"These Mortal Bones"
Tyrannus autem a rege factis distat, non nomine. Seneca, On Mercy, I. xii. 1.
(The difference between a tyrant and a king is one of deeds, not name.)
In the arl of Denerim's cellars, her broken nose dripping blood on the pale linen of her wedding dress, Kallian Tabris lifts her gaze to the guards and spreads her empty hands.
Three nights a week, Kallian Tabris leaves the relative safety of Denerim's alienage for the dubious shelter of an abandoned warehouse by the docks. Three nights a week, she doesn't need documents or a bribe to leave after curfew: on these nights the guards at the gates let her pass without challenge, warned by their sergeant's orders.
On two of those nights, the sergeant - a big man, but lean as a greyhound and nearly as hungry - meets her on the dusty flags of the warehouse floor. He spends hours teaching her skills forbidden to elves by custom so old it nearly has the force of law. There are laws about elves owning swords - but not so many, he points out, about using them. Or her hands, or the wicked twin daggers he confiscated from an Antivan sailor and gave to her the first night she satisfied his stringent eye. He is not kind, Sergeant Herrian. She is a tool to him, and very little else, but she lives for these lessons with an intensity her mother - whose efforts to teach her something more than a thief's trade had fallen in stony ground until it was too late to matter - would have found frightening to see.
On the third night, the sergeant meets her in the warehouse, but they do not remain there. On these nights, the sergeant leads her to the cellar of a dock tavern, or an empty granary by the market, or a bear-baiting pit in the liberties outside the city walls. These are the nights she earns him money, fighting with the savagery of desperation in matches without rules and sometimes without weapons, where the winner walks out alive and the loser might not walk again at all. The city guard ignores the pit fights: bored merchants and jaded nobles and the sons of wealthy gentry mingle with gamblers and touts in small crowds avid for blood, and the venue sometimes even plays host to the arl of Denerim or his son. No one dies whose absence the city might notice, and if the rage that boils her veins was not controlled by cold reason and the refrain one day things will change she could - would - change that. But her father needs her. Her cousins need her, and the quarter-share of silver Herrian shares from what he earns from her.
More men would die, else.
Sometimes on these nights she rises, spattered with blood and worse things, bleeding, the taste of bile in her throat, and Herrian will push her into the hands of some bann's guard, some merchant's man, who will - sometimes - take her as far as their master's bed. More often the act takes place in some dark nearby room, or up against a splintering wooden wall or on a dirt floor: the men - and few women - who come to the fights do so for savagery and barbarism and thrill of walking close enough to danger to smell the blood.
Her blood, and that of the humans - and occasional elf - she fights. She's the dark horse, the skinny elf-girl who looks so easily broken and fights like one demon-possessed, like a savage from the Dales.
She gives them what they want. And after, Herrian will hold her head while she vomits, and give her whiskey to quiet her shakes, ointment and dressings for her wounds, and a steadying hand back to the alienage's iron-barred gate.
She could hate him cleanly, if she didn't need him. If once, long ago, he had not chosen to haul a spitting, fighting girl out of a cell and offer her something other than a flogging for theft.
His lack of kindness is itself a gift. He has never expected her gratitude.
Kallian Tabris is grateful, and not unaware of the irony. She could not hate Herrian now if she tried. Vaughan, pale and sweaty and sickening in his bargaining, in his puerile insincerity, has taught her purer loathing.
She'll die for this. But there are worse things to die for. And worse things to kill for, too.
This, at least, is justice.
She smiles at his fear. Her hands are not empty here.