A/N: This is a very experimental piece. There are POV switches and some world-building, so a few notes are required:
a) Everything narrated in first person is Alistair's POV. Everything in third is narrated by Onora Cousland, my PC.
b) Whenever you encounter a number in brackets, it indicates an explanation you can find at the very bottom of the page in my closing A/N.
c) The world-building relates to my PC. Since I chose someone who looked Asian, I decided to make up a country of origin and had to change a couple of canon things about the Cousland parents, in order to make it more believable.
The main idea for the plot comes from a party discussion between Alistair and Zevran. The fic takes place in camp, during a time when the party is taking a small break due to a severe injury the PC suffered. The main pairing is Alistair x Cousland, though it doesn't feature much in the story.
If asked what pain is, a warrior's response will be practical, literal: Pain is the feeling we experience when a foe's blade finds its mark.
A poet, ever the sentimental sap, will seek answers elsewhere; he will look for pain borne of wounds that scar the soul. Flesh is just flesh; skin heals and the body forgets, but the heart never does: Pain is the feeling we experience when a loved one's blade finds its mark.
At least, that's what Berellian, Cyril says in his widely-read magnum opus On Humanity. I should know; the Revered Mother made me copy the passage discussing piety five hundred times when I asked if the Maker was high on lyrium when he created Shrieks. I mean, come on.
But I digress... My definition of pain is far less eloquent, but at the same time succinct and easily understood. A layman's definition, if you will, but an effective one, no less:
"AAARGGHHH- ANDRASTE'S FRILLY DRAWERS, WHAT ARE YOU DOING?"
I suppose narration isn't one of my strong suits, either. Let me start over.
Our story begins a long time ago, on a dark, stormy night as it always is in the beginning of all good tales, when a young Dalish woman gave birth to a blond, dark-skinned elven boy.
Twenty-three years later, the tosser tried to kill me.
I sat down on the bedroll by the fire, taking in my surroundings warily.
Zevran had set up a simple camp in the forest, far away from the rest of our companions; our plan for the night was going to require solitude. Strangely enough, I found myself thinking of Morrigan as I looked around, for the state of the little camp now reminded me of her own tent.
The elf was sitting on the other end of the bedroll, his back turned to me. There was an assortment of clay pots and small mortars surrounding him. Most were either filled with a jet black or deep crimson substance, while others carried what looked and smelled like scented oils.
Next to us, a tall, huge fire crackled fiercely. It wasn't a particularly cold night, but we were going to need all the light we could get. The warmth of the fire licked one side of the elf's face, but he did not shy away from it like I had; his unwavering attention was devoted to the small, woe-begone leather pack in his hands.
It was unlike Zevran to be so silent; usually, the man found ways to make my life more difficult, if not with his deeds, then with his tongue, which was about as sharp as one of his deadly daggers. We weren't friends, not really. Our sense of camaraderie had sprung from a mutual feeling of loyalty toward the same woman, and as far as I could see, that was all we had in common. I knew next to nothing about him, and he knew just as much about me. Nevertheless, I had spent enough time in his company to know that there were few things in his life he took seriously, and judging by the intense look in his eyes, this was one of them.
Zevran undid the clasp of the pack and rolled it open on the empty space between us. The frayed, brown leather had seen better days, and the inside was coated with large, dark ink stains, but the contents were in excellent condition: a few clean rugs and a series of what appeared to be sticks in varying lengths and sizes. Some had very slim, pointy tips, while the more sinister-looking ones had ends that reminded me of the small, decorative combs Orlesian noble women wore on their hair.
Though the instruments scattered on the bedroll were intriguing, knowing what they were going to be used for was not helping my stomach stop churning.
I was beginning to feel I had made a terrible mistake when I let Zevran brow-beat me into this. I must admit, I had been curious, and it was I who had suggested this in the first place, but we all know what happens when we allow curiosity to make fools of us. Biscuits, my nug-sized ginger tom, could attest to this if he wasn't buried six feet under in a back yard somewhere in Redcliffe.
The only item in the small camp that didn't make my insides dace the Remigold, was an unlabeled bottle of a clear spirit and two tiny cups. While they had seemed out of place at first, I was soon thankful for the presence of alcohol. If the act was as painful as they said, a little sedation would be welcome indeed.
At this point, I feel the need to take a moment's pause and address you directly, dear reader, for I wouldn't wish you to think me a coward. Note the formal tone, if you please; shows just how serious I am about this.
As I mentioned earlier, I am no stranger to pain. Despite my many faults, I do possess the discipline of a warrior and if you find that hard to believe, might I remind you that it was I who endured the rancid, scorching breath of Morrigan's mother on my skin when my legs weren't fast enough to carry me to safety. Lovely woman; I felt bad for chopping her head off, but such is life when your fellow Grey Warden is chummy with a maleficar's daughter. She will be the end of us all; which of the two women, I do not know, but they are both as deadly as they are beautiful, albeit in vastly different ways.
But I am rambling, and this little interlude was supposed to make excuses for my aversion to the impending event. As I explained, pain I can take, even though I may nag and moan about it. It was the company that was frightening me.
Zevran is a formidable warrior, but it was not his blade I feared. He is a silver-tongued master of deceit and disrespectful of another man's privacy, but it was not his jibes that made my skin crawl that night.
Alas, I was sitting two feet away from another man, I was wearing no shirt and I was starting to think his former taunts about a massage weren't taunts after all. The scented oils were a subtle hint at that. As subtle as a Bronto, that is.
"I am ready," Zevran said all of a sudden, turning to face me. My line of thought was effectively interrupted and I directed my eyes at him. "Shall we begin?"
Swallowing hard, I nodded.
Onora Cousland feared she was about to re-experience dinner.
The Qunari stew Sten had prepared for them tonight was not going to win any culinary awards, but the taste was pleasant enough and certainly not the cause of distress in her stomach.
Morrigan, who had finally consented to join them all around the campfire upon the repeated requests of the Grey Warden, seemed to be the only one who noticed her friend's face was now a delicate shade of green. She held out her empty bowl in front of Onora's face. "Go ahead," she said out of the corner of her mouth. "If mother hadn't insisted I ingest increasing amounts of vile poisons every day to grow immune to them, I would have probably reacted the same to the Qunari's cooking."
Onora shook her head and gently pushed the bowl away. "I'm fine," she said through her teeth, her nostrils flaring with the effort to breathe through her nose.
This was ridiculous. Shale's comment was surely meant in jest; her companions seemed to think as much, as they were all now jeering or laughing at the golem's story. She shouldn't be taking it seriously... should she?
"As you wish," Morrigan said, placing the bowl on the ground next to her. "But do not think you are fooling anyone, least of all me. Is it your wound? Do you need help changing your dressings?"
