The Elf with the Empty Victory
Waiting for something?
I hear you like blondes.
She unlocked her bedroom door and pushed it open with a mocking flourish of wrist. Anders walked in first.
Because Tabris might well have slammed the door in his face had she preceded him, laughing behind the wood. Her flirtation always had an edge which made him wary, an enchanting wisp leading him over the cliff, intrigued by the sounds made when he fell. But she had offered, not he, and that was according to plan. Anders did not like doing the asking.
If I were to suggest—
My room or yours?
If his tactics occasionally backfired in the real world, well. If there had been a few too many Denerim alleys, a few too many unpleasant times up against Amaranthine's great wall, magic clenched in his mind like an aching fist. The threat of being lynched or betrayed by provincials was worse than tolerating thrusts usually well abbreviated by angst. Even Anders would admit there was a certain privilege mortaring the joints of Circle stone.
Oh, Maker, you mean you actually thought... You’re a templar! Are you serious? You’re lucky I don’t report you!
Her bed was unmade, and the room sparsely populated. Anders pulled the tie from his tail, shook his hair free with great gusto. The little rosebud mouth and chin was the only part free of tattoo. It mocked and smirked and laughed at him, all in the smallest of motions.
Eugh, I was joking! You’re my Commander! You’re an elf!
But even he was not so unkind, he thought.
‘An elf, was your blonde?’
The mouth flowed and softened. Tabris rubbed her lone earring thoughtfully. ‘I would have thought that the obvious assumption for a human.’
‘Circle raised, you know. One great mishmash of oppressed magedom into a single pot. Race becomes less important.’
‘Sure,’ Tabris said, mirthful and biting. ‘I believe that. The less important race.’
Anders rallied, ‘I heard he wrote you poetry.’
‘They were queer sorts of poems. You’ve been talking with Oghren.’
‘If you can call it talking. Generally speaking, it’s less conversational and more simply being around him between belches.’
‘I like blondes,' she agreed. 'It must be my fatal flaw.
'All heroes have to have one, so I hear.'
'A fatal flaw,' Anders said, grinning back.
'So tell me, blondie. Are you here just out of gratitude?’
‘I rather think you slipped something into my drink.’
Tabris’ laughter was always silent. The eyes glittered, but the eyelids were inked to be contemptuous.
She held out her arms. ‘Help me with my leather.’
Varel’s desperate ahems and meaningful looks towards the Warden Commander’s armour set, of honest plate and obvious insignia, had been noted, the wicked Tabris eyebrow cocked in mockery, and otherwise ignored. Kallian wore black leather today, like a thug or assassin, a kilt foolishly short had she not worn leather trousers beneath, fine and soft.
Anders knelt to remove her boots. Working his way up from ankles to waistband to waist to shoulders, he loosened all the buckles and laces as he came to them, touching skin and lingering, but exposing no individual part of her body. He stood to remove her gloves slowly, using both hands to her one, tracing lightly along her wrist, bared palm, knuckles, the full length of her fingers.
When her breath finally quickened, lids fluttering closed, he disrobed her in two simple moves.
‘You must love presents.’
‘You don’t get all that many when no one knows your birthday.’
‘The Mage with the Stolen Birthday,’ Kallian Tabris said.
And Anders asked, ‘What do you want.’
‘Guess. It starts with "F".’
'Freedom for mages,' he said, just to be funny.
Tabris stepped back, into him mostly naked, hot against his height.
He did not quite know what to do with his hands. The last man was a regret a week old. The last woman Anders could not remember well enough to regret.
Her bandeau was tight, long, narrow breasts flattened against curves of pectoral, nipples erect against the fabric yet askew. Her biceps made him think of an acrobat. Her shoulders, the delicate lift of her neck, had more elegance. But the curve of her arse, her thighs, the leanness impressed and warmed. This was one backside which would never be shamed by spread.
The waist was neat and compact. He settled his fingers there.
Tabris bowed her head and bared her nape.
This time when Anders knelt, he remembered himself and avoided pinning the hem of his robe under his own weight. He traced his tongue from the back of her knee to the gluteal crease. Salt more than sweat, lust close enough to hunger that the two finally blurred, finally sufficient for uneasy tension to surge to erection.
