The Phoenix Gate
Fenris was astute and perceptive of everything around him. He was robust and strong (by elven measure), just under six feet tall. By nature he was respectful and cautious, highly capable of carrying out the Prince's will. He was totally devoted to the protection of the Prince of Starkhaven. This devotion elicited from the Prince the words, "with Fenris watching over me, my rest is peaceful." His kills earned him the awe and praise of others. As the Prince's close servant in an indefinable role, he was entrusted into the inner gates of Starkhaven's government, attracting many close followers who sought his favour.
— from The Vael Legacy, by an unknown author circa 9:80 Age of the Dragon
Fenris swung his sword and stepped, deft, away from the spray of blood. The body toppled after the head, cradled at rest in the excess of silken skirt. He held out his hand and accepted the cloth his third offered.
He did not speak until he finished cleaning his sword. His mind was blank, and he sought to prolong this moment of completion before consequence could catch up to action.
'The Prince must never hear of this, directly or indirectly. Do you understand what this means?'
Innlei and Guelliam were well built and human, young soldiers — if veterans. They had not been able to keep the shock from their faces, whether it had been at the Princess' revelation, or Fenris' swift and unrepentant strike before the betraying sentence had finished falling from her lips.
They looked at each other. Nodded.
The ready acceptance upset him, grief atop grief. They had been his near constant companions for months, almost a year, showing great promise. He had been suffering premonitions of his own death of a while, a consequence of age and tiredness perhaps, but it gave him a desire to leave Sebastian and his family in trusted hands. He did not know if such hands could exist without his own manufacture involved; and so, the children, he and Sebastian had called them, mockingly at first.
The knife was still in the Princess' hand, wet with the blood of her son. Five years of life, and casting already; Fenris had seen it more than once, from that special position he and his kind often stood in relation to royalty, where no one saw him, elf and shadow. A difference crystallised within Fenris once he was sure of what his role was to be in Sebastian's family, in a court where his skill at arms and strategy would be secondary to his skill at manipulation. This knowledge would have been his first secret to keep, his and little Kie's - his to contemplate, to smuggle the heir a tutor and indoctrinate him into the secrecies of an upper class mage, secret even from his father. Kievennan would have to learn, even this young, how to lock away his enthusiasm, to submit to the greater expectations of his role as a ruler. Fenris would tell him tales of Tevinter, Fenris would teach him, of magic and not of the blade. Fenris would watch him, because power did not have to corrupt. Starkhaven would not have become a magister's playground, and Fenris had known a moment of purity, of faith in his capabilities to do this which shook him with its profoundness. He would do this, and eventually he would teach Innlei and Guel how to do this, and they would see it through with Kie.
But Fenris had delayed too long. The summoned snowfall had so delighted Kie when he called it in the garden, laughing with shock and pleasure, only Fenris watching from his silent distance. Bright blue eyes, excited to demonstrate, Kie called the snowdrift into his playroom, horrifying his mother. Fenris saw as well when her eyes turned chill as the ice, and as unnatural. He should have acted then, not given her these few days to sever her last feeling for the child before taking her own action. But she had loved Kie so much. How could he have ever believed she would—
Sebastian always suffered when Fenris was not swift. Fenris should not have touched the body, but he had to close the boy's eyes. His hand shook.
My friend, I have failed you again.
The three of them worked well together, the children — warriors — never questioning Fenris' command in the positioning of the bodies, how he instructed them to move the knife, the intricacies of blow and direction adjusted to the spray of blood. He saw the looks they exchanged. When it was at last done, and they turned, they were ready, blades in hand and breath long and steady.
They saluted. 'It was an honour to serve.'
'For Starkhaven,' Fenris echoed.
It fell hollow.
The fight was gruelling and highly physical, shattering most of the nursery. Guel and Innlei were his, each ringing blow affirmed it, he had picked them, trained them. After it was done, Fenris fell as well, to his knees, then his side, cradling the agony to his chest as if it were his salvation.
Somewhere a child was crying out against betrayal, he could hear it, in Sebastian's voice.
In the hurting dark which followed, Fenris struggled to place dream apart from memory. Verity had not been beautiful, but she had a grace to her that Fenris admired, from a distance, lusted after, a little; poise and cool confidence. She needed both to stand firm at Sebastian's side, through the putting down of the rebellions, the reclamation of his throne, the weeks of campaign, of tents, of training. It was not a lie that Fenris' first thought had been of blood magic; the bloodied knife in her hand and the dead child's small and pathetic body had been a horror evocative of those in his past. The truth had been harder to take. He could not determine if it had been his guilt or her unravelling defiance which had made him draw and swing without hesitation.
Fenris had rarely spoken to little Kie beyond his role in Sebastian's retinue as guard, and the boy had correspondingly never treated him as aught more than well armed furniture — but that was to be expected, as it should have been, the boy trusting in his safety as much as he trusted in the presence of air. No, Fenris remembered and mourned instead, how Sebastian had been so pleased to bring Verity to the nursery he himself had once inhabited, as if Sebastian's joy had been Fenris', content to feel love from this safe distance. The toys Sebastian had unearthed excited Sebastian more than Kie, as the younger had been born and raised on a field of war, delighted simply by permanent things such as doors, steps, and especially bannisters, sliding along said marble surfaces into small and carefully constructed piles of cushions at the base, shrieking with joy.
Lightness, brightness. The nursery was well angled for sunshine from high windows only, no direct views through which assassins could threaten with distant arrows. The spilled blood had baked on warm stone even as it had scattered; Fenris fought through the memory of those surreal red ribbons, snaking across the floor, the obscene steam rising.
When Fenris surfaced, Sebastian was holding his hand.
His voice rasped. 'My lord.'
'I thought we had lost you too. The assassins—' The eyes were rimmed with red. 'Oh, Fenris.'
Those with power, Fenris knew, clothed themselves in rich, luxurious layers of fat. Sebastian had thickened over the years of his campaign, especially in these last two years of habitation in Starkhaven, the fleshy maturity which had only been ghosted over the bones of his face in Kirkwall. When he wept his cheeks puffed like a child's, and so he had not wept yet, holding back the tears.
'I have failed.' Fenris pressed against the bandages and pain both, inched himself higher to lower his head. His face was stiff; Guel's double wield had broken his guard, split skin from temple to jaw. 'I selected them, Sebastian. Let me bear the guilt for this.'
Sebastian pressed his forehead against Fenris' knuckles and shook.
'My wife, Fenris. My child! They would have done better to take my life!'
There was no one else in the room. There was no other way Sebastian would have permitted himself the indulgence of that cry.
'How could you have let them get so close to me?'
This was his role. Their game. Sebastian needed to be in a position to forgive, to feel himself the greater man. Fenris was usually grateful to be able to offer this comfort. Sebastian's contempt was crushing, but it would be better than self-pity. So Fenris told himself.
Sebastian broke, and sobbed in earnest, heaving and horrible. And weak, so vulnerable. Fenris let his hand be crushed in that desperate grip, lay back, and thought of better things, and other days. The memories were few enough. His only true prayer had ever been that there would be more.
...to achieve the younger Prince's objective, the strategists discussed the need for a small and well trained force to cross the Minanter at its most treacherous point at a poor time of year. The rapids were dangerous enough, deep, prone to unexpected whirlpools, choked with debris which formed small dams bursting with unpredictability, and at the heart of winter chunks of ice were added to the flow...the opportunity was too great to overlook, with the traitor Prince Corbinian within reach and with only a small retinue before he could reach his gathered army. Overcoming the Prince Sebastian's reluctance to commit his forces to what he called a suicide mission, the elf Fenris ... would go alone ... his execution of the traitor Prince Corbinian without a single loss to Sebastian's army heartened the starving soldiers. The eventual battle for Starkhaven itself was a rout.
— from The Cartographer Will Answer For His Stupidity: the battles and conquests of Sebastian Vael, by Keran Rasumussen (Knight Captain Adjunct) 9:64 Age of the Dragon
The campaign to reclaim Sebastian's lands and place had been long. Always in the forefront of the battle, the injuries Fenris had taken throughout had been few but serious, if never as serious as this. Either that, or he was recovering much slower each time than before.
He suspected he was older than Sebastian, older than all their old companions even in Kirkwall, but he was denied the knowledge by the loss of his past. Finding a mirror, examining the new knotted scars on a body wearing into age, the blank features.
Another question with an answer, if he could bring himself to ask.
They had not been his children, mocking as the name had been, but certainly they were his to have given him such new marks to wear. These were not so shameful, eliciting a strange pride; he did not even shy from the facial scar which would pucker, from the notch in his jaw to the tightness at the corner of his eye which would slacken and fold into age. Guel, who would have been a champion in the arena, just enough show to hide the killer within. It was Innlei who was the tactician of the pair, Innlei whose blade in his back, just awry from the kidney, had nearly killed him. Fenris would not wonder if she had deliberately misplaced her blow. She had not missed a target since the second month he knew her.
The healers Sebastian summoned for him had been accompanied by templars, Fenris remembered vaguely, clattering through the fog of his unconsciousness. Subdued and imperfect, flawed at what was neither a skill nor a talent. In pain which lingered long after they were gone, Fenris thought about wine, and drinking, and darkness, but those habits had been shed too long ago now to seem a welcome retreat.
Six years since Kirkwall? Four of those years on the road, two within the castle itself. Perhaps it would not seem so long a time in the future he could now imagine: twenty years from now, having been at Sebastian's side for well over thirty, this would be merely the third atrocity he had committed in the name of Starkhaven, lost in the numbers of political crimes by then. Only the third. Small wonder his grief and guilt burned so extensively. The two prior atrocities had at least been committed on Starkhaven's enemies, a brutal massacre at his hand alone which had sickened him with recollection of the Fog Warriors, unaware and unarmed; the other an ambush turned veritable assassination by how successful the stratagem had been. The triumph, uplift, the acceptance from Sebastian's folk after that had curdled, clashed, with what Fenris was increasingly calling murder.
He was Sebastian's pet murderer. Once, soon after the daring which ended Corbinian's fight early, Sebastian had called Fenris the consummate politician, wearing his soft little smile, knowing and warm. Better days, relaxing together in a tent of rich fabric with incense curling in the corner, Sebastian cradling Fenris' sword across his lap for a reason Fenris could not remember, the length of the oiled blade between his knees, the point on his boot where he stretched long legs before him. Early days, with his shirt unlaced over a chest still sleek with archer's muscle, hair in want of a trim and a light, ruddy shadow on his cheeks. Fenris had watched from the shadows of his own hair, unbound, working oil through the length, as Sebastian tested the edges of the blade, flat and sharp, with his fine archer's fingers, the callous denting, then bleeding. Sebastian wrapped long bloody fingers around the hilt in a way which made Fenris' heart and loins tighten. To turn the course of history, as precise as a surgeon, without even needing to expend a word. And Sebastian, Prince, had admired his butcher's skill, as if it was warranted.
