, the abrupt wash of sunshine turning its wetness to vapour. They have skimmed the matter of his family in their conversations, rambling across personal pasts, adventures and anecdotes alike. He might have told Bull more than anyone else still living.
"You're done?" The question is low, inscrutable.
"With my errand, or my family?"
"Yes, and for now." An explanation must follow the admission, and Dorian pitches into it. "At the moment I'm not, by Tevinter law, a Pavus at all. The head of the house disowned me, so I have none of the duties or liberties that come with the name. My mother... may be able to reverse that decision, but it'll cost her in the political sense. More than she can afford now."
Bull makes a resounding hum, somewhere between amused and doleful. Dorian deflates, sighs, would lean on the fence if it didn't look like it'd splinter under the strain. Not unlike he himself might.
"My apologies. I'm sure you don't need a lecture."
"You keep making them. Apologies."
"You think I shouldn't?"
"You don't owe me anything." Only a liminal tremor cracks Bull's sober tone.
Dorian barely catches that shiver. An ache blooms under his heart, like he'd forgotten an abused rib and shifted against it.
"We had an agreement," Bull says. "That was it. You want to walk out the door and ride alone into Tevinter in the middle of the fucking winter, then you do that."
Bull can be profuse in his moods, from rumbling guffaws to roaring excitement at facing some fascinating new foe, and eerily subtle on the other hand, grief or regret evident only in how he neglects to ever mention them. This is different again, a taut and strident emotion whose edges could shred his stolid facade if given the merest opening.
"You were gone for four months. We didn't hear so much as a rat's fart from you in that time. If the kid hadn't..."
"What?" Dorian blurts out, though Bull can only mean one person.
Bull's unease is so obvious that paradoxically, relief stirs in Dorian. "Cole kept saying you were still... around."
"Still... alive?" Dorian's memory supplies scattered evidence that his suggestion hits close to the truth. Cole and his unnerving ability to perceive the knotted threads that bind people, even when the causes of their hurt or remorse are miles and miles removed from them. That thought just crowns the moment, doesn't it?
"Yeah. Some crap about the souls of the dead being silent to him."
With an admitted dash of melodrama, Dorian sinks to sit in the grass. "I probably shouldn't apologise a third time, should I?"
He can't help the wry laugh when Bull follows him, dropping onto his haunches two steps away. "Maybe not. Look. There's a time and a place for everything. Here and now I have a job to see through."
Dorian grips a fistful of grass and dirt. He could stretch out his hand and touch Bull. The desire to do so tugs at his fingertips like strings of spidersilk, invisible until they are limned by a sunbeam. If he asked Bull to hold him now, what else would be caught in that embrace?
To hold him. Not to fuck him, kiss him, praise or debase him. Want lives in him like the shine of banked embers, waiting to be fed.
Other things must take precedence, and anyway, Dorian has never known how to ask for gentleness.
"That'll be familiar enough." He hastens to patch the silence. "What does Stitches think? Is Krem in a shape to ride by tomorrow?"
"We'll see what Dalish can do about his leg when she wakes up." Bull's expression lightens by a precious notch. "Ate half her weight in stew and conked right out."
"The trouble with free mages," Dorian dares to quip. "They ask for third helpings and demand naps. Preferably in the sun."
"Knock yourself out." Bull squints against the light. It's laced with the orange of nearing twilight. "If you'd rather do that indoors, there's a bed in the loft."
Dorian is not a Charger. He's shared their table and a fair many of their missions, covered them in battle and relied upon their steel to shelter him in turn. That puts him in their trust, but that trust has degrees, concentric circles across which he moved inward--and now outward again.
"Are the others... all right?" With me, he thinks but doesn't say. "Skinner looks at me like I melted down her favourite knives into fancy Orlesian forks."
Bull gauges that. "She'll scowl for a while. So might the rest of them."
Dorian might look more miserable than he hoped, because Bull goes on, "They like you, and I know you're pretty fond of them yourself."
"I am," he says to the ground.
"Things aren't quite the same as they used to be. And we're on a job here. I'm their boss, first and foremost. I can't muck that up."
Dorian could continue to push. Bull guards his anger, covers it up, and that can only mean that he fears the possibility of letting it loose.
Dorian knows his own present fragility all too well. To think of Bull as something brittle and breakable rings strange, but not untrue. Hefting himself up to stand, Dorian grasps Bull's right arm, brushes his thumb over the knotwork on the criss-crossing cord, and lets his fingers grip just a bit.
"Go keep an eye on them." They may have averted an unsolvable deadlock, but they haven't reached a resolution. This is a delay, a postponement.
Bull raises a hand. The knobs of his knuckles slide over Dorian's jaw. A lump swells and sinks in his throat. Don't. He did not weep for his father, and he will not weep for Bull.
Then they both move onto their own courses, around each other, as if the wind and the sun could sweep away the shadows that tarry between them.
Once upon a time the loft may have had a guardrail, but now its edge leads straight to the wall of the single room below. The rare luxury of a night under a roof should lull Dorian clean into sleep, but he keeps starting awake. A mouse scurries along a ceiling beam, or an owl hoots in the dark. The blanket scratches his cheek.
The Chargers drop off one after the other. Dalish curls in a corner under her cloak and quilt, and Rocky migrates his bedroll right next to the hearth with a gumption no one is alert enough to challenge. Before long the others are snuffling and snoring in ragged unison, but Stitches keeps a candle burning on the table as he sorts through his stores.
Turning the old door as lightly as it will go, Bull comes in at last. Dorian lets his eyes shutter once more. Sleep. He's there. He'll be there in the morning.
"I'll take over," Bull says in an undertone. Wood rattles as he pulls up a stool.
"I'm almost done." Stitches speaks softly, too. "Wake me up if--"
"If he runs too hot. It's not my first sickbed watch. Or the first time one of you smartasses broke a few bones."
Dorian twists onto his side. He's going to lie here counting his breaths while the night creeps on. The two men below move with nary a noise, with the long care of soldiers on the road, bedding in cramped quarters.
"Ser?" In all his years of patching up the Chargers, Stitches hasn't lost his respectful address of Bull. It falls with a weight behind it. "Your hand."
"Scratched the knuckles," Bull mutters.
"A few dozen times, by the looks of it." A latch snaps open. "Sit."
Bull laughs, in that too-easy way he does when someone genuinely outplays him, and the stool scrapes on the floor and then settles.
Dorian almost doesn't look. It'd be the prudent choice. Lie still and let sleep clip the plumes of his imagination. Instead he rolls over a little more until he has a dim view over the rim of the loft.
The candle casts a pool of shimmering light. Stitches is holding a folded cloth over the back of Bull's hand. Bull sits still, the crooked shadow of his horns blurring on the aged daub of the wall.
The cloth lifts away smeared with dark patches. Stitches sighs, folds it again and presses the clean swath back onto Bull's bleeding knuckles.
With no way outside that would not divulge his presence and his being awake, Dorian turns away, facing the warm wall of the chimney. He drags the rough blanket up over his head and pretends he may yet sleep.
Morning finds them stirring with various degrees of enthusiasm. Grumbled protests are hurled at Dorian as he stumbles down the ladder to pile more wood into the cooling hearth, but by the time breakfast is ready, the smells of tea and porridge--strewn liberally with dried fruit--beckon even the most persistent sleepers from their bedrolls.
They break camp soon afterwards. Between Dalish and her spells and Stitches and his remedies, Krem is fit to ride, even though his injuries and the steep terrain slow their progress.
Bull is entertaining Skinner and Grim with some long-remembered, half-fabricated tale from Seheron, one of the few that don't turn to blood and shit by the midpoint. The sun graces them with fleeting spans of warmth that slide across the road and then into cloud cover again. Dorian lets his horse range a little behind. Ostensibly he could be considered a rear guard.
The mare huffs when Krem lets his own mount drift nearer. She's testing her position in this newfound herd. Dorian would say he sympathises if that didn't imply a kinship with his horse he's not quite ready to accept. Talking to her is quaint enough.
Krem is out of armour, sitting his horse with a taut-jawed focus that'll have his teeth and hips aching before dusk. Bull runs a smart enough company that if Krem's wounds prove too much of a hindrance, he'll speak up. In the absence of that admission it isn't Dorian's place to open his mouth.
"I'm sorry," Krem says.
"I wasn't aware there was an offence between us." Dorian tries to excise wariness from his tone. His welcome among the Chargers has varied from nonchalant to nonexistent, but he isn't such a fool that he wouldn't understand the cause of the chill treatment.
"For your father."
"Ah." Dorian's posture stiffens, and his horse shifts at the change in his balance. "There's plenty of reasons you might be sorry about him. None of them need even involve his passing."
"You said that, not me." Krem shrugs his good shoulder. "Just thought someone ought to tell you."
"Something like that. Family is family. Even in Tevinter."
"Especially in Tevinter, one might say."
"They didn't exile you properly, though." Krem's words lilt up towards a question.
"Properly enough." Now that Dorian has said it aloud, his throat constricts with the grip of that truth. "Not as thoroughly as you. If there's a price on my head it'll be a private bounty by some rival house."
Krem lets out a hoarse laugh. "You alti merit assassination contracts. We mere mortals have to make do with wanted posters on chantry boards."
It's part and parcel of their usual back-and-forth, grown out of tetchy beginnings into a kind of camaraderie, woven through with memories of the homeland they have both left behind. Dorian stomps on the urge to snap back at Krem.
"To be exact, I don't merit that title anymore. I suppose peregrinus is the one you're looking for."
Stranger, sojourner, traveller. He had a taste of being cut free when he first left Tevinter. The Inquisition gave no reprieve from the hardships of an itinerant life, but it did, inch by sneaky inch, surround him with people he came to rely upon.
One half of the Chargers are barely speaking to him. They share their fire and their bread with him all the same.
"That one works for all of us," Krem points out. "Anyway, I wanted to check that Dalish's porridge hadn't glued your tongue to your teeth. But you were just doing that brooding Tevinter mage thing you do."
"Dashing Tevinter mage, please," Dorian sallies forth. "Brooding presumes I enjoy glowering silently in ill-lit corners."
"My bad." Krem grins with insufferable cheer. "Got you talking, though."
Dorian mulls that over, then nods thoughtfully. "Thank you. For your condolences."
Someone is calling for them up ahead, their horses having fallen a ways behind the main group. Dorian nudges his mount forward down the sun-streaked road.
The Chargers' client is a minor Nevarran lord with a country estate and a painfully affected Orlesian way of speech. He receives the news of the wyvern's demise with glee but shoos their dusty, travel-drab party away from his gates as soon as gold has changed hands. A small and spiteful part of Dorian weighs the utility of setting a few of his apple trees on fire in revenge.
"Come on, you lot, shorten those long faces," Bull says. "We'll be in Cumberland by this time tomorrow, with better ale and better company."
A rustle of chuckles and comments affirms him. Dorian joins in with a slanted smile. The last week has had its discomforts, and he'll be glad to see a city, but the tensions of the first days have receded somewhat.
The next afternoon, the sea shines a blinding azure beyond the walls, domes and rooftops of Cumberland. Summer trade is reaching its peak; the harbour is glutted with ships, ruled by pale expanses of common canvas but speckled with the jewel-bright sails of a Rivaini caravel or the splendour of some Antivan noble's prize vessel. Riding towards the gates, the Chargers are bogged down by merchant wagons, farmers' carts and the curtained litters of Nevarran highborn. Skinner has called down a plague on every shemlen and several unlucky elves in the crowd and moved on to borrowing Dwarvish profanities from Rocky by the time they sidle inside the walls.
Bull swears that he has a friend with an inn by the harbour and that they'll sleep in beds tonight despite the profusion of people. Tempted though he is, Dorian refrains from dubious remarks. In moments, he could almost believe this to be like any other journey with the Chargers. The beast has been vanquished, the bounty collected, and now comes the part with wine, song and incidental lovers.
"Here," Bull declares in tones of triumph and slaps three iron keys onto the table. "You shut your doubting mouths, now."
Dalish snakes a hand out like a champion cutpurse and palms one of the keys. "I'll make apologies when I see the beds." With Skinner in tow, she ducks away and up the stairs.
"I've got six more beds." Bull raises one of the keys. "One comes with a door that shuts between you and the rest of these sweet mugs. Any takers?"
Dorian glances around for the serving boy, a deliberate dodge hidden in a chance gesture. He might, and he could, and he's maybe expected to. He's done enough complaining about sleeping with pine cones under his back over the years.
"You take it, chief," Krem cuts in. "I'm claiming a bottom bunk, though. I'd rather not prance up a ladder with the leg."
"Stitches would make me lift you up, lieutenant."
"Damn straight I would, ser," Stitches says, and so the matter of the rooms is decided.
With a self-mocking shake of his head, Dorian heaves his things into a heap at the foot of the top bunk above Krem's. Then he pours water into the wash basin and scrubs himself clean best as he can without a full-fledged bath.
They won't have Fereldan beer in this humble hole-in-the-wall, but they'll have something that'll float him until morning. He's caught in the Chargers' wake, on the fringe of their company, whether grudging or cordial. It will carry him until Skyhold.
He drinks more carefully than is his wont. The Nevarrans make their wines heavy and their ales tawny as the dawn. The common room stinks of sodden straw and the oil feeding the lamps, but the shutters are open onto a courtyard squeezed into the heart of the block. Otherworldly as it seems in the hot, noisy space, Dorian smells the budded climbing roses that frame one window. In the walled garden of his ancestral home, their faraway cousins will have flowered and wilted by now.
"Vishante kaffas", he sighs at the memory, then calls out loud, "Fill this cup! Some time before the midnight bell, if you please!"
That nets him a scoff from the waitress, but she pours a spout of red wine from her jug into his lifted earthenware goblet. Down the table his companions are unravelling the yarn of a long-ago escapade. It seems to involve someone's illicit three-way tryst that ended up with the Chargers getting chased out of a village in Orlais.
"Sisters?" Dalish laughs. "One of them was a boy. Limber as last summer's fawn, too, if I remember right."
Dorian scoots across the table corner and sits next to her. He'll gather the gist of the story from there. Dalish makes room for him, then turns back to the arguing group.
"Sister, brother, don't know." Rocky leans forward in his chair, elbows a-slant on the tabletop. "I do remember the chief running through the clothesline and taking half the mother's washing with 'im. Good timing, too. I'd just burned a hole in my last shirt."
"So that's why she came after us with the pitchfork," Skinner says drily, her legs thrown over Dalish's lap on the long bench.
"That was the father!" Rocky grouses. "She had the crossbow. Get it right."
"What's going on?" Preceded by a tall jug and a tankard that he sets on the table, Bull takes up Dorian's abandoned chair. Dorian lets doubt rise and crest and then fall in his chest.
"I'm not sure anyone knows," he says, "but one hopes we may find out. If you have any missing pieces to offer?"
"Help us out here, chief," Krem calls from his seat opposite Skinner. "Pretty sure this was before I even joined up."
Bull obliges them. The tale leads off into another one before any final truths can be established. Mugs are filled as they are drained, memorable battles recreated with shouts and evocative hand gestures, and Stitches impersonates a cantankerous former client who tried to pay the Chargers with a piece of her estate instead of honest sovereigns.
"Prime farmland, chers messieurs, as soon as you've dug up the stones and dried out the marsh under them!"
The whole table collapses into merriment, from Grim's low-thrumming guffaw to Skinner's amused snort to Bull's deep, unreserved roll of laughter. Dorian doesn't know if the mockery is worthy of such a response. Lightened by the wine and the mood, he laughs anyway, bright and clear like he can't remember laughing in too long, and leans into Bull, arms crossed over one solid shoulder.
"You know what they say--where do they say that? Here in Nevarra?" It skims on the edge of his memory.
"Get to the point," Skinner snaps, but without much heat.
"The point," Dorian says, "as they say, is that 'Coin melts, land endures.' A holding, even one in a wetland, is a long-term investment."
"Show me the one sod here that's owned a hand's width of land in their life." Skinner holds forth her mug towards the jug of ale. "Maybe Grim, before he lost his kingdom."
Dalish fumbles for the jug. Dorian pushes it towards her, balancing himself on Bull's shoulder as he leans out.
"You're handsy tonight." Bull's words almost fade into the general din of the common room. Dorian flinches back before he can quell the reaction.
Not too long ago he'd have thought nothing of such casual contact. His old, bone-bred caution had been flaking away. Now he's crossed the border from Tevinter a second time, and there are different reasons for keeping a distance.
"I didn't say I minded," Bull says, in a slow and easy curl that makes Dorian's heart lurch in the most inconvenient way. "Hey, Skinner, if I'm not mistaken I did pay you just the other day. Stop mooching my drink."
Skinner makes a rude hand gesture at him. Krem seizes the opportunity to claim the wandering jug. Meanwhile, Dorian sinks against the wall behind the bench, blinking back the mild haze of wine and late night intermingling.
Aloneness is scarce on the road. He's learned the ways of skirting people in camp, never mind if it is them or him that needs the space. Polite avoidance does regrettably little for longing, though.
Te desidero, he told Bull as he went, the closest thing to a confession that he could give. I miss you, now, already, while the bed was rumpled where he'd slept. It was true then and it is true now, a season later and a sea away from that morning in Skyhold.
To Dorian's immense relief Dalish takes her turn at storytelling. He can slip back into the circle, steal his own portion of Bull's ale, and sip it from his wine goblet. As the tables around them are vacated, the waitress snuffs the flames from the lamps glowing by each one. Far across the city, the sound carrying in the night, the bells of the College of Magi greet the midnight hour with sonorant, echoing knells.