‘You taste like leather. Antivan leather.’
‘The best always is. Stay on your knees.’
Because Anders did not understand her anger, he ignored it.
Tabris turned and clenched her fists hard in his hair, and pulled.
When at last she shuddered and released, she was on her back in the bed with strands of his hair glinting copper and gold in her hand. And it was not unpleasant, to smell her so strongly after tasting her, but he stayed at a distance, one thoughtful finger crooked inside, and the wealth of her heat, the slight differences, the near-vicious tightness made his aching knees more than tolerable.
Anders shifted to straddle her, free hand moving along his length. He was almost ready to close his eyes and let go when Tabris opened her own and grabbed his dick like a sword.
‘I’m not fertile. You're probably not either, not any more. You can come inside me if you like.’
‘But you’re absolutely tiny.’
‘So, that’s a no?’
He would have to clench his teeth. ‘It wasn’t a no.’
‘What do you want, Anders?’
The way she rolled the short name sounded almost foreign, the shadow of a lisp on the sibilant mocking.
‘Your arse, if you insist.’
Laughing eyes. Tabris put her arms around his waist. Warm, hard and sweaty, but she still smelled like a girl. He had left her bandeau on. Her fingers picked along the knots of his spine, thumb tracing a circumference from back to front, around the aching prick.
‘Maybe you would’ve liked his poems. I might have misjudged you.’
Because Anders did not understand her delight, he ignored it.
Then Tabris gave him her back, and her pulse was everything, and he wanted to look and wanted, and he looked and did not want to believe, and believed, so tight and impossible. She was moaning now, involuntary and sounding hurt. Her hand moved steadily between her legs, and he put his mouth against a flexing shoulder blade and joined in.
After, his knees hurt even more from the thin mattress and ridged base beneath than from the stone floor. Looking conspicuously pleased and ridiculously young, Tabris examined the friction burn along her forearm. Anders tucked against her side, smoothed the inky hair back from her brow and went to kiss her.
Tabris turned her head away.
‘Is it gratitude, Anders? You don’t owe me anything, you know. I used you willfully.’ She paused. 'Warden-wise, that is.'
‘Does it matter why? I might as well ask why you asked me here.’
‘You started it.’
‘If I slept with everyone I flirted with— Wait, I do.’
Her mouth quirked. ‘Nathaniel?’
‘Work in progress.’
‘That's not flirting! That's antipathy!’
‘You might want to let him know. Even I wasn't sure.’
Her silences demanded to be filled.
‘You know the Circle wrote me,’ Anders said.
Tabris’ brow wrinkled. ‘You’re not going.’
‘Well, actually. I was thinking about it. I mean, I got out. And stayed out! Who cares why they asked me back, I can talk whatever they want to a lecture hall full of fledgling mages; I can talk, right? What’s more important that they can see me, the mages and the apprentices especially, standing there because I choose to and leaving when I choose it. There’s ways out of the prison, and I can show them, there's hope. Even for someone like me. I would have killed for as much hope when I was there—’
‘You think you’re free now?’
Her doubt made him hesitate.
‘Sort of,’ Anders said. ‘I will come back, you know. To Amaranthine. If anything is gratitude, that is, and you can say what you like about "using me" as a Warden. It might not be the best way out, but I have had more respect here than anywhere in my life. It's been respect because I'm a mage, not in spite of it. I could never have hoped for so much.’
‘But you’re still a mage.’
‘Meaning I’ll never be free? I refuse to accept that.’
‘Free from what, being a mage?’
Anything he could say to her now would be like handing back a plate of air.
‘Can you please get me a towel before I ruin the linen?’
‘Oh, right. Sorry.’
‘Just in the anteroom.’
Once there, rummaging through a sparse cupboard bereft even of clothing, Anders realised the bareness of the rooms were not typical. He checked again to make sure, then stormed back into the bedroom. He threw the towel at Tabris’ face, but she caught it.
‘What right have you got to pull the guilts on me? You’re leaving too!’
Tabris grinned without humour. ‘You think I liked this prison any better than my first one?’