Onora shook her head again. She had not yet fully healed from her injury, but she was well enough to walk and mingle with her friends in camp. They had all refused to resume traveling until she had made a full recovery. While she was grateful for their concern, part of her suspected they were also enjoying the prolonged vacation. She couldn't remember the last time they had spent more than five hours in camp, seven if preparation of a warm meal was included. They were still in a never-ending hurry, but they all deserved a nice, long break to regain their strength if they so much as hoped to be victorious. Not even Sten had tried to persuade them otherwise.
"No, no, I really am fine," Onora insisted. "It's the deer meat. It's... an acquired taste, but I never cared much for it."
Morrigan said nothing more, but she did not look convinced. She turned her attention to the chattering group, her eyes turning glassy within milliseconds.
Onora knew that the witch had little patience for frivolity. Morrigan was a loner, and she had made that perfectly clear not only with words, but by setting up tent as far away from the rest of them as possible. It was only their budding friendship that had brought her in their midst in the first place. Morrigan was not one for public displays of affection, friendly or otherwise, yet she staunchly endured what Onora knew she found mind-numbing conversation just because she had asked her to be there.
The gesture was touching, and for a moment Onora considered speaking to her friend about what was ailing her. But Morrigan's tolerance has its limits; discussing Alistair and his mysterious business was bound to make the vein in the witch's temple pop.
The young Warden shifted her attention over to the discussion as well, though she instantly wished she hadn't: they were still talking about Shale's comment.
The comment in question had to do with Alistair and Zevran, who had but minutes ago disappeared into the woods together, offering no explanations whatsoever. Zevran had not shown up for dinner, and just when everyone was about to finish, he made an appearance, addressing Alistair directly.
"It is ready," he had said cryptically, and without further ado, Alistair had abandoned his stew, grinning from ear to ear, and had ran off to Maker knew where. He had only paused long enough to glance at her direction. Onora had looked at him, wordlessly asking to be let in on the secret, but he had merely given her an apologetic smile before leaving.
She wouldn't have given this much thought, if seconds after their departure Shale hadn't spoken.
"Back in Honnleath," Shale had said, her eyes still gazing at the direction where Alistair and Zevran's silhouettes had last been seen. "There was this merchant -repulsive little man, did things with his gassy emissions I wouldn't have thought possible- and he had this brother-in-law, equally disgusting. The two of them were similarly secretive. Always speaking in hushed tones, scuttling away like the puny rats they were… Until one day they were caught."
"Caught doing what?" Onora had asked.
"What every other couple did under my shade."
The short story was greeted with varying reactions. Leliana was the only one who had laughed. Wynne had looked scandalized, as had Onora. Sten and Morrigan had remained expressionless, though for different reasons each.
Shale seemed to be rather amused by the ripple she had caused in their still pool of a conversation before the two men had left. She didn't bother responding to any reactions, just stood back and watched as Wynne admonished a still giggling Leliana about taking such 'ridiculous slander' in a stride.
"HA!" Oghren exclaimed, belatedly forcing himself out of his drunken stupor long enough to capture everyone's attention and cackle maliciously. He had slept through most of the evening, still clutching a bottle of mead in one hand, but it seemed as if he had been listening in after all. Why he had taken so long to speak was a mystery to everyone. "Knew it… Salad-tossin' freaks… like 'em… 'em rugmunch-… stealin' wives n'… mrrr…" he muttered in between bouts of burping before his eyes slid shut again, and he resumed snoring.
Onora had had enough. Throwing the cloak off her shoulders, she leapt over the log she had so far rested her back against, one hand clutching her mouth. She broke into a mad dash for the bushes a few feet away from Sandal and Bodhan's cart of goods, thankful that the two dwarves had long since retired to their tent.
The retching sounds coming from afar brought a grimace on everyone's face, save Sten's. He had been mostly silent the whole evening, and had strangely fallen into deep thought after Oghren had spoken up.
As if coming out from a reverie, he looked up from his bowl of stew and broke the ringing silence. "I do not understand you Fereldans and your strange expressions. What do vegetables have to do with anything?"
I have to admit, when the elf whipped that thing out, I blanched, just for a moment.
Most of us didn't carry razors since daggers did the trick nicely when one needed a shave, but Zevran's daggers tended to be larger than usual. Nearly sword-sized, in fact.
He claimed that he needed to shave the hair off my forearm. He needed a smooth surface to work on, which, I guess, made sense, but I could have easily gone to retrieve my own dagger. There was something very strange and creepy about receiving a shave from a dagger that had been the bane of many a throat. Nevertheless, I complied and let him get on with it.
I was still a little surprised at how he had managed to talk me into this in the first place. Upon mention of an olive and rosewater bath I had vowed never to ask Zevran anything ever again. I had remained true to my word, but in the wake of Onora's injury, there was little to do in camp. Zevran had approached me himself, nearly pleading for a project lest he stabbed himself in the eye out of boredom. The alternative was tempting, sure, but I decided to let him brand my skin after he swore there would be no 'funny business' whatsoever.
As he worked, we spoke of tattoos and their origins. There was little we had in common to discuss, so talking about the matter at hand seemed fitting.
Much to my surprise, Zevran's tone was entirely different when we discussed the art and everything that had to do with it. Gone was the smirking elf that lost no opportunity to embarrass his comrades in all manners imaginable. In his place, there was now a worldly man, one who clearly relished traveling and had many stories worth sharing.
He spoke of Antiva City and its colorful citizens with fondness, and though his words were not quite as descriptive and rich in visuals as Leliana's, he painted quite a picture of the busy port in the heart of Rialto Bay and the travelers from the Far East who had brought the art of tattooing to Ferelden.
The discussion turned to Acronesia (1), home of the art of 'Irezumi' (2), as Zevran called this particular method of tattooing. I knew very little of the Far East, just enough to name the countries it consisted, and Acronesia was one of them. It occurred to me right then that I could have talked about this with Onora. I knew she had roots in the Far East (that much was obvious just by looking at her), but I had never asked if she had ever visited her ancestors.
"You've been to Acronesia, then?" I asked.
"Just once," Zevran replied, his hands holding my outstretched arm which he was carefully shaving. "Curious?"
"Are you kidding? To me, a trip to the borders would be an exotic experience," I drawled. "Never stepped foot outside Ferelden. What's it like there?"
"I'm afraid I'm not a very rich source of information," Zevran said, admiring his handiwork. It looked like he was nearly done. "I only spent a week in Acronesia. Just enough time to try the food and see the sights."
I grinned. "And murder the Emperor in his sleep?"
"Emperor?" Zevran repeated, laughing. "Was there a back-handed compliment in there somewhere? He was no more than a feudal lord. A very powerful one, but just a lord all the same," he replied, checking my arm for any spots he may have missed.
