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Ambitious


IV.

Fenris raved in his delirium, breathless and enervated. Wherever he was, he could not feel enough pain to stop his motions, only the bindings over chest and thighs holding him to the bed. The blankets swelled over the suffering beneath.

On a crate, Danarius sat his vigil at the foot of the fighter's bed.

Still in fatigues, he held a gun in a still hand, another rifle propped against knee and thigh, none of the fidget nor caress of the weapons that Fenris would demonstrate, fondling his weapons with the unselfconscious ease of adjusting his balls.

The brothers here knew who Danarius was – now – and left him alone. His lip twitched at the thought of them: pacifists, unwilling to fight for their beliefs. Like as not somewhere they were already preparing Fenris' shroud, prayers for a soul forever lost to the Maker's eyes. Fools. They would become bodies themselves soon, and the Qunari prepared no shrouds.

Over the marks of Fenris' hands still burned around his neck, Danarius wore a mercy blade on new gold chain, the sword lit with the eternal flame. Fenris had commented on the religious icon the way Fenris commented on everything, a humour dry, clumsy, testing what was wit and what was provocation: noted that without Andraste the eternal flame would not exist as holy worth, queried likewise the Imperial Chantry's rejection of her status. Danarius was not religious to be offended, though. Somewhere in his years in Seheron he had become a fan of the ideal of public and prolonged torture, more than for the story of a woman who had died by Hessarian's mercy. The promise of what existed on the other side of pain had been forgotten by the Chantry: to the living it was the pain which made it all worthwhile, pain the method through which to demonstrate one's worth. If Andraste had not screamed her passion into the flames, Hessarian's mercy never would have been earned.

Danarius watched his dying elf. In Fenris' enjoyment of the battle, of his purpose, the pain was the part the boy always forgot.

The Fog Warriors had been the ones to pull Fenris off the spike where Danarius had left him to die. Perhaps insulted that someone of the Imperium had used a traditionally Seheron method of execution. And bodged it, apparently, from the life still left in the body. At the time, amongst the bodies of so many dead Fog Warriors and dead Qunari, still gasping from Fenris' attempt to kill him, Danarius had felt it a fitting method of ending things. Symbolic. As symbolic as Hessarian's gracious penetration of the burning martyr.

Easy enough to contrive the punishment with a full legion from the Imperium behind him. An attack on a Magister was sufficient to demand death by any means requested.

Yesterday’s fever becoming today’s delirium, today’s delirium tomorrow’s madness. Then death, Danarius knew. But there was so much noise in the dying. Unexpected screams and groans and cries. Fenris had always made too much noise. Argumentative. Often with right, but Danarius was not in a position to acknowledge that. At times power constrained as much as weakness. These roles they had to play.

Fenris' lids opened. For a moment cognition was there, if some years distant. He smiled weakly at a familiar face, unflinchingly earnest.

‘Whiskey enough for three, boss?’

Danarius smiled in return. He remembered, too. Before Hadriana's jealousy. Before Fenris had thought to test his own freedom. Before the Imperium returned to reclaim its own from the chaos on Seheron which had corrupted their purpose.

Intelligence flared, then panic, pain; faltered, eyes dull. ‘Hurts.’

A plea to the one who could end it.

Yes, Danarius thought. He imagined it did hurt.

'Oh Maker, it hurts—'

'Fenris.'

Danarius surprised himself with the sound of his own voice, harsh and impossible. He hadn’t spoken in some time, refusing to test the damage Fenris' rage inflicted on him.

He put the mouth of his gun against the sweating temple. Fenris looked at him with the dumbness of a kicked dog, resigned and accepting. Suddenly still.

He did not tremble, the gun did not waver. The question, if it had been there, was answered.

Danarius holstered the weapon without pause.

He took Fenris' hand.

'Please, Dan. Please.'

In two more days, it would be a new year, a new decade, the same old crimes for the same old Age. Seheron meant nothing to him. Danarius sat at the foot of Fenris' bed, thinking of the ship waiting for him, another bare hour only, wondering why the idiot simply refused to die.