The praise was not unfamiliar, nor the want that arose with it. Fenris so very rarely thought of Danarius these days, but if he did it was with confusion, not the old burning hate. Danarius had borne the guilt for every action Fenris had committed, the genocides, the torture, the rapes and the murders, had acknowledged Fenris frequently as the blameless child in the matter. Fenris had never acted then without Danarius' will guiding him. The shame had been Danarius' to bear, while all pride had been for Fenris to accept and wear, in tokens and touches.
Fenris did not know what to call what kept him as Sebastian's shadow. It was not pride, but it was not a collar either.
He did as always, and sent away Sebastian's offer of servants, accepting only a page's help to rise and bath, and braid his hair; he tended what remained of the wounds himself. Then he sat and allowed himself some strict, few minutes of weeping. Innlei had often called him out for grave tendencies to the maudlin, to waxing lyrical, another story about the old days, old man, with her serious face that never told her humour; Guel would grin for her, spare us the ol' "back in Tevinter" spiel this time, eh, Fen? Irreverent in the training hall, impeccable when it came to public appearance, the serious behaviour. Perhaps he could have trusted them—
No. They had known. Even if he had doubted, if he had hesitated, it had been Guel and Innlei who drew their blades even before him. They had known the right of it, confirmed by their choice.
Fenris finished, set aside the grief. He washed his face again, carefully around the still tender scar, and oiled his leathers in respect, polished his blade, until no one could accuse him of uncaring at the funeral. And there would be a funeral, public and loud, Starkhaven mourning for her lost loved ones, where he would walk at Sebastian's heels, content in the layers of security he and Sebastian's captains had discussed the two days prior and established otherwise, loyal soldiers on rooftops, scattered amongst the crowd in plainclothes, those formally dressed controlling the ebb and flow of the populace; those keynotes bribed for their absence or otherwise encouraged to stay away, with rope or blades or bars if necessary. Fenris had made himself a friend of the Crows in his time stabilising the city. Civilisation hung on the lynchpin of where those careful blades struck.
But first there would be another funeral, which Sebastian would not hear about, quiet, and attended only by himself. He would bury their blades still coloured with his blood, and forget that their bodies hung where Sebastian had ordered them placed, defiled and hollowed, above the enormous studded doors of the Phoenix Gate, for the flies and the ravens, eventually the bones for the dogs.
While the daring execution of the false Prince Corbinian brought the elven warrior [Fenris] to popularity amongst the populace, it was his role in the retaking of Starkhaven city itself which cemented his position as Prince Sebastian's hand ... he provoked Prince Goran's honour then incited him to duel by discarding his greatsword and stripping his armour. With the elf barehanded and seemingly vulnerable, Goran drew his blade in an attack in contradiction of Starkhaven's unspoken code of honour, such that his watching army muttered in grave discontent ... Fenris stopped the desecration of Goran's body by the humiliated generals, enforcing Sebastian's right to appropriately consign one who had been of his blood to the Maker, one who had done no more than fall prey to a maleficar simply for carrying the name Vael. The generals swore allegiance to Sebastian's name, and within in three days, the elven warrior presented the eight thousand persons of Prince Goran's army to Prince Sebastian in Starkhaven square, bringing numbers to approximately one hundred thousand soldiers.
— from Honour in Starkhaven, by Carolyn Khitan 9:47 Age of the Dragon
Despite having been involved in the event's hasty planning, Fenris had forgotten what formal could constitute for the aristocracy. A parade of regal livery first, a column of ornate floats, cavalry, lancers, drummers and pipers. A vast retinue in mourning colours. The road to the catacombs undulated through the city, away from the river's shimmer on the horizon, crowded with Starkhaven's citizens and refugees. Somber soldiers marched in step, then the two years young court court like a flock of gaily coloured peacocks, the cousins by marriage and those others who had survived by distance from the last massacre of the Vaels. Bannered tridents, rows of the devout, sisters and brothers both. Musicians with every instrument silenced in respect — and the silence of the crowd followed that portion of the parade, a strange, inverted music.
Then came the coffins, the large and small. They had been placed on a small mountain of flowers from Verity's distant holding, the first force who had allied behind Sebastian's bid for the throne. Five days ride; the flowers been ridden across the country on horses which had subsequently died from the pace they had been forced to keep. Fenris wondered if Sebastian knew that. Blameless animals, caught up in games of power.
Sebastian himself walked in stark contrast to the parade, barefoot, in nothing more than a white, torn robe. His eyes saw nothing. Starkhaven wept with him, chill silence, bowed heads, averting their eyes from his grief.
In the connection with their Prince, in the melodrama, in the overt display which had proceeded him, Fenris saw clearly the makings of empire. The steps which would have to be taken fell into place in his head, an easily delivered master plan. Starkhaven was a port city, key geographic location to assimilate the Free Marches. Oh, but the fledgling empire would be nothing to thwart Tevinter, not in Fenris' lifetime. Unless accommodation could be reached with the Qun, then between the pinch points and with all trade severed, Tevinter would finish its rot, not even a pit left at the core; an old man's fruit, juice long since expended.
Not even a dream, or an ambition, simply the pieces falling into place, a puzzle solved. Ah, Fenris thought, so that is what it will take.
Fenris' mind had worked this way before, the brief future laid out like a game of stones. He had felt it the day he fled Danarius, minutiae in precisely how to break this bond, to avoid or incapacitate this guard, to win his way through the harbour, the route he would take to displace the hunters — but it was not a pleasing clarity, it terrified him instead, because as with fleeing Danarius, there was an end point, after which he saw nothing but greyness, uncertainty, confusion.
Before the strike against Verity and Kie, he and Sebastian had had words. The calling of an Exalted March had elevated Sebastian beyond Prince, into a figure of myth and divine intervention instead, a bridge between the Maker and the soil of this land, addressing the people's hopes for peace, abundance, and civil justice.
And what do you fear about this, Fenris? That I will do wrong with this power the Divine grants me? Do you not trust me, to stay at my side?
Sebastian tended to question others only if he himself could not answer. It was not fear, Fenris tried to argue, so much as pragmatism. So close on the heels of this loss, and Sebastian still intended to march on Kirkwall as previously planned, departing to join his collated armies within the fortnight. And for what, to retake a city which had nigh shaken itself to pieces already? A liability in this game of empires Sebastian never admitted he was playing, and a greater liability even if Sebastian spoke true, and did not intend to hold more than his rightful lands. If the latter were true, then all Sebastian aimed for was brutal vengeance on a man who could no longer understand the concept.
But what was rightful, to royalty, if not the right of conquest?
Fenris walked behind Sebastian, his leathers creaking loud in the pocket of silence which surrounded them, the inadvertent strike of gauntlet against armour the loudest noise. No one contested his presence, not by now. Flanking Sebastian's other shoulder was Falk, high seneschal, who went barefoot also — so he would not be the odd one of the three, he had said, and who Fenris despised for more than that comment. When Corbinian had died on his blade, Falk had been there, wetting himself in terror, pleading and crying. Administrator. Necessary, but to be scorned. Intimidating the seneschal was a habit Fenris had fallen into too easily.
After the funeral, Sebastian stayed on the dais which had been constructed for this purpose, in Starkhaven's central square. The children ran through the crowd, having been bestowed freely with sparklers and tiny candles on lacquered sticks. Fenris stood with Sebastian and Falk on the dais. He saw how the crowd looked up at them, at Sebastian, so eager for the glimpses. If Sebastian turned his face to them, it was as good as the Maker's long-awaited acknowledgement.
The pleasure was evident when he nodded, when he raised his hand.
'I am glad they see me only by candlelight.' Sebastian's smile was wan. 'I would hate if they see me as haggard as I am.'
'Speaking as someone who has seen your face before you even take your first piss for the morning, I have glimpsed the boy that you once were. Perhaps they see it too.'
Sebastian chuckled. Falk's breath was loud and disturbing, and Fenris itched to end it.
'Do you ever wish for the tent again, Fenris? It was so simple then. I am so tired of all this.'
Fenris missed it as much as Sebastian, the incense, the hardtack, the purity. Even then the doubts had been present, but the necessity of battle subsumed them.
'If you are tired, perhaps you should not spread yourself so thin. I suggest again you delay your approach to Kirkwall.'
The chill was sudden and shocking. Sebastian had a great talent for projection, his emotion playing into the field of air around him; it had served him well as a priest, calm and competence, seducing people to trust. As a general he had been fierce and focused, his soldiers benefiting from his righteousness in the face of what could have been a dirty civil war. As a seducer, first of Verity and her army and later of those few other lovers Sebastian had indulged his lordship with, Fenris had seen the power of want Sebastian could wield, reeling in bedpartners as inexorable as a fisherman pulling in a net. Fenris felt the emotion now as if a shield had been pushed against him, turning him aside into the arrows which would come, inevitably barbed.
'Perhaps you would do me the service of taking my place as Prince, then. If you know better than I when to march and when to hold.'
Fenris turned too look at him; the smile had not dropped, but it was full of knives. He was overwhelmingly conscious of the seneschal's ears.
'I meant no impudence, Sebastian. Only an honest statement of consideration. You have heard my arguments before.'
'So you say, yet the extent of your impudence knows no bounds. Do you truly presume to know how to run an army, a nation? You are an excellent warrior, Fenris, one on one, I shan't deny truth. But a pit fighter, not a general. You do not know everything, or I would not be standing here today in grief over the death of my wife and child, whose lives pay for your failure. You persist in raising this argument, you persist, as if you know better than all my generals, as if you knew better than I. Is this what I get for teaching you to read? Giving you ideas above your station after devouring a few books on strategy?' Sebastian's voice rose steadily louder, firmer, and he committed himself to the course with a cool blast of despite. 'Do not march in the winter, do only as unexpected, so let us march in the winter, to ambush our enemy between a rock and a hard place at all costs to your own. A child could contrive more understanding of the need for a righteous strike than you. Or will you contest even that?'
Fenris let his shock and humiliation show on his face, but Sebastian turned, disgusted.
'Speechless, when for once I demand your speech. I should have dressed you in bells and kept you as an entertainer.'
The words stung, the words were crafted to sting, the type of entertainer specific to pious Starkhaven, whose whores were forbidden by law to voice what they offered for sale, wearing instead a bell at their belt and swaying like cattle to make them sound.
The guard around them shifted uneasily.
Fenris spoke, level. 'An error in one assumption of yours, Sebastian. Hawke taught me to read. Not you.'
Sebastian again stared hard at him. 'She did us all a graver injustice than I first determined.'
Fenris refused to look away. He would not look away, not down, would not let his neck bend. He had the love and respect of a Prince; this fool was a grief-struck middle aged man who spat at him, sheltered under Fenris' own spanning blade, a child with bright eyes who knew nothing of truth or hurt.
But Fenris would have to be the voice of reason. 'My friend—'
'No,' Sebastian said. 'Go.'
Falk tutted under his breath. Fenris gave the seneschal a murderous glare.
'My lord,' Fenris tried, still, to ameliorate.
But it was the Prince who said, in regal disbelief, 'Did I not just say to go, Fenris? So go! Or I will not hold back my determination of justice from you any longer.'
