Written for foxghost's artwork, found here: http://foxgh0st.deviantart.com/art/Tastes-like-ashes-380186028
Tastes Like Ashes
Once upon a time, there was a very hungry boy who mimicked his mother and rolled his own.
But the smoke did nothing for his hunger. She lied. The boy eyed his mother with suspicion and did not trust that small, desperate being again.
Crouching on his heels in the dirt, he paused in his labour as the palanquin passed by. Fag end sodden off his own sweat and clinging to the corner of his lip, trail of smoke surreal against the backdrop of silk and satin and lace, the sway of pearls stitched along the seams like dew, but permanent. Beautiful.
Nothing which did not last could be beautiful, he thought.
The palanquin continued along that road, to Seheron City, where it and its abundance of wealth would move to the docks, to a Tevinter ship, and leave the humidity behind.
He spat, and watched, squinting; without thought and all habit, he rolled his own.
Not backed into an alley, surprisingly enough, not quite completely desperate, but he could see it coming over the horizon and did not want to know how far he would go.
But Seheron City was all alleys even on the main streets, all about backing away, grovelling as one did so, which meant the same thing even when it was smacking one's forehead on the refined cobbles of the sector ceded to the Tevinters instead of the mud and rotting fronds beyond. Shiv in his pocket and fag in mouth, he watched a pair of children draw their blades and fight, a mock fight, attracting some few eyes from the mostly disinterested crowd of Tevinters and Rivaini seated in the open air portion of the coffee house.
A shirt ripped, a thread of blood weaving into a ribbon. A child's pallid surrender. He watched the flick of a Tevinter's wrist, flashing true gold not gilt. A sweet bun arching into the street. The victor claimed her prize and offered a nonchalant grin and a salute. The Tevinter did not see her.
The winner tore the bread in two and gave the smaller piece to her bleeding friend.
Don't call him a boy any longer. He tucked his loose breeches so they bared his shins and knees. He inhaled deeply to fill the hollows between his ribs with smoke. He did not need his makeshift blade; the act of intimidation came easily to him, and the children ceded defeat with only a few blows struck. The Tevinters were far more interested in the dramatic turnabout enacted by his exercise of right by strength than the noble performance beforehand. There was a smattering of applause. No additional food was forthcoming. He took the mud covered bun from where limp fingers had dropped it, reserved his cigarette behind his ear, ate the sugared coating, mouth watering, and threw away the grimy remainder. He was clearly not that desperate. He clearly did not have to go so far. Three streets away from this sat a row of old men who ate clay cakes in a lie excused by survival. Leto would never eat dirt.
Later, a Tevinter clicked his fingers and offered a light burning on nothing more than his skin. Leto leaned into the glow, sucked and drew. The smoke filtered out the smell of the man's excessive perfume. The tiles were cool and smooth against the scars on Leto's knees. He set aside the smoke for long enough to perform as requested.
Then a time as the Tevinter slept, as the bodyguards watched him impassively, as Leto wandered about the room, touching. The lacquered screens, the slow fans overhead. Fabrics too fine on the bed for him to have been allowed on it, only bent over the carved wood of the end, palms too rough to do more than snag on the silk. Even the slaves, faces to the floor by the door, wore clothing worth more than Leto had ever held in his life.
In the mud of the road to Seheron City he had once found a pearl, fallen from a palanquin. Uncertain why he did as he did, he had wiped the dirt, put it in his mouth and swallowed it. Not for hunger; hunger was a lie, he had long since decided, or a child's cry of it would have been heeded. The pearl was a thing of wealth and beauty become a part of him. Buried in the mud of the eventual mortification of his flesh.
Leto looked at the slaves. Something in him burned like the flames on the ends of the Tevinter's fingers.
Leto looked at the magister's bodyguards and wondered which one he could kill.
Fear was all about losing control. But he did not have control, and what he could not lose, he could not fear. In the arena they called him Fenris. Among other marks, he wore a tattoo of a wolf on his shoulder. A daydream. Permanent. Beautiful. Silk and gold could be torn and taken, but a tattoo was his, always. The wolf was from a story his mother had once told, an unknowing beast chasing the moon. An impossible task, but he had succeeded and devoured the moon whole, and then he had known everything. At a cost, for the whole world went dark. There had been a magistressa Leto once entertained, wearing the fur of one from a country called Ferelden, a pure white sport, irrelevant in the heat, possessed of a surreal, glassy stare, The fur came off quickly enough, and she forgot it before the night was even young.