I.

A new year's eve, Danarius walked into a bar in Seheron City and found Hadriana there. No coincidence, considering the deficit of locations for those in their apparent field of work. Playing off both sides on behalf of a silent third required a certain protectiveness in those moments of leisure sought.

Hadriana had always been the strangest of his bunch. A hardon for her knives, and no seeming ability to feel pain or the malice of others, only her own. Danarius taught her once, taken her in, saw the mad eyes and the pleasure she found in her role, as if the arms dealing, the death, the destruction was her aim. He knew as well as she did the thrill of that power, wielding the knife, controlling the blood, the power of life and death; the sanguine little sacrifices of their own made on that same altar, shrapnel and native whips and spears, the jungle and its infestation of tigers stripping them scratch by scratch.

But they had a difference. He knew the excitement of battle was a side benefit. Hadriana seemed to think the blood itself was the purpose.

'Hello, boss.'

'Hadriana.'

‘I hear you’re looking for your boy.’

Danarius stared, unblinking, until she lowered her gaze. He sat uninvited. Their few liaisons since parting ways as master and apprentice had been unbalanced.

‘He’s not in this city. Danzig swore he'd died here, but I find only a trail leading to you. Another recent sighting of the so called dead walking in Fallon Dia Port City, on the other side.’

‘Oh, no.’ Hadriana grinned. ‘But he's also not in the Bowrie Archipelago. You may as well ignore all those rumours of your boy trying to fight on the wrong side of the fence. I started them.’

‘There are no sides.’

‘Ah, well. He was on the side that wasn’t paying me a large enough bounty.’ Hadriana brought her cigarette to her lips, took her time inhaling, exhaling. Did not commit the gross offence of letting her smoke get into his face.

‘He was on no side but mine. You sold him.'

‘After the massacre he committed at Angakorak, his worth to the Seheron was formidable. Near enough to get me off this island.’ A Tevinter shrug. ‘There are no sides, as you said.’

'Have you forgotten our true allegiance?'

'My allegiance is with myself. They sent us here into this pit of madness and left us. Abandoned us. It was supposed to be three years, and I've lost half my adult life in this stinking swamp. Where comes the ship to take us home? When was the last time you received contact?'

'We are not abandoned, Hadriana. We have an objective. Until it is achieved—'

'It was an impossible task to begin with!' The bar rang with her shout, shaken on the redraw. 'And when did that objective ever involve the likes of Fenris?'

'We are here because we are adaptable. Because we make best use out of what raw materials the native landscape has to offer against the true enemy. He offered himself in exchange for the training he could not obtain elsewhere. Remember he was invaluable in approaching and controlling the local warriors.'

'And for that pittance, his facile tongue in translation, you favoured him above all of us of true Tevinter blood.' Another draw on the cigarette, her fingers shaking. 'Slave scum, treated as your lieutenant. I should have had that role.'

'Had you proved suitable, you would have had it.'

A sneer. 'What purpose this discussion, boss? Do you want me to apologise? Our duty is to sell the weapons that Minrathous gives us and reap the bodies. Sow chaos, reap blood, feed Imperium. What he is worth but further collateral.'

'You sold him to the Seheron as a traitor.'

'If you wanted him to have half a chance, you shouldn't have written “property of Tevinter” all over him.' A giggle, edging onto madness. 'Oh, boss. Boss. So mad at me because I've sold your precious trained weapon. Don't you know, I'm only doing my job.'

'I left him in command, Hadriana. Over you.'

Another laugh, burbling, the sound to set him on edge. Hadriana leaned back in the chair, head lolling. Swinging. A motion like a snake, then she was suddenly in position to stare at him, fixing him. Hypnotic.

'You know him for weak. You will not think to disrespect me like that again.'

Her insolence was useful, on occasion, her willingness to dare. Danarius elected to leave her to it.

II.