The guard parted for him, brisk and saluting, a respect which stung bitterly. Did Sebastian not know of the hours Fenris spent with the captains, the plans of every path Sebastian proposed to take, the words all around his safety? Sebastian had not taken a single wound through his campaign, not a single flying arrow targeted his back in Starkhaven's streets.
When Fenris was at the top of the stair, Sebastian called after him, loudly. A hint of apology, but loudly. Conscious always of their audience, of saving face.
'Thank you again for the fine suggestion, but I suggest you return to the castle and contemplate a second strategy, that of deference to your Prince's will, and how best to effect it. Your opinion and your presence both is of value to me.'
Without thought, the motion like drawing his blade. Fenris spun and bowed, deeply, formally, hand to shoulder, knee to stone. It made the half-healed wound in his back burn.
'I heed your first command, my lord. I trust my absence will allow you to enjoy the power in your words. A Prince, especially one so exalted by the Divine, cannot so easily rescind his judgement once it is delivered.'
'My friend. Will you not wait?'
His gauntlets chimed on the metal at his belt, the leathers creaking as he descended the stair, picking up speed along the way. At the level of the street, the guard pulled together a hasty contingent to escort him through the crowd, careful not to look at him, not to speak more than necessary. Fenris resented their presence. He would resent it more being unable to push through the throng. Their spears crossed before him and cleared the way.
At the Phoenix Gate Fenris turned and looked back to the dais, across the crowd of moving candlelight, offered to guide the dead. Sebastian stood above them all, looking ahead in silence, not a trace of expression to be seen.
Though Fenris was sharply suspicious and cunning at heart, he had a disarming appearance of innocent, wide-eyed simplicity when he so desired ... harmless and aging, lean ... with his grey hair and quiet humour, his courtly manner, he ingratiated himself easily with both the Princess and the Prince, demonstrating courtesies easily in the uncomplicated Starkhaven court. Yet the Princess languished through the Vael's aggressive campaign, and there were those who said the Prince was completely under the Tevinter's foreign sway ... a veneer of civility and indeed civilisation, for an elf ... there were those who confirmed that [Fenris] induced through unsavoury means the Prince to adopt him as a brother.
— from The Unsung Princess, by P. Fitzhaven 9:45 Age of the Dragon
When he appeared at her door, Varania, now as plump as his vague memories of their mother had been, asked no questions immediately, not of his presence or the new scar on his cheek. Fenris explained that he was in need of accommodation, she listened politely, then offered to share with him the bed that he had paid for, in this house which he had bought for her. The first room was laid out for the tailor's trade he had funded until she had sufficient stock and back production to fend for herself. She had insisted on it as soon as she was capable, but they had never broached the topic of repayment. It would have been navigating a warzone, with their history, and he was content to leave it as it was. Money was not his concern.
She showed him through on request; the second room was the bedchamber and eating chamber both, the third for food preparation. A small courtyard to the rear was shared by four such houses, with a pump of undrinkable water for washing, a well of fresh water, a drain, a garden and a privy. He eyed the rooftops, the slits of other residences' windows. He considered his own paranoia, a relic of deflecting too many arrows from one unknowing and uncaring princely back, then sighed and accepted that the place would be forever indefensible.
Fenris had never spoken to Sebastian of Varania's presence, living in his city, outside an alienage, and most importantly, outside Starkhaven's Circle. Sebastian's mania towards mages had never settled, at times the word or necessity for their presence triggering moods and a darkness which lingered for days. Verity had truly been afraid, Fenris knew. Caught between that rock and that hard place.
He was unable to sleep in close proximity to another, imagination seething. It was not that the bed was cheap and lumpy, or that Varania kicked him on occasion with a disgruntled instruction to stop snoring. No: he lay there and tormented himself with the image of Falk's smug little smile as he sidled closed to Sebastian, the way Sebastian would start to confide in the man, who bore no stain of grief or failure, who Fenris was sure had no true malicious intent towards his Prince — which made it worse, or otherwise Fenris would have killed him. But Falk cared little for guiding Sebastian to those decisions which would not elicit his guilt, the weight of which Sebastian could not bear. Falk knew nothing of true service, that it was his shoulders who should wear the suffering so that Sebastian could make his decision free from emotion.
After the sixth such kick, Fenris rose and paced through the night. He had not returned to the castle at all for his belongings or even a change of clothes. He laughed almost bitterly, because it would not matter. Varania would have something in her front room. It would be fine and well crafted, and Fenris had never before brought himself to wear something she had made, though she had sent him a wrapped and anonymous gift once every year.
Finally Varania threw a pillow at him and ordered him outside. Play the guard dog at the front gate, if you please. The burst of crazed energy in response had him climb to the roof. He had done this in Kirkwall, also, finding his calm in finding a horizon, stars and air, chill and comforting. One of his few truly elven moments.
He lay against the shingle, the stab wound in his back sore, but almost pleasant with the pressure, the distraction of its presence and the tangled love and grief associated, an acknowledgement; Sebastian would not taint his sacrifice. Sebastian's anger purified the deaths even more. Fenris thought about the clarity and grace of bones.
Then his calm strayed again. Fenris replayed the last conversation with Sebastian in his mind, embellishing; his prideful satisfaction slowly ebbed, gone with the rage, until he felt only empty and lost.
Varania would suffer from his disgrace, he suspected. Her custom was made up of the men in Sebastian's court, after Fenris had recommended her work. She would be shunned as a connection to him, however tenuous. He should have been more devious in his recommendations, protected her from a loss of livelihood. Oh, he could heal for a week or two more and return to a mercenary's lifestyle easily enough. He could find a place with any a guard captain or military outfit, of which there were many, as a trainer if he no longer wished to take the field. The hair would be useful, at least, for adding verity to his claims of age and a plea not to take the field. He had the skills to support himself, and without his burning hatred of Danarius consuming his ambition, he had pride, an insistence he would not be idle.
But he was also tired, and creaking, more scar than skin. Perhaps six years since Kirkwall and its associated melancholia was not so long after all; he wanted an immediate return to that self-satisfying, self-destructive squalor, to enact an indolence to reflect this disgrace he felt in his heart. He had defied Sebastian publicly, even knowing the man's sorrow made him less than clear thinking. He had put his own pride and anger above Sebastian's sovereign presence. He was no servant to have done so; he was as useless as Falk.
Varania would not let him sink into the indolence he desired as self-punishment. Oh, he tried, for the day she spent at work, but when she closed shop and return to the room, she hustled him out of an unhappy sleep to labour, such a matronly presence and weight to her now she was impossible to resist. Such gravitas; he whipped a wet dishcloth at her behind when she was turned away, scowling, though he was careful not to connect. It had been years since he had last had to cook, to clean a dish. They ate, then she even bent him to making the bed, which he did stiffly, before she sat him down and stripped his shirt to examine the puckered wound on his back, hissing at the rawness of the poor healing. She made a balm of a lemony leaf, elfroot, wine, and pressed a sponge of substance to the livid skin, pink and knotted as the scar on his face, he knew, but not smooth, too easily broken open again.
'You could write him a letter of apology if you can't speak it. He was right, you know. You tell a prince how to run his little war, then dare to feel hurt when he tells you to stop? Would you have told Danarius how to run his household?'
Fenris growled, but Varania had rarely heeded his boundaries, even in the days when her trespass drew him to dangerous rages. This was family, he supposed; he had witnessed Verity doing the same with Sebastian, if only ever in private, where she had forgotten Fenris always watched. An intimacy he had craved and longed for, a tangle of emotion he knotted further and put away, until over the years it had somehow unravelled itself without his attention; the youthful infatuation with Sebastian had faded with the man's looks. But the want was still there, having shifted into a different emotion as Sebastian's potency changed from looks to somewhat else; Fenris felt envy of the family and jealousy/desire for Verity's place, and a fierce need only he could fulfil as he was to preserve Sebastian's position along with Sebastian's pride.
He stared out the single window sullenly and said nothing.
'You were always so wilful,' Varania returned the sponge to the bowl. 'So easily jealous. If I ever had a moment more of mother's attention than you, the way you would rile and sulk—'
'I recall you never cared anything for my feelings, either. For what I lost, for your sakes, and already you take the other side again, as if I've done nothing for you! Will you sell me back to Sebastian on my knees?'
The sponge slapped against his cheek, stinging, with a look in Varania's eye that said she would have rather used her palm. 'Do you think I ever wanted to see you disgrace yourself for our sakes? I tried to stop you then, selling yourself to the magister. I would try to help you now to avoid ruining your life a second time.'
'The first time I sold myself into slavery for you. Perhaps this time I am freeing myself for me.'
'I doubt that. Oh, Leto. All I ever wanted was for you to stop giving up.' Pained sympathy. 'I know from bitter experience how easy the easy route seems; it is not the right path to take.'
'Does this look easy? I will not go back to being humiliated to like that again. I am not insignificant.'
Varania smiled at him, tugged the braid of grey hair coiling over his shoulder. 'Is this my brother speaking, insolent, an unbecoming display of possessiveness, a temper tantrum enacted before an entire city, who even now gossips furiously about you and your mourning Prince? Oh, welcome home, Leto. You always were a sodding queen of melodrama.'
Somewhere within the cage of memories Fenris remembered Varania, the elder, had never been able to stand seeing him cry. The nights they had spent hungry, she would rouse to fill his belly with an anger at the world which starved them; in the face of abuse and humiliation, she would hold him close and whisper vitriol in his ear until the fight burned away his tears.
My sister. 'Do you know how old I am?'
Varania did not pause to think. 'Forty four years. Forty five, this coming seventeenth day of Solis. You look disappointed.'
'Only I had thought Sebastian was younger than I. I do not know how I feel to be proven right..'
'You are rather fond of assumptions. You should have taken a trade, Leto, not the hit and miss of of the blade. You would have learned to always measure twice before cutting the once.'
'I have...wanted to ask you that for a long time.'
Sorrow, affection in her eyes. She touched his cheek, the unscarred one. 'You would have had the opportunity if you visited more. Seven times in six years is, I might suggest, somewhat insufficient.'
'Yes, please, do add to the burden of my guilt. I shant bear it if you hold back at all on my account.'
'Forty five going on sixteen, it seems sometimes.'
His blood. His blood by honour hung gutted above the Phoenix Gate, his blood by relation sitting here before him, smiling with her familiar eyes, the skin around them crinkled with fondness. His heart felt like bursting. I killed them, sister. I killed them, my children, my friends, his wife, his love, and I did not want to do any of it. Only to preserve him from the final hurt.
Fenris already knew how Varania would respond to that. Sod it, Leto; this excuse is becoming repetitive. "Oh, woe, I did it because of him."
He chuckled despite himself. She pressed her forehead against his and touched the lyrium on his chin. The sensation which could have been draining, a mage dipping into the font which had been made of his skin and lifeforce, though Varania never touched him that way.
He swatted her, but gently. 'Stop prodding me.'
'But I've barely started.' A mischievous tint. 'Did you know, the latest gossip is that Tevinter made of you a eunuch?'
'You, I. Beg your pardon?'
Varania grinned, mimicked the voice of some gossiper in her circle, '"With that voice, Margaery? Och, I can't think it—" "Tis possible, I hear, if it was done late in life." "A travesty!"'