One by one their company dwindles into bed or towards other diversions, too. Stitches helps the still-hobbling Krem up and towards the stairs. It dawns on Dorian that he's about to be left alone with his last drink and Bull.
Those two, and a host of fiery, incautious thoughts brimming in his head.
There were rules, and Dorian grew used to them quick enough. Tie me up. Hold me down. Nip but do not bite. Blindfolds, oh, yes--gags, void, no. Say "peace" and I stop. Once he thought, with blithe naivete, that the thing he had with Bull was simple and clear.
Likely as not Bull has been measuring his chances with the waitress, and Dorian would be best off seeking his own bed. He tilts his half-full goblet and ponders.
"Have the rest. If there's any left, after you all took your share." Bull raps a knuckle on the side of the jug as he stands.
"Turning in?" Dorian's try at lightness doesn't stand a chance.
"It was a hard trip," Bull says in a more glum shade of that rusty timbre that can suffice to tangle all of Dorian's thoughts. Now it's too flat, too subdued. "Good night, 'Vint."
Absurdly, a warm beat flutters in Dorian's throat. "I suppose I am that, when all is said and done."
"That's the damnedest thing to be happy about," Bull grunts. "Then again, never met another of them like you."
Dorian stares at his goblet. Expects Bull to move inevitably away, the occasional clink of the brace marking his retreat.
They had an agreement, and then it spread nebulous, numinous tendrils outside the sphere of improvised if involved pleasures that they'd drawn. It acquired margin notes, messy, scratched additions that were never mentioned but held true. It's been a while since I fucked anyone else. You can stay the night. I'm tired--just read to me.
Bracing a hand on the table, Dorian gets to his feet. "Wait."
Bull waits. Like he would. Unlike Dorian deserves.
It's the first time they have been alone with any potential of privacy. The others would've given them a berth had they needed one, but this isn't a quick duck behind a tree or a deserted barn.
"The job is done," he says.
"It is," Bull says, even though they are a good ways from the journey's end--Skyhold, which has come to mean home. Dorian pushes the thought away.
"Things are still not the same." He echoes Bull's own words.
"What do you want?" Bull leans in, turns towards Dorian, until barely an armspan separates them.
"What a question."
"Thought you liked them unvarnished."
"Now that is a word I gave you, I'm sure." The moment flickers like light through leaves on a windy day.
"I ought to thank you for it then." Bull cants his head, his good eye swerving away from Dorian. He can look at Bull's face and not look him in the eye. It crosses his mind that this is Bull averting himself, breaking contact. "If you want to talk, then talk. I'm listening."
No, he does not want to talk. Some days it feels he'd rather scream and lash out. Anything but speak. Words worm down into places too tender to be touched and risk crumbling the dams and barriers he's raised.
"I can't," he gets out. His fingers burrow into Bull's left arm and he can't remember when he moved his hand. "I can't talk about it. And I miss you. And I know that..."
Maybe Bull intends the hand on Dorian's shoulder to be just that: a comrade's gesture, steadying and comforting. He murmurs words over Dorian's head that could be Qunlat or Common for all he knows.
"All right," he says. Dorian tries to work himself up to a what is when Bull frames his face with his hands and kisses him. The well-trod stone floor bucks under his feet, or maybe those are his knees. His fingers hook around Bull's wrists, skin to skin now that Dorian's gloves and Bull's bracers are stripped in the ostensible safety of the inn. The kiss is wet and desperate, torn and tattered.
Dorian swears against Bull's mouth. He hasn't forgotten. He thrums like a struck bell, repeating the feel of that kiss as it rebounds from every longing thought he's entertained in the last months.
Tugging on Bull's wrists, he backtracks from the table. Damn decorum, it's not as if anyone under this roof even knows the term, but what's been shoved into motion requires peace and privacy. Their eyes meet. Bull crooks his wide, scarred mouth, his eye narrowed with something dark and unbearably warm.
How often has Bull taken him and claimed him, let him fall to pieces in his arms and set him free? Dorian remembers wandering back to his own room and feeling like a stranger to himself, raw and cherished, like someone who merited such care and concentration. He tried to pay it back in some measure, shed his hesitations and let himself care in return.
The rickety stairs rattle under their feet. Corridor, threshold, door. Dorian passes them like a sleepwalker. Bull pushes him to the wall, strong fingers, filed-down claws curling hard into his hips. If he'll walk the harbour with bruised thighs tomorrow he spares that no concern. There's too much between them, belts and straps, linen and leather.
"I want--" He recalls the question Bull asked. A bloody-minded part of him is scrabbling at it, even with the hazy need gaining ground.
"I hear you," Bull says with heartwrenching solidity, like the phrase were a rock, a foothold, a promise of shelter. Dorian kisses him a second time. It is only the third since the winter; surely that is a travesty. His fingers move with a will in the space between them, loosening buckles, pulling laces. Bull draws him up and he teeters onto his toes. A mutual, mingling gasp for breath, before the kiss melds into the next one.
Familiar heat and pressure tighten in his belly. Nudging his fumbling hands aside, Bull strokes a broad palm across his stomach and his stirring cock and Dorian moans. He pulls Bull's head down to take the kiss, to steer it and deepen it and swallow Bull's smothered, "Fuck, Dorian, that..."
His heart jars at the sound of his name.
He could let go. For the first time since he left Skyhold he could let himself unravel and be caught before he spilled to the ground. He's trapped between the wall and Bull: a haven, not a snare.
"Have me." His throat is too thick for his voice. "I don't care, on the floor, against the wall, just let me..."
Bull never minded that Dorian could practically babble his way through teasing to climax to aftermath. If anything it seemed to work for them both. Bull's fingers come up to cradle his head, sliding under the twine that holds the short, messy tail in his hair. The tendons in Bull's neck flex and slacken.
Dorian twists his head in an attempt to look up, when Bull says, like the word were smoke in his lungs, "Kost."
Dorian starts. He knows what that word means and entails. It's part of the game, part of the accord. An awful, rancorous impulse surges in him--I don't care, I don't care, I just want something that makes sense.
Reaching up, he takes Bull's hand and guides it down. Puts space between them. Makes himself focus. He has to catch the falling bulk of this moment and bear its impact.
"Tell me." Perhaps not the smoothest way to proceed, but it tells Bull the crucial thing. He's heard the watchword and is listening. "Please."
Bull backs away in three heavy steps to sit down on the bed. It's low to the ground on round wooden posts, typically Nevarran in construction. The pillows stacked at the head are worn but well-aired. Dorian smells the dry grain hulls of the stuffing as he crouches, resting his hand on one pillow.
"I get what you're after here." Bull breaks the silence. The great moon is near full, and illuminates the room enough to see by. "That's fine."
Dorian blinks. "Then why did you--"
"You can't get it from me."
"Oh? Should I have been on the lookout for someone else?"
They've both made avoiding one another's faces into an art since their reunion. Bull's mouth tightens, the muscles in his jaw trembling with the effort. Realisation slides into Dorian like a dull blade between the ribs.
"I don't tell you what to do or how to choose." Something withers on each word as Bull speaks them. "But if you decide to bugger off without a word, I won't put down my axe and sit around pining for you."
"I never expected you to," Dorian manages. Maker have mercy, but he did. And he did make apologies, and so some part of him understood the cruelty even as the rest decided that it was necessary.
He'd get up, but then he'd have to look down at Bull.
"And this is not gonna work," Bull mutters, rue and resolve warring with the anger that he's holding down. "This thing between you and me. Whatever its name is."
Dorian drags his earlier, aborted question back onto his tongue, and gives it another ending. "Then why did you start anything? Why am I here?"
"Dorian," Bull says, and hurt rasps in the sound.
He can weather ire, distrust, resentment. There was a time when he almost took pride in his parents' icy displeasure. He lived in the south for years, always a Tevinter first, a man of his own second.
Pain is another matter, especially the pain of those he's come to hold dear.
"Yes," he says--an admission, or an acknowledgment. "I'm at least reasonably clever even in my worse moments. I know what you were doing." He tenses his jaw, deliberately, to keep from stammering. "That used to baffle me. How you'd go to such lengths for what I needed."
"It's how I work." The sheet tugs at Dorian's palm as Bull crumples it into his fist, scabbed knuckles taut and bloodless.
"It will break you to keep doing it. To keep giving like that." He nods, three times over before he halts himself. "I can't... I can't ask that of you. We can't be as we were before."
Bull's brows knit over his deep-set eye and the empty socket. "You got that right."
They had an agreement, recorded in word and deed under threat of the world ending and in the uneasy peace that followed. Like a life being lived, a history in the making, it grew day by day, in directions neither of them could anticipate. Come back to me.
Here is my heart. Hold it safe.
Dorian stands, piecemeal, and squares his shoulders. "We'll look for a ship first thing tomorrow, no?"
"That was the plan."
"Good," he says, and can't think of a single thing in the world that is.
Bull nods, but at the opposite wall, not at Dorian. When Dorian goes past him and pushes the door ajar, his gaze tracks the other way, until the door thuds shut at Dorian's heels.
Comments of all stripes are cherished. If you're enjoying this, do let me know.
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(Kiss count: one down, one to go.)
Chapter 5: Si vis amari (II)
All right, confession time.
The final chapter swelled so much that I made the executive decision to post it in parts. Seven is the absolute final tally, that I can promise--I'm down to the last scene of chapter 6, and then there'll be an epilogue. Sorry to make you wait! And I do hope you enjoy this latest one.
Magnificent thanks to Neeks and Adri for beta, to the Twitter squad for screaming and support, and to Joan and Jo for writing company. <3
Kindly heed the warnings once more.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
The lower bailey erupts into minor chaos as their party emerges from the shadow of the gatehouse. Soldiers lounging at the edges of the new training yard holler greetings to the Chargers. A group of kitchen girls and boys drop the flour sacks they are carrying, two adolescents to a bag, for the obvious excuse of loitering and watching the return of a mercenary band. Dorian surrenders the reins of his mount to a stablehand who seems to appear straight out of the blue morning air.
"There you are, Carrot, old girl. Haven't seen you in a while."
Dorian frowns at the young woman. "I beg your pardon?"
"Sorry, ser! Just talking to the horse, pay me no mind. She was a favourite of the scouts, but then--right." She glances at him. "It was you that took her north."
"I... yes." With some charity the horse's dusty russet coat could justify the name. Dorian's hand wanders to a spot below the mare's ear, patting at her sweat-damp head. They rode the last few miles from the very break of dawn, the twilight stretching on. In Qarinus the sun rises swift and sharp, but this is the south, in the summer.
The horse puffs a tired, trusting breath against his front. "Take good care of her. She's had a long road home."
The stablehand smiles. "And the bags? Your quarters?"
"If you'd be so kind," he says, bemused by the assumption that he has quarters. He takes his staff from the saddle before she leads the horse away.
The Chargers' arrival has roused ripples of interest among the soldiers observing the goings-on in the training yard. Several of them shy back from the path of a short, rangy figure.
Inquisitor Lavellan, her nut-brown face and close-cropped hair riddled with sand, rushes through her troops, flings the practice staff she's holding to the ground, and falls upon him in a hard hug.
"Mythal's mercy," she mumbles, "I almost didn't believe it when Bull's message arrived. They found you."
She's never actually hugged him before. He returns the embrace, solid if surprised. Cassandra strides towards them at an easier pace. She is speckled with sand here and there, like Lavellan, courtesy of their interrupted spar.
"Here I am." He loosens his arms from around Lavellan. "Duly received."
She takes half a step back. "I'm sure we'll see about that."
Behind her, Cassandra has clasped Bull's forearm, her smile scant but her gladness plain. Greetings fly between the Chargers and the castle folk whisking by or lingering to meet their arrival.
"You look older," Lavellan opines. "It must be the beard."
"Entirely its fault, I assure you."
He's about to turn to Cassandra when Sera barrels in past the remaining horses, leaving a blue streak of epithets in her wake.
"Andraste's flaming bits, where are you, you cagey, poncy arse--gahh!"
Her hair swings about her shoulders, longer than last he saw her, as she skips to a halt and wheels on him. Lavellan steps away towards Bull.
"Right here," Dorian says to Sera, uninvited laughter tickling his throat. "Perhaps the beard misled you."
"No, you daft tit." Sera crosses her arms, casting an appraising look across him in all his weather-beaten, road-stained glory. "It's just hair on your face. Knew it was you, the way you walk. That's how you tell people."
"I'm glad my posture meets with your approval. Why the dismayed noises then?"
"You're scruffy." She wrinkles her nose. "And stink of horse. Just, you're never scruffy."
"We peered into every ditch and cave from here to the Western Approach looking for rifts, and you feel you've never seen me less than tidy." Dorian sighs. "If only the rest of our companions had your grace."
If Lavellan thought he had aged--Dorian tries not to think of how much older he feels--then neither does Sera precisely match his memory. The ragged, ruddy line of a fresh scar peeks from under her scarf. Her fingers pick at a hanging thread on one end of the scarf. "Not like road-scruffy. That too. But it's different this time. You're letting yourself be."
His laugh breaks free in an airy burst, and on a whim, Dorian pulls her close with one arm, squeezing her cheek into his shoulder and earning a thud of her fist into his back. It's not a hard one. "Shall I blame your good influence for it?"
"Geroff me." She snakes an arm around his back, leans in, leans away. Dorian lets her go. "Shite. Warn a woman."
"I'm glad to see you, too." A look around divulges that the crowd is scattering, the Chargers included. Lavellan is talking to Bull in low tones, his deep, hers light, and they do not carry.
"About time," Sera says. "Waste of time, drawing in Commander Stick-in-the-Mud's serious reports. You always wrote back."
"I look forward to taking up our correspondence again," he says, and only then realises what he has permitted himself in that reply.
"Tavern tonight?" She cants herself towards Bull, angling to get on with the rest of her hellos. "Get the rest to come, too. You better have stories."
"I might, a few."
"They better not be about stuffy nobby altuses, either. Don't care 'bout how many gold forks they stuff their faces with."
"Now, would I do that to you?" Dorian laughs. "You wound me."
"I should, you piking off like that. Arrow in your shank! Like that."
"I know, I know. Quite unpardonable of me."
"Pfaugh," she says. "It's no fun to kick your arse if you're all meek about it."
The fir and rowan trees in the garden shimmer lush and green in the rising light. The walls exude the slow shadowed chill of dense stone, but soon enough the sun will wash over the barracks, Sera's oriel window in the wall of the tavern, and the flight of steps to the upper bailey.
As Sera dashes off to receive Bull with a shout of unfettered glee, Dorian waits for Lavellan to walk back to him.
The next loop of the spiral is about to begin: he'll have to recount his journey once more, to her, to their other friends, to those few he knows well enough in Skyhold that it will matter. My father is dead. I am sorry I sent no word. I don't know if you want me to stay or go.
That last part sits unquiet on his mind.
"I sent someone to put your room to rights," Lavellan says. "Come by the solar when you can. I have your papers from the library. And the ones you'd left at the tavern, and some notes that looked like your script that Cole found atop the gatehouse."
"It's the best view in the castle." Dorian tries to look away surreptitiously and not because his face is twisting with helpless relief.
"Other than my balcony, I agree."
"That's cheating," he says. "But you hold this whole mummer's band together. You've earned it."
"For the most part." For one of the most powerful people in Thedas, she remains quite reticent, slight of stature and gesture. Her fingers slip cautiously under his elbow. "My library is a mess, and I've been missing a head to knock my theories against. Is this... a visit, or a homecoming?"
If Dorian were in a more grievous mood, he'd remark that his choices are to either keep going from pillar to post, reach out to his scarce allies in Tevinter and hope for the best--or to remain.
Remain in these wild, lonely mountains that are buried in snow for five months of the year, with the road to the castle bridge only completed last autumn. Remain in her dismal, ill-stocked library with its comfortable chairs and beautiful, drafty windows.
He takes her hand and bows over it, his free hand sweeping through the curves of the courtesy. "I couldn't refuse the chance to argue summoning theory with you until morning, could I? I am at your employ."
Lavellan tugs on his arm, and stays in step with him as they climb the stairs towards the main keep.
The next day Dorian wakes in his own bed, shaves his beard, ties back his hair, and then arranges his heaped papers until afternoon. He must requisition an extra bookcase, ideally one with cupboards. Three years of intermittent study amount to a surprising plenty of written output, even when interrupted by bouts of world-saving.
The papers may serve as an excuse, too. The night before went well enough, huddled in a corner table at the Herald's Rest. Lavellan brought Cassandra and Blackwall, Sera drifted down from her cabinet, and a little later Cole claimed one end of a bench, sitting with his ankles crossed, as Dorian gave them a patchy version of the story.
Cassandra's eyes sparked with questions that might only have been stalled by some advance warning from Lavellan. Dorian accepted Blackwall's gravelly condolences and asked about their spring in Skyhold instead. Cole said very little and cast glances at Dorian, his pale, knowing eyes appearing and vanishing behind the brim of his hat.
This return will take its time. His friends are being gentle, and some of that is undoubtedly Lavellan's influence. He could have written; he thought of it often enough. Within Tevinter it might have been difficult to justify a missive to the Inquisition headquarters to a courier, but Josephine's contacts and Spymaster Charter's henchmen were to be found a shorter distance away.
After supper, eaten in his room, Dorian takes a looping walk along the battlements. He'd visit Cullen in his office in the gatehouse, but the commander is in the field for the time being. Cassandra mentioned the particulars last night--a new military alliance in the making.
Occasionally a guard tracks him with their gaze. Some of them will be new, not accustomed to the sight of him promenading on the walls, although no one tries to stop him.