The Ashkanestra prison, then. Fortuitously one of the few settlements in Seheron with an Andrastrian presence remaining, Chantry priests with balls of steel in the face of the inexorable Qunari push. Danarius grew a beard during the days to approach, put on a brother's habit, ensured his necklace and its blade of mercy and eternal flame were prominent, and let himself settle into the old, painful shape.

There was a moment, looking at himself in the mirror, that he saw himself had he continued this path: an old man, the world a bunk too narrow for restless bones. Suffer the consequence of his merciless choice: the unlikeliness of growing old, the exhilaration to be found along this pathway leading to a death he would meet nameless, without ritual or dignity.

Ashkanestra's prison crawled and stank. Indignity, monstrosity. Fenris appeared after Danarius had waited patiently at the entrance for some hours, sneered at behind his back by the Seheron guards. Haggard, shambling, ferociously long-haired and older than his years, brow furrowed in horizontals that would never ease. Danarius' skin crawled at the sight.

Fenris looked unsurprised to see him.

For the benefit of the gun-carrying guard, Danarius announced, ‘Your family has requested your confessional heard, elf. Walk with me that we may discuss your absolution with only the Maker's ears to hear.’

Fenris' lips quirked. ‘The Maker heeds me now, does he?’

‘He hears you owe Hadriana one,’ Danarius said, low, by way of greeting.

Fenris sneered, and Danarius felt obscurely eased: liberty gone, yet Fenris' arrogance remained uncrushed.

‘Sweetheart deserves it, doesn’t she? One wonders if she's worth my time pursuing. Especially when I'm so enjoying my holiday. The hotel’s divine.’ Settling into the affectation, Fenris cracked his neck from side to side. ‘There’s something,’ a gesture, mockingly apologetic, the shackles around bony scabbed wrists clinking, ‘on your lip. Just a little—’

Danarius let himself smile, small. ‘The brothers here wear beards as penitence in the humidity.'

‘Oh, I see. The mercenary become instead the merciful.’ Patent Fenris eyes, smouldering. ‘Do you intend to offer me charity?’

Danarius had brought him non-perishables, cigarettes, alcohol. All substances were surrendered to the guards. Fenris shook his head at the litany lost.

‘I won’t see any of it.’

This Danarius knew, was exasperated that Fenris had not yet leaped to the logical conclusion. His providence had been more in the matter of bribe than intended for Fenris, to mask the one poor offering to disinterest the guards. Danarius withdrew a small box from his robes, placed it upon the tiny window ledge where they lurked, at the far end of the room.

In Tevene, he said, ‘This is perhaps of more use.’

He lifted the lid. The blade from a razor, edges temporarily dulled by wax and rounded, resembling nothing more than a token wafer amongst the others. Fenris raised one eyebrow.

‘Remember not to swallow.’

Also in Tevene, smooth and without accent, ‘You should remember I never swallow.’

‘Starvation might have changed your mind.’ Danarius looked down, and at last admitted his anger to himself. Fenris was one of his, but so was Hadriana: and Danarius was nothing if not possessive. ‘What did Hadriana do?’

‘She sold me to my people,’ Fenris said. ‘As a servant to the Tevinters. Nothing more that the truth.'

'Nothing.'

A pause.

'She also told me the truth about you. I nearly killed her. Then she sold me.'

'Your recent conditions aside, I still expect a certain quality of report from my men.'

In a low growl, 'Fuck you. And her. I would have sold her first had I been two days quicker. I would have sold her to the Qunari and held her jaw shut while they stitched her lying mouth closed. How did you think you could keep it secret from me for so long? I should have seen through you years ago. Tevinter mercenary, you, delivering mercy in the form of a hundred thousand crates of munitions over how many years. Magister. I know why you're here, you, her, Sergio, Clymencanthe, that fucking Anders you hired as blood fodder. I thought I was working to free this forsaken place of their influence, and instead I find myself working for the enemy. If you leave me that blade I will cut my way out of this place, I will find you, and I will kill you. I swear it.'