'A travesty, for certain. Do stop, will you? Sister.' The involuntary urge to protect his crotch; Fenris crossed his legs helplessly.
Varania took on a dreamy mien, fluttering her lashes obscenely. 'First it was "oh, the paramour!", for years, you see? The way they hung on your every almost touch, your hand ghosting against his elbow, oh, sickening, to a sibling. I would have thought I was in Minrathous listening to the pea politicking of peasants. But over time it became blindingly obvious that no one could be that careful with as little privacy as the Prince has, no chambermaids spying an embrace, no soiled sheets—'
'If you will not make your own bed, someone has to do it. And servants gossip. Though I've forgotten you never had the misfortune of a life as a house slave.'
'Spare me your pea politicking, then, please.'
'—and it comes clear, too, you've touched no one else, your sheets always immaculate, not the shadows you picked up, not the flatterers who try to while their way into your graces and thus the Prince's. You have more control than a priest, brother; not one brothel frequented, no maids or pages cornered and molested most aggressively. Not to mention, you always send away the bath attendants, brother mine. Perhaps shyness about the branding, they thought initially, but scarification is one imaginative step away from cutting. They've decided you must be thoroughly incapable, the perfect bodyguard for the Prince who was once a priest. Devoted, chaste, and unrequited attendance.'
He was appalled and disgruntled. 'Ask any of the healers who had attended me over the years. They have seen more than enough.'
'As if anyone could get into Starkhaven's prison of a Circle.' Stiffly; in his self-absorption Fenris had forgotten his sister was a mage, the knowledge returning with a jolt. 'I'm left no recourse but to speculate. Being from Tevinter, some of the questions I get—Yes, I know he was a slave. No, I don't think ... Perhaps I should change my story. Oh, well, maybe he was cut, it is possible...he certainly has no balls to be sitting in my house while he truly wants to run to his Prince.'
Fenris scowled, standing abruptly. 'Emasculated by your word. Here you reprimand me for making assumptions.'
'So tell me.' Varania looked serious of a sudden, eyes large, full of pity. 'Tell me, Fenris, that you are happy with him, to be so hurt by his insult at a time he is hardly himself.'
'I am his friend.' The admittance made him ache.
'As you say.'
'And if he is my friend, then he will know I will apologise for nothing. If he wants me, he can send for me. I have given him more than sympathy, now I have nothing else. Take him that message.'
'No more, Varania. I do not ever expect him to know the details of what I do for him, to preserve him from rumours.'
Princess, what is this? What have you done? As if he had the right to demand this of her. His brands had lit, wary against blood magic, but Verity only wept, ravaged by grief, mouth distorted in the admittance of murdering her own son. Better that than let Sebastian ever know the boy was a mage, she had claimed, begging him to strike her down, for she would never be able to stay silent with this pain she now felt. I deserve it, serah. In your loyalty to my husband, please, make it as quick as I made it for my son.
There would never be even a whisper of a rumour. The best secrets were his, and his alone.
The memory helped him steel himself against Varania's raised eyebrow. 'I do expect him to understand that everything I do is for him. To call it into question— I cannot go back.'
Varania settled back, contemplating. 'I see. You are not in your right mind. Perhaps the other rumour was true. You were the Princess' secret lover. You mourn her death. You fought most valiantly to save her, then avenge her, the proof before me now.' She indicated the bowl of healing balm.
'Stop trying to enrage me, Varania.'
'Leto,' mocking. 'Do, please, grow up. Unless you intend to share a bed with your aging sister for the rest of your life?'
'As long as you don't expect me to make it every day.' Fenris retreated to the freshly made bed in emphasis, the wound on his back stinging.
While the city of Starkhaven was in fear at abilities seemingly magic, Fenris publicly abased himself to Sebastian and bowed his head to the new Prince's hand ... an admittance that while maleficar had been prominent in shaping their histories, their taint was no longer present. The Prince vowed his path forward had been clarified instead by his experiences with Kirkwall's corruption and poor governance.
— from Magic in Starkhaven, by Carolyn Khitan 9:49 Age of the Dragon
Ignoring the guards, Achim Falk put his ear to the Prince's bedchamber door and knocked softly. When there was no response, he knocked louder and listened. It was early in the afternoon, two days after the funeral. The guards eyed him askance— they all managed to look somewhat like the elf when they did that, their doubt of him powerfully intimidating. But he had waited as long as he could since trying last a few hours ago.
Strange how Sebastian had shown more grief and anger at Fenris' disappearance than he had at the assassination of the Princess, and the prince, Maker guide his poor little soul. Oh, there had been tearing grief in response to that, Achim knew, but mostly behind closed doors, with Fenris himself standing guard to preserve Sebastian's privacy despite the rumour of the near-fatality of his own wounds, a raised eyebrow enough to keep the whole corridor cleared. But that one would never show a weakness if he could help it. The funeral had been as close as he had come, the expression on his face when Sebastian—
Achim felt something twist, deep in his chest. He did not like Fenris, but over time, and under pressure, he had come to respect him. Test after test Achim constructed to prove the elf an inappropriate companion, at the least, and not to be trusted with power, at the most; Fenris moved through with a dedication and focus to Sebastian which suggested he was not even aware of any contrivance in the complexity arising once they has taken Starkhaven and particularly the seat of the royal house. Feeling a momentary personal glee when Fenris had stalked off, by the time the ensemble had returned to the castle, Achim's overblown sense of responsibility to government was beginning to twinge, a lot more loudly and sharply than any personal, petty satisfaction he might feel.
Achim stepped into the room, dim and shuttered. He coughed, a poor introduction.
Sebastian's voice rose from a couch turned away form the door. 'Go away. I do not care about whatever it is.'
'My lord, that is a luxury princes do not have.'
'Do not throw his words back at me, seneschal.'
'Is there nothing I can do to help you?'
'Yes. You can go away.'
'This is a serious request, my prince.' Achim was not exactly a coward, but this was out of his range. 'If there is anything I can do to help you, please let me know. We cannot have the throne vacant in these times. I have already sent out messages for his — Fenris' return.'
Two days of searching — Achim making several requests of the guard more pleading in tone than he liked — gave rise to the tentative conclusion that Fenris had not left the outer city, but he was sufficiently gone to ground and with someone with no desire to disclose his presence. Achim thought of the Crows; from the drawdowns on his books, Fenris had strong connections with them in establishing Sebastian's continued security on the throne. But he had no idea how to contact the Assassin's Guild in any case; Achim questioned only enough to ensure the elf was not frivolous with the funds and no more. As seneschal, Achim had a great belief in division of labour and delegation. He handled the aspects of government that kept sewers flowing and foundries from spilling waste into the river, that kept the guards paid on time and the kitchens cooking and the alienage sufficient and the dwarven merchants from brutal monopoly. Let Fenris wade through the rest of the muck and filth, knowing it would tar him permanently, knowing if someone had to take the fall, it would be the Tevinter.
Achim was an administrator. Fenris called him that as if it was an insult, Administrator. Attend this issue. Achim had none of Fenris' skill at Prince-wrangling, either, that mix of deference and insolence sufficient to make him seem a friend without impinging on the royal authority. Some part of Achim had wanted to applaud the scene at the funeral, the words Fenris had thrown back into Sebastian's face, at last. Fenris had been right, not that Achim would ever admit that aloud. If Sebastian intended to follow through this path of a ridiculous and expensive Exalted March, right on the heels of barely settling himself — and the source of the assassins as yet uncovered, and not likely to be uncovered in Fenris' absence — then Sebastian could not afford any evidence of pettiness in public, not ever. He had to be as the Divine, above personal reproach in all things, or his every motivation would be called into question. Exalted Marches had become less than divine lynchings before, zealotry turning a mob so easily against its head.
Fenris did not question many things, but when he did, Achim scrutinised as well as he could. Kirkwall was already in pieces, and some kind of Divine retribution was not likely to assist. Starkhaven's coffers were more likely to be drained by the slavers' nest Sebastian was so obsessed about.
Sebastian was irritated further at the admittance. 'Why? He does not want to return, or he would be here.'
'Perhaps if you let him know you would have him return?'
'I did let him, in case you had forgotten. I will not be humiliated again, calling out for him like a squalling brat. I humbled myself once, let that be enough. He is a bodyguard.' Such emphasis. 'Nothing more.'
Achim wondered if the Prince truly believed that. If he could have been so blind as to overlook the work Fenris had done for him, where the loyalty of the armies lay. Oh, but no. Loyalty was too strong a word. Fenris had never played general, had never commanded the men, nor had he attempted to do so. Instead it had been by example, the cool competence, the willingness to train another when approached, the flawless dedication as if Sebastian's will had been his, yet tempered by the commentary. As if he were the perfect servant made flesh, and all the Prince's folk strove to achieve the same level of respect and diligence, and consequently the warmth the Prince bestowed on Fenris, Sebastian radiant as the sun. The uplift in spirit and performance had been especially notable in those who bore weapons in Starkhaven's name, in the number of elves willing to try to establish a name for themselves now in the military.
But Achim could also remember the youth Sebastian had been, selfish and shallow, using that radiant charisma for personal gain and little else. Sebastian, who had never been raised to rule. Perhaps he did not know what work they did around him, to keep him on his throne. He had showed little interest in anything Achim did, small interest in governance at all. At least the campaign had kept him from disturbing how Achim had kept the city and countryside from destruction even through a borderline civil war, how willingly Sebastian accepted Achim's offer of fealty. I serve Starkhaven, my lord. Her Princes, yes, but the city and the country beyond all else. So long as the budget permits, Fenris had said, more than once. Achim had let them be, playing at war games.
But an Exalted March.
Achim wet his mouth before he could speak. 'The Divine has sent word. She arrives in Starkhaven within the month.'
Sebastian rose at last from his couch, in his hand a bottle held by the neck. The sight shocked Falk to the core; Sebastian's dishevelment, the unshaved cheeks and unwashed hair, half clad. In the past, in their last lives, Falk had overheard Corbinian joking that Sebastian's colours would show with age, the dissolution, the bloated lush. Either that, or the priesthood would turn him into a pampered, plump little fool, satisfied with his daily wine, fingers never calloused by a day of work and folded over a belly like a prayerful pregnant woman's.
'If you would help me,' Sebastian said, low and steady, 'then heed me now, seneschal. I have lost my wife, my son, and my friend. I have lost any reason to rise from my bed. I would have you leave me alone, a month of solitude, no questions, no interruption. No offers of assistance or sympathy. And you will do as...as Fenris would have done for me, and keep everyone and everything away from my door. No invitations to balls, no contrivance to hold a ball to bring me cheer, no women, no stern confrontations, no public appearances, especially no women, and certainly no more sodding elven page boys, for the love of Andraste, I beg you this. I do not want that door to open, not even for a change of sheets.'
Achim shook. Eerie, the force of Sebastian's growling conviction, even as he looked now, the charisma felt as a compulsion across the length of the room. He licked his lips.
'I will give you all of that, my lord, if you will grant me one allowance in return.'
'Speak.' Sebastian raised the bottle to his lips, already sinking back to the couch.