‘Look at it this way, mage. At least you’re not an elf. You can hide it.’
‘What if I don't want to hide it?'
Tabris shrugged. 'It's not your choice, the way I see it. I've had enough of fighting what can't be won.'
'Look, you can’t just leave. You’re the Warden-Commander.’
‘Heh. At least you’re not the Warden-Commander. Unless I happen to scribe a final instruction—’
'Don't even joke!'
Tabris arched her back to mop between her legs, expression almost wistful. The intimacy, and prosaic nature of the action struck him strangely, deeply, and his sudden fondness bewildered him.
‘I like you,’ Anders said unwillingly. ‘Coming back won’t be the same at all if you’re not here.’
This. This was a genuine smile.
‘Thank you,’ Tabris said. ‘I appreciate it. I get the feeling you don’t like many people at all.’
‘I— You. I can’t believe you’re running away.’ Begrudgingly, he added, ‘Too.’
‘If you go back to the Circle, Anders. Be extremely careful. Sometimes we make our own mistakes.’
Anders thought in silence.
‘Are you going after him? The blonde elf with the sort of poems?’
For the second time, Tabris smiled at him. Anders was excessively warmed again and resented the swelling emotion, as if doubting an echo.
‘Another friend in another kind of prison, I suspect.’ Bitterly, ‘And this one won’t even let him write letters, you see. All this time, not one sodding letter. I intend to find out why. If they haven't bound him to a rack and broken all his fingers, I might have to do it instead.’
Tabris gestured at the bed.
‘But, if it makes you feel better, I didn’t know where I was going to go until now.’
‘—I fell that far short?’
Solemnly, Tabris said, ‘Sweetheart. You have no idea.’
Then dissolved into laughter, ruddy and weeping with joy.
She finished dressing, then sat to stroke his hair. ‘Stop pouting on my pillow, you’ll make it soggy.’
‘I don’t know if I should be talking to you after that,' he mumbled, then rolled over for clarity's sake. 'I put all this effort in, I nearly break my back, and you laugh at me.’
‘I was joking. You were brilliant. For a human.’
‘Oh, come on!’
‘But I have something more serious to say.’
‘Nothing is more serious than these wounds to my pride.’
‘Become a lyrium smuggler. Join a circus. Take to the sea. But don’t let your pride lure you back to the Circle just for some — comeuppance you think you’re going to deliver. You want them forget you ever existed, see? It’s like family. They don’t change, but you do, and any time you try to go back it’s like walking blindly into a trap. The past — rises up out of the dark, locks its teeth around your ankles. You can’t go back and think you can just leave again. For as long as they remember you exist, they’re going to try to drag you back. You don’t want to be what you were. But they want you to never change. They don’t want anything to change, not — not the queens and kings amongst them, not the lowest groveller in the dirt. They like the way things are. Or they wouldn't be the way they are. Please don't hurt yourself like that.’
In another world, he might have been serious enough to answer her properly.
‘Kalli? Sweetheart, I’m not you. It won’t be like that.’
‘All right,’ Tabris said, ‘it’s your life. Thank you for the goodbye sex, anyway. The burn will keep me warm for days.’
‘Sorry, I should have healed—’
Lithe, she avoided his hand and grinned, again genuine.
‘I’d rather you not.’
‘Bleeding stoic warriors. See how you like it after the walk to town, then.’
The swords were last. The swords were always last. Tabris moved her shoulders to settle the weight.
‘I hope you find him,’ Anders offered, still from her bed.
‘Hope has nothing to do with it,’ Tabris touched her right sword hilt with her left hand, testing the slide of blade against sheath. ‘I have the utmost faith in me.’
Anders rose and approached, naked and puzzled, drawn by no motion of hers but drawn just the same. Because she was the loneliest person he had ever met, he expected her to turn her cheek, but this time she let him bend, cup her tiny chin in his palms and kiss her, stubble harsh against sunkissed skin.
‘Come with me. The Hero of Fereldan and the Mage with the Stolen Birthday. This time I intend to start a war.’
He shook his head.
Kallian Tabris smiled and said, ‘This life was also no choice of mine.’
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