"So what are the most popular sights in Acronesia?"
"I wouldn't know; I didn't see them."
I felt my eyebrow arch sky-high. For a man who professed to love traveling so much, he was not living up to the claim. "I see…" I said. "So basically all you did was eat their food?"
"Basically…" he said. He looked so absorbed in what he was doing that I was beginning to suspect he was answering mechanically without even knowing what the question was, but at that moment, he let his hand drop. His eyes narrowed a little in reminiscence, and he smiled. "Ahhh, but I will tell you one thing about Acronesia, Alistair. You have never felt truly, helplessly smitten in your life until a lovely oiran graces you with the gift of a gaze. One look, that's all it takes."
In rather typical Zevran fashion, the talk had taken a turn for the gutter. "I assume you're talking about women," I said, holding back a groan.
"The most exquisite, delicate flowers the Far East has to offer," Zevran said, joining the fingertips of one hand and grinning broadly. "One glance from an oiran is enough to drive any man insane. Those eyes…" he trailed off, sighing. "The color of black velvet. Eyelashes like the wings of a butterfly. Mmmm, pure poetry. When I first met you and your fellow Warden, for a moment I thought I was back in Acronesia, in the arms of the divine Kasumi."
As amusing as it was to hear Zevran wax rhapsodic about eyes, rather than curvier and fleshier body parts, I did not relish the fact that he had suddenly deemed it fit to mention Onora. The memory of a past misunderstanding was still fresh, and while he flirted with her the same way he did with any other woman in our group, the notion that he found her attractive was... unpleasant. "Right," I said, unable to hold back a frown.
Zevran's trip down memory lane came to a stop and he turned to look at me. The expression on his face was the Zevran I knew; mischievous, wicked. I could literally see the cogs turn in his head as a new plan to embarrass me hatched in a little corner of his mind. "She does have rather marvelous eyes, does she not?" he said, voice silky and ripe with innuendo.
I met his gaze with a stony expression. "Kasumi?" I drawled, but we both knew perfectly well who he had been talking about.
His eyes softened, but they were still glinting with amusement. "Come now, no need to get so territorial; I was only making an observation," he said. "I would never sabotage a friend, but I can appreciate the lovely sight, can't I?"
His use of the word 'friend' did not go unnoticed, but it was crushed under the weight of other, more pressing matters. "So tell me about Kasumi, who was she?"
So much for a smooth transition between subjects. Well, you can't blame a man for trying.
Zevran clearly saw right through it, but he laughed and didn't press on. "Fine, fine, I will drop it," he said, and reached over to pick up one of the pots surrounding him. "And to answer your question, Kasumi was an oiran like no other. Beautiful like a sunset and wiser than any scholar. She taught me a great deal of things, including a few handy phrases, which was quite a relief; the Acronesians don't speak any language I know and I had thus far resorted to gesturing wildly and hoping for the best."
Despite the anger still brewing inside me, I found myself chuckling at the mental image of the Antivan struggling to make himself understood in the strange, oriental country. "What did you learn?"
"Just four phrases."
"I assume 'hello' and goodbye' where two of the four?" I asked.
"What were the other two?"
Zevran's forehead creased in thought. "Hmmm… let's see… Ah, yes. 'Kirei Onna' was one."
I was impressed, despite my best efforts not to be. His accent sounded spot on, far too good for someone who claimed he had only spent a week in a foreign country. "What does that mean?" I asked him.
I chuckled. "Why doesn't that surprise me? And the other?"
"Ikura des' ka."
"How much?" Zevran said, grinning like the cat that swallowed the pigeon.
"Handy enough. I suppose you had to buy food and—" I began, but came to a sudden stop as the true meaning of his words hit me. "Wait… What exactly is an oiran?" I asked, frowning. But I already knew the answer to that.
Zevran cackled. "Guess."
"Ugh… Are you honestly telling me that the most beautiful, delicate women in Acronesia are… prostitutes?" I asked, looking and feeling disgusted. People who took intimacy in stride had always bothered me as it was, but men and women who actually made a profession out of it? I couldn't fathom how they ever came to such a decision.
Such was my repulsion that I didn't even notice Zevran's well-oiled hands creep up onto my arm and start massaging it.
"The most high-class prostitutes you'll ever meet," the elf said, as if that somehow changed matters. "They sell more than just their body. They are entertainers, performers. They sing, they dance, the engage in sophisticated conversation… And they are very meticulous about their appearance; they wear only the most well-crafted, intricate garments and headdresses. When an oiran visits a client, she is actually followed by a procession of servants. It's all very formal and majestic; quite a sight."
"Yes, it all sounds wonderful," I drawled.
Zevran tutted. "Such disdain. This is a civilization that precedes yours by more than a thousand years. You don't think you could learn a thing or two from them?" he wondered out loud.
"Learn what, how to auction off women in style?" I quipped, starting to feel genuinely angry. "I'd rather remain a barbarian, thank you very much."
"Just because that's all I saw in Acronesia doesn't mean that's all it has to offer."
Point taken. Though it was the only thing he had bothered elaborating on. "I guess you're right," I reluctantly admitted. "It's just that you didn't tell me much else to—What re you doing?"
Belatedly, I realized Zevran had spent Maker knew how much time massaging my arm with scented oils, and I hadn't even noticed.
"I thought the whole massage thing was a joke!" I exclaimed, though I did not pull my arm away from his grasp.
I would never admit this to myself, but a teeny, tiny part of my brain was actually enjoying this. Now before you jump to conclusions, I meant that in the most heterosexual way possible. The bloke has nimble fingers, all right? He knew what he was doing and it felt nice, that's all.
"The bath, yes," Zevran replied, completely straight-faced. "But not the massage."
"I agreed to do this only because you promised there would be no more... funny business!" I snarled, and yanked my arm away. It slipped through Zevran's greasy fingers with a 'plop!'
The rogue reached out for it again, looking impatient. "Are all Fereldans so insecure about their sexuality? Or is it just Chantry men?"
"There's no… insecurity! I'm secure! Very secure! Like a safe!" I said, and felt my voice grow dangerously high-pitched. Not particularly good when you're trying to look and sound manly.
"Then let me finish the massage. It'll help your skin and muscles relax," Zevran insisted, holding out an oily palm.
Perhaps I should have ended it right then and there. Though deep down I knew he was just teasing me because I was an easy target (virgin, socially awkward, especially in a situation like this with the oils and scents and the partial nudity where I was clearly out of my element), giving him the satisfaction of inflicting both pain and embarrassment on me in one fell swoop felt a little like overkill.
Still, I caved. The massage did feel good after all. "Fine," I grumbled, and gave my arm back to him.
Zevran took it and went on with his ministrations. "Admit it. It feels good."