'I will come in every day for one hour only and sit here, and tell you exactly what I have done in the day to preserve your people from a lack of leadership.'
With a wordless shout, Sebastian threw the bottle across the room, the thick glass exploding. The violence made Achim's stomach clench.
'That is your bargain? Has he possessed you in his absence, seneschal, some demon to send me insane? From where comes this brass of yours?'
'I will simply sit here,' Achim pointed to the nearest table, his hand shaking, 'once a day for an hour for this month, and talk. You do not have to acknowledge me, or speak back to me, or even be awake, my prince. I will bring your food and wine and take the refuse of the day before so no other servants will disturb you for the necessities. Only me, for one hour a day, for this month. And I will preserve your privacy otherwise.'
The fight went out of Sebastian. 'As you wish, Falk. It is obvious my wishes have no place in this world.'
Closing the door, Achim was sickened, grieved, disheartened. The Prince might not have been the Prince he first thought would rule, the Prince he had given his full loyalty; but Sebastian had been bright, a breath of change and fervour. The little prince had been beautiful, the Princess so bold. It was not hard to love them. It was also not hard to hate Sebastian for the display Achim had just seen, for destroying the myth of his untouchable divine righteousness so easily.
Achim wondered what the army would think, if they knew. If Fenris had hidden these tempers and moods from public awareness with as much ease as he executed traitors and negotiated with Crows. Achim had entered the room with the divided thought that perhaps it was good, Fenris had gone, that perhaps it would be best if the Tevinter did not return. Starkhaven did not need a foreigner or an elf so close to the throne in such sensitive times, and Sebastian should have no need for the rumour incited simply by Fenris' undeniable presence and dedication. The personal risks Fenris had taken through the campaign had been notable and worthy of showers of glory, but at least send him to take the field with the army against Kirkwall, send him away from this place of civilisation, of governance. Achim had never been fooled by the veneer of civility Fenris wore. The way he said Administrator, derisive and sneering, said it all, the jealous peasant's heart at the core of the ex-slave; it said that Fenris clearly remembered and was humoured by that freezing night, when a lyrium ghost materialised out of the snowstorm, unarmed, nearly naked and soaking wet, the beast's claws alone taking Corbinian's life in heartbeats, blood and gore and yellow on snow. The curt command at the grisly scene after, for Achim to strip and attend him in the dead Prince's bed immediately. For body heat, Achim realised soon enough from the freezing, juddering bank of muscle pressed against his back, though by then he had already puddled himself to Fenris' vocal disgust.
The sheer energy Sebastian expended on Fenris worried Achim also, that it was Fenris' bloodthirsty nature pulling Sebastian away from proper governance. Were there not already ominous rumours about a weak Prince allowing his seneschal to do his job while playing at conquest with the Tevinter?
But there had been none of this around Fenris, the heavy mourning, the nearly public despair Sebastian was showing instead of the subdued and appropriate grief he had shown for the loss of his family. It would become public if it carried on, yes: Achim had no doubt that if the Divine appeared tomorrow, Sebastian would show himself exactly as he was now, and the horror at the consequences of such coiled itself deep within. The Princess and the little prince were dead, and mourning them was right and true and proper, even a need for vengeance — but this was a child's futile outcry against injustice, no direction to the pain but indulgence of the pain itself.
All of Sebastian's family had been taken from him in this way. From mother to brothers to cousins, murdered by assassins. Perhaps this was exactly that, a child's outcry. And how did one comfort a crying child but provide them with a face of comfort, of stability against the storm?
Achim made a silent compact with whoever was listening, trusting it as always to be the Maker. He would give Sebastian his month, and prayed only that the Divine, the crumbling of the Chantry, the waiting army and every weighted expectation would be capable of as much restraint.
A slave is not what the Imperium made of me ... the worst sort of fool who builds his own cages. This slave to himself experiences a humiliation during the course of life, but in feeling the humiliation once for whatever his original foolishness was, he is humiliated to have felt humiliated; he is humiliated to feel. Thus the two humiliations intertwine, feeding on each other, indistinguishable, until all that remains is the desire to evade all chance for experiences again, for every open door will invite the chance for humiliation again. This is what I became, when presented with an open door a fool who cowered in his corner, as if afraid of fear itself.
— from personal records recovered from a tailor's home, "Port City" excavation site (nom. Starkhaven settlement), Minanter River, 10:99 Age of the Phoenix
First it was a pebble, then another, cracking into dust when they hit the tile. More, until a handful of them were scattered in the moonlight from the open window, then came a rock the size of a fist. Finally a brick, the weight and force of which mazed the tile on which it first touched.
Sebastian struggled from his couch, unwilling to admit he had been awake and watching. A trepidation arose even as he did; he should be calling the guard. Certainly not approaching the open window, however slowly, a paranoia clenching in his chest. Fenris had drilled certain behaviours into him long before they took the city, how best to assure his own safety, how best to allow his guard to assure his safety, from never sitting with his back to a window, never allowing his silhouette to be so clearly seen, to never eating or drinking with cutlery that had been placed and left unattended, or food that had been served from aught than a common dish. This had been done slowly, at times without even direct instruction to Sebastian, only a type of guidance Sebastian was only aware of if he focused on it.
If Sebastian was honest with himself, it had been a relief to cede to Fenris' paranoia, and counterwise to the cool competence which seemed to know an answer to every possible insult. The death of his family at the hands of assassins had not imprinted on Sebastian at the time, outrage and grief being the dominant emotions. As soon as he stepped from the Chantry's shelter, their murders had become intensely personal, a threat he felt between his shoulder blades constantly. The assassins then had been unsophisticated. Fenris seemed to guard against a higher form of enemy, and with Antiva and Tevinter on his borders, he would have been a fool to ignore what Fenris did for him seemingly without effort.
Thus the seed of this fear, sprouting into the choking tangle Sebastian felt now. The accusing eyes of his wife and child were but a small part of it.
Yet he approached the window almost dreamily. Once he had been confident, standing on his own. Elthina dead, his family dead, his friends betrayers. The purity and force of what he had felt then destroyed all uncertainty, washed away his questioning with a single clear answer. He would have faced death then with no fear for what came after, the Maker's benevolence or the nothingness of the Void, only a bitter disappointment that he had been unable to achieve the fullness of his intent.
Four years of campaigning, two years of instability and rule. It did much to corrupt his memory of that pure certainty. Sebastian stepped into the frame of the window, the night air chill on his clammy skin. He waited for what would come, be it an arrow or divine intervention.
Fenris rose lithe and light over the balustrade's rail, landing silently. He wore a cover-all garment in mottled shades of darkness, neither loose nor tight, fully gloved, the tops of his feet wrapped, the otherwise betraying silver of his hair bound in a similar wrap of dark fabric. A cloth covered his mouth and nose, for the lyrium on his chin, Sebastian supposed, or to hide the risk of steaming breath. In reality, there should have been nothing to tell Sebastian who he was, yet Sebastian knew, his heart loud in his ears. His peace and certainty was again shaken, pain and turmoil and doubt bubbling over.
Sebastian was light-headed. The revelation burned: even the Maker could not reach him when Fenris stood guard.
'There you are. I had wondered if you drowned in your blankets.' Fenris narrowed his eyes looking at him, a scoff of disgust from behind the cloth. He hustled Sebastian away from the window, inside, to the layout of furniture Fenris himself had coordinated to assure daily function would not be prey to prying eyes. There he tugged the cloth away from his mouth. 'I will not call you my lord like this.'
Sebastian read the disappointment in Fenris' eyes, the way they slid over him and shamed his every decrepit inch. He tugged his robe closed, but the cinch had been lost somewhere in the bedding. He was conscious then of his own stink.
Fenris abruptly turned to pace. 'Musty clothes and lamp oil. All this needs is—' He bent suddenly and lifted a piece of broken glass, sniffed it. 'Of all the poisons to come from Antiva, you drink the wine?'
Shaking, Sebastian felt his knees give way, and he remembered he had not moved for a long time today. Fenris caught his elbow before he could fall, guiding him to a backless chair. The one Falk used, Sebastian remembered, to sit upon and drone at him, every word of his work a hammer of guilt. Sebastian knew what Falk was trying to do, to fill the void that dead fathers and brothers and tutors had never filled, to make him competent to rule. All it did was make him conscious of his lack.
'You will not call me lord but you will still breach my solitude—'
'I would do almost anything for you, even as you are.'
'Then you are a fool, slaving for an even greater fool!'
'I am no slave,' Fenris said, sternly. 'But I will agree with the other.'
'That you are a fool?'
'And you are the greater fool, certainly.'
Fenris went to one knee before him, eyes too large and earnest, a small amused quirk to his mouth. The scar was so horrid and ugly on his face, so imperfect, Sebastian's throat thickened with grief to see it. He could see almost aught but the livid flesh, a permanent badge of failure. He would never be able to look at Fenris again without thinking of his wife and child.
'We need to talk,' Fenris said.
'I am not ready to talk to you.'
'You must always be ready,' Fenris rose, walking swift to the room which served as a dressing chamber, his voice coming muffled from within. 'The Divine arrives in nine days, my friend. We have covered your grief so far by spreading word you are in retreat for purification, in light of your history as a brother. But you must be ready.'
Nine days? But he had thought Falk said a month. Surely half that had not passed already? 'You will not call me lord, but you call me friend.'
Fenris reappeared, a fold of clothing in his arms, boots dangling from one hand. Sebastian saw the stockings stuffed in the top. 'Are we not friends?'
'I no longer know. You broach my solitude, you mock my appearance, you scorn my grief and you rebuff me in public. What is that?'
'Exactly a friend. Or did you learn nothing from your time in Hawke's company? Now wash the pertinent parts to make you somewhat less offensive to my nose, and dress. '
His weakness shamed him, Fenris needing to assist him over the balustrade, down the castle wall, the furtive sprint across the broad area of turf around before they could reach the treeline leaving Sebastian panting, though he strove to silence the sound. It brought life back to Sebastian's pulse, a trace of thrill to it, sneaking from his own castle. Memories of another life, finding his way to brothels and bars and lovers. He avoided letting the thought lead him to Verity, who had tolerated his few indiscretions with a disappointment that made Sebastian think of his mother.
But halfway through the cool, quiet city, following Fenris through the shadows and thinking the elf should have been a rogue, Sebastian remembered suddenly who he was with, paramount bodyguard.
'How far away are they?'
'The rest of the guard.'
But Fenris only looked at him 'There is no one. There is no cage.'
Mingled terror and relief tightened. Fenris had never used the word before; Sebastian had never articulated the feeling, of safety as well as restriction; of the power to make such change, command over life and death and such myriad futures. The terror of misusing it. But there it was, now spoken. Truly, Sebastian had not been raised to rule.
Fenris led him through the Phoenix Gate and the merchants' street beyond, further, through the residences, finally beyond the wooden gates which marked the city's outskirts. Beyond, to the banks of the river, along, three solid hours of walking until Sebastian would not have had the breath to spare for conversation even if Fenris pressed for it. They turned inward, away from the river. By dawn, Sebastian trudged in the elf's wake, tired honestly, but too awake. He stopped when Fenris stopped, uncertain what he was looking at.