Something lunatic about Fenris in moments like these, Danarius had always thought. Infantile, saintlike, untouchable. Strip the words away and admire instead the augmented lines of the body, the purpose vibrating through every prison-starved muscle. It was this which had led to Danarius pulling the adolescent out of the poverty of Seheron's streets. Training him. Elevating him. The skills and years of training. This demon, marked Tevinter but coloured Seheron, speaking the language and philosophy of the true Qunari enemy as if one of them, even as he killed them. It had been a project to begin with, shaping and sculpting, something to try to make sense of the madness of his role here. A body to embody the corruption of chaos itself, tearing itself apart with contradictory allegiance.

But somewhere along the way Fenris claimed his own momentum. Become a demon of this war, no other war, born out of Seheron's sordid, bloody womb. Danarius had seen nothing to match Fenris in battle, nothing in this word; never touched by the spraying blood, his motivations for following Danarius forever a mystery to the Tevinter.

Fenris was unpredictable because of it. Perhaps he was too much like Hadriana. Loving nothing more than the perfection of destruction.

'Do you remember Angakorak, Fenris?'

A wild flinch. Not like Hadriana then; she would have laughed. 'What matter old victories?'

Danarius smiled. Flinching, yet still Fenris called it a triumph. 'Does it matter that your victories have been undertaken for the silent honour of the Imperium, not for your people's emancipation?'

Pain, tight and controlled. ‘I suppose I deserve the consequence of my own stupidity.'

'There are privileges to have worked with the Imperium. We have your full details on record. Your passport, your true name, your place of birth, the names of all your family members. Every honour you earn will be recorded in the Imperium's secret histories. We have held Seheron as battleground for two whole years longer than the Imperium's best estimate. You and I, we honed a collection of Seheron savages to purpose unknowing and held the Qunari immobile. That is still a worthy act.'

A laugh, more huff of breath. 'Piss on your honour. Tell me to what account you've been paying my Tevinter wage, if I have been so useful to the Imperium.'

'A native born Seheron has no right to Imperium citizenship. However, any death benefits will be paid directly to your family. Your mother, or your sister should your mother be dead.'

'Should I be surprised you rate my worth more in death than life.' A clank of the cuffs as the wrists thickened, tensioned, subtly enough the guards across the other side of the room were not alerted. 'Leave me here to rot. I deserve nothing more.'

'You are one of mine. You deserve everything I would choose to give you.'

An odd pain in Fenris' eyes. ‘Is it your version of honour to take such responsibility for your chattel? Do you believe I'll owe you further if you get me out? Is that it? You truly want your lieutenant back?’

Danarius kept his silence until Fenris subsided, eyes shadowed.

‘I believe you do not intend to die in this prison.’ A pause, for Fenris to recognise who had the power, here. 'I will have my lieutenant back only if he assumes that role proudly. There is no shame in your superiority on behalf of the Imperium.'

Fenris would not meet his eyes. 'Yet the Imperium remains closed to the likes of me.'

'What would you even do in Minrathous, in any of the civilised cities? I took you from Seheron City itself. You tasted civilisation there and did not like it. You found no place for yourself. You were never made for cities. You were bred for this. For this war. For the use I put you to. The perfect soldier. You should be so grateful. You are a killer. You need only my command, and in your action you become perfection incarnate. Few will achieve anything so close in their lives.'

Fenris said nothing.

‘Do you wish it to be different this time?’ Danarius mused. ‘You must want freedom more than anything.’

‘What I want most is a hot bath.’ Sullen, defiant, said in the Seheron language.

Danarius reached for the wafers, the razor within. Sonorous, for the benefit of the guard around the corner, he said, ‘Bow your head, elf, before the representative of the Imperial Divine, the concourse through which we petition the Maker Himself to forgive and turn His gaze back upon us. Contemplate the sacrifice of Andraste herself, who takes place at the Maker's feet in honour of her submission. Fenris.' The other hand went to cup Fenris' filthy cheek, touched the hair. Danarius rubbed his thumb across the cheekbone. Said low. 'Fenris. When all this is done, you will come with me to Minrathous. I swear it.'

Fenris took the razor into his mouth when offered, hidden beneath tongue, and bowed that feral crown in acknowledgement.


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