I had to force myself to stop the blush that was creeping up my ears. Had he been reading my mind? Or was I that transparent? "It's… all right," I said, shrugging.
"Good. But just so you know, it's one sovereign extra for a 'happy ending'."
It wasn't possible... was it?
Two days ago, when he had given her the flower, she had assumed that there had been some subtext at the very least. If it had been nothing but a compliment on her leadership, then surely he would have given her a different gift? One that was somewhat more practical and not so...
There was something between them; whether it was going to blossom into more or remain nothing but playful flirtation was not relevant at the moment. What mattered was that there was something very odd going on between Alistair and Zevran and she was going to find out what.
Navigating through the woods at night was not an easy feat, made all the more difficult by Onora's still healing wounds and her preoccupied mind. She had never excelled at stealth as it was, and she was having a hard time focusing on the task at hand.
Maker, was she so devoid of feminine grace that he had actually turned to another man?
No, this is absurd... Alistair... he... he likes women, doesn't he?
Onora was all too aware of the fact that she hadn't exactly been the easiest person to get to know, but that had changed. He had changed her. He had reminded her that being cold and distant was not who she was. There was a time, before the world turned upside down, that she had been fun to be around and he had brought that out again, slowly chipping away at the walls she had put up around her the moment she left Highever. He had been patient, he had been a good friend and now... perhaps there was a chance he could be more.
By the Maker, Zevran, if you ruin this for me, I'll run you through with a spear and roast you like a nug on a spit, she growled inwardly.
It was true, she wasn't the most feminine of women out there. True, her nails and hands and skin had seen better days. But she was not going to be outdone by a man, for Andraste's sake. Not even one with hair as pretty as Zevran's.
What am I saying? If Alistair really likes men, what am I going to do, force it out of him? she thought, cringing.
The fact that she even momentarily considered this brought a shudder down her spine. The long break was definitely messing with her head.
I need to stop taking Belladonna extract (3), she realized, shaking her head in disbelief and heading towards the fire she could now make out in the clearing ahead.
According to Zevran, the art of Irezumi is sacred and is only ever performed at night. The short ritual that precedes the actual tattooing is not meant to be skipped or altered, lest the gods misguide the artist's hand.
Given that neither of us believed in oriental gods, we figured they'd allow a tiny transgression.
Apparently, true Irezumi masters worked free-hand on skin, but since Zevran had had little practice, we decided not to take any chances. The sketch he had drawn on a thin sheet of nearly see-through paper was going to be temporarily printed on my skin to guide his hand. It had taken a while to come up with a way to incorporate this into the ritual, but Zevran had come through.
After all preparations had been made, he finally allowed me to take a look at the sketch. He had, as per my instruction, copied the design of the dragon on the armor set we had salvaged a few days ago. (4)
"Why this design?" Zevran had asked. "As I recall, when we first discussed this you said you wanted something small."
"I did, yes. But I was still a little uncertain back then. I had some time to think it over, and after you said you were bored and brow-beat me into agreeing to this—"
Zevran had made a circular motion with two fingers, as if telling me to get on with the narration.
"I thought, when in Antiva…" I had said, shrugging.
"Do as the Antivans do, right. But why a dragon?"
"Well…" I had hesitated. "This might sound a little silly, but I got the idea off the Nevarran armor we found. We are going to fight a dragon, after all, and… I don't know. It's a tainted God, but it's still an Old God and I've always been taught to respect my enemies, no matter who they are. I mean, it's a High dragon. They're wise, powerful creatures. You can't take someone like that lightly, can you? And it's not as if the original God intended to go against the world. It'll be a symbol of respect… to what our enemy used to be. I dunno, I suppose that sounds strange."
Much to my surprise, Zevran had smiled. "That's good enough for me," he had said, and set off to work on the sketch.
All vestiges of embarrassment had faded away now, and I felt nothing but giddiness as Zevran unveiled the sketch, rolling the thin paper out on the bedroll. It was going to be a painful few hours, but when all was said and done, a dragon would be adorning my right arm. I had meant every word in my justification of this design, but part of me (the part that still liked to play with my food and enjoyed yanking a girl's ponytail) was just plain excited because dragons. Are. Wicked.
The elf gingerly straightened the sheet, and I could have sworn I saw him anxiously bite his lower lip for a split second. I was about to tease him about it, too, when my eyes fell on the sketch.
All I could do was gape.
If I had not known that Zevran was a very skilled assassin, this drawing alone would have been enough to convince me the man was a veteran artist. There were very few details added in, but it was nevertheless drawn beautifully, in long, thick brushstrokes that gave the sketch not only life, but also a sense of motion. It was such a faithful copy of the design on the Nevarran armor that it was hard to believe it hadn't been traced.
My hand hovered over the sheet of paper, but I did not touch it, afraid I would ruin it if I so much as got an inch closer.
"Wow, this is…" I remarked, awestruck. "Did you really draw this yourself?"
Zevran nodded. "I did, yes. Do you like it, then?" he asked, and his tone of voice was the least confident I had ever heard it.
"Like it? It's amazing!" I said, still unable to tear my eyes off it. "I had no idea you could draw that well. I think you missed your calling; you should've been an artist," I said with a chuckle, elbowing him on the ribs gently.
It was brief, so brief that if I hadn't been looking at him, I would have missed it: Zevran blushed, for a millionth of a second, and looked more than a little touched at my compliment. His recovery was swift, however, and he let out a bark-like roar of laughter. "Is that supposed to be subtle hint that my abilities as an assassin are sub-par? If you wish, I could ask Onora to let me set up store next to the dwarves and offer my tattooing services to the team instead."
"Don't knock the crafts, mate. At least you'd be making some decent coin," I said, laughing along. "If we hadn't unearthed the Nevarran armor set, I would have been forced to wear the armor from Soldier's Keep until it fell apart. Which wasn't going to be much longer, mind you."
"One more career option to consider once this is all over, then," Zevran said, chuckling.
"So," I said, setting my gaze back upon the sketch. "Will it look that good on my skin when you're done?"
"I am not that skilled when it comes to tattoos, but the lines are simple enough and I do have a very steady hand… So I don't see why not," the elf replied.
"But… you have done this before, right?" I asked. He had said he knew 'a bit' of the art, but I had never asked just how much practice he'd had. It seemed like a stupid thing to have omitted at that moment.
Zevran chuckled. "I have. Enough times to assure you I will not mutilate your skin."
"Riiiight… How do we proceed, then?"
"Are you ready?"
I still had some reservations, but seeing his skill with a brush had made me feel much better about trusting my body in his hands. "As ready as I'll ever be."
"Excellent!" Zevran exclaimed, and reached for a rag to wipe the oil off his hands.
He handed me one as well, which I assumed was supposed to serve the same purpose, and he began to gather all the pots and instruments he was going to need.