A camp, a fire built if not lit, a tent, circular and tall enough for Sebastian to stand within, if never so fine as what they had on campaign. Fenris unbound his hair then, ruffled it briskly, the steely spill which still, always, surprised Sebastian: an old elf from behind, not so old from the fore. The face would match the hair one day. The scar would weather into the seams, a forgotten scuff. He ached to think he might not deserve to see it.
Fenris unfastened the tent's toggles, ushered him within. 'I would have come for you sooner, but I could not test the injury on my back so. Everything takes too long these days.'
'And there is never enough time.' A faint echo; Sebastian had said these words before, almost as a curse. He never anticipated it would be so many years before he could take his rightful place. Six years for the purity of his intent to weather and stain and tatter.
A headshake. 'There is always enough time. It is a matter of priorities.'
Fenris undressed to the minimum and settled to a bedroll. Only a small lamp was lit within, the shadows of the tent full of secrets without full dawn to illuminate. The smell was so familiar, waterproofing, grease, leather, tarpaulin; the mustiness of the bedroll, the hint of metal in the corners.
'What of the castle, to find me spirited away?'
Fenris sighed. 'It is dealt with already, Sebastian. Falk has been advised, with a briefing for the guard on expected behaviour. No one will know but us.'
The name Fenris usually said as if spitting was softened around the edges. Their antagonism had amused Sebastian before, like cat and dog in the same room.
'Falk found you?'
'By accident. Apparently he is frugal in his tastes; we frequent the same tailor. We...spoke of you extensively. There is more to the seneschal than I had assumed.'
'A fearful worm, you called him. Crawling along the lines in his ledgers, as if a misstroked vowel were a criminal act to end all empires.'
'Sebastian.' Now Fenris sounded pained. 'I have been mistaken about these things before.'
That brought back the crushing shame, the humiliation and terror; he was in the middle of the woods with the one who had failed him so obscenely Sebastian had wished himself dead rather than have to know Fenris was as fallible as the rest of them. That Fenris' faith in him was as dangerously flawed as Fenris himself. It turned within him like a child's cry for a parent's absent praise. Why were you not perfect? Why did you not praise me? Praise from the perfect soul would only make me perfect by comparison.
Maker spare him, but he was so tired, and as surreal as the night, the walk, the destination seemed, the bedroll beside Fenris beckoned.
Fenris woke him an hour before midday, a small dry meal offered and a beaten metal cup of fresh water. Sebastian was groggy and ate slowly while Fenris prowled the small tent, setting to rights the bedding, then the laying an array of weaponry before Sebastian.
'Now that is not my grandfather's bow.' He drew it free by instinct, a brutal affair more club than grace.
'I should hope not. This is for hunting, not for honour. Today we test these, sleep the rest of the day, then spend the night in wait for the dragonlings that the local farmers claim are decimating their sheep, some hour's walk beyond the treeline.' A gesture in the direction. 'The reward is not insignificant. A whole two sovereigns they have struggled to put together for us.'
There were no words, in truth, so Sebastian simply nodded. 'It is no stranger than many things I have done at your side at times even more fraught than these.'
A wry chuckle. 'At least they will not recognise you with that cat on your face.'
Sebastian touched the wiry brush of his unshaved cheeks — a full beard, if he were to be honest, left too long to be called stubble. 'They will know you. All of Starkhaven knows you.'
Fenris indicated his garb from the night before. 'They will never see me.'
'And shall you let me take all the glory?'
'There is no glory in killing beasts. It is something that needs to be done for those who cannot do it themselves.'
That first night waiting for the dragonlings, a poor, bleating and bloodied sheep in the middle the trap, Fenris talked, mostly, Sebastian limited to those holes he wished to gouge in the other. Fenris turned the barbed strokes aside each time with a patience that made Sebastian wonder if he had hallucinated Fenris' vicious rebuttal that funereal day, if in the replaying of his words they had somehow escalated to beyond what they were; if the whispers and scornful looks of those around him after Fenris left in disgrace had been purely imagined.
The conversation was fraught and difficult, as Fenris spoke mostly of the traitors whose bodies still hung above the Phoenix Gate.
It hurt to hear Fenris speak of them with fondness. It hurt as much as discovering the Harimanns as traitors, as learning of the taint of magic and demons on them. What has magic touched that it did not taint, if not outright destroy? He and Fenris used to discuss the progress of the two soldiers over wine and supper, often late in the evening, mocking at first, as Fenris was of most things, making fun of their incompetence with a decided lack of patience. As the year had progressed Sebastian noted the way Fenris' expression changed, becoming abstract, then softening, warming. The words shifting to those of praise. Out of some delight, and, if he were to admit, a strange jealously for the place they held in Fenris' heart, Sebastian speculated with Verity on which of his successors Fenris had fallen for; some days it seemed Guel, some days Innlei, until Verity put an abrupt and cool stop to his innuendo by asking how any parent could name one child a favourite over the other? She had turned Sebastian's jealousy in on itself, made it ridiculous.
Betrayal was the greatest crime, Sebastian felt, to remake every warm memory into one of anger and hate. They had been such fools.
Finally Sebastian had to intrude, his gloved hands tight around the shaft of the clubbed bow.
'You should be telling me who sent them. It makes no sense to have been a long term plot, from prior to your selection of them, because who would have known who you would pick? They must have been corrupted after you elevated their positions. How was such corruption possible? Who did it? When comes the next strike? Why fill my ears with this maudlin, melancholic talk?'
'Because I miss them,' Fenris said, simply. 'Despite everything.'
Like as much as you miss your wife and child, Sebastian heard, and turned to the side and spat.
'My friend,' Fenris said. 'If you still trust me, you will trust that I have already tracked the source of their corruption and ensured it will not strike at you again through the same avenue. Do you trust me?'
'I'm sitting with you in the middle of a copse, in the dark, waiting for dragonlings. If you wanted to end me you would, here and now. Do I even have to answer?'
'Yes.' They looked at each other for a long moment, until Fenris suddenly smiled, a flash of teeth in the dimness. 'Lizards.'
The trap they had laid before sunset proved well planned, those dragonlings who escaped easily handled, though the number of times Fenris had to leap to his rescue made it clear how distant Sebastian had become from the fight. The old excitement ran high, the purity of the hunt, the ghostly blaze of Fenris' markings turning the butchery into scenes of mixed horror and grace. If by the end Sebastian's chest and back ached from the hunting bow, he had remembered the small tricks of posture and poise which subsumed the hurt into a satisfaction of the perfect release. Stripping the majority of his clothing to spare them the spoils, Fenris did the filthy work of rendering the corpses to useful parts, wrapping gore in dragonhide, sending Sebastian to the farmers' small settlement to collect their coin and gratitude and trade the spoil for tea and food.
The presence of a new factor now became apparent in the military picture, a small force of exclusively trained soldiers. The paramount defeat of several of Kirkwall's street gangs had provided repeated evidence to the elven warrior that a small force of well trained and complimentary capabilities were better at defeating much larger forces through expert strategy and careful planning. Combine this with his connection with the Crows, and his own experiences in executing expert and tactics with small forces on his home ground both in Minrathous and Starkhaven, the Starkhaven Wolves became a force to be contended with. Unlike the Antivan Crows, the Wolves swore an allegiance to country, commander and crown, and unlike the mercenary forces typically used to bolster the military, there was no rapine, looting, or otherwise disrespect even in enemy territory. They were not a force for conquest, but for change. There was no internal hierarchy but for each cell answering to their commander, who answered only to the crown. One hundred positions were available, the Wolves acting in cells of three to five only, and competition was fierce for entry. They were skilled in all weapons, trained in stealth, frontal assault, and in high alchemy to rival a mage, in dwarven explosives and in the application of gaatlock ... a single cell captured the Arishok himself. The next Arishok named those three women and one man basalit-an, worthy of honour, before their execution. Their deaths were later immortalised on Starkhaven's Phoenix Gate.
— from Military Forces of Thedas, by Janus Whim, 9:70 Age of the Dragon
That day they moved to a river settlement left shorthanded by the loss of sons to work that night on a set of nets, Sebastian again doing the talking while Fenris faded into the background. They waded with legs wrapped in oilcloth and the heavy weight of the net between them, not more than three armslength apart, water biting at Sebastian's shins until he imagined a pair of pincer-toothed fish clamped onto him, a child's irrational fear of what he could not see. Over the rippling current Fenris spoke of Seheron, what he could remember of it, a particular shade of sky, a fruit whose interior was a sweet water the colour of raw meat, his mother's loving touch.
'Sometimes I think you lucky for remembering only her love. I had many more years to disappoint my mother soundly, for those memories to blank out all else that might have been good.'
But Fenris drew a great breath at that, and on the exhalation said, 'Lucky!'
The bitterness shocked Sebastian to the bone, recalled that funeral night and the humiliation on Fenris' face. He could see nothing of Fenris across the dark of the water but the shine of the lyrium at his chin, even the hair covered.
'I am sorry, Fenris. I did not mean it as it came out.'
'Then why did you say it?'
Sebastian tried to find the words. As an almost priest he had often offered succour, words carefully phrased to acknowledge the pain of the speaker and deliver the Maker's comfort in words tailored to give the penitent the most comfort and guidance.
But in Fenris' presence the Maker could not reach him. He was alone, but for Fenris. His certainty in that was all that did remain certain.
'I would hear more of your memories, if you wish to continue.'
Fenris huffed. 'Some truth in exchange for your trust, is this it, Sebastian? I have no more memories I wish to share. I want to tell you instead about my sister. We have never spoken of her.'
'Your sister.' Another shock.
Fenris' sister the tailor, who lived in Starkhaven in a poor area which compromised her trade, if not the alienage, because Fenris had not been able to afford better for her.
'Not that you have not been generous,' Fenris acknowledged. 'I have no complaint in my ability to deliver my service to you. The apartment in Starkhaven Castle are suited to me, my needs, close to you. My food and drink is provided, my clothing, weapons, armour of any kind I might commission, servants sufficient to my needs. Falk confirmed and commissioned a stipend for casual expenditure, congruent with that of his own. After Varania's arrival from Tevinter, I initially installed her in Ansburg. It was a well appointed house with her own servant, and she forged a partnership with a widow of the Ansburg alienage and her child who both had skills with lacework and embroidery. It was business at first, but by the first year I visited, and increasingly each time after, I believe it was a love affair, quite intensely felt on Varania's part. She would never have been permitted such in Tevinter, you understand. When Ansburg fell to the chaos, Elena and Felix both fell in the riots. Varania had no desire to stay where their ghosts could haunt her, and so I installed her here, close to me. My providence was much less this second time; most of the spoils of my mercenary days went and were lost on the business in Ansburg. I wanted to give her everything, but my all was insufficient.' A rolling shrug. 'She has had the grace to never complain. About monetary affairs, that is.'
The story was told in a low voice, ending with a scowl almost fond, and they were distant enough from the other lanterns across the water that Sebastian felt it a whispered confidence, to be taken to heart no matter Fenris' pragmatic tone. Too many questions tugged at him.