In Seheron, they only had tigers.
He feared nothing. It was a lie, and the Tevinters loved it. Power was for those who took, claimed, swallowed, devoured. He feared everything, his life a terror of numbness. He was resigned to it. He sweated in his bed, in fits of paranoia. He wore silk and silver and gold when he fought and they loved his decadent vulnerability even more. They wrote to the arena in droves requesting his attendance at their celebrations. He was an entertainer, not a warrior; in Tevinter blood was cheaper than water. After, reeling down the tunnel back to the cell which was his own, a privilege, not a right, where he would retch up the rich food he was not permitted to eat lest the aesthetic hollow beneath his ribs begin to thicken, where he would close his eyes to the imagined thread of pearl he would see; where he would drink all the water he could hold and roll his own, Seheron leaf, so common on the street it was hardly a pittance to bum a pouch or buy, especially not for a favoured arena slave.
He breathed, he filled himself with lies; he was no wolf, he was not hungry, he never dared think himself worthy of the moon.
His new master brought him to a bed of silk and kissed him. Then his master made a face.
Leto had never been kissed before. The experience filled him with a want which lasted through all which followed, Leto arching and shivering with a desire filling his whole body in a way he had never felt before. Soaked with sweat, he rested after, his cheek on his master's pillow, while his master stroked along his spine as if counting the bones beneath the skin.
After a time, he was compelled by the old addiction. His new master shook his head at the pouch and leaf, the deftness with which he rolled his own.
'Such a slave habit,' said his master. 'Escaping drudgery with drug dreaming, so on. You are above that now.'
There were peppermints in Leto's room. A whole urn full of them. A room which had an urn. A room softened with silk. A room. His own. It almost made up for having to wear leather, mundane and practicable, serviceable, a lie to tell the rest of Tevinter about his role. Every night he went to the master's bed and touched his forehead to the brocade of the coverlet, arched into the affection of the fingers stroking through his hair.
He threw away the remnants of leaf and forgot about Seheron.
His master touched the wolf on his shoulder. Bid it farewell, all of it, the marks of other owners, other favours won by his entertainment value, magisters who had paid for this story in his skin because Leto asked for it, permanency, in a world which was not permanent. But nothing done in Tevinter could not be undone, for the willing and the powerful.
In his periphery, the bowl of lyrium shone like liquid pearl.
The skin stung cold, a touch of spirit and something else. The clink of a scalpel from his other side. The kiss on his shoulder blade, where they would start.
Leto clenched his jaw around the gag and closed his eyes as they began to cut—
Then there was only Fenris, who lay awake some nights, curled around a craving he did not know how to satisfy.
Once upon a time, there was a warrior who stood on the shore of a secret smuggler's cove watching the smoke of a city destroying itself rising into the sky, and for reasons he did not understand, he looted a pouch of leaf and papers off a dead mercenary who had mistakenly thought to attack their fleeing group.
Then he perched on a nearby rock and rolled his own.
While his companions loitered, awaiting a promised ship, he finished smoking. His mouth tasted of ashes, and for some reason, it was the most comforting feeling he could remember. Kirkwall continued to smoulder.
'I didn't know you had a habit,' Isabela said.
'Apart from the boozing. And the gambling. And the murdering.' Hawke, dry as ice. 'I do hope you brought enough to share with everybody.'
After three days of speaking only terse necessity, the dialogue was incongruous enough Fenris smiled. He flicked the soggy end of the roll into the waves, which promptly returned it to him.
Fenris watched his own fingers, rapt, as they sleeked and smoothed another paper in preparation. As if watching another man's hands. The lyrium lines glittered warmly.
'Are you feeling quite all right, Fenris? Freedom making you giddy?'
'I don't think that was tobacco,' Merrill added, after a deep sniff.
Fenris considered their amused eyes before he answered.
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