"First, we drink," he said, and opened the bottle containing the clear liquid. There was no doubt the spirit was very strong; the moment Zevran removed the cork its scent filled the air. It was not an unpleasant one, but it made me wonder whether I would be able to remember anything of the ritual come morning. Despite some minor fear about the pain, I wanted to be able to experience this sober.
"Is this a good idea?" I asked, taking the cup Zevran handed me. "I get drunk with half a pit of ale."
"Drink no more than a sip. This is purely symbolic," he replied.
"It is?" I asked, arching an eyebrow. I had heard of many strange rituals before, but ritual drinking? That was something Oghren would probably be on board for.
"Yes. This drink is called toso, (5)" Zevran explained. "The Acronesians make it from rice and spices. It's fairly potent when undiluted like this one, but it's not meant as an anesthetic; I'm going to use it to sterilize the tools. The Acronesians consider any waste of toso sacrilege, except in the case of Irezumi. As the toso purifies the instruments that will brand you, so shall you purify your spirit first by taking a single sip."
Sounded hockey enough to be a bonafide ritual, to me. "Right… just a sip then."
Zevran nodded and raised his cup. "Kampai. It means cheers."
I raised mine as well. "Kampai," I said, and with a soft clink, we brought our cups together before drinking.
The spirit was warm and sweet to the taste. It didn't feel particularly strong, perhaps just a little stronger than wine. I was tempted to take more than one sip as I found the taste pleasing, but then I felt what Zevran had described as 'spices' tickle my throat. Instantly, I had no desire whatsoever to drink more.
"Haaaaaahhhh." I handed the cup back to Zevran, coughing. Something about that drink had reminded me of the homemade brew the cook used to make for me at Redcliffe castle whenever I caught a cold. "It's… strong," I said, coughing.
Zevran took my cup and set it aside. "Let us begin, then," he said. His own cup was nearly full as well, and I watched as he poured the contents into an empty bowl. He dipped a small rag in the spirit and brought the sketch of the tattoo forward. "Tell me where you'd like it."
We adjusted the sheet of paper onto my arm, moving it around every now and then while trying to see where it would look best. "Here, that's good," I told Zevran. The head of the dragon was on the curve of my shoulder and the snout rested on the soft part of my chest, near the clavicle. The main body cascaded down the length of my arm, while the tail curled ever so slightly to wrap around under my elbow.
Zevran held the sketch in place and reached for the rag he had soaked in toso. Gently, he swept it over the sketch until he had covered the whole outline and pulled the sheet back. The drawing was now faintly imprinted on my arm. "Irezumi masters don't do this," he explained. "They do the whole piece freehand, but I'd rather not take any chances. This will wash off very soon, don't worry. It's just something to guide my hand."
We had decided beforehand that the piece was to be done in pure red ink. No outlines, just red with a little shading, so the elf brought forward the pot containing the crimson ink he was going to use. Out of the small leather pack, he pulled out a long, thin stick with a pointy end. He took my cup and carefully spilled drop after drop of toso on the tip, for what I assumed was the 'purification' of the instrument.
Zevran turned to look at me. "Alright. Take a deep breath."
I did so. As I held it in, I felt my stomach do somersaults, trapped on the fine line that separated excitement from fear. Pain was something woven so intimately in a warrior's life that I should not fear it, yet there was something entirely too different about this situation. I believed in the Maker and felt a connection to all things occidental, and yet… I was strangely affected by this strange ritual. Blame it on the fire, the single sip of a foreign, potent spirit, the influence of an all-too-wicked elf, but I felt the presence of something… more when I watched Zevran cleanse his tools with toso.
The elf placed his left hand on the fleshy curve beneath my shoulder and stretched the skin as much as he could. With his right hand, he picked up one of the long sticks in his arsenal and dipped it in the ink. He held the stick up, the needle now only an inch away from my skin.
"Ready?" he asked.
I nodded, quickly releasing my breath and taking in another one.
"Here we go," said Zevran and, with a look of intense concentration, brought the needle forward.
I don't know what I expected since this was, after all, just a needle, but I felt no more than a little prick. And then another one. And another one.
I had averted my eyes, but right now I wanted nothing more than to watch the other man work. I had never really taken the time to think how this actually worked, nor had I asked Zevran. All I knew was that it required needles and ink.
I turned to look at the rogue, and saw the hand holding the needle work furiously on my arm. His hand moved so fast that from afar it might have looked steady, but upon closer inspection, I could see it go up and down with incredible speed as he made tiny punctures on my skin.
The sensation was very much like the sting of a bee, but it was continuous. It was certainly unpleasant, but as the minutes went by, I felt it fade away, until it became little more than a dull ache. Whenever Zevran stopped to readjust his hand, or refill the needle with ink, the first sting felt sharp once more, but the pain ebbed not long after.
Upon such a pause, when Zevran wiped the sweat off his brow and swept the needle in the ink again, I broke the silence.
"Huh... this... this isn't so bad," I said.
The elf smiled and dabbed my freshly pierced skin with a small, clean rag. "See? I told you. It does hurt, but it's nothing you can't get used to."
"I expected more blood, too, to be honest," I said.
"The holes are too small and too shallow to cause any serious bleeding," Zevran explained. "Though if you had drunk a full cup of toso like you asked, that would not have been the case."
"Why, what does toso do?"
"It's not just toso, it's all types of alcohol," Zevran said. "I couldn't tell you what happens exactly, but I have observed that when my victims were under the influence, their blood spilled most profusely. You haven't noticed that?"
While I knew that Zevran was relieved to have cut all ties from the Crows (or at least I hoped as much), sometimes I felt that he missed talking to other assassins. In the sense that he missed talking to comrades who could relate to his more… controversial tales. Perhaps that was why he and Leliana got along so well. Unless, of course, their discussion involved the Maker.
"I… don't think I've ever killed anyone who was drunk," I said, blinking. "Not unless the darkspawn like to party it up, Deep Roads style."
Not for the first time in many months, Zevran seemed to realize he was not addressing a fellow Crow. "Oh. Right," he said. "And thank you for the mental image: darkspawn orgy in the depths of dwarven ruins. I am not a man easily squicked, but I think you may have just done it," he added, grinning.
The elf's ability to recover from any situation and turn the tables was, I admit, a true wonder to behold. His ability to come up with something as disturbing as that, however, was what he truly excelled at.
"I hate you sometimes," I said, squeezing my eyes shut as if that would force the image of amorous darkspawn out of my mind.
"Only some times?" Zevran asked, his grin devious. "Then I must be doing something wrong. Or very right, depending on your vantage point."
Something told me I really did not need to know what the 'right' vantage point was, so I did not ask.
"Hmmm, speaking of hatred," Zevran said. "Right now you'll hate me even more. Clench your teeth."