'Why did you never tell me this before?'
'Why? What would you have done?'
'Maker, Fenris, how many years have you kept her from me, six? Ten, from even back in Kirkwall? I would have ensured you had the title to a townhouse at the least, close to the castle. You could have lived with her.'
'Ah. You have some image of me as the eternal bachelor, supping so gentile with his white-haired aging sister, the two lone elves in Starkhaven's aristocratic streets. Exchanging pleasantries with the neighbours over the evening passagiato, returning to your side by dawn.'
The voice came amused, self-mocking. Sebastian almost responded in kind, but the words twisted in his mouth, stifled and died.
'Why not? Does the image offend you, of comfort in companionship without connection to your sworn service to me? You have as much right to family as the rest of us, and we both know you will never take a wife or a lover. '
Silence, but for the rippling water, the constant sound of their wading, the papery flap of the lantern's oilfed flame. Verity had been the one who first called Fenris the devoted second wife, in gentle humour, just after Kie had been born and left her incapacitated. As though we were in an Orlesian melodrama. Sebastian remembered also that Fenris had been unexpectedly busy for months after that, too busy to join them at supper as was his custom.
But that had been before Sebastian's indiscretions, before Verity had cooled to him, hurt in her eyes; before he told her a Prince was not made for chastity as if it explained and excused everything.
'I have had a few lovers,' Fenris said, and in contrast to the competence which overlaid most of his life and words these days, this was the defensive boy's tone Sebastian remembered from Kirkwall. Abashed. 'Sex is not very important to me. I rarely miss it.'
'You have never wished for family.'
'Yes.' Too quickly. 'But that wish had very little to do with lovers, or wives, or even sex. I had something which was similar, in any case, to family.'
Duty, Sebastian did not say. It was in Fenris' every breath.
They ended the long walk where the fisherfolk gathered, the net disgorging mud, weed and hundreds of bodies of kicking and translucent crustaceans, like jewels sparkling in the filth, winnowed out from the mud by a smaller, finer flat net and bucketed. Fenris was gone by then, back into the shadows, so Sebastian completed the trudge back to their camp with a palmful of coin in his pocket and belly of fish pie, Fenris eating an oatcake by the light of the lantern.
'Do you trust me,' he asked, before Sebastian had even sat. 'Knowing that not only have I failed you and your family, but I have kept a secret such as this from you for the years of our acquaintance?'
'What reason have you given me not to?'
'Amongst everything else she is and has experienced, everything she means to me, Varania is also a mage.'
Sebastian straightened without having sat and looked at the elf, whose face was alien and unknowable in the light, from the peeling scar and taint of treachery, the maleficar's mark upon his skin.
'I am quite tired,' Sebastian said, through the roar of blood in his ears. 'I think I will go to bed.'
Fenris threw the rest of the biscuit into the firepit's ash. 'It is so easy to get tired of all this.'
Prince Sebastian Vael called an embargo against trade with Kirkwall and closed diplomatic channels. He spoke frequently and fervently on what he saw as his divine mandate to end the taint of maleficar ... to the detriment of the rest of Kirkwall's rightful citizens. The Starkhaven army was stationed to choke key geographical approaches to Kirkwall and starve the city, the only approach possible that of one by sea. This position was held until the Divine Justinia V arrived in Starkhaven, but by then the decline of relations between Starkhaven and Kirkwall had induced such setback to the Free Marches, it took over a decade before the economy demonstrated improvement.
— from Embargo: Politics and Economics, by Blessed Sister Levy Vael 9:79 Age of the Dragon
Fenris did not let them sleep long, Sebastian assisting with dismantling the camp, then they walked to a waystation in the wheatfields trade route where a merchant was attempting to recover goods scattered and lost in a highlands' pass during a lightning storm three weeks ago. Fenris stayed back, head bowed through the conversation, his pack always the more weighted of the two, the diligent elven servant to the mercenary master. From somewhere amongst the packaging, Fenris disgorged enough coin to pay for a bed to be held for them at the waystation, including a bath and a hot meal, where they unloaded and disappeared into the highlands some two hours walk beyond to commence the search.
The daylight made it difficult to stay silent, Sebastian felt, made every line and shadow on Fenris' features so stark. If it had been another night hunt he would have maintained his affront, would have forced Fenris to break and speak first. To what gain, the daylight made Sebastian wonder?
The highlands were beautiful at this time of year, though the flowering shrub did little for Fenris, whose sneezing and misery grew pronounced.
When Sebastian finally spoke, he could not bring himself to anger at the piteous sight of the elf, so heavily afflicted by pollen fever. 'Why did you let her live?'
Fenris squinted at him and tugged the scarf lower over his brow. 'I almost did not. Hawke convinced me otherwise.'
'Another grave injustice.'
'You use that word as if everyone's definition of it is the same.'
'Justice? Tell me what it means to you.' Sebastian could already feel the conversation falling out of his control. He stopped. He could see one of the merchant's crates from here, having tumbled from the side of the road down the escarpment, caught on a ledge. No doubt Fenris could see it also, but Fenris looked only at him, through watering eyes.
'Very little,' Fenris said. 'I have never experienced it. There is only life or otherwise, in my mind. I am well aware of laws and concepts and the thoughts of higher folk than I, of the Chantry, whose edicts and history means so much to you, but to call it justice? Justice does not exist. Sometimes I find peace in attending service, or find that the diligence and service of a particular brother or sister fosters in me a sense of faith in mortal futures, the chance of redemption in the humility and dedication of a single good person. But I am ever wary of believing the concept greater than individual. This is why I did not betray Merrill or Hawke, why I will not betray my sister or allow you to execute purposeless vengeance on her freedom. I believe that mages will never be anything other than dangerous, and I believed the Circles offered a way better than Tevinter. But even there, the individuals involved compromised the intent. Now I have little belief except in what decisions I am confronted with daily; to allow my sister her freedom, to kill others of the apostates who threaten the safety of others. On those greater thoughts and concepts, those of your responsibility, I am possessed mostly of doubt.'
'Yet you act with such surety.' Sebastian's voice came hoarse, for a reason he could not determine. 'How—'
'Do you want me to say it is because I have no doubt in you? My friend, I doubt you often. I doubted you when I lied to Verity about where you were on certain nights, I doubted you when I arranged with Falk for a certain chambermaid to be pensioned off and her child taken from her breast and fostered, while telling her personally that her Vael child died in the night. I doubted you when you would have put the lives of soldiers above your ambitions and let Corbinian slip away; doubted you when you put your ambitions above the lives of your soldiers and would have sacrificed them all against Goran's greater numbers and superior position. I doubt you particularly when it comes to making a rational decision regarding Kirkwall.'
For once, the name had little effect. Sebastian struggled for breath. He was drowned.
—I have another child.'
'Elly is three and a half years old, and already shows a penchant for the Orlesian lute her foster mother plays.'
The ground was too close, because he was on his knees. Fenris' lean form blurred and swam, thinner for the confusion in his sight; now Sebastian's eyes watered too, with a numbness pervasive.
'Why would you keep this from me?'
Fenris did not answer. 'If I doubt you, Sebastian, you must not doubt yourself. The Divine is coming. Her intent, under it all, is to be questioned, but overtly she comes to test your purity and declare your fair or foul, and what will happen if she decides the latter? More than mortal, more than a Prince. There is no room for doubt. Not publically. That it what I am here for. Your own personal cynic.'
The question was at the forefront of Sebastian's mind, a tangle of resentment and love and longing, but also a strange sense of loss. What do you think I should do? Something told him if he asked, the question would disappoint Fenris more than anything else he might say.
'How many other secrets do you keep from me?'
'I swear to you, I will willingly bear whatever humiliation you wish to heap on me in public, I will argue with you in private, and beyond all else, once you have ruled, I will obey. But in exchange, you must trust that everything I do is in your interests.'
'I trust you, Fenris.'
'It is not misplaced.'
'I would adopt you as a brother, that none may gainsay your right to contradict me again. An argument between us will never be cause for shame or obeisance; it will simply be a brother's right to speak his thoughts to his brother. This is your right, and I demand you exercise it as publicly as you deem fitting.'
Colour rose in Fenris' cheeks, the shimmer in his eyes more than pollen fever. He struggled to find the words, something he did so rarely. 'You will displease many with that action.'
'Maker take them all.'
'Sebastian—' The head shook a negative, but Sebastian held out his hand.
'I will do this and more in compensation for your sacrifices, because they are not unacknowledged, not unwitnessed, whatever cruelty and unthinking you attribute to me. But there is one secret you must not ever keep from me, and I will hear it from you now.'
The expression did not shutter and guard as expected. Instead a yearning, a sorrow, and Fenris lowered his head.
'Let me sit with you.'
Fenris' telling was without embellishment, though heavy always with the emotional reasoning he gave each action. Sebastian closed his eyes and saw the barebones campsite Fenris' words sketched, the diminishing food and increasing hunger, the companions lost to the wayside or abandoned to greater things, until it was only the three of them remaining, and the long, fraught silences.
The end came two weeks travel outside of Kirkwall, Elthina's death pyre still streaking the skies. It was done at Anders' muted plea while Hawke scouted their surrounds, with no hatred on either of their parts, only relief; no blood or visible mess in the way that Fenris could choose to use his skills if desired. When Hawke returned from her guard she wept in relief as well, and they parted ways not unfriends, Hawke for a destination unknown and Fenris for Starkhaven, with the body of the apostate burned to ash to spare him any potential defilement or possession.
Sebastian wept a little, from shock more than anything other to discover this so late. Tears were ever an outlet acceptable to Starkhaven's folk, a proud people and emotional. He had felt wrong being incapable of mourning Verity and Kie where his people could have seen him, but trailing their entourage he had only been capable of feeling guilt, of knowing how much he had failed them, as a father and a husband. He had been blind to all around him, until Fenris had intruded so rudely. So rightfully. He could never forget he was a Prince.
'So this was all for nothing.'
'That depends.' Fenris bowed. 'Starkhaven might well be grateful for the potential stability of your rule.'
'If it was any other telling me this, I would demand more proof. I would hunt Hawke into the dust until she answered, I would demand the greasy ash of his body in my hand. Why did you never tell me before?'
'You never asked until now. But you know why I tell you now, or you are no true Prince.'
Still, Sebastian could not unravel the core of his reasoning, whether his motivation for the march on Kirkwall came from a desire for vengeance against the individual, or a desire to reshape the concepts which had made the city so vulnerable a place, to prevent it ever happening again. He had not been the one who rumoured an Exalted March, had not even been the one to motivate or move the Divine to martial her forces and approach his poor, struggling city. But he had spoken with such fervour against Kirkwall to begin with that the seed had grown even without his attention, so greatly tangled with his campaign to retake Starkhaven that the two had become one and the same, Starkhaven and Kirkwall, as if both were to be his. To contradict what was rapidly becoming termed his divine mandate would have destroyed the foundations of so many who had sworn their support to him in light of his certainty.
Perhaps the reason did not matter. Fenris rarely looked back, only forward. All I have ever wished for is a future, my lord.
'I will make it count, my brother, however we arrived here. What matters is how it goes on.'
The gloved hand pressed against his cheek, wiped the wetness. The touch was warm and unexpected and Sebastian leaned into it, for comfort. When he looked up, Fenris was smiling.
'I have faith. You are a good person, Sebastian. But you must become a better ruler.'
They finished the merchant's task, such a mundane collection of steps, finding the boxes, carrying the boxes, a series of four long trips until the merchant confirmed contents against his manifest, and they were given their coin, and Sebastian choked down his intentions to moan about the boredom, envying Fenris' stoicism. In the waystation after, run by a small family whose informal service felt homely and welcoming, Sebastian came back from his bath first, waiting in the darkest corner of the dining hall. Fenris returned with his hair unbound, the sight after these last days shocking. Old and young, ethereal and unknowable. This confident beast who sat beside him and thanked the household's middle son for the plate and pitcher he delivered, with a precise courtesy as if he were nobility to the youth's wide, admiring eyes.
To fill the emptiness of the day's emotional release, they drank, and were well on the way to being drunk by the time the household closed up, walking with some exaggerated care to their beds with the last bottle of wine.
'It had felt too much like a curse,' Sebastian admitted. 'Not my family's curse, for all they are the ones whose lives have been lost. But my curse, as if I were targeted specifically to suffer the loss of everyone I love, to make me mourn further those years I lived loving and respecting no one.'
But Fenris waved the bottle, wearing his distaste. 'Orlesian melodrama, Sebastian. What point? I have seen a magister's curse and it is not this. What you describe is survivor's guilt. You should have talked to Hawke more often.'
'Then you see right through me, my brother, as always. I cannot even cover up my distress by blaming it on the Maker.'
'It was a rather thin, unconvincing argument. Was it truly so many years without love and respect in your life? I find it hard to believe of you.'
'No—' Sebastian was thinking of the girl. Elly, his girl, her mother, whose name much like the others he could not recall. 'I certainly felt love, a burst of it in the moment. I am prey to my passions as always.'
A snort. 'As if they are separate from you, instead of shaping you. You are a lush, Sebastian Vael, and even now you continue to sound unconvinced by your own arguments.'
'Perhaps that is because I am repeating what my father used to tell me, and my brothers. I am "prey to my passions", as if it were a demon in my soul, and I uncaring for everyone I hurt.'
'Your pain embarrasses me. I would spare you from it, always.' Fenris passed across the wine. 'You shamed Verity three times, of my count. Why did you do it?'
'Because— No, I will not talk of her, because that was shameful, and wrong of me, in truth. Let me talk of before, when I was young and the only ones who were hurt were my family, and me, in both cases for a failure to meet expectation. It felt good, Fenris. Freedom and a lack of responsibility, willing partners...it was the start of a path of dissolution, but there were aspects, always, that could have been good if not lost amongst the tangle of wrongness around it. Sex, freely offered - was good. Even with Verity I always felt shamed, as if this were something done in trade for her army and her support, for her son, it — I retreated, because of that, into the old ways. Bah. If it wasn't for Starkhaven's cursed honour guilt would not be such a weapon against us!'
'Without Starkhaven's cursed honour, we also would have all died standing against Goran's army. A grave gamble, that one, but one I won for you. If I may add to your list, alcohol, also, is good.' Fenris snatched the bottle back before Sebastian could spill more with his gesticulations, laughing. 'If in the belly, not on the floor.'
'You are the lush, I suspect, if repressed. Another drink and you'll be out roaming the halls in search of that strapping youth's bed.'
A suspicious stare. 'What youth? There is certainly no youth here.'
'The one who served your supper.' Which elicited a blank, guarded expression, delighting Sebastian. 'Did you not see the want in his gaze?'
Fenris drank, swallowing too loudly. 'I thought you had no eye for men.'
'I do not, not for myself. But that does not mean I have no eye for desire or attraction, and I recognise both when I see them. The way his eyes lingered on you, my friend—'
Curt. 'He was only curious to see such a scarred elf in this peaceful place.'
'Ah, so now you know who I mean?'
'Devious little— He was far too young— Ahh! Say nothing, I know that smirk. It is gone time to sleep, we have much ground to cover on the morrow.' The pillow was hooked over the face with a bronzed arm, firmly, the empty bottle falling from falsely slack fingers to the floor. 'Stop laughing, Sebastian.'
The morrow was met with sore heads and a reluctant rising, even Fenris grimacing if stoic. Not an hour's walk beyond the waystation, Fenris stopped Sebastian suddenly, cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted a single word into the peaceful surround.
To Sebastian's bewilderment, ten figures rose from the wheatfield and approached. They wore garb similar to Fenris' first cover-all, if catered to the colouration of the field rather than the mottled grey and black he had worn skulking into Sebastian's chambers and smuggling him away. There were even grains of wheat bound into the scarves around their hair, swaying ridiculously.
'We were never alone,' Sebastian said sharply. 'These were present, this whole time?' He wondered if he felt ashamed to have had soldiers witness his incompetence against the dragonlings, mostly. He was almost willing to ghost over Fenris' lies and evasions. They were becoming familiar; he had named Fenris the politician before.
But Fenris was already shifting, the relaxed posture stiffening, his public face unreadable even to Sebastian. 'My prince, you must trust that whatever I do, it is always in your interests.'
They were back to that, were they? 'This is a significant ask when you persist in keeping secrets from me, my brother.'
Fenris gave a very Tevinter shrug, modest and deprecating. 'When we selected Guelliam and Innlei to train as my successors, there were some fifteen other men and women who had presented in the tourney with capabilities well beyond that of common soldiers, yet with no opportunity for advancement through the traditional methods. Your traditional ranks are dominated by the aristocratic classes, and it grieves me to waste both such ability and loyalty.'
The soldiers closed enough to hear, visibly bolstering and grinning at each other through dusty faces to hear the last of Fenris' words, a rippling respect indicated in their prince's direction as an afterthought.
Fenris raised his voice. 'You did well. Your presence was detected only seven times these last three days. Twice by the Prince, I might add.'
'Yes,' Sebastian said, 'quite.'
In their beaming presence, Sebastian let the question of loyalty stand unasked. There would always be corruption, but it should not taint everything. He could not allow it or he would be no more than a chantrymouse, never leaving or acting for fear of the uncertain world.
'At least there's someone to carry this cursed pack.'
The soldiers immediately took action to assist. Fenris' mask cracked, just, the corners of a smile, and Sebastian warmed to have him near.
...he shows not only uncanny tactical skill, but his ability to function as a diplomat to the crumbling fringes of Tevinter territory could prove of immense value ... I do not need to emphasise to you the importance the priest-prince has placed on gaining the loyalty of those territories in stablising Starkhaven and the Chantry's future against the Qun. The ex-slave spent a good deal of his life living in Minrathous, in a similar privileged position as shadow of a magister. To the desperate Tevinters, he seems less an outsider than any other emissary from Starkhaven would ... they feel he is one of them, and respond to his authority readily and cooperatively. He cannot, we assume, read or write, but compensates with cleverness. He speaks some eight different languages, including Qunlat ... I commend him ... our support with certain reservations. Should need come to remove the ex-slave's influence, his skills make him a difficult target. His time in the magister's service proved the lyrium is sovereign to most poisons. He is ruthless, a skilled manipulator and a liar, and his motivations are as shadowed as his role in the priest-prince's court. But his potential value to reducing the insanity of the Tevinters and at least negotiating with the Qun should be plain for you to see...
— from a Crow agent's missive (decyphered) to the Grand Master regarding the Tevinter fragmentation, 9:53 Age of the Dragon
He had forgiven Fenris. How could he stay hurt forever? Achim had known ever since the moment Fenris had appeared, a lean and unlikely figure in the tailor's shopfront with his wary, angry eyes, challenging Achim's presence as if he had owned the shop himself. Achim had known that with the first whiff of Fenris' leather-and-metal, Sebastian's pain would disappear.
Neither of them would have apologised, he also knew. A proud and bothersome pair. He hoped only that next time he would not be squeezed between as the unlikely and long suffering buffer.
They returned to Starkhaven in relative secrecy, having kept word of Sebastian's seclusion intact, the only guard as Fenris had promised, his wretchedly expensive secret project. Fenris appeared as unchanging and superior as always, Sebastian rugged and bearish as a highlander farmer behind the ruddy beard, dressed little better. Falk ushered them off to their respective baths in some haste. The forward escort had arrived two days prior, chafing at being kept from Sebastian; there were four days only until the Divine herself arrived, the streets already dressed in flowers in anticipation, the security arrangements and similar preparations repeated from the recent funeral, if in colours more suited to celebration, as the only city-wide function the guard was ready to administer. Fenris would no doubt strip and shred the preparations totally, with his seemingly personal aggression towards repetition and predictability. Well, he could not argue against the effectiveness, certainly no one had suspected the warrior would go to ground with a buxom elven tailor.
Let that be Fenris' concern now he was here; what was Falk's concern was Sebastian's court, adding their voices to the Orlesian contingent, demanding loudly the Prince's immediate presence to clarify his position. If Starkhaven's lord and vassals ruled against the Prince now, there would not be a whole Starkhaven to greet the Divine. Rumoured to have had wild younger years that would have put Sebastian's to shame, Justinia V was relatively recent to the position. Her response to the issue of Kirkwall and Sebastian's waiting army, likely the first motion towards unifying the Free Marches, could not be predicted.
Yet despite his unease on the greater issues, Achim was feeling magnanimous. Sebastian looked tired but well. There was more grey shot through the wire of his ungroomed hair, but it had been a difficult time, and he was present, eyes sharp. Miracle of miracles, Fenris had even apologised that day in the tailor's shop before he conspired this plan to seduce Sebastian back to life. Oh, not about Sebastian, but to Falk of all people, over tea the elven tailor had brewed them, in graceful and smiling surprise at her esteemed company. Why, Fenris. You never told me you worked in the castle. Over that sturdy sewing table, the warrior had apologised for many things, starting with that terrible night of Corbinian's execution when he had forced the terrified Falk into his arms for body heat. Perhaps what I never adequately explained about my — shall we say, state of undress — was that I had just swum the Minanter. It was half ice that time of year, seneschal. Whatever you must have thought of me or of my unusual demand, I might well have died that night if not for your presence under the blanket with me.
Falk had determined that himself, eventually, as the immediate terror had waned into numbness and Fenris fought to stay awake; but it comforted him to have the admittance, and certainly the apology. Even heroes are as mortal as the rest of us. But it was the honourable thing to do, to forgive, though Falk cradled the image of Fenris' overt embarrassment during the admittance to enjoy later and at length.
Mary - I trust this finds you in the usual place. Do not waste your prayers for peace on the priest any longer, he has been unofficially reborn in his faith, having learned recently of the death of our feathered mutual acquaintance from an indisputable source. Pursuit of justice no longer reigns paramount. Whatever eventuates, I wish the two of you peace. It will be scarce. —Leto.
— a singed missive discovered in the hearth of an abandoned farmstead, Amaranthine, 9:45 Age of the Dragon
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