He should perhaps be grateful that so much of Skyhold remains the same. From the end of Wintermarch to the last weeks of Justinian is nearly half a year. Enough to travel across half the known world, and back again.
He can count the days he spent away. There is distance ridden and sailed, and then the restless roaming of the heart that heeds no landmark or milestone.
Nearing the mural tower that adjoins the tavern, Dorian tarries. The wind gusts with the scent of incoming rain, purple coils and drifts of cloud gathering in the northeast.
"You're back," Cole says from his left.
Dorian jumps, throws his hand out and drops it before fire can bloom from his palm.
"I do apologise." The instinct to meet surprise with force has yet to ebb from him. Perhaps Cole forgets how softly he moves--or the absence has eroded him from Dorian's mind. The thought has thorns. "So I am. As you know."
"You can believe it." Cole hoists himself up into the nearest crenel, squatting down to look out towards the peaks towering to the west. "You shift to a new shape, and so does Skyhold, but you are here."
"Not a literal transformation, I hope. These stones are a thousand years old if they're a day."
"Not the stones, but the soul," Cole says. "Merchants, maids, mercenaries. Smiths, soldiers, scribes. They come and they go, and they all change the place."
"Yes." Dorian moves up beside Cole. His prevarications won't get him far. "I'm afraid I did scatter a few pieces of myself along the way."
When he set up a clandestine meeting with the nascent Inquisition in Redcliffe, he was a man both on a mission and on the run. The Venatori were an immediate threat, the Breach a danger to all the world, and the very coming of tomorrow an uncertain prospect.
If he'd known then that he'd be here nearly four years later--numbering among his closest companions a Dalish elf, a tempestuous holy warrior, an atoning murderer, and a boy half spirit and half flesh, straddling the Fade and the mortal world--he might have turned on his heel and sought his fortunes elsewhere.
He is not that man anymore. This much he knows.
"She feeds the fire with witherstalk and whitewood, bound and blessed." Cole's voice drops so low Dorian must lean in to hear. "Coiffed, composed, like the ceremony. Carrion crows dressed up as mourning doves, all of them."
A sense memory assails Dorian: bundles of dry wood, with bouquets of fragrant herbs tucked into them, being piled on the stone slab; the body, wrapped in raw silk, lifted up by his father and grandfather; his mother's hand in his hair, the soothing weight of her fingers, in the moment before his aunt's funeral pyre was lit. Over twenty years later, he can't shake the smell of the burial flowers spinning into smoke, overwhelming even the burning flesh.
"She'll shoot them all from the sky," he mutters.
"She's strong, a stream within a stream, flowing to her own will. Sad when she thinks of you, like he is."
Dorian's fingers dig into his ribs through his light vest. The image of his mother raising a flame to his father's pyre is vivid and fierce as a chokehold. "I thought you couldn't hear the dead."
"Not your father," Cole says, almost apologetic.
"Ah." Dorian finds it in himself to understand that his is not the only tragedy here. Cole is drawn to the unrest within him like a moth to flame.
"I can't help you." Cole picks up a loose chunk of old mortar and, tipping forward, pitches it over the wall into the river frothing somewhere far below. "I could, but you might remember. I don't think you'd approve."
"Most likely not." He should leave well enough alone, but at least he knows his imprudence as he goes on, "I suppose it's time I helped myself. Picked up those pieces that I can."
Canting his head, Cole turns towards the door to the tower that bisects the battlement. "He found the ashes in the bed, the tether that did not tie."
Dorian's fists clench so hard that they tremble. Then he uncurls them, finger by finger, pries off another bit of crumbling mortar, and tosses it into the air. Its arc peaks and plummets without sound, and the rushing rapids swallow the splash.
"Right then," he says. "I'd best get on it."
Cole scratches at the seam between the stones where the mortar is coming off. "Thank you."
Dorian pats Cole's bowed shoulder, braces himself for what he's about to do, and opens the tower door.
"A word?" Dorian wills his voice to be even and neutral.
"I've got a moment." Bull sits at the end of the table alone, the evening being young. A dwarven delegation has come from Orzammar, and the ambassador's warrior caste guards have taken over the bar and a number of the nearest tables. Maud will run herself ragged tonight fulfilling their demands for surface ale, that much Dorian can guess.
"Somewhere a little more secluded, if possible." The castle allows for scarce privacy outside of personal quarters. Dorian will not suggest either of their rooms. He just wants to have this talk without risk of being muffled by clamorous Dwarvish.
"That kind of word." The lack of lewd nuance in Bull's tone is almost disheartening.
"Yes," Dorian says briskly. "The old training yard should do. I'll wait there."
Bull stands, though, and follows him as easy as if nothing had changed. All long-time patrons here are used to the sight of them leaving together. Maybe that is what bothers Dorian, that familiarity made void and strange.
The frame of a new building stands where the training targets used to be set up. It is to house a granary, apparently, and a new brewery to lighten the daily work of the kitchens. The tools and materials are covered up for the night, the day's labours done.
Dorian leans against a bare corner column. Shoving over an empty barrel, Bull takes a seat on it.
They have barely spoken since the night at the inn in Cumberland. With every tentative step he takes towards his other friends again, Dorian's awareness of the breach between him and Bull grows keener.
"I wanted..." Arguably there isn't much to say. He has to admit, if only to himself, his own dearth of experience in these matters. In Tevinter every time he parted from a lover was the last time, until and unless fortune saw fit to grant him another chance. "I wanted to make sure we had settled matters. If I'm going to stay, we might fight together again."
"The Inquisition has my contract, and the boss has my loyalty." Bull's voice is impartial, the way it gets when he lays out a necessary but unpalatable plan, or describes something that's managed to gouge its way under his skin.
This would probably be easier if Dorian understood him less intimately.
"That means," Bull says, "if she wants our help on a job, you have my loyalty."
"That simple, then?"
"You're not seriously expecting I wouldn't guard your flank because we're no longer fucking." Bull slants a look at him from under furrowed brows.
Dorian spits out a choked sound. "I haven't yet taken leave of all my wits. Of course not. I just..."
I just need this over with. It seems like a poor ending, but if it is the only one to be had, he'd rather make it clean.
"We were comrades-in-arms first," he finishes. "I can do that."
"You're staying, hm?" Bull works his fingers into a kink in his neck. Dorian snaps his hand shut to stop himself from offering to help.
"Unless better prospects make themselves known," he says with all the froth and grace he can muster. "The Inquisitor requested my services and I accepted."
"My soldiers get into a pissing match, I tell them to sort it out." Bull sighs. "Can't set a worse example myself."
Before Dorian can put together a retort to the comparison of their situation to a contest of egos, Bull goes on, "There's no bad blood on my side. You did what you had to do."
Perhaps he did. In any case, he sowed the seeds of this bitter harvest.
"Very well," Dorian says. "We are free of each other then." Free to seek whatever--and whomever-- else they might want.
Later, sitting in the window alcove in his room, for once cleared of books, records and letters, he comes to think that free was all they were ever supposed to be.
Where, then, should he keep the memories clawing at the inside of his skull, or the yearning clenched around his heart? Are there such depths inside one man that he can submerge them and they'll drown in due course?
The fleeting mountain summer turns towards its hottest part. Skyhold must still buy the greater part of its grain, but what fertile soil there is in the vicinity is busily being tilled into fields and orchards or fenced into meadows. The emerging harvest season drives every spare set of hands onto the fresh farmland to help in the efforts.
Dorian largely couches himself in the library. Let Blackwall join the sweating masses if he wishes. It might be, too, that what rankles Dorian is the satisfaction he seems to get from the sweltering work. He ambles into the Herald's Rest in the evening and drains his first tankard as if he's never seen ale before, and collapses into his chair like a man who knows his place in the world.
That might be the enviable part. At least it'll last only until Lavellan finds some task, martial or diplomatic, to occupy her inner circle again.
In the third week since his return, Dorian scatters his souvenirs from the Qarinus market among his companions. He threads the brooch with the peacock feather into the band of Cole's hat, leaves the calfskin gloves on Lavellan's desk, and ventures into the forge loft looking for Cassandra.
She does not punch him, but he can see it's a narrow thing.
"Thank you," she says, and opens the book of hours with her left hand. Her right forearm is splinted and dressed with coarse linen. "It is a curious gift, but I am touched."
He begins to explain, then settles for, "You're welcome. Consider it a small reparation, if you will."
"I shall try." The painstakingly illuminated pages splay under her hand. " 'I shall embrace the light. I shall weather the storm. I shall endure.' A suitable verse, I believe."
"Please don't ask me to name the canticle."
Laughter shivers underneath her tone. "I wouldn't dream of it."
Dorian would ask what happened to her shield arm, except that he has it on good authority that she sparred with Bull today. For all that their fighting styles are opposite as day and night, those two might be among the most closely matched masters of arms in the castle. There's a story in Cassandra's injury. It's not one Dorian cares to hear right now.
He bids Cassandra a good evening and heads to the main keep. Josephine is a busy woman, not to be disturbed without cause. He owes her a profound debt of gratitude for her help.
When she calls for him to enter, he finds her bowed over her desk. The usual clutter of documents has been deposited in the various chairs to make room for sheaves of flowers, some of them on the wilting side. Josephine ceases her examination of them to smile politely at him.
"Pardon the disorder. I'm choosing decorations for All Soul's Day." She gestures at the one chair, outside of her own, that's been left empty. "I could have delegated, but I rather enjoy it. What can I do for you?"
"It's more what you did for me, Lady Montilyet." Dorian lowers the wooden box that was the bane of his packing on the return journey, onto the desk. Wresting off the lid and the straw padding first, he lifts out the glowstone lantern. "This is--ah--something in the way of thanks."
"Oh!" Josephine allows her wonderment to the fore, cupping her hand to the globe of enchanted glass. Her rings plink against the surface, and the spherical gemstone within flares with light. "I've heard of these. They were in such demand among the professors at the university."
"Genuine Imperium craftsmanship," Dorian says. "It should last you a lifetime. If it doesn't, I'm afraid they're not sold or repaired outside Tevinter."
"Are you suggesting that you smuggled a contraband glowstone lantern over the border for me?" Josephine has wonderfully expressive eyebrows. Their canted slopes intimate either marvel or mockery--and she would not stoop to the latter.
"I had permission." His voice gentles. "Composed by another particular lady."
"I understand." She might intuit more than he said plainly, because now there's a gentle gibe in her tone. "If I ever break this, I suppose I'll have to see that you owe me another favour at such a time."
He chuckles. "I'll do what I can. This doesn't quite measure..."
"Speak no more of it," Josephine says, the silk of kindness over the steel of her meaning. "I keep my ledgers carefully. I'll take this as a repayment, and we will be even."
"As you wish." Dorian nods, without dissembling. "I'll leave you to your decorations."
"Wait." She holds up a finger. "There is one other matter, now that you're here."
Dorian turns back as she rummages through her received correspondence. She hands him a letter, somewhat scuffed but unread, and his brows arch at the signet stamped into the sealing wax.
"This came with the latest batch of letters from Val Royeaux. From Magister Tilani. It's addressed to you."
Maevaris would have heard of his visit as soon as she returned to Qarinus, if not sooner. She'd have attended his father's funeral, if she could.
"Was this all?" He turns the thick, folded sheet over.
"I'm afraid so," Josephine says. "But if it isn't strictly private--may I?" At his nod, she continues, "I must tell you that it would be to our advantage to keep lines of correspondence open to Tevinter, even if the world is no longer ending."
Dorian lets out another chuckle, low and good-humoured. "How bold of you, lady ambassador."
"You are the rebel here, serah." Her chin is canted as if in challenge. Her omission of his family name doesn't escape him.
No Tevinter law can stop him from wearing that name. He might be aimless and adrift, but here is Josephine, picking out the weal in his woe, daring him to see what she does.
He can tell with certainty that there are two people in Tevinter who wish him well. Scant as that number is, it is not nothing.
"I'll see what Mae has to say," he offers. "Might we discuss this further? Over breakfast tomorrow?"
"It would be my pleasure."
Josephine sees him to the door. He retreats to his library nook to read the letter and ponder, for the first time in too long, the future.
Dorian meets Josephine for breakfast in the gallery beside the garden. Her tea is made with ginger and orange peel, snappy and warm in the morning chill. She almost drops a lump of cane sugar into his mug without asking.
He accepts the sweetening, sips, and thinks despondently of going back to teas of nettle and raspberry leaf. Bloody Fereldans and their palates, no doubt wrecked by generations of eating little but turnips and mutton stew.
They pore over her contacts in Tevinter and commence a tangled discussion over the best approaches and lines of outreach. They never finish it, as Dorian trails off into describing a heated rivalry between two Vyrantine magisters conducted entirely in the outfits they wore to various parties of that summer. Josephine laughs, takes notes, and rushes off to a meeting with her aides half a bell late.
He writes back to Maevaris. It's a more subdued, polite missive than he'd normally compose, but she will read between the lines. He writes to his mother, in ponderous snatches over several days, a longer letter than the last message he sent from Cumberland. No answer has come yet.
Despite the heat, Dorian lets his hair curl wild about his ears. Not untended, of course, and bound back for sparring or for comfort. It changes something in his face, gentles the lines of worry and sorrow he can't help but see in his reflection in the glass.
Dagna replaces his lost focusing crystals and, unasked, the two-pronged silverite blade on his staff. He isn't sure what to think of the wicked, tapered dragonbone spur she fixes onto the old whitewood haft.
The first time he faces off against Cassandra on the training field, and the staff practically dances in his grip, he decides he doesn't mind.
The summer ages. Dorian abides. Sometimes his dreams are smoky, sullen things, scalding him awake in an empty bed under a foreign roof. The guards grow used to him leaning between the merlons behind the main keep, staring downstream over the river.
He fancies he can feel an omen of autumn in the wind, entering the library through an open window. In fact he'd rather delude himself. The days can yet turn sultry. He tilts the Ancient Tevene glossary to the light, trying to make out the scribe's dubitable hand, when Lavellan coughs behind him.
"Oh, good," he says. "Please tell me you've come to deliver me from this imbecile of a spirit scholar. There are generally agreed to be three words for the Fade in Ancient Tevene. I think he just invented a fifth."
"I may have." She makes room on the table where he's spread his latest project. The fraying, leather-bound volumes go into an exact stack. Her respect for books is, he thinks, one of the things that made them friends. "A patrol came back from the ruins of the Temple this morning."
There's only one Temple: he hears the stress of the name in her timbre. She spreads out a parchment, upon which someone has sketched out terrain features, the shapes of structures, and other symbols whose significance is less evident.
Dorian's been to the Temple of Sacred Ashes only twice--each time terrifying and unforgettable. It is a grave site now. The Inquisition stands sentinel for it from a cautious distance.
"I'm guessing you sent soldiers there over something more than overly obstinate pilgrims."
"Soldiers, and a few mages." Her brows scrunch in unhappy concentration. She points a gloved finger at the rough map. "This is where the Breach used to be. The Veil still fluctuates. If I'm honest, the reports worry me."
"You think we might see new rifts forming."
The Anchor in her palm is quiescent these days, but she curls a fist around it, anyway. "I don't know, Dorian. I'm expected to, but I'm no wiser than the enchanter who made her measurements there." Her narrow green eyes dim. "We closed the Breach. Did we end it, too?"
"One would hope we don't end up like those devout souls who sat on a mountain guarding a relic," Dorian says. "Wait, that does sound appallingly familiar."
"I don't get much of a choice in the matter," Lavellan says. "I'd like to go up and see the Temple myself. As soon as this reception for All Soul's Day is done."
He shakes his head in sympathy. "At least Leliana denied that group that wanted you named a living Anointed. You'll parade around for a night, and then you can return to work."
"I suppose you'd know." Her smile is wry at her mouth, fond around her crinkled eyes.
He can never forget that she is the Inquisitor. Often he can peer past that to the woman beneath, restrained by stringent duty and the holy purpose she never saw as her own.
There were similar shackles around him once. Now it has become all he is: that man in the mirror, with a jawline worthy of sculpture and the fingers of unquiet ghosts stroking his brow.
The table yields a notch as he rests his weight upon his hands on the edge. Through the window carry the caws and shrieks of the ravens in the rookery above.
"I'd like for you to come along," she says. "All of you."
"I'm sure I can spare a day or two."
"All right." She fiddles with the cuff of her glove. "There was another reason I came to find you."
Dorian lifts a chair from the table and sets it down opposite his own reading chair, which welcomed him back layered with dust but unbudged from its spot. Lavellan sits, crossing her ankles and tucking her knees against the armrests. "You're treating this rather seriously, considering I didn't even start yet."
"Pre-emptive sobriety, my friend." His humble guess is that she's been looking for a pretext for a discussion. She doesn't intervene lightly; when she does, it tends to be thorough.
"Are you all right?" she asks. "Hand-to-heart, truth-of-your-gods, how are you doing?"
He thumps his head into the chair's back. "That is a rather serious opening volley."
"You came back, and now you're turning into a hermit. Two of the people dearest to me in the world are... whatever it is you're doing with Bull. I can barely get any answers from him, either."
She's been planning this.
"I am... carrying on."
"I didn't want to press on anything concerning your family." Her voice softens.
"There isn't much there to press me about." He sounds hollow, insincere even to his own ears. As many truths as he's had to acknowledge about himself recently, he tries to smother this one before it can slither free.
Somewhat to his surprise, she nods gravely. "If you say so. You know where I am, if you ever..."
"If I do, you'll be the first to know."
Her fingers drum a tattoo on her calf. "But," she persists, "may I ask about the rest?"
No, Dorian nearly snaps, sour and nettled. Somewhere in the same dark corner where he keeps what happened in Qarinus, the razor-sharp hope and its dashed shards, he has hidden his cracked regard for Bull. They can't help seeing each other, castle life being as it is. Their mutual attempts at avoidance can hardly be subtle.
"We ended our arrangement." That is not the word he should use to describe their relationship. "I know you grew used to us scandalising your guests, but I'm afraid that part of Skyhold colour is over with."
"I don't give a hart's spoor over some dignitary's opinion of you. I care very much that my friends are in pain," she says, low. "You're the only family I have left."
He's gathered the stories of her clan's demise: Josephine's most wrenching diplomatic failure; the Dalish decor in her quarters, impolitic but insisted upon; and, now that the worst sorrow has ebbed, the way she clings to her remaining companions on occasion.
"I've been... playing chess with Bull. I can't do it in my head, the way Solas used to, but I hope it's at least a distraction."
"Oh." Something cold seizes hold behind his ribs. The first time he overheard Bull and Solas, moving pieces, trading gambits in conversation, he rolled his eyes. When the point of that bit of intellectual posturing dawned on him, he was glad he'd refrained from derisive comments.
It had been a way to help Bull focus in the aftermath of his exile from the Qun. A diversion and a constant in one.
"I don't know what happened on your journey." Lavellan's hands fold together on top of her ankles. "He used to look at you like you hung the moons--and all the stars of Mythal, too."
Levity has always been his last refuge. He scrambles for it. "Let's limit the number of heavenly bodies I'm responsible for in this scenario, shall we?"
"The Dorian I know would find that scenario flattering."
"I might." He swallows. "Though one is 'flattered' over a well-aimed compliment, or a tragically misfired one. Perhaps over a secret admirer."
"It would be more serious than that, wouldn't it?" She seldom rebukes anyone. Her soft-spoken manner has been rarefied into incisive judgment in the crucible of her role as the Inquisitor.
"Very well." Dorian sighs. "It was more than a passing fancy. I have no illusions about my own poor conduct. I should have told him--and you--that I was leaving."
"That's not what I meant."
He can feel the slow caving of his defences, her kindness battering at them more surely than anger or insinuation ever could.
"Did you really think Bull would've stopped you?" she ventures. "That we all wouldn't do everything in our power to help you?"
"Everything in your power is a frightening prospect." He stands up to go and latch the window. "I could say I didn't want to burden you. That it was a matter of pride that I handle my family affairs myself."
"So you had a duty?"
"I had unfinished business." Blinking back an ill-timed, mortifying wetness in his eyes, Dorian realises the conversation has juddered onto a new track like a cart wheel on a muddy road.
Then again, he can't extricate the first track from the second even in his own head.
"You can't scream truth at dead men," he says. "At least not so they can hear you."
Something rings in his ears like the creaks of lake ice about to surrender to snowmelt. Splaying a hand to the window glass, he dips his head.
"I keep thinking of them both. I always... thought they hated each other. They must have. Even so, I left my mother to bury my father alone."
Fire runs through his dreams, and the heady fragrance of the flowers traditionally bound into the firewood. The funeral would have been a lavish affair, determined by a magister's station. Not going was prudent. It may have spared his life, but it guts him so that he is sick with his effort to contain the hurt.
Behind him, Lavellan gets onto her feet, her sandals rustling on the floor.
"I loved him," he breathes out. "I was furious. I had to go tell him that. He tried to break all that I was and now he's dead, and there is nowhere I can set down this bloody, blighted grief."
He can't see. Burying his face in his hand and shutting his eyes will not dam the tears. Lavellan touches his shoulder with careful fingers, ready to withdraw at the merest sign. Dorian lets her tuck herself under his arm, because somehow the nearness of another person makes the brunt of his anguish that much easier to bear.
His father is ash and bone and memory. He cries his only tears over that beside the window, in the sunlight fragmented by the painted glass. Lavellan leans patiently into his side, pretending that she doesn't hear him sniffle.
After a long while, he rubs his face dry with his sleeve. The Maker only knows where his handkerchief is today. The filtered light on the floor is reddening, the patterns stretching out; the evening bell must sound soon.
"Tea?" She pats the small of his back and then moves away. "Ah, wait. Wine?"
Dorian drags his knuckles over one closed, raw-feeling eye. He must be such a sight. "Make it that Rivaini brandy you have stashed away."
"I'll be in my Inquisitorial chambers. Don't take too long."
After he's washed his face, pressed an ice-cooled wet cloth to his face to hide the worst swelling, and changed his shirt, Dorian knocks on Lavellan's door. She's set the bottle and two ceramic cups on the fireside table. He gives her what fraction of a smile he has in him at the moment, takes the bottle and drinks straight from it.
All she does is extend a hand for her turn.
They sit on the Antivan carpet with its motifs of ships and dancing waves--forgotten from the last time she had to entertain a crucial aristocratic ally--and get gloriously drunk. Thoughtful as she is, Lavellan segues into a flask of sack mead, a goodwill gift from some Avvar chieftain. Dorian can taste the mud-and-straw hut where the stuff's been brewed.
It also has a stunning note of apples underneath the backcountry dirt. They drain the flask, too.
Gradually he talks. Not the usual current of words but drops and drips, a vivid recollection here, a spot of remorse there. The day he was made an Enchanter. The clink of his mother's earrings. The final, blistering quarrel after which he stormed out and swore he'd never set foot in the house again.
Her temple propped against the seat of her settee, Lavellan curls into a quiet question mark and listens.
It must be after midnight when he puts away his cup--this one of water, at her prompting--and says,"You might think me mad, but I'd like to do something."
"I think you're drunk. So am I. Tell me."
"I'd like to bury my father."
She lifts her head enough to look him in the eye. "All right. What do you need?"
Cassandra answers her door in her shirt and breeches. Her sword has been snapped an inch's width out of the scabbard that she grips in her right hand. Her eyes are clear of sleep; it is only a moment past the night prayers, and Dorian had a hunch that he'd find her awake.
"Let me understand you," she says. "You come to me during the dead watch because you wish to burn a page of my book? That book you gave me that the more strait-laced Chantry mothers might deem heretical."
"I can hardly tear pages from my research volumes." Dorian folds his arms. "It must be a Tevinter book. Pick a part the Andrastians consider a Dissonant Verse."
Cassandra grits out a noise through her teeth. "You are a strange and contrary man."
"I'll consider that a compliment."
Flattening the open book to her work table, she shears off a page with her knife. "Will the Canticle of Silence do?"
"That's very apt, I'd say." Dorian rolls the small, meticulously inked sheet up tight.
"Where will you have this ceremony?"
"There's a good view of the waterfall from the eastern wall. Nearest thing to the sea that I can get here." He toys with the paper. "You'd have a public funeral, for a public figure, but sometimes the family has a smaller-scale memorial ritual afterwards."
Cassandra reaches for her gambeson, laid on the chest at the foot of her bed. "I will come, if you wish it."
"Excellent." He makes no effort to hide the way his voice warms. It's due to far more than the lingering brandy. "Even better, since I'd like your help to procure another necessary item."
"Please tell me I will not regret this."
After sending Cassandra on her way, Dorian moves on to the riskiest part of his plan. Lavellan should be back from the wine cellars shortly, but the Inquisitor is too conspicuous to send to the kitchens without kicking up a fuss.
Light winks through the windows of the Herald's Rest. There is such a thing as an hour too late for drinking in Skyhold, but its precise border has yet to be established. An uncommonly devoted crowd seems to occupy the tavern tonight, though. Dorian gauges an angle below Sera's window, hunts for a suitable rock in the dirt of the bailey, and throws.
By the fourth attempt a section of the window slides open. The moonlight catches her mess of straw-blond hair.
"What in the pissing void are you doing?"
"Something clandestine." He raises his voice as much as he dares. "Come down."
"I'll come down all right. Make you eat your fancy words, go back to bed. Stupid frigging Tevinter..."
A chance exists that she may run into Bull on her way down. Dorian accepts the possibility in the spirit of this adventure, but exhales in guilt-tinged relief when Sera slinks out the door alone. She has no shoes on, and her belt hangs at her elbow.
"Start gabbing." She hauls on her tunic over her sleeping shift and buckles on the belt.
He tells her. He gets out approximately three sentences before she grabs the loosened collar of his shirt and glowers up at him with narrowed eyes. "That's it, you've gone daft."
"I wouldn't say that. It might be a drunken caper, but I think it'll hold together." He is more than a little inebriated--the way he needs to be to even contemplate this. His thoughts run lucid, if blurry and bright at the edges.
"Your father," she says, in acrid mockery of his own cadence. "One good reason you should give that puffed-up bag of horse shite anything? Huh? Can't think of any. Thought so."
"Sera." Moved and dismayed, Dorian pushes her hand down. "I'm not giving him anything. This is for me."
"Oh." She deflates partway. "Guess that's fine. Don't tell me the nit and grit. Don't care. You want it, you'll get it. Wait here?"
"I'll be on the eastern wall," he says. "Thank you."
He watches her dash off and vanish into the summer dark.
Apart from the dimming noises from the tavern and the odd baker's helper scurrying to the kitchen by the light of a lantern, the bailey is at rest. Dorian wanders down the steps to the lower bailey, where another flight leads up to the eastern battlement.
Lavellan waits there, a bottle of dark wine cradled in the crook of her elbow. "It says Aggregio Pavali, Vol Dorma, 9:17 Dragon. Is that acceptable?"
"A tolerable year." The absurdity of the situation is not lost on him. He moves on, cognisant of the matter.
The muted jangle of metal signals Cassandra's arrival, the links of her sword belt shifting with her steps. She's acquired a tagalong: Cullen, similarly armed--perhaps inevitable, when your lethality depends on sharp pieces of steel--but looking outright lanky without his armour. Dorian should have known. He did send Cassandra to the chantry around the night prayers. It's his impression that the good commander prefers solitude over punctuality for his own.
"It was either knock him unconscious or take him with me," Cassandra says evenly. "I thought you would prefer the latter."
"A fair night to you, too," Cullen cuts in. His usual sobriety is tinted with something like amusement. "I believe we have your spoils."
"My 'spoils'?" That does deserve an eyebrow.
"I don't know what else to call stealing an offering dish in the night." Yes, definite amusement. "The revered mother would have a conniption."
"So would Magister Pavus, if he knew I was honouring his memory with Andrastian tools of worship."
They gather in the lee of the main keep, sheltered from the whistling night wind by its bulk. Sera jostles into the row of Cullen, Cassandra and Lavellan with a pouch of salt and bunches of herbs in her fists. Dorian lays the beaten silver dish, etched with the sword of mercy, onto a crate that bored watchmen might use for a chair.
"This is where most families would tell stories." He arranges the kindling he took from Lavellan's firewood basket onto the dish. "In mine, we mostly sat in agonising silence until it was proper to leave."
The herbs go next. Sera's collection is eclectic: lavender, rose, embrium, spindleweed. Dorian handles them with the same care he'd give to the seven sacred flowers of the Old Imperium.
"Do you want to tell stories?" Cassandra asks. "It is all unorthodox as it is." Lavellan makes the start of a shushing sound, but Dorian chortles to cover it up.
"Perhaps later." He spreads out the page from the book of hours. The impermanence of earthly wisdom, symbolised by the written page. A tinge of humility in the self-aggrandisement that is par for the course in his old country.
"Speaking of the deceased at all might prove hard," Cullen says. "Few of us ever even met your father."
"That's probably no great loss." Dorian draws a breath through his nose. "I think we shall keep this brief." Once he's poured in a handful of salt, for worldly possessions, he prises the cork free from the wine bottle.
"To Magister Halward of House Pavus." He takes a long pull of the exquisite, bitter wine, and passes the bottle to Sera on his left. "A lengthy bit of Ancient Tevene goes here, but never you mind that."
Sera deigns to mutter, "Vishanty cough-ass," under her breath as she drinks.
"Quite right, my friend," Dorian says, his own voice dipping. He bends down, a tongue of flame unfurling on his upturned palm. "Quite right."
The bottle travels down the line, from Sera to Cassandra, who murmurs a blessing and quaffs, from her to Cullen, who drinks in silence, and finally into Lavellan's hand. Dorian lets the fire drift from his fingers onto the dish and flare through the kindling. His comrades stand shoulder to shoulder, Sera and Lavellan's eyes gleaming faintly, Cullen and Cassandra both tall and solid. The salt colours the fire with filmy hues and is consumed, and the thick page burns with red-glowing edges until only pallid ash remains.
Dorian climbs up into a crenel, suppressing the tingle of vertigo creeping up from the soles of his feet. He feels a hand on his left wrist and, not looking, accepts Cullen's steady grip. The nameless river flows into the gorge somewhere beneath him. He takes the dish as Lavellan holds it up. Sera comes up to crouch beside him, her shoulder nudging his leg.
The river is not the Venefication Sea. It will empty into Lake Calenhad and then into the Waking Sea, and perhaps, in the end, the sea is the sea and it will not care.
Dorian flings the ashes into the night like a discus thrower, watches them scatter into a white cloud and tumble down out of his sight. Away, away, away, until the waters take them.
"Go gently," he whispers, so low that even the gathered group of his dearest friends might not hear.
Go gently, and let me go.
As always, comments are greatly appreciated. :D
Chapter 6: Si vis amari (III)
This chapter was meant to mark an occasion, but I missed that by a few days. In any case, here is to my darling Neeks, better late than never. ♥ You are a treasure, and I wanted you to have this one when it was done and polished.
Thanks, variously and greatly, to James, for glorious emergency betareading, to auntshoe, for feedback in a critical moment, and to Joan, who calmed my concerns and was generally indispensable.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
All Soul's Day delivers a reprieve from the rigorous work of the summer harvest. The first of the freshly reaped straw is carried in to cover the floor of the main hall, which has been swept and scrubbed. Door jambs and mantelpieces are lined with braids of wheat and crystal grace. The revered mother gathers her chantry staff and as many pious castle residents as can be found to sing the Long Chant from dawn to dawn again.
The holy day also brings a number of important visitors. Dorian allows Josephine to make a few genteel introductions on his behalf. Seeking out listening ears in Tevinter or near the border is an exercise in charm and caution; to his satisfaction he and the ambassador seem to play well together.
Even with Skyhold's feasts growing more urbane by the year, Dorian keeps a little apart. He furtively entertains Lavellan for most of the winding march of dinner courses, solemn dances and performances. The Fereldan tradition is to keep a night-long vigil until sunrise, but in reality, most guests retreat into bed as the small hours approach.
"I have a suggestion," he says, as Lavellan drops back into her seat after an encounter with a Starkhaven lord. "We collect anyone in this hall that can't do a pretentious Orlesian accent, raid the table, and move this vigil business into your quarters."
"Yes," she replies with a fervour she mostly reserves for oncoming demons.
"Shall I bring a deck of cards?"
In answer, she pilfers a near-full jug of apple cider from the table and glances around for an opportunity to make for the door.
Josephine is weaving her delicate nets of wits and words, so Dorian leaves her to it. Both Cassandra and Cullen take the vigil seriously, and far be it from him to impinge upon their meditations of mortality. He finds Sera slipping rashvine into the wheatstalk braids dangling from a door, and tasks her with ferreting out the others.
He detours into his room to find his pack of cards. The Song of Autumn is irrevocably creased, and the Knight of Ages looks to have been gnawed on by a small rodent, but they'll serve. Wicked Grace would be a traditional choice, and if Josephine isn't coming, even Dorian's own talent at cheating may stand a chance.
When he raps on the door, it slips open a surreptitious inch, so Cole can squint at him through the gap. "No banns, princes, or duchesses, she says. Friends and fellows may come in."
"On guard duty, I see." Dorian sidles past the threshold with due subterfuge.
"I am quiet. If they come looking, I whisper to them to leave."
"Does it work like that?" he asks. "On second thought, you can tell me some other night. Now I'd rather go up and catch my breath."
"Tired and tender, all of you. I'll be there soon."
The uppermost floor is lit by birch logs in the hearth and candles stood on the table. Several of the carved oak chairs have been drawn around the fire to accompany the settee. Lavellan looks up over the back of the settee as Dorian enters; her bare feet poke out from under the armrest. Blackwall leans forward in the chair to her right. Sera must have dragged him away from the festivities in the Herald's Rest and in the bailey. The presence of Orlesian gentry is most often reason enough for him to skirt the formal reception.
Sera's laughter erupts from the far side of the table, so that's her accounted for. If she ventured out of the main keep in her search, it'd also mean...
Dorian stops, then makes himself take the next step before the frozen pause can lengthen. Next to Blackwall, Bull takes up another of the heavy chairs, with Sera perched on the armrest and recounting her rashvine trick with high cheer.
"You can sit here." Lavellan scoots over, patting the left side of the settee. Dorian does so.
He knows he can't dance this dance with Bull forever. It's been a tarry, frustrating month of trying to disentangle himself from a sentiment he can't even fully qualify.
More than a passing fancy, was how he put it to Lavellan.
Bull lets out a laugh at something Sera said, and she shoves companionably at his arm before slinking back to her own chair. Dorian averts his gaze to the fire so he will not stare. The unstudied satisfaction in Bull's laughter tries to ensnare itself in his ear.
Maybe he needs to drown his follies in Cabot's awful Fereldan ale and take someone else to his bed. More than one possible choice comes to mind--that freckled, scar-lipped scout, one of Harding's finest, or Josephine's strapping young aide, sure to have Rivaini blood in his veins. Dorian may have a great deal on his mind, but he hasn't gone blind.
He glances up, across the table and at Bull's hand on the armrest. The knuckles form a stark contour of light and shadow, the three whole fingers half-curled, at ease. Dorian knows exactly how that hand feels cradling the nape of his neck, or splayed upon his back as he bucks against the mattress, or extended without second thought to help him up after a fight.
"Dorian?" Lavellan has turned to him, a brimming mug in her hand. Some of her stolen apple cider, judging by the sharp fragrance. He accepts the mug with a mumbled thank-you.
A miscellany of other loot is set on the table: fresh cherries, a chunk of soft, sour-smelling cheese that must still be edible, a pile of crumbling finger cakes, and a haphazardly carved ham, among other things. They should survive until morning. Cole has appeared by the fireside, huddled in the chair on Sera's right.
"Cards," Dorian declares, dropping the deck onto the table. "What will it be?"
"You all cheat at Wicked Grace," Lavellan says. "I should teach you Dalish games."
"Except for Furrows here," Bull puts in, "unless he's really worked on his tells lately."
"How about we level the playing field and choose something you're not an expert at." Blackwall divides and begins shuffling the deck. "Anyone ever heard of the Hand of Rat Red?"
"No, 'cause you just pulled that out of your arse." Sera nestles into the cushioned chair. "A lot of gambler's dens on the road to Val Royeurgh. Been to each and every stinky one, never heard of it."
"Spoken with the deep voice of experience." Blackwall sighs.
"This is all fascinating," Dorian says, "but choices, good people, choices. The night is wasting."
In an atmosphere of friendly ribbing, they decide upon Chanson d'Argent for a first. Blackwall removes the unneeded cards from the deck and deals. Up in the tower, their only company, besides each other, are the susurrus of the wind and the sighs and pops of the fire.
Sera's crooning her victory of the third round when a short, smart knock pounds against the door. The collective shift to readiness is palpable; Sera checks the knife at her hip, Blackwall stands from his chair, and Dorian realises he's drawing a breath to clear his mind for casting. Bull stays sitting, save that he has both feet on the floor, the right brought forward so he can brace on his good knee to rise.
"I locked the door," Cole says.
"I'll get it." Lavellan whisks down the stairs, and Dorian tells himself to ease down. The solar is the best guarded part of the castle, short of say, landing a dragon on the roof. They are a band of twitchy old fighters these days, he muses with a mixture of chagrin and comfort.
A lowered, courteous voice whispers apologies at Lavellan, she replies, then the door is closed. She returns with a sealed message tube. The leather twine that lashed it to a raven's foot still dangles from it.
"For you," she says. "It was urgent."
Dorian opens the tube, unrolls the fine strip of paper, and stops when he catches Maevaris's signature at the bottom.
There are five people watching him with varying levels of subtlety. Urgent enough that the spymaster's aide would deliver the message on a vigil night doesn't leave much leeway for interpretation.
With a sick lurch in his stomach, he thinks, don't let it be about mother.
Before any of the others can offer him some privacy, he peels the message open. Whatever it is, they'll know soon, anyway. He can't bear the cost of keeping many more secrets.
He reads through the narrow, neat letters that make his eyes water in the soft candle-glow. The strip is filled entirely. Sinking back into his seat, he lets air hum out of his lungs.
"What?" Sera breaks the silence.
"Mae's sending an envoy. Someone she trusts to bring word that she couldn't put to paper." The message tumbles from his fingers as he brings them up to knead at his temple. He's been awake since sunrise and certainly drunk more and headier wines than on a common day. The implications pile upon his thoughts.
"Your friend from Tevinter." Lavellan may struggle to keep up with the Inquisition's labyrinthine state of alliances, but she remembers Maevaris. "It's clearly important. An offer of some sort?"
Is that hope or caution in her timbre? Which is it that he would put foremost? He sweeps a look across his friends: Blackwall's apprehensive face, Sera, toying with a discarded card but listening with pricked ears, the stony set of Bull's shoulders, Cole's blue eyes that see too much.
He's tried not to think of Tevinter too profoundly. Josephine's diplomacy wends and warps in gentle increments, and every step takes time. Somewhere along the way he's understood that he will not, in fact, redeem the Imperium in his lifetime. No single person has that might--not the sons of magisters too clever by half, not the woman who knit the sky whole again.
The droplet wears down the rock, though, and he has a mind to let flow a few rivulets.
"I suppose one must face that possibility." He focuses on Lavellan. She gives him a firm look in return. "This came by raven. A rider on a good horse can't match that, but may not be far behind."
"I'll tell Charter to send word out that we're expecting someone. I suppose you'll want to meet with this envoy."
"Naturally." There's a touch of something sweet and treacherous to the prospect.
"If it is more than a mirage, what then?" Cole knocks his heel against the chair's leg. "Will you leave again?"
Hastily Dorian smooths over the way his thoughts jerk around the idea, like fingertips brushing flame. "Well. I imagine very few people would invite me back with open arms, but..."
A chair scuffs back along the thick Antivan carpet. All their eyes veer to Bull as he rises to his feet and steps around the chair and towards the stairs. His gait is unhurried and purposeful. His shoulders are bunched with stiff, seething tension.
"Oi, oi, what's your rush?" Sera twists up from her chair, trailed by Lavellan's surprised, "Bull?"
The door creaks and slams back into its frame, yanked by a draft. Dorian stares at the empty chair across the table, at the spot he's tried to circumvent since he came in.
"What was that about?" Sera demands. "You, talking piss about leaving. How many times am I gonna tell you? You don't--"
"Talk piss about what matters," he supplies numbly. His eyes track the path to the stairs as if it were a perilous river crossing. "I do beg your pardon. I'm afraid I'm about to make another untimely exit."
Whenever his choices are measured in full, Dorian wishes for his arbiters to know one thing: he may have been an occasional fool, but he found his courage when it counted.
That is, if he can make this time count. He clatters down the solar stairs in the near dark, snaps his fingers to summon up a spell wisp, and hurries on by its dim ivory shimmer. His feet hit the stone-laid landing of the next floor. As he hauls the door open, he finds Bull halfway down the corridor, turning back towards the ruckus.
"All right," he says the moment that Bull's good eye catches sight of him. The wisp gives no more light than a candle, but the illumination spreads more evenly, allowing them both to see the other. Dorian squares his chin. "Out with it."
Bull does not move from his half-shadowed footings. "Go back."
"To the void with that." It comes out with greater vehemence than Dorian meant. "You're cracking like an ice dam in spring, and--"
Well. It isn't the first time he's plunged ahead with the barest bones of a plan. Spontaneity spices up most things.
"And why do you give a shit about that?" The flat tenor of Bull's voice wavers to reveal the tension underneath. "Better yet, what claim do you have to it?"
A sour, thick bit at the root of his tongue almost muddles Dorian's next words. "None, I suppose. When you put it like that."
"Then go back." Blood simmers in the order. It is an order, for all that Bull rarely gives them outside battle.
"No." The light flickers before Dorian instinctively corrects his lapse in attention. "No, I will not. You will tell me what's wrong, and we will have this out."
"That's how you think this works, Dorian?" Bull's lip curls back to reveal a glimpse of teeth. "You think you can shuffle in and out of my way however you fucking want, and I'll just hold the door open for you?"
He's never seen Bull this angry before. It's always been outward rage at the suffering of those caught in the path of greater conflicts, or, rarely, the sting of self-blame at allowing such things to happen. This is a different strain of fury, worn, strung, and cornered.
"We were done," Bull goes on in the next tattered breath, "so be done and stop haunting me. Vashedan--make your choice and stick to it. Should be simple enough even for your twisted-up Tevinter mind."
"Dumat's bones." If Bull turns to Qunlat profanities, then it must be Dorian's prerogative to whip out the oldest obscenities in his inventory, too. His good intentions are running like wet rope through a fisted hand, tearing skin as it goes. "There is no part of this that amounts to 'no bad blood' between us. Your words, not mine."
"I was trying to go easy." Bull's voice drops to a strained, ominous note.
Dorian's eyes clench shut as he represses the twitch his body wants to give.
"If you're very lucky, I'll turn on my heel and go back to the north!" Ire works for him, too, and he doesn't have Bull's compunctions about letting it loose. It hisses searing in his voice. "You can open your door to whomever you please. No need to play my games."
"Yeah," Bull grinds out. "Played them long enough as it is. At least on Seheron you saw a 'Vint and knew what to do with them."
"Oh, are we back to this? Shall I add a disparaging quip about mutilating your mages?"
"Their mages." The tendons at Bull's neck stand out in harsh relief. "You mean the Qunari. Lucky assholes, to know where they stand."
"In the same chains that bind the rest of them!" Dorian snaps. Incipient horror coils up at the back of his mind.
"In their places in the fucking world!"
Dorian recoils. His face twists with the exertion of containing himself. The spell wisp is snuffed, the thin thread of his concentration severed.
He inhales to shout back, whatever scathing retort that springs up first--and stops short.
Is this what they've come to? Receded back to the first uneasy weeks of scowls and half-hearted barbs? Only now those pricking points have been honed into razors by long familiarity.
No one can hurt you like those who know you best, if they find the will for it. Dorian stares at the place where Bull stands. They are more than this, better than this. They must be.
A stingy shaft of moonlight filters down from window high in the wall. In the moment before their eyes adjust, all is silent save for the shallow, coarse sounds of their joint breaths.
"You know." Bull moves a step back. Dorian sees his looming silhouette bow as he sets his back to the wall. "I don't have many constants these days. Fixed things. People who stay."
Dorian would recall the spell wisp if he dared. He hardly dares to breathe.
"I've got the boys." The boys, of course, encompasses Dalish and Skinner, who grouse but bear Bull's epithet for his inner circle as the badge of honour and term of affection that it is.
Dorian makes a dry hum, glad for that, for the Chargers, despite the half a dozen emotions at a tug-of-war in his head.
"I had you." Though they are short and matter-of-fact, Bull's words exact an effort.
The sudden hammering of his heart is loud in Dorian's ears. He can't let this go. He's found, perhaps without meaning, a soft place in the walls they've raised around one another. Bull shifts with a faint chafing of leather against stone. Dorian fumbles for what to say.
"I never meant to stay in Qarinus." It's the first thing that rises to his lips. "Whether my father lived or died. All else being equal, I thought my mother would scorn me to within an inch of my life in a matter of weeks."
A sound escapes from Bull: not a laugh, not a scoff.
"I can't belong in Tevinter anymore." Dorian walks his fingers along the rim of a stone in the wall, rounded granite and pock-marked mortar. "If I can reclaim some part of it, some way to move things in a better direction, should I close my hand to it? Is that not worth fighting for?"
He doesn't know what he's asking for: acknowledgement or absolution. There are only so many reparations he can try to make while Bull ensconces himself into that teetering bastion of stoicism.
"I don't know," Bull says. "When they kick you out of the Qun, you don't get to pick and choose."
"They can't pull it from your head, can they?" Dorian lets himself fold a trifle. Tired and tender, all of you. Cole was more right than Dorian knew. That seems to be a trend. "You still... have the best of it. Maybe you always did. My perspective doesn't go back that far."
Three years, going on four. In that time he has tallied up quite a bit of perspective on Bull. He likes to think so, in any case.
No matter how adamant Bull's silence is, Dorian can feel it quake. He is so accustomed to Bull as a stolid, immovable presence. Sometimes he chooses to yield, but a core of control always remains, fixed in place to protect others--and himself. A shield against the spiral into savagery that takes so many of the Tal-Vashoth.
Dorian adjusts his assessment: if he's been an occasional fool in the past, he's done an intense stint in it recently.
"That's what this is about." It's not really a question. "You're angry, but you won't tell me so. Because you think you'll slip, or I'll shatter."
I won't sit around pining for you, Bull claimed. Now, then, in utter paradox, I had you. If Bull's outburst a moment ago unsettled Dorian, so does his near-eerie stillness.
"I know I hurt you." The fine-spun cloth of his shirt wrinkles under his fingers as he fists them in the sleeve. In the heat of the day the cool fabric was welcome, but the castle always holds a subtle chill. "I can't undo that."
"I'm not asking you to," Bull says after a moment.
"But," Dorian says before his nerve deserts him, "I know something about one's best intentions going astray."
"Such as fleeing in the night because goodbyes are tough?" There's the oddest sliver of humour in Bull's voice.
"Like breaking what you value most because you can't understand it." Dorian places each word with caution. "You can hurt me. That's the truth. You can't break me as long as you're afraid that you will."
He has said it and it is irrevocably out, the words strung out in the darkness like the hope he should squash before it ever wakes.
The ensuing silence encompasses a tiny eternity.
"That goes both ways," Bull says then. "Were you?"
"Was I what?"
"Afraid to break it." Bull gestures between them. Dorian longs to see him properly. "Every damn time I think I've got the pieces, I cut my hand on another one."
Bull is not much given to metaphor. Not that Dorian needs any wealth of clues to decipher this one. His heart should sink but it stills instead, beating a steady and paced rhythm.
"I suppose that's a rhetorical question now," he says. "Given that the damage is done."
What else is there for him to say? This is what they have come to. Furious, raw, defeated, tearing at each other. He should have left well enough alone. Let long-suffering time mend what it can between them, and forget the rest.
And yet, something stirs in the dark of his mind.
A ponderous footfall marks Bull turning the way he was going. With a start, Dorian realises the silence has stretched again. Trying to verbalise what he's thinking is like writing with the smoke from a burning branch: it whorls and changes and eludes him.
"I'm sorry." It's one of the few things he can sincerely say, so he repeats it. He feels the span of air and space, of anger and mistrust, gaping between them.
"Yeah," Bull says, in a rough undertone reminiscent of Dorian's own. "Me too."
Then he goes down the flight of steps to the great hall. Dorian is alone in the corridor with the wild, nebulous sentiment that thrums in him like the wings of caged bird against its bars.
Dorian returns to the solar for only long enough to speak with Lavellan in the doorway. They should finish the vigil between the four of them, and he wishes them a fine night of it. He bypasses the queries gleaming in her eyes.
"I fear I must puzzle something out," he says in feeble explanation. It seems to be his timbre more than his words that she heeds. Her smile is equal parts fond and exasperated as she tells him to sleep at some point.
It isn't piety that keeps him awake, but the thoughts in his head that give him no solace.
At length he finds himself in the stables, in the converted old dungeon. Its shallow arch windows gape dark and smell of damp soil and the mountain night over the warm stench of horses, hay and manure. The mare dozes in her stall, whinnies sleepily at Dorian's approach, and allows her sorrel head to be stroked and scratched.
"I might have to disappoint those scouts," he tells her. "Though I'm guilty of an abhorrent lack of a treat for you." Unlike many of his companions, he never had a designated mount. Cassandra reluctantly bonded with a headstrong mare from Orlesian stock, and Lavellan has held on to the very first horse presented to her by Master Dennet.
If he does petition the horsemaster to have this one for his own use, he will get her to answer to some other moniker than Carrot. A man's sentimentality must have some limits. When it becomes clear he's come neither with a saddle nor with food, she butts him in the shoulder a final time and shuffles back into the stall.
A room over the garden, a research nook in the library, a tavern where Cabot remembers every variation of his usual, depending on the weather. A horse. People who care so that when he comes to them in the dead of night with a fool scheme, they don't leave him to be ludicrous alone but join in his nonsense.
Skyhold is threading itself back into his life. That is beyond denial.
He lets that knowledge soothe him enough to seek his bed for a nap, a while past the dawn that adorns the sky with smoky shades of yellow. Those who have the leisure will sleep in today. Others must suppress their bleariness for the sake of the castle's daily routines.
The wakeful night enters his dreams in a rambling cavalcade of longing and recollection. Memories, hopes, real and ephemeral. If he had stayed, the first knowledge of his father's death would've come in another terse letter from his mother. If he'd told Bull, he might have had to dissuade him from some fatuous notion of coming along--or tolerate arguments against his going at all, back into cauldron of snakes that is Tevinter.
Useless, frayed mirages. What is done is done. He buries his head under a pillow and tries to find another vein of imagining. Some insidious denizen of the Fade must lurk near, as he dreams of other things then: the weight and warmth of a familiar presence by his side, Bull muttering my heart in husking Qunlat. He turns with a gasp, and the voice and the form shimmer away into dust and air.
He who holds precious things must know how to handle them, his mother says in her teacher's tones, but water sluices through her voice, fire rushes behind her.
Dorian starts again to a knocking. It may have been going on for some time, judging by its force.
Josephine's handsome aide, whose name Dorian still doesn't know, smiles at his rumpled, sleep-deprived face with dapper courtesy and informs him that Ambassador Montilyet requests a his presence at his convenience.
He avoids slamming the door. It takes every shred of his discipline.
The windows of Josephine's study are open, and a huge, dripping bouquet of crystal grace sheds its delicate scent into the air. For her part, she looks none the worse for wear, no matter what the travails of her night have included. Dorian at least made a valiant effort on behalf of his appearance. That might be the best he can aspire to right now.
After the due greetings, she lays two tidily scribed documents in front of him. The top of one and the bottom of the other have a torn line; they've been deliberately parted by hand so the uneven edges match. Of course, their veracity must be further confirmed with seals and signatures.
Dorian musters his humour. "A contract, my dear lady?"
"We pay stipends and wages at every annum," she says. "It came to my attention that you've done a great deal of work for us and not been officially compensated."
"Could I have done less?" He studies one copy. "Given that the world was coming to an end."
"The world's far from secure now. Work is lighter when your heart is in it, but I wouldn't expect you to subsist on sentiment alone."
" 'Food and lodging, plus a scholar's stipend, to be paid in Fereldan sovereigns or in goods of equivalent value...' " He can't help quipping, "You've left the amount blank."
"I thought we might discuss that. It's one of the quietest days of the year." Even the lull following All Soul's Day hasn't put a dent in the paperwork scattered around her study. On the other hand, none of her staff are bustling about. "Though I imagine you're leaving in the evening?"
"Hmm?" Oh, right. The Temple expedition. The letter from Maevaris. Dorian grants himself a necessary moment. "I fear I am not. It seems we're expecting an unexpected guest."
"I heard." Josephine is nowhere near as personally close with the new spymaster as she remains with Leliana, but news to one seldom takes long to reach the other. "I may have wished to talk about that, as well."
"That's why the personal reception over a matter of bureaucracy."
"Well," she says. "It is that, or the privilege of an old companion. You've been part of the Inquisition since the beginning. We might as well sign and stamp that fact."
He feels a candid smile turn his mouth. "I do rather like that."
In the end Dorian retreats to his oldest refuge: the library.
The day has the surreal quality of things when one has missed rest; he goes from sheer, sharp focus to spells of lassitude. The bitter dark tea he gets from the kitchens helps for a while. He should sleep and yet it'd it be a futile exercise, because the moment he lets his mind slacken, the thoughts scrabbling at the edge of it drag it taut again.
He's been staring at the same page of Magister Meridia's Grammar of Eastern Ancient Tevene since the evening bell rang in the tower. The racket of the watch changing has faded from the courtyard, which means that it's been some time.
The late Storm Age magister is a delightful scholar, one of the few to break free from the cumbersome convolutions plaguing so many historical grammarians. Dorian hoped she might help solve his problem with the binding glyph he's been trying to perfect. Lavellan copied the pattern from a waterlogged tome salvaged on the Storm Coast. He trusts her precision, but her command of Ancient Tevene is nonexistent.
Thus, he clings to what he knows to stave off the rest. The shift that we observe in spelling, beginning right after 1500 TE in Minrathusian sources (ref. margin), spread eastward over two or three generations. There it is, his dilemma over two letters that may change the meaning of the whole incantation.
If he signs the perfectly palatable contract of employment sitting on the table, what will that change? If Mae's envoy arrives with their news of great import, what will that spell? Merely a diplomatic opportunity, or some means for him to regain his stripped status, the right to bear his family name within Tevinter again?
Of course he thinks of it. Bull's abrupt exit only shoved it to the background for the time being.
Absentmindedly Dorian sticks another candle into the glass-paned brass lantern and lights it with a lick of fire. Twilight is shuffling in.
If I can reclaim some part of Tevinter, is that not worth fighting for? It does seem that victories in politics are the incremental kind. The Inquisition may have destroyed Corypheus in a welter of fire and blood, but its true triumph lies in its endurance. Now, two years later, it's still mending the wounds of that conflict.
That is, ostensibly, why he is still here.
We might fight together again. He told Bull that, as well. It will turn out true sooner or later. A part of him is relieved that he'll be absent from the trek to the Temple, so he doesn't have to test that truth just yet. There are struggles enough heaped upon his shoulders: Qarinus and Skyhold. Mourning his father and missing his mother in a wistful, thorny way that's entirely new.
And, because there is no place he can escape it, wanting Bull or wanting to forget him. I had you. That's as close to an understanding of what Bull is thinking as Dorian has. Three words. Past tense.
What would the esteemed magister say about the meaning of that? If only it were a riddle and not an interdiction, and he could break it into its parts, extract meaning by sustained effort, watch it fall together into sense in the liquid light.
Bull hasn't given him much to go by on that account. Not that Dorian's done much better.
There was a family in the old Imperium, whose house had stores of ash from the burned woods, and cellars of salt from the flats by the sea. In the grimmer version of the tale, the family salted their fields and watched them sour and kill their harvest, and the dead ash could not buy back their prosperity.
Dorian has words. Not many--a handful at best. They lie inert under the locks and chains of his own hesitations.
He did attest that he'd fight beside Bull. On this quiet battlefield, this uncharted tract of ground, it seems that they are their own worst adversaries.
He can hear horses in the lower bailey underneath the window. He has an excellent vantage of the gates from here, but what catches his attention is the noise of the portcullis being raised. The others will be leaving soon. With the slow summer evening, they can reach the first Temple outpost before nightfall.
No one's tried to talk to him today. They're leaving him be, giving him time and calm, and he regards them a little more dearly for it. He's been--
He's been caught by his own parable. Smothered into silence the thing in his mind that demands a voice.
The twice-rebound, fine-paged tome almost plummets to the floor from his slackening hands. Were he holding any other book in the library, he'd let it slip. With the merest tremor in his fingers, he slides the volume back into its box, padded with straw and hemp, and closes the hasps.
Then he straightens and lets certainty pour down on himself like the sacred oil of a naming rite. It will be as it must. He can only do what's in his power.
Maker's unnameable parts, but he loathes the idea of fate.
He nearly bowls an apprentice over in the stairs, leaving the boy staggering to balance his box of research materials, and calls out a hasty apology over his shoulder. His steps echo in a ringing patter up the rotunda walls, and he spooks a group of Chantry sisters when he tumbles out the front doors to the stone landing outside.
This course of action would involve him hurrying down the most obvious, most open route in the castle. Well, Dorian, he thinks, relish the spectacle. It's a little late for anything else.
Down the angled steps to the upper bailey, through the rounded doorway in the wall, and he has a view of the lower bailey. The Inquisitor departing is always a production. This compounds Lavellan's habit of leaving at odd hours, so as to keep the fuss at a minimum.
She's securing her saddlebags, her staff slung across her back. Cassandra and Blackwall, the nearing sunset catching the buckles and rivets of their armour, pore over a map that Cassandra is holding open. A stablehand leads out a horse Dorian well knows, Bull's massive bay charger. There is Bull himself, passing Krem some final instructions for his absence.
Dorian rakes a hand through his hair, rucked beyond seemliness by his dash through keep and bailey, and takes the first step down.
Krem glances up, lingers a heartbeat on Dorian coming down the stairs, and turns back to Bull for a few more words. Judging by the emphatic hand motion accompanying them, they have some stress to them. In theory, Dorian could thwart himself with some excuse of intending to see them all off. That would be undermined by the straight line he makes for Bull.
This is a bad plan. It isn't a plan at all. It may have taken him years and months to come to grips with what drives him now, but in truth, all that he is doing is making a choice.
"I need to speak with you."
"You've got great timing, I'll give you that." Bull doesn't turn. Past him, Krem makes a wry face at Dorian.
"You want to tell me again how to run the company for a week, chief? I've probably got it."
"Damn smartass," Bull says, and the bite ebbs from his voice. "Run along then. Enjoy your reign while it lasts."
"Always." Krem salutes, a half-playful tap of his fist against his heart, and goes.
Dorian uses that interlude to muster himself. "Terrible timing, you mean. I know."
"You know, hm?" A hoarse sound ripples from Bull's throat. He rests his hooded greataxe against the side of the stairs and faces Dorian. "I'd guess you have till they're done looking at the map. The light won't wait."
"It will--" Dorian pauses against his better intentions. "I will not take long."
Stop, he wants to whisper, or maybe, peace, not the old watchword but the same meaning. They've taken this silence so far that it threatens to become a feud unto itself.
It is not only anger that Bull harbours, but something more weary and resigned, and more bitter for it. Dorian may still not have learned how to pick his challenges.
Without prompting, Bull steps away from the rest of the company. They find a space by the stairs, a stack of timber on its way somewhere else providing scant cover. This is clearly how Dorian envisioned this would go. With Bull edgy and tentative, Dorian himself ill-slept and barely put together, telling him in some Maker-forsaken nook of the bailey.
The fact is, though, that he never imagined it. Did not or would not, until it was upon him.
"Go on then." Bull bends to let Dorian look him in the eye, but he might almost be part of Skyhold's timeworn wall, grey and unyielding.
"I have to tell you something." Dorian knows he's past telling his face what to do. His brows press together. "I'm afraid I can't, in good conscience, delay saying it anymore."
"Sounds serious." Bull will never know what a clement thing it is that he never diverts his gaze. Old pains stiffen his stance, a wariness wrapped around his true thoughts. Dorian can see the layers of hurt and caution there.
"Just... let me finish speaking. If you go and get swallowed by a rift, I won't live with myself, not having told you."
Bull nods. Brief, emboldening surprise plays across his expression. Dorian allows his mouth to shape a smile, a fleeting gleam of gratitude.
"I'm staying in Skyhold. Whatever Mae's messenger has to say. I will hear them out. I owe her that much, and I may owe it to myself, too."
There's the sound of a boot scuffing the beaten ground. "Yeah," Bull starts, "if this is about last night..."
Before the movement quite registers to him, Dorian has lifted a hand and set it barely an inch from Bull's mouth. "Peace," he says, in Common. "Let me."
Bull takes a step back, dispelling the ghost of the touch that almost was, and falls quiet.
"I suppose it is about last night. Marginally. Essentially." Dorian is stalling and his fingers have mutinied, tugging at the buckles that fasten his vest sleeve at the shoulder. He lets his throat flex. "The heart of the matter is this: I love you."
He hears the rasp of the breath that escapes from Bull. He can't quite open his eyes wide enough, Bull's face flickering at the verge of his shuttering lids. If he looks now he will be lost.
"Though I fear I've loved you poorly and thoughtlessly as of late." There lies the crux: that he had no expression for what he's been doing, however ungainly, for longer than he can measure. Love is both word and deed. A burden, a blessing, a choice.
"So I've decided," he goes on, "to keep doing it, and perhaps do better. If you wish, then come to me. I'll wait. At least a reasonable amount of time." A chaff of laughter from his chest, ill-timed and uninvited, rounds out his caveat.
There it is then. Said and spoken.
The last, late sounds of the day's work fill the silence. The tang of woodsmoke drifts down from the kitchens, the ovens being heated for the night's baking. Dorian reaches for the sensory details to halt his tumbling thoughts.
"And if I never do?" Bull's hands have closed into fists. It is as if the space between them were too bright to look at or too dark to peer through.
"Well," Dorian says, knowing that he steps a tightrope between misery and self-possession. "Then I expect I will live through. Eventually. I've done that before."
He wants to tame his tongue into forming Now you can go or some other half-sardonic snippet. His gaze flicks to the wall where their shadows sit, blue and immobile. He's out of means and devices and he cannot meet Bull's eye.
Then Bull steps forward, his hand unfurling in silhouette on the wall and through the air, and tucks the knuckles of two fingers under Dorian's chin. Nothing else. A span of warm, calloused skin, the points of the bones against his jawline.
Bull's gentle, capable hand, trembling the slightest bit.
"You," Bull mutters, in a tone that makes Dorian ache, "have the worst fucking timing."
Drawing on a reserve of comebacks he must have spared for absolute emergencies, he manages, "I make up for it with an impeccable sense of drama," in return.
The moment hangs, spinning and suspended. A mountain could split in two behind Skyhold and Dorian might not move. I don't know what this is, he confesses in the sudden stillness of his mind, and yet it seems to be all that matters.
"You do, don't you?" Bull's voice has not changed, as if he had no more control over it than Dorian does over his own. "Count of ten. Don't go anywhere."
Somewhat conspicuously, Lavellan has joined Blackwall and Cassandra in inspecting the route. Dorian notes this in a perfunctory way. His heartbeat is a surge of sound in his ears. The greater part of him is occupied with Bull, who goes to his mount, digs through a saddlebag, and, well within a calm reckoning of ten, comes back.
He opens his hand. There's a length of neatly coiled, hempen cord there, the ends pulled into knots to keep them from fraying.
Dorian gives him a look. A blatantly arched eyebrow goes with it. It falls when he glimpses Bull's expression, aware and apprehensive, studying, as if he'd offered a vulnerable place for Dorian to touch.
"I've seen this before," Dorian says. "You..." He indicates Bull's arm, covered now in interlocking plates of leather.
"Wore it on my arm, yeah." Another emotion shades Bull's face, quirking his mouth into a soft, shifting line.
Maker preserve him, Dorian thinks. Bull, who can describe ear-scorching acts of debauchery he's partaken in without batting an eye, move on to uncomfortable truths about everyone present, and then get an honest laugh out of the same people, is nervous. Like he wants Dorian to accept or approve.
"Explain," Dorian says, so hushed that the please is implicit.
"Qunari custom," Bull begins. That is easy enough to guess. "Sometimes you just do it to be fancy, but mostly it's... a reminder. Or a promise. Sort of like humans make oaths to the Maker."
Dorian nods. He feels like he is falling forward infinitely slowly, without any idea if it'll be a saving hand or the ground that catches him first. So he watches Bull.
"You tie the knots for whatever you're working towards. Strength, discipline, things like that. Make it show."
"So it's like a tournament favour, or a mourning veil? In the sense that you make it public." Dorian runs a finger over a loop. The hemp is soft, well made, but too fine for most quotidian uses. "What did yours say?"
Bull lets one end of the rope coil out to hang from his hand. "Shit I was trying to remember." Dorian almost interrupts with an aside about tautologies, but Bull continues, "Didn't have that much rope, so I had to pick the important ones. Endurance. Faith. Uh, a word that's not 'homesick', but... the same for a person."
" 'Longing'?" Dorian should be proud of how smoothly he says that.
"Sort of." Bull threads one end of the rope into a loop, begins to twist an idle knot into it. "There's the idea that this person works as your support. As your pillar of strength. Comes from a story about these warrior pairs some ancient antaam raised. Taught to fight together from birth. There was a word for how they got when they were separated, or when one of them died."
"All right." Dorian's voice all but fades.
"Sorry." With a sigh, Bull gathers the cord back into his palm. "I don't know how to do this."
"Neither do I," Dorian breathes out. "And I think the others are past pretending that you're not holding them up. You--you're saying--all these fascinating cultural tidbits point to--"
Laughter wends through Bull's voice, shaky and sweet. "I walked around from winter to summer telling everyone I missed you like somebody had hacked off my leg. Just in Qunari knotwork."
Dorian should remember all the things that lie unresolved between them. All the apologies made and never quite accepted, every day of skirting and silence. Bull has to go, and he will insist on going, on keeping his pledge to Lavellan to be there at her need. Dorian would insist on going if he weren't obliged to stay and wait for Mae's envoy.
"You are worse than I am. Infinitely worse." His heart is going to climb into his mouth any moment now. "You... Pray tell, how was I supposed to understand any of that?" The way his voice rasps takes all heat out of the question.
"You weren't. Shit, I know. You weren't." Bull's words wisp against the top of Dorian's head. "Ahh, don't mock my accent."
"Your Common is all over the place. I've told you that."
Sliding his free hand over the side of Dorian's head, Bull curves his fingers there, in his messily curling hair. He dips his head until their temples meet at an askew angle. Dorian turns into the contact like the tide to the moons. He can't be bothered to fight the desire, not now.
"Not for that," Bull says, his voice gone curiously thick. "Te amo. Even in blighted Tevene. Don't care if you are just Dorian, or if 'of House Pavus' follows you around."
"Vishante kaffas", Dorian whispers fiercely. That sensation of a slow pitching forward ends in a stumble, a teeter, and then he stands steady again.
He leans into Bull, wraps his left arm fast around him and sets his cheek against the notched leather of his shoulder guard. "You are the--single most insufferable--Maker, how am I to let you go for a week?"
He expects a chortle or a gibe, out of well-worn habit. Bull's arm comes up around him, fingertips and open palm on the buckskin of his vest, and then the questing touch tightens into a fervent grip. Rising onto the balls of his feet, Dorian winds his free arm behind Bull's neck and draws him as close as he can. The moment feels too raw for more--or then this is more, something unexplored and ill-defined, this abrupt, free-flowing tenderness. They are both clumsy with it.
"You will," Bull says at length. It's nothing like a command, but a recognition, hemmed with approval.
"I will." They come apart as gradually as they inched close. Dorian pulls the tangling loops of the rope from Bull's fingers. "I have your troth, no?"
On the wall, almost overtaken by the vaster shadow of the outer wall, their shadows tilt together.
In passing Dorian entertains the thought of kissing Bull, as he's bowed near, his eye half-lidded, his face alive and lit with rapt, fragile attention the like of which Dorian has never quite witnessed on him.
Time froths forward, and the moons will court the sky soon. A horse stamps restlessly nearby. The mixing sounds of several familiar voices ebb and rise from a more significant distance.
Bull waited four months for him. Dorian can wait seven days. Both his hands grasp Bull's right, fingers twining into fingers. I will be here. Come back to me. Bull returns the handclasp and sighs deep, but the sound is neither weary nor bitter. It echoes something of Dorian's own mind, hope and awe in slow bloom.
In the bailey, the light is red and misty, and it is time.
Dorian looks at Bull one more time, lingers only a little, and tells him, "Good hunting, kadan."
Si vis amari, ama.
If you want to be loved, love.
-- Seneca Philosophicus, Epistulae
Chapter 7: Epilogue
Esteemed readers-- Here we are on the last leg of this journey. Thank you for coming along this far. I hope you enjoy the ending!
Kiss count: two out of two. Also, that "porn with feelings" tag? Is now relevant at last.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Maevaris's envoy is a stocky, weather-beaten woman of Vyrantine heritage, even though it'd take a native ear to hear the accent in her fluent Common. That is no doubt one reason Mae chose her. Dorian, too, has learned the periodic worth of concealing his accent.
After some thought he takes her to the rotunda to hear her out. They sit at Solas's old table under the vibrant murals and speak of revolution in cautious terms. It is not as it was with Alexius, in another life. These are not grand designs of change but small, subtle means. All Mae has in her grasp so far. The envoy--named Messalia--is curtly polite and weighs every phrase that Dorian utters.
The better part of what she's brought is information, compiled and organised by Mae, and as topical as it can be after Messalia's journey to Ferelden. The mood at the Magisterium, notes on noble houses here and there in the Imperium, budding seeds of opportunity. There is a family in the vineyard valleys of Vol Dorma whose eldest daughter freed their slaves as she assumed her inheritance, and vocally opposes the practice in the provincial council. A wealthy laetan merchant from Minrathous lacks political heft, but would be willing to covertly sponsor a just cause.
When they're done going through everything, she presents him with two more things: a sealed letter and a leather pouch lined with silk.
Dorian imparts to her his sincere thanks and sees her to a guest room that's been made ready. Josephine was adamant on showing her every courtesy, though judging by her looks, Messalia might be equally content with a bunk in the barracks.
"May I ask you something, my lord?" Her way of speech may pass for a Marcher, but her decorum is thoroughly Tevinter.
"Of course." The implication that he may withhold the answer is carried in his tone.
"You've not said a word about returning."
He blinks, taken aback. It's a natural enough assumption for her to make. The understanding that Tevinter is the jewel of the known world, the cradle of civilisation and culture, is dug in deep. By most measuring sticks, no other country can compare, least of all the muddy, dog-infested backwater that is Ferelden.
He gives her a small, half-apologetic shrug; he sees her point but cannot in truth see it as germane to himself. "I've made my home here."
In the privacy of his quarters Dorian cracks the seal on the letter: the stylised, rearing horse of House Valera. His mother has used her own signet ring, not the emblem of House Pavus. The letter is lengthy, three sheets filled by Tamasin's neat, narrow script. He upends the pouch onto his desk. Gold clinks against the well-sanded wood.
He stops. Picks up the delicate object and dangles it up to the light. Three concentric gold hoops turn around a droplet of burnished blue amber, coveted across the Imperium for its scintillating ocean colours. The tiny gold beads at the bottom chime together.
The pair of earrings was a wedding gift from his grandmother to her daughter. Dorian has seldom ever seen his mother without them. Now, here is one, travelled a thousand miles in the care of a faithful messenger.
Mae, he imagines commencing an answering letter, if you sent a messenger to Skyhold for the purpose of ferrying a keepsake to me, I'm afraid I'll have to view that as an unsolicited favour, done without consultation.
Even if he had his inheritance, he'd be hard pressed to decide on a suitable repayment. He sets the earring gently on top of the pouch.
Once again Tamasin's letter takes him a long while to read. Dorian, she begins. The household is in mourning now after the funeral. There is a traditional month of silence for remembrance, as befits the head of the family. The truth is that I find it a relief, the cessation of this charade. The most mercenary of our rivals must be content to brood and scheme for the next month. Tradition has its uses.
After several lines, her penmanship changes subtly and the topic blatantly. My roses are flowering. I thought of sending for the perfumer for the year's harvest, but I have not. Better to let them bloom and wither as they will. She's composed the letter across different times and places. Sometimes the quill strokes are crisp and sharp, at others slanted by exhaustion or preoccupation. They conclude, Write to me, if it pleases you. I would know how you fare in the south.
Alone in his room, Dorian permits himself a wondering laugh. The phrasing is intrinsically like his mother in its stilted precision. Being amused by her peculiarities is a recent prospect, and it signifies a sort of affection he can't remember having for her ever before.
At Josephine's behest, he joins her and Cullen for supper, and afterwards has a long, lazy bath to ease his protesting shoulders. Too much of the week spent hunched over his research again. The notion doesn't suffice to stop him from retiring to his room and laying out his ink and paper. He must consult with Josephine over what official missives they may send back. More private and no less significant, he has to answer his mother's letter.
He writes a few sprawling passages on the topics of his work--studious interest in a broad selection of subjects is one of the things that they share. The harvest, the weather, the recent feast day he glosses over in succinct mentions.
Do not worry overmuch, he writes, leaving her to puzzle out whether the wish has a sardonic tint. I am as content as can be expected.
A lie of omission. The current wealth of his contentment bemuses him daily, but he's hardly ready to divulge its sources to her. He hovers, the goose-plume quill dripping onto the parchment, as a tink rings out against the window.
The ancient glass distorts the shape of the rowan tree outside the window, but he can tell dusk is well on its way. The same sound repeats before he realises it's a pebble striking the glass. He frees the hasps on the hinged half, and smothers a laugh and a leap of his heart. "What horseplay are you up to, throwing stones at my window?"
"It's a pretty evening," Bull says from a steep storey down, standing in the garden below. "I'll bet you a pint of Cabot's best you've been cooped up all day."
"You'd lose that bet." Dorian works a dram of smugness into his tone. They--Bull and the others--must only just have returned. "Come up? Unless you'd prefer to continue at a near shout."
"It's a good view of you," Bull says. "And a nice evening. Hop down, I'll catch you."
"How kind of you. I'll take the stairs."
The pond in the garden fairly reeks of dawn lotus, all of Lavellan's efforts come to fruition as the finicky flowers are at last blossoming so far from their natural growing places. The smell floats dense and sweet on the windless air. Despite the mild weather Dorian is glad of his long-sleeved vest and fine woollen shirt. Once the sun dips down, so will the temperature.
For now the hour of dusk persists. The chantry has emptied after the evening prayers, leaving the garden deserted. He picks his way past the pots of embrium and rows of elfroot to the stone bench angled under the rowan that spreads its branches up to his window.
"In the garden? Truly?" He quirks a perfunctory brow. "Did we slip into one of Varric's ridiculous tales while my back was turned?"
"If you have to meet face to face, at least the garden's pretty out of the way." Bull rests his back against the tree, sprawling carefree. Dorian's scrutinising glance finds a burn across his ribs, smoothed away by a healer's spells, the skin pale and new, but no other injuries.
"Ah, we're conducting espionage now." Dorian sits on the bench, after a beat of contemplating the distance between them. "I had... a more personal scene in mind. No matter. Since you remain undevoured by any rifts, I assume you met with some success at the Temple?"
He can't stop looking at Bull. Six nights and days since they parted in the bailey. No time at all. Too damn long.
"The boss seems to breathe easier about it." Bull frowns, though the darkening of his expression is short-lived. "Get her to give you the version with all the Fade babble included."
As Bull tucks his hands behind his head, his ribs rise into faint relief under the healing skin. Dorian is about to comment on the wound--a rage demon's molten claws?--when Bull intercepts him with, "And, uh, your meet-up with that messenger?"
It's more than a trivial inquiry, with the way that Bull hesitates at the start. His open posture intimates a lack of care but conceals something more. Dorian watches the line of his bare arm and recalls the texture of corded hemp under his fingers, in quiet moments along the last week.
"A reasonable success, as well." He bends a leg, his heel on the edge of the bench. Dew has begun to coalesce upon leaves and the polished surface of the bench.
"She brought word from my mother." Suddenly it matters that Bull know about her, although Dorian can't conceive how he'd explain anything the other way around. Tevinter prejudices about Qunari are ugly and lodged fast in place. He should know, given how many of them he's surmounted to be here now.
"Dorian," Bull says, a touch muffled. "Just drop the other shoe."
"Hmm?" Bull must have taken his silence for reluctance over something he was struggling to say. "She wrote to me. My mother, that is. A startling event as such, but nothing to be alarmed about."
Bull lets his left hand fall at his side. "Didn't mean to get tetchy."
Gathering his courage, Dorian says, "I will not leave, you know."
In his ears, his low words peal harsh. Plainer and clearer than he's used to speaking, if only because he prefers to indulge his own facility with expression. "It's not likely I'll be offered anything, but there's nothing anyone could offer to make me return."
"I'd think a lot less of you than I do if I thought you could be bought," Bull says, matter-of-fact. "She's your family, though."
"A small-scale miracle in itself," Dorian rejoins. Warmth and apprehension wake within him, twining together. "She is my family. So is our ragtag band of do-gooders here in Skyhold. So are you." It is as if he's stepped into a house that he knows, but the rooms have changed places. A sense of safety intermingles with something nebulous and untested.
Bull's hand closes upon Dorian's bent knee. "You never talked about her much."
"There wasn't much to talk about. I will amend that, if you like, to the best of my ability."
"If I could get a word to my old tama now, I wouldn't sneer at the chance."
Turning to sit sideways on the bench, Dorian leans his back against Bull's broad arm. Nearness and the small privacy of facing away from Bull in one. "I thought you might disapprove."
"Because of the crap your parents tried to pull?"
"I suppose. The first thing the Inquisitor did when she heard was to get me out of the inn." Dorian had concurred. The memory of meeting his father at Redcliffe feels like cooled cinders now, the heat of his anger ebbed away.
"I chose this." Bull gestures with the hand half-pinned by Dorian's weight against him. "Chose my boys. The south came with them, and the boss, as long as she'll have me."
"That 'as long as' isn't likely to fill up soon."
"I rely on that." Much as Bull ever absolutely relies on anything. Dorian draws a suddenly sore breath.
"Anyway," Bull says. "If I rely on that, I have to trust you, too."
"I'm flattered, I think." Dorian's hand strays up to fiddle with his tied hair. A bad habit, that, as of late.
"Pretty sure I'd be an asshole of the highest order if I started telling you who to love, or how. You trust her, so I've got to follow your judgment there. Only thing I can follow, since I never met her."
Pacified, Dorian settles nearer into him, his head rolling back against Bull's shoulder. Kinship and companionship slot so fluently into each other for Bull. It might be a thing to envy, that world-embracing understanding of love.
"I've promised to write. I am afraid I come with such a condition, now. It affects matters little otherwise."
"Done." The side of Bull's thumb scrapes one circle after another across the nape of Dorian's neck.
"I have one further condition," Dorian goes on. "I know you... find meaning in giving to others what they need. I rather adore you for it." Grasping at Bull's hand, he finds it easily offered. "But there are things you need. That you want. That I would, for my part, try and provide."
"Where'd this come from?"
"I'm not so quick as you to understand when something is amiss. I know I won't be able to do this without ever hurting you."
It should gall him more than it does to confess that. Bull only listens, nudging Dorian with his shoulder.
"I want to do well by you." He squeezes Bull's hand, work-hardened fingers against his softer staff calluses. "Though I do feel rather as if I'm at sea without compass and cross-staff."
"You've got me there." Bull adjusts his position, undisturbed by the faint, gathering chill. "In plain Common, it sounds an awful lot like you want me to talk."
"Yes." Dorian sighs. "Thank you. If possible, without the verbal equivalent of pinning you down and sitting on you first."
"If only it were."
Bull's deep chuckle hitches his side, and Dorian hums in shared amusement.
"I'll give it a try."
The one consolation Dorian finds is that in this matter, they seem equally green and callow. What can he claim to know about love? At least he knows it must flow both ways. As freely as Bull gives of himself, so Dorian hopes he'll accept what he'd be given.
Night is falling, tardy and clement, and the stars emerge in the faded vault of the sky. The air is velvet and still. Dorian might sit here until the sun rises and not want for anything in the world. He turns Bull's hand in his, breathes warm and pensive on the knuckles where the phantoms of healed scars darken the skin.
Then, after a silence, because the thought is alive and alight in him, "Can I kiss you?"
The sound Bull makes, above his ear, echoes with surprise. He wheels Dorian around and Dorian lets himself be pulled, nose to nose, brow to brow. It's closer than they've been since another hour of twilight, a little and too long ago.
"Thought you'd never ask." Bull strikes a wavering balance between dry and hushed. An art form, Dorian is sure.
"Maker, spare me the clichés," he retorts, and kisses Bull.
Bull tilts his head back so Dorian must perforce rise a notch, then lean in again. He slides his arms around Bull's neck, wrists crossed, fingers loose, and Bull sets a hand against the small of his back. It is a search in the shape of a kiss. Dorian has felt the emptiness of his bed keenly for the last six nights, a different strain of yearning from the wrenching confusion of grief and longing before it, but no less profound.
Yet the tug of want is wide and quiet, a river winding through its bends. Bull kisses Dorian's nose, his brow, his lidded eye. "Dorian," he says, "sweetheart," and leaves it there as if that said everything.
Dorian's ribs tighten in the most deplorable manner. Amended: he might sit here all night, petrifying with cold, if only Bull would sit with him and carry on with his unfortunate, aching choices of endearments.
All he can think of to do is to claim another kiss. This one has teeth; Bull nips at his lip sharp enough that Dorian gasps with the sting of pain as well as desire. Bull's mouth softens, the tiny hurt a cause to dwell at Dorian's bottom lip, then wander off across his jaw to nudge the shell of his ear. Dorian strokes a thumb around the curving base of Bull's horn, over the sensitive seam of skin and bone.
It almost dazes him that this--their easy knowledge of each other--can have survived the better part of a year and all its heartaches and isolations. That he can, once he grows fretful of Bull's teasing, duck his head and slant a kiss over Bull's nose and find his mouth. With a grumbling laugh, all affectionate mockery for his impatience, Bull cedes the kiss to Dorian. He makes the most of it: they come apart both gasping into the cooling night air. Their breath wisps, near translucent, and fades.
"Not chilly, I'm guessing?" Bull rubs a meaningful hand down Dorian's upper arm.
"I hardly noticed." The sun has vanished, and the heat of the day will soon follow.
"That's got to be a first." Bull punctuates that by drawing Dorian in. Dorian rather loses track of the cold for the space of several exploring kisses.
He keeps a hand clasped around the back of Bull's head, holding him close. You're here, he nearly says, foolish and light-headed with the notion. I missed you so. What would six days be, a trifle, but there are months of empty spaces between them, waiting to be filled.
Is there somewhere so near that one could forget doubt, forget sorrow and misgiving? Dorian hovers, his lungs working, his mouth tender, Bull's hitched breaths in his hair. Bull's hands slide down his back and press into his thighs. Yes, that is good, that is promising--until Bull plants his feet to stand. Dorian's mounting approval is diverted into alarm.
"Oh, no, you're not lifting me." The low bench and the chilled air and a dozen other worrisome factors flare into his mind.
"You don't feel much heavier than last time." A chortle breaks from Bull.
"That is," Dorian says, "I'd be more than happy with the outcome, but the process has its risks." He scoots back preventively. "I will not be sidetracked into the infirmary if you buckle your knee on the first damned night I have you to myself."
"So much for noble motives."
"You have me there." His feet thud to the grass. He allows a dash of wicked caprice into his voice. "My motives, as regards the present, are plenty, and varied, and entirely unfit for polite company."
Dorian swallows hard as Bull laughs again, fond and full-bodied. He can sense the charge tightening Bull's grip, lighting up his eye, the same awareness coursing through him as well. "Sounds like you should share."
Dorian brushes his knuckles against Bull's chin. "You first."
"That how it is?" Bull hooks a forefinger under the collar of Dorian's shirt. "And if I thought of make-up sex in the revered mother's herb rows?"
Laughter bursts from Dorian without forewarning. He rests his nose against Bull's temple, his shoulders shaking.
"Didn't know it'd be that funny." Bull strokes a hand up and down his back, from shoulder blade to hip.
"I don't know that it is." Dorian looks at him askew. Scattered chuckles keep leaping up from his chest. "Maybe a bed, for tonight? We can sneak in here to blaspheme against elfroot at the earliest next opportunity."
"Yours, or mine?" Bull makes Dorian cant his head back as his mouth finds the juncture of Dorian's clavicles.
"Mine is, ah, closer." He makes a brave effort to level his voice. "I do believe that stands as a glowing recommendation for it."
"Sounds good to me." The words tickle Dorian's throat. He takes Bull's hand and draws him off the bench and from under the whispering tree, up the ancient, age-rounded stairs and towards his beckoning door.
With laudable restraint, Dorian latches the door, touches a flame to the lamp on the desk and to the tinder and birchwood in the hearth. He even tosses a pile of discarded clothes onto a chair from the bed. Then Bull seems to decide he's puttered about enough, hauling him up as he threatened.
They both stagger into the kiss. Dorian is steadied by Bull's arms under his legs and his own forearm behind Bull's neck. He lets his free hand wander, studies the curve of Bull's ear, dips into the hollow at the nape of his neck. His palm paints the taut contours of back muscles. Even Bull, hardy and tireless, can't hold him up forever. At the moment Dorian would be quite happy to never be put down.
It goes so for near a dozen kisses, some wet and messy, others slow and ardent, all of them churning the want strung between them. Dorian finds the equanimity to demand, "Bed."
Bull considers. "Sounds like an idea."
"I only have good ones," Dorian posits. His breath flies from him as Bull dumps him from his arms, letting him tumble on top of the thick woollen quilt. The bed is old and wide, hemmed with posts and gathered drapes in the Fereldan style sensible of bitter, snowy winters. While they used to share Bull's bed more often, Dorian's accommodates both of them with some arrangement.
He fumbles after Bull, the brief separation an ache in his throat. Missed you like somebody had hacked off my leg. The memory of Bull's words comes to him cutting and clear.
Silhouetted against the firelight, Bull catches his hand and guides it to the bed. Their fingers fold together. "Let me," Bull says, something dammed and hoarse in the words.
Trailing his fingertips over Bull's eyebrow, feeling the lid flutter under his touch, Dorian hums acquiescence. "I know the word."
That loosens some coiled tension in Bull, that old confirmation, a familiar light on strange waters. His lips linger on Dorian's palm, on each tender finger joint, papercut and inkstain.
Ordinarily he'd say that Bull takes his time getting him undressed. That might not be accurate: rather it seems to take Bull a long, wending while. Boots, vest, shirt--Dorian kicks his feet and raises his hips, helpfully, but Bull moves at his own pace. He drags gentle fingers up Dorian's bared arms and then down his sides. Dorian arches up into the contact with a stuttered oath. Warm satisfaction vibrating in his exhalation, Bull counts his ribs, kisses each in turn, and marks his stomach with slow hot presses of his mouth.
"Teasing," Dorian points out. "Outrageously." A respectable number of syllables there.
"Remembering," Bull counters.
Dorian is left to lay a trembling hand against Bull's shoulder. He keeps it there, as a pledge, as Bull sweeps a finger down the jut of his hip, focused, fascinated.
"And appreciating," he continues, almost eliding the pause.
This ought to be smooth as a well-formed habit. Time and again Dorian has trod these steps: on a foolhardy impulse, on itching curiosity, on myriad excuses that layered together like the rings of a tree, one upon the other into a steadfast truth.
"And when you're done?"
"You're feeling hasty there."
"Not in the least," Dorian groans, as Bull pushes his knees apart and dips his thumb across the inside of one thigh. It would be easy. Easy to be lost here in the tide of his own desire and the circle of Bull's unreserved care.
Let me--sighing, Dorian recalls that to himself. "No, go on."
Time, he muses through the frisson of arousal, might be the matter. The spring was harsh on both of them. All told, this balance between them is a restless, living thing, liable to tip at whatever provocation. He grasps Bull's hand, a short, strong hold, both to assuage and to affirm his own prompt.
Bull leaves a wet imprint into the hollow of his hand, like a pilgrim setting his lips to the worn marble of a sacred statue.
The clean, pungent smell of the wood-fire seeps into the warming air of the room. Dorian bites down into the back of his hand at the abrupt clamour of dashing feet behind the door. Bull, of course, leans down to suck a hard kiss on Dorian's nipple. His own teeth leave bloodless crescents into the flesh of his hand due to his smothered whimper.
"They didn't knock," Bull murmurs against Dorian's naked hip, a timely reminder that Bull is still mostly clothed.
"If they had, there'd be a--a repelling glyph on that door now."
"I like how you think, kadan."
The heart-clenching timbre of that word notwithstanding, Dorian knows the way Bull is thinking, kneeling between his legs with unperturbed patience. He'll have Dorian insensate with feeling, splayed on the bed and aware of nothing but his touch. His own pleasure will be a second thought--or found unspoken in the sight and sound of Dorian's.
It'd be fine. Dorian could fall into him and be led down every familiar nook and turn, every reminder of bruising kisses and maddening detours.
He sits up with a gusty breath. Bull crooks an inquisitive eyebrow. Dorian slides a curled finger against it as if to smooth away its querulous cant. "I want you," he says, a solid foothold from which to begin.
"A little quicker than this?" Bull's throat moves, betraying his insouciant facade. So does the darkness of his eye, narrowed to look at Dorian.
"Oh, a thousand ways. I don't know what you did for six months, but I have a lively imagination." He is athwart of his point. The mix of confusion and devilment in Bull's face is well worth it.
"I've got a decent memory," Bull says by way of answer.
"I know. You're going where it'd take you--take us."
"That's not a good place to end up?"
"That isn't--yes, yes it is, it would be." A frustrated huff sibilates from between Dorian's teeth. Curse his own keen memory and the moment it's chosen to well up. "Yes. I intend to have you and to be had, as many ways as either of us can devise."
"But not right now." Bull's hands settle on the bed to bracket his thighs.
Fleetingly Dorian has to wonder. Bull is his strength and his shelter. Is he selfish for what he's about to say--for diverting Bull from giving him what Dorian has so often sought from him before?
"Right now, you're trying to soothe me again. Or perhaps yourself. I love you, and I am busily discovering what it means that I do." Dorian lets his voice husk, since it doesn't ask his permission to drop. "I don't need cosseting. I want you under my hands. I want you naked on this bed. I want your mouth on mine, I want you inside me until you come undone, until we both forget how long it's been."
Bull goes still. A shiver spreads through him, drawing a rippling breath from his chest. "Dorian." It's a confession in the rounded syllables of his name alone.
Dorian smiles, slight and glowing, and meets him halfway to the kiss. Careful, intent, mesmerising, it lingers as the one place where they touch.
"Yes?" Dorian mutters.
"Yeah." Bull nods his head, the line of his brow and nose against Dorian's cheek. "Yeah. Fuck, if there's anyone alive that could tell you no to that..."
"Well," Dorian says, striving for aplomb, "there's only one man I care to tell it to, so your opinion is the one that matters. Get in the bed."
Their remaining clothes are out of the way in tolerably short order. As Dorian shoves Bull back into the pillows at the head of the bed, he yields with a ragged chuckle, pulling Dorian down after him. He crowds close, draped over Bull from hip to shoulder.
"Better?" Bull's hand moves languidly down his back.
"Oh, excellent," Dorian answers, half-distracted. "I think I like you here."
How does that explain anything? The span of their skin pressed together, Bull's fingers messing his hair into a crow's nest, the rise and fall of Bull's sides with his quickening breathing. None of it new, all of it vital and vibrant and here. Dorian lets his hands drift; the knots and grooves of old scars on Bull's back intersect, conjoin and divide under his fingers.
The next kiss comes half by chance. Dorian raises his head, Bull turns into him. He had another half-formed plan that's thwarted by Bull's mouth on his own. Bull lets up an abrupt, throaty groan at Dorian licking his lower lip. That is a dare if Dorian ever heard one. He shifts up from where he's straddling Bull's lap, and the kiss tumbles gently into a tangle of lips and tongues.
Dorian is intensely aware of the heat of Bull's hands on his thighs. His heart judders, fickle and fierce, as he frees one hand to run a firm snaking caress down Bull's chest, never breaking the kiss.
He could be lost here. For a moment he is. The urgency in him is too sharp for adoration, too tender for lust, though wound through with threads of both.
Bull says, half-stifled against his mouth, "--not where it used to be." Dorian blinks his eyes open, surfacing from the surfeit of feeling.
"Beg your pardon?"
Bull's slanted eyebrow might be due to his turn of phrase. "Oil vial. Top drawer. Not there."
Dorian smacks an open palm against his shoulder. "I am still capable of handling whole sentences."
"Seems I'm not doing my job here."
That forces Dorian into a diversion in the shape of nuzzling Bull's throat, an amused, affectionate sound rising from him. "Now that would be vile slander. One moment, if you please."
He twists to the right to rummage at the bedside table with its crooked drawers. A snatch of blasphemy escapes him when the first one fails to provide the vial or anything comparably useful.
"There's options," Bull says reasonably when Dorian bends across his lap, an elbow to the bed, to wrestle with the second drawer.
"In theory." Dorian tosses a befuddling skein of old buckles and leather strips onto the floor. "However, I presented a plan and you concurred. I'd be remiss if I didn't--oh, here we are--"
His fingers close on the vial just as his elbow slips against the giving edge of the bedding. With a smothered shout he fumbles for purchase. Grabbing him under the arm, Bull scoops him back up before he can teeter to the floor.
"Shit." Any worry in Bull's voice is cracked by merriment. "You all right there?"
Dorian gasps breath into squashed lungs. His undone hair curls wild and tousled into his face, matting against his cheek as he drops it on Bull's shoulder and laughs, too. "I am. My dignity may never recover."
"Your secret's safe." Bull can make irrepressible heat slither down Dorian's spine by a certain tone of voice alone. The gentleness in it now, on the rim of his good humour, does the same and more. "Come here."
It becomes demanding kisses and scrambling fingers, Bull's arm curved around his back. The balls of his feet dig into the quilt for faltering purchase. He traces the bridge of Bull's nose, the angle of his brow, the tip of his ear with his mouth and seals shivering sounds of pleasure into his skin. Bull's easy there and that's good slip into Dorian's hair. He fights to breathe evenly through the sweet heady inches of Bull pushing into him.
Going slow is a peculiar torment, between being right there and not close enough. Dorian is a little gratified by the ragged moan Bull makes as Dorian settles, his cock nudged up against Bull's stomach. He bucks his hips and Bull curses, breathless. "Ah, you clever bastard, that's not helping."
"No," he agrees, with a toe-curling upwards hitch, bracing on Bull's arm. "But I--I did want you right here. Oh, that's lovely--I wanted that, I wanted you--"
Bull has let him move in his rhythm, but now his hand burrows into Dorian's hip. His voice rasps with effort. "Damn, you know what that does to me."
"My devolving commentary?"
"Your voice." Bull tugs Dorian flush against him, knees shifting, Dorian slackening his arm before his elbow is in Bull's ribs bony end first. Leaning into Bull, he finds a handhold on the headboard.
"I'm not sure that I do," he says with every scrap of whimsy left in him. "May I test that a little further?"
Bull grasps a fistful of his hair, too gentle to hurt, and draws Dorian's willing mouth to his own. The kiss paces them for a spell of long languid movements until Dorian has to duck away. The sheer, sharp reality of Bull beneath him, inside him, in hand's reach, crumbles the last of his long-strained patience. He keeps moving in a stubborn tempo.
The same abandon seems to take hold of Bull: the next kiss between them is bruising, Dorian writhing and gasping and clinging to Bull's arm. "Oh, not yet, please," he manages when Bull slides a rough, studying fingertip around the base of his cock. "If--if you touch me now I'll come apart, don't--"
Bull draws and blows out a breath that sounds like agreement. His temple glances on Dorian's own. He waits, lets Dorian founder into the sensation of being heeded and filled and held, and then disobeys him utterly.
Dorian has an ingrained habit of hiding his face as he comes: into a pillow or Bull's shoulder or arm. Now it is one more thing that drifts away. He comes gloriously undone. The orgasm is easy, gliding, coasting, every taut line of his body spilling into liquid contentment. It seems the simplest thing to trust himself to the feeling and let go.
"I told you not to do that," he says after a while, into Bull's neck. Kisses the skin, an idle beat of tenderness, and feels Bull hum in response.
"Yeah. I wanted to, though." The words are lighter than the timbre.
Dorian shuffles back, twitching pleasantly at the feel of Bull slipping out of him. He opens his eyes to find Bull looking at him with an air of near wonder. "What?"
"Your face." Bull sweeps back a damp curl of hair from Dorian's sweat-sheened cheek.
He just collapsed on Bull in the most unabashed pleasure he's felt in--well, in too long. His throat has no business flushing hot, at Bull's tone or for any other reason. "You've seen me come before."
"Not for a long while." Bull sets his chin on top of Dorian's head. "Never like that."
He cannot own or retain this moment, except in memory. Bull handles him as if he were something numinous, something sacred. He also--it occurs to Dorian what a blessing that is--rescued him with easy laughter when he nearly fell to the floor in the midst of their lovemaking.
"Right then." He takes Bull's hands and guides them around his hips, bracing his knees as well as he can. "You can return the favour." He could fade into lassitude. He also senses how Bull leashes his breaths; his cock is a smooth, heavy curve on the inside of Dorian's thigh.
If Bull fumbles slightly as Dorian reaches to kiss him, it passes soon. It's not that his attention wanders, but that he's looking at some other, delicate facet of the moment. "I hear you."
"You do, hm? Come now, I'm here. And--" Dorian nibbles at Bull's earlobe, "I seem to recall I told you something--" and then scrapes his tongue against the gouge of a scar. Bull shudders.
"Yeah. Know what you told me." Dorian lets Bull grip him and arches back as Bull sinks into him, deep and exultantly slow.
"Shall I tell you again?"
"Please," Bull says, quite stealing his breath. "Ah, fuck. Dorian."
The second swell of desire is nothing to scoff at, either. It mounts more shallow and indulgent, spurred by Bull's jaggedly surging need. Dorian strokes his thumbs over Bull's cheeks and lets Bull have him as he likes, at a steady, building pace.
And he tells Bull again: "I'm here--ah, that is good, you're a marvel--" His voice strives for mischief and falls into softness. "Maker, how did I ever stand missing you so much?"
Bull makes a choked sound into his ear. Dorian winds a hand around his neck, Bull's greater height foiling some of his effort, and lets Bull curl into him like into a fixed point. Neither of them would know how to stop now, so Dorian does his best to hold on. Bull jerks underneath him, that quick clench of movement declaring how close he is to the edge.
Dorian kisses him like plenty could substitute for precision: hasty, heated glances of their mouths together. A burn of exertion grows in his legs, even though the rest of him is loose and limber, pliant under Bull's insistent fingers. Bull falls back against the pillows. His horn scratches a bedpost in passing.
Leaning in after him, Dorian splays scattered caresses across his shoulders, drinks in the tattering of Bull's control. "That's it," Dorian whispers, "that's it, love, you're mine, I have you now."
"Dorian," Bull gasps, sharp and hoarse, "Dorian."
Dorian holds on to his horn and claims his mouth again. Maybe that's the only thing he can offer: trust, safety, respite. Bull doesn't so much kiss back as let Dorian kiss him, interrupted by a trembling moan now and then.
The crest surprises them both in the end. In a few strong, shuddering thrusts, Bull comes with Dorian's mouth still against his. His heart hammers under Dorian's palm. He keeps his hand there, fingers wide, as their breaths settle into stillness.
After a speechless spell of closeness, Dorian sighs and slides away from Bull's lap. It's either that or doze in the ease of the moment. They both have old aches enough that'd make themselves known after sleeping in such a heap. He squeezes Bull's hand--I'll be right back--and is halted by Bull muttering, "Yours."
A small, insidious chill leaps down his spine. To hide his untimely chagrin, Dorian presses Bull's hand yet again, nods, and goes barefoot to find a clean towel and pour water into the washbasin. With the fire burning, the room is quite cosy in the late-summer night.
He folds his hands around the damp, wrung-out linen towel and warms it with a dash of mana, frivolously, before holding it out to Bull.
"A dangerous word, one might say."
"You said it first," Bull points out.
Mine, Dorian thinks, astonished, and knows why it stung so. "I suppose... if it is you doing the giving, then I may accept."
"If it's ever not, I'll let you know." Bull swipes a knuckle over his jaw. "And... there goes the romance then."
"Quite to the contrary." Dorian shakes his head, seeking Bull's gaze. "I do rely on that." Bull is not his to seize or claim, only to accept and embrace. To love for as long as he may.
"Good," Bull says, very low. "Can I ask you something?"
"Always." Dorian looks at Bull in his bed, heavy-limbed and drowsy, a question in his eye, and realises that it's true.
"The night before you left." Bull scrapes his fingernails against the base of his horn after an itch, whether real or imaginary. "Uh, that talk about 'Vint bonding rituals you gave me."
"Venhedis." Muffling a rueful chortle into his palm, Dorian gropes for words. "Don't remind me. I had too much on my mind. Impossible things. How all that pomp and circumstance never made some people I know happy."
His parents. He doesn't say that aloud. They are an inseparable part of his life, but not one to be either solved or considered tonight. His mother's earring rests on the desk beside his unfinished letter, the firelight reflecting from the gold and the amber. Someday soon he'll speak with Bull on that, as well.
"Just for the sake of philosophy, huh?"
"You might say so." Stirred from his thoughts, Dorian squints at the subtle wistful tremor in Bull's words. "Oh. Oh."
Bull, being the utter bastard he is, and fortunate beyond measure that Dorian is intolerably fond of him, laughs uproariously. "Crap, your face."
"Bull--" He almost yields to the laughter, then soldiers on. "I--assuming, for the sake of the argument, that you are serious--I am nowhere near ready to even begin this conversation."
In a carefully emptied drawer of his writing desk there's a wound coil of rope that, somehow, has become emblematic of what lies between them. It is no promise ring, no contract of union with its endlessly polished terms and clauses.
"But you can picture it being a conversation."
Under the amusement Bull sounds far from blithe. Going over to the washbasin, Dorian summarily splashes his face. However far they have come by now, it will be a long, slow road that they have ahead.
"You know." Dorian scrubs at his sweat-soaked hair with a towel. "I couldn't find a single thing to bring you from Qarinus."
"I noticed." Bull sits up in the bed and stretches expansively.
"I... I didn't know what would say enough," Dorian continues. "You were on my mind so often it got rather crowded. But I did find something, after all."
His mouth parting on a small, startled breath, Bull is quiet.
"It is a truth," Dorian says softly, "that we both amount to less these days than we once did. I have neither house nor family name, and you bear your own losses."
"Hey." Bull's brows knit, half wry. "Stop selling us short. There's other things to make up for those. I do pretty well on fighting skills and a sparkling personality."
"And I?" It is criminal and wonderful how Bull can tease laughter out of him.
"I'll write you a list. You can keep it for reference. Might be long to learn by heart."
The sound of Bull's voice kindles a glow, a brightness, a certainty in him. Dorian pauses to weigh that. "I'll take it. And you, if you have a mind, one day."
"One day," Bull repeats in a musing note. His eye gleams warmly. "Are you asking to court me, 'Vint?"
"I suppose I am."
Extending his hand, his left one, with its maimed fingers and the pale scar from the blade, Bull clasps Dorian's fingers. On his face something settles, calm or clarity smoothing his brow. They linger hand-fast in the dim light of the fire.
Then Dorian steps across the floor, back to the bed, and into Bull's open arms.
My sincere thanks to: Neeks, who was there from the start, and without whom this story would never have been born; Adri, for steadfast enthusiasm and enablement; Joan, for laughing in all the right places; James, for stepping up with beta when I had to keep secrets; Jo, for writing with me; auntshoe, for being a darling and a lovely first reader; Toft, for company and encouragement; Kris, for good sense; and the whole squad, for all the squee and support.
And--to everyone who read this in the good faith that it'd be finished one day. I can't say how grateful I am for your feedback and kind words.
Comments and conversation are still cherished. If you enjoyed this, please leave a word below! (I'm also on tumblr @ junemermaid).