"AAARGGHHH- ANDRASTE'S FRILLY DRAWERS, WHAT ARE YOU DOING?"
"-Teeth. I warned you," Zevran said, chuckling.
"You did not warn me!" I yelled. "You should have said: hey, guess what, about to stick burning hot firepoker under your bloody skin! That would have been a fair warning!"
And Maker, did it ever feel like that. There was no other way to describe it. The pain had been there, in the back of my head all this time, but it had been stable and more than manageable. But all of a sudden, things changed. The needle that sank under my skin felt like it had been exposed to fire and every squirt of ink was like a blob of molten lava.
"What-? Ahhhhhhh," I stammered, hissing in pain. "Ow, ow... The pain is different, what did you do?"
"I'm working close to the bone now," Zevran explained. "The skin is more sensitive here. There's not much flesh underneath to dull the pain."
When I looked down, I saw that he had moved up to my shoulder and clavicle, drawing the outline for the dragon's snout. I felt infinitely thankful for having chosen my arm to draw the tattoo upon. There were few areas with so little muscle, and Zevran looked like he was nearly done with my collarbone already.
As if reading my mind, Zevran spoke up, adding one more area to the list I had mentally labeled 'Seriously. OW'. "It might also hurt a bit when I work on the underside of your arm. The skin is thinner there," he said.
I winced, both at the pain and the information. "Super."
"I just need to finish the details of the head and it's back to fleshier grounds," he said, and I noticed that he was working on the coloring as well. Apparently, he was planning on doing all the work needed now, and get it over with, something I was very grateful for. It was going to take longer, but I had a nice, long break to look forward to once it was over with.
I nodded and ground my teeth together, already feeling a little better. That is, until I saw him switch sticks. The one he had so far used to draw the outline was slim and had a very small tip; clearly, it had been designed to work on thinner lines. The one he was holding now, however, was one of the dreaded comb-ended ones. When he dipped it in ink, it looked even more intimidating, like a weapon coated in blood.
"What's that for?" I asked, dreading the answer.
"To color bigger areas," Zevran answered. "See how it is designed to hold more needles?" he said, running a fingertip under a row of long, sharp needles dripping with red ink.
The tool looked more like an instrument of torture, if you asked me, but I took his word for it.
"I suddenly feel less certain about our choice of ink," I quipped. The dragon in the Nevarran armor was of the same color, meant to look like it was drawn with blood (which, for all we knew, it could have been), so naturally, Zevran had created a deep red mix of inks that would resemble that as closely as possible.
"Nag, nag, nag..." the elf said, sighing. "Did you expect this to be painless?"
"No... I was actually expecting worse. I just talk because it keeps my mind occupied. Am I distracting you?"
"No, that's all right. We can-" Zevran began, but before he had even started coloring, he came to a stop, sitting very still. "Wait... Someone is coming."
I felt my shoulders grow rigid as well. It would be a pretty bad time and place to encounter darkspawn, but we had both brought our weapons along. I didn't relish the idea of fighting without any armor on, but it shouldn't be too difficult to draw the enemy back to the camp where our companions could help.
Though my mind was already in overdrive with strategy, I had yet to hear any indication that someone was approaching.
"I don't hear anything," I whispered.
Zevran shook his head, his forehead creased. One hand was now hovering over his boot; it was one of the many places I knew he carried hidden blades. A little too paranoid, I had always thought, but right now I felt differently.
"Listen closer," he said, staring towards the trail that led back to our camp, his eyes narrowed.
I did as he instructed, though for many seconds I heard nothing still. But just when I thought there truly was nothing there, I head it; a very faint rustle of leaves. I could see nothing but thick darkness ahead, though many months of camping in the wilds had taught me to use all my senses when hunting or keeping the night watch. In doing so, I had discovered I had a fairly good nose, and the breeze that swept past us right at that moment carried many scents of the forest.
One of them, I realized, did not belong there.
"It's Onora," I said, instantly relaxing my shoulders.
Zevran glanced at me, looking both surprised and unconvinced. "How can you tell?"
"She—" I began, but stopped before I made a complete fool of my self.
Try as I might to find a way to explain this with a convincing lie, I couldn't. In truth, it was the jasmine scent that had betrayed her.
Our means of traveling left little room for grooming and many other indulgences that women had a weakness for, but all four females of our group found little ways to compensate for that. Leliana never stepped out of her tent until her boots were polished to perfection; her armor was less well-cared for, but her boots never had a speck of dust on them until we engaged in battle. Morrigan had a weakness for jewelry. She barely took ten minutes to get ready every morning, but I was willing to bet seven or more of them were spent on choosing a different necklace or ring every day. Wynne, be that because of her age or character, was not one to primp herself, but she had the miraculous ability to always look as if she had just stepped out of the Circle tower. Not a stray hair, not a wrinkle in her clothes.
Onora had been an exception to the rule for quite some time, or so I had originally thought. She was clean-cut and meticulous the way a soldier was. Even Wynne's sense of hygiene and discipline had a distinctly feminine quality to it, but not Onora's. Until Leliana had begged her to let her straighten her hair out, Onora had been perfectly content to walk around with hastily chopped, uneven strands for weeks.
I discovered what her own little indulgence was one day when we discussed strategy in camp and she had just returned from a bath in a nearby stream. When she sat down next to me that night, her damp hair smelled distinctly of jasmine. I had noticed the scent before, but I had always assumed it belonged to Morrigan. It didn't tend to last long anyway, since the stench of darkspawn blood and sweat overpowered everything else. But that day, I had realized it came from her hair.
"You never noticed the jasmine scent?" I answered Zevran's question, feeling my ears grow warm. "She only pours about a jug of jasmine oil on her hair every time she bathes. I can smell it all the way from my tent," I said, forcing a casual grin on my lips.
"I... see," Zevran said, narrowing his eyes at me. There was a hint of a smirk dancing on his lips, but before anything definite formed, he turned around and addressed the woods. "You should have sent Leliana if you wanted to spy on us. I'm sorry to say, my dear Warden, that as admirable as your skills are with twin blades, your affinity for stealth is near non-existent," he said, loud enough to be heard from Onora's hiding place.
There was a faint mutter heard from the direction of the earthen path, something that sounded suspiciously like 'Asschabs'. If the soft, female voice speaking it hadn't sounded so dejected, I might have tried to explain to her later that Oghren probably meant the word to be used under different circumstances. Then again, I wasn't sure myself which circumstances those might be.
Onora showed up a few seconds later, looking haughty. "Where have you two been?" she grumbled as she approached us. "You've been gone for over an hour; we were starting to-"
She came to a halt, taking in the scene before her. I suppose it would have looked a little strange to me as well, finding two men in the woods alone -one of them shirtless- engaged in such a strange activity. Thankfully, I didn't have to explain as a look of recognition spread on her face; apparently she knew what this was.
"You're getting a tattoo?" she asked, and her eyes grew round in surprise and interest.
I nodded. "Zevran mentioned he knew the art, so I figured I'd give it a shot," I said. "Sorry I didn't tell you earlier. I was going to show you when it was done."
Onora walked over to the fire, crouching down beside me. She was looking at Zevran, who had quietly resumed his work and was now coloring the dragon's face on my shoulder. "This... this is Irezumi," she said, looking more and more intrigued by the second.
It was hard to share her enthusiasm when I was being poked by not one, but numerous needles in less-than-desirable areas, but I did my best to look blasé.
"I N D E E D," I said, a little louder and more rigidly than I would have liked. But I didn't wince.
Fascinated, she inched a little closer, now watching Zevran's needles rhythmically puncture my shoulder and collarbone. "Can I... watch?" she asked hesitantly.
If I'd known she was going to be so fascinated, I might have invited her to observe. However, her presence made it very hard for me to express what I really felt at that moment with the needles working mercilessly on my skin.
"Only for a little while," Zevran interjected. "It's hard enough to concentrate when Alistair won't shut his mouth for longer than two minutes."
For a second there, I wondered what in the blazes Zevran was talking about. Not that I was the quiet, laconic type, but I had been fairly silent ever since the elf had started working. And then I realized; he was trying to get rid of her for me. I felt like crying with joy. Or pain. Or both. Maker, couldn't she have picked a better time to show up?
Onora looked a little disappointed, but she took a seat next to me and watched Zevran work with morbid fascination. "Wow, I've only heard about the practice from my mother, but I've never actually seen it performed," she commented, grinning.
"Your mother was from Acronesia?" I asked, taking advantage of a small break when Zevran re-inked the needles to speak unencumbered.
Onora pointed at her slanted eyes. "Can't you tell?"
It was hard not to notice the eastern shape of her eyes, indeed. I also knew from Arl Eamon that Onora's mother was the one who came from the Far East, just not which country. I remembered hearing about how even after immigrating to Ferelden, the Teyrna's family had a lot of power and riches. Her parents had given her a Fereldan name to make it easier for her to mingle in our society and make her more approachable for social matters, marriage in particular. Apparently, it had been quite the outrage when Teyrn Cousland chose her for his bride since very little is known of oriental nobility, even less so back then, but things quieted down once the Teyrna got a chance to prove she was both kind and capable a ruler.
I had never had a chance to ask Onora whether what I knew of her family was true or not, but since her line had nearly been extinguished in a single night, I felt it kinder to letting sleeping dogs lie. Still, all the talk of Acronesia with Zevran had awakened many questions within me, but had also made me notice things about her I never had before.
"The color of black velvet. Eyelashes like the wings of a butterfly."
Yes, I could see what he meant, now. I had always found Onora's eyes to be exotic, intriguing, but I had never been close enough to truly admire them. The scent of jasmine in her hair felt overpowering right now. I remembered her mentioning she once had long, waist-length hair.
What would she have looked like? As Acronesian nobility, wearing the finest silk on her pale skin, and flowers in her long, flowing hair. Though it was now cut mercilessly short, her hair had the kind of luster that could only be achieved after years of careful care. I had never before noticed just how rich it was, how soft it looked. I ached to reach out and touch it; lace my fingers through the strands and release the scent of jasmine in the air, look into her dark eyes for a fraction of a second before she closed them and-
"You hanging in there, Alistair?"
I blinked, and tore my gaze away from Onora. For a moment, I forgot where I was, but the burning pain on my shoulder reminded me. Zevran's voice had brought me out of my reverie, which was good on one hand, since I think I had been one step away from doing something monumentally stupid. One the other hand, my thought process had been an effective remedy against the pain.
"Like you said, it hurts less than they say it does," I replied, feigning nonchalance.
Zevran bit down on his cheek, looking as if he was sorely temped to comment but did not. I figured it would be best not to tempt him again.
Thankfully, Onora was so absorbed in watching the needlework that she didn't notice the small exchange. Hopefully, she hadn't caught me ogling her, either. She had, however, heard. "It looks painful. It really doesn't hurt?" she asked.
"Not as much as you'd think," I replied. "Just a prickling sensation. It's continuous, but you get used to it."
"Truly?" she asked, looking at me. "Wow, you look like it's hardly affecting you. Perhaps I should get one, too... in the future..." she mused.
The mental image of Onora lying face down on a bedroll in a similar setting, with her smooth back fully exposed and ready to be drawn upon was... interesting. Perhaps Zevran could teach me the art. Such traditions were meant to be preserved, surely? And I had always felt that we Fereldans are far too close-minded, unable to accept different customs in our culture. Yes, perhaps we needed more eastern influence in our lives, and I for one, was willing to do my part.
"We can discuss this at another time, I'm sure," Zevran said. "I do not wish to be rid of your company, my dear Warden, but I need to work in silence."
"Oh, uhhh, yes, of course," Onora said, looking disappointed but not insulted. "Well, I'll leave you to it, then," she said, getting back up on her feet. "You'll show me when it's done?" she asked, smiling at me hopefully.
"Definitely," I said, smiling back at her. "Zevran says it'll take a fair few hours, so I'll show you first thing in the morning."
"All right," Onora said, nodding. "Goodnight and be careful," she said. "Keep your weapons close; you never know who might be lurking in the forest."
"If they're as silent as you are," Zevran said, grinning. "I expect we won't have much trouble spotting an ambush."
Onora glared at him only half-angrily, then gave us both a wave and followed the path back to the camp.
My eyes lingered on her parting form, though it was not because I wanted to admire the many well-formed parts of her body.
"I think she's gone now," Zevran said. "Feel free to scream."
"Oh, sweet Andraste, thank you," I said, letting out a sigh of relief that soon degenerated into a low groan of pain and a stream of curses I had no idea I even knew. Oghren was rubbing off on me, too, apparently.
Zevran chuckled, encouraging my many colorful expletives (some of which I'm proud to say were entirely new words) with cheers.
"Aaaaaalmooost done..." he said, giving my shoulder a few last punctures. "There we go, out of the woods." he said, pulling the stick away at long last. "Better?"
I closed my eyes, a lax smile spreading on my face. My shoulder was considerably sore and probably swollen by now, but my body was finally allowed to relax after what it had just been put through. The dull, burning sensation was hardly even there anymore; all I could feel was a warm aura spreading through my center and over to my limbs. If I had lied down at that moment, I would have probably fallen asleep. "Much, much better," I replied.
We decided to take a break, not for my benefit alone, but for Zevran's as well. He had been working non-stop for quite some time now, and working on the details and shading of the dragonhead must have been exhausting. The skin surrounding the dragon head was an angry shade of red, but I was very pleased from the results so far; Zevran had done a great job.
He went back to it a few minutes later, working on the rest of the outline, much to my relief. Compared to what I had been through a few moments ago, this was like a feather's touch.
"So," he said at some point, once we had exhausted all manner of jokes about how I had cried like a 'little girl'. "How exactly do you plan on showing Onora your tattoo?" he asked, grinning.
I blinked. "Well gee, that's a hard one," I quipped. "I was thinking of pulling up my sleeve, but I can see how that might prove to be a little challenging."
"Indeed?" he said, chuckling. "And here I thought you would have come up with something more... creative."
Sensing like there was some subtext I was missing, I fixed my eyes on him, trying to make out what he was implying. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"Oh, nothing..." Zevran said, though judging by the smirk on his face, it was clearly something. "I think she'll like it, by the way. Acronesian women generally do, since it's a custom so woven into their culture. I also hear they like flowers. Roses, in particular."
"You know, roses," Zevran said, his grin spreading. I had no idea what I looked like right now, but something in my expression must have made him realize he had struck gold. "Much like the one you had been carrying for days. It may have been my imagination, but I thought I saw our lovely leader admiring it the other day," he added.
I didn't respond. I knew the others had an inkling that something was going on between the two of us, but I didn't think anyone had noticed the exchange the other day. I couldn't help but feel elated to learn that she had liked the gift, but I wished Zevran wouldn't have seen her holding it.
"You're slier than I thought," Zevran went on, undeterred by my silence. "Did it under everyone's noses, even my own."
"We didn't do anything!" I spluttered, feeling color rise to my cheeks. "Maker, why does it always have to be about... that with you?"
Zevran blinked. "I meant giving her the rose. You did that under everyone's noses, not sex."
"Though someone's been thinking about it, apparently," he said, grinning.
I could not deny that I had. Ever since I had begun to suspect she might return my sentiments, my nights had become a little less peaceful and a lot more colorful. But this wasn't something I was about to discuss openly, and certainly not with another man. "I... I'm not talking about this with you."
"Why not? I could give you some good advice."
While that was most likely true, I felt myself grow defensive at the insinuation. "Why would you think I need any?" I asked, frowning.
"Well, the fact that you cannot bring yourself to so much as utter the word 'sex' is a fairly desperate cry for help," Zevran said, chuckling.
...Touché. He had a point, I knew he did, but if going with my gut meant that I would make a complete fool of myself in such a scenario, so be it. I wasn't going to invite unnecessary ridicule for my inexperience. "Look, I... I feel like an idiot about such matters as it is," I said, turning away. "I have no skills in this area whatsoever. Hearing about what I'm sure are very... tantalizing tales will not make me feel any better."
"I do not wish to brag about my conquests, if that's what you thought," Zevran said. "And I found the rose to be a very good move, actually."
Well now, that was a surprise. "You... you did?" I asked, turning back to face him. "You didn't think it was... corny?"
"A little, but I think she likes corny," the elf replied, grinning.
"Right..." I said, staring at him.
I couldn't help but marvel at how he was able to simultaneously work on my tattoo and talk about women. I suspected it was something he delved into so often that it came as a second nature by now, and nothing, not even intricate needlework, could distract him.
"There's no one approach to woo all women, every one is different" Zevran went on. "But you're on the right track here, go for it."
"What, just... walk up to her and proposition her?" I asked, grimacing.
"Well... a kiss might be a better first step," Zevran said, laughing. "But yes, that would be a good follow-up."
"So I should assume that just because she liked my gift she is going to sleep with me?" I said, scoffing. "It doesn't work that way."
"You think romantic dinner is going to be an option on the road? What is it you Fereldans say...? Wine her, dine her, sixt-"
"I know what we say; that's quite enough, thank you!" I hurried to say, cutting him off. "And no, I know there are few opportunities for anything romantic while we travel, but that doesn't mean I should just... drop all manner of chivalry."
"You're thinking about this entirely too much. Prudery for the sake of prudery is meaningless," Zevran said, shaking his head.
"Well, I- It's not prudery. I just... I don't understand why other men think it's some sort of achievement to sleep with everything in a skirt."
Zevran grinned. "Don't Templars wear skirts?"
"Hey! It's a tunic," I snapped. I had always been a little touchy about the 'skirt' thing. There was something very wrong about fighting mages and trying to look intimidating in a tun- all right, skirt. "And you know what I mean."
"I do, yes."
"I dunno... I guess I'm a little old-fashioned, but I- Laugh if you must, but I think there should be more to it... Shouldn't there?"
"No, not really." Zevran said, shrugging. "She's a virgin though, so I guess you should tread lightly."
"How do you even know-?"
"I can tell," he said, and looked up long enough to give me a wink.
"Well... I don't care what you think. I was raised that way, and I don't plan to rush into anything," I said, frowning.
"It's just sex, Alistair, it's not-"
"No, it's not just sex, it's... it's... Haven't you... haven't you ever... fallen for a woman?"
It felt strangely liberating to admit this to someone other than myself. I had just given Zevran a free pass to have a go at my feelings whichever way he pleased, but I didn't really care to be honest. It was out in the open now, and it gave me an odd sense of strength to have said it out loud.
Much to my surprise, however, Zevran did not even make an attempt to mock me. For the first time since the start of this conversation, he dropped the needle. At first I assumed he was simply going to re-ink it, or perhaps use another one, but he did nothing of the sort.
"See, this is what I don't understand about this country," he said, and he sounded exasperated, as if he, too, had been holding a secret in for far too long. "You think conversations of a sexual nature and anything physical is a personal matter. On the other hand, you speak of love and affection so easily, as if it were something trivial."
This tirade was not what I had expected to hear, and that was putting it mildly. I had no idea what had brought this on, but I went along with it just to see what Zevran was getting at. "I don't think either matter is trivial," I said earnestly.
"Well, let me put it this way, then" Zevran went on. "Sex is only as important as the context it's in. If you're in love with someone, everything you do with them matters more to you, so of course sex would feel like a personal, significant thing. If you're in it for the pleasure, it's just that. A physical experience between two consenting adults who have no wish whatsoever to involve feelings."
"I never thought of it that way..." I admitted.
"So, you agree with me?" he asked. His facial features were stony, unreadable, as if he cared not about the subject but was merely making idle conversation. His eyes said otherwise.
I would have been hard pressed to say no even if I didn't agree with him.
I got the feeling both of us felt a little ashamed of what had just happened out in the solitude of the forest. The unwritten laws of friendship between men dictate that baring one's soul for the other to see, even a tiny little fraction, is strictly forbidden. Should any transgression occur, then all parties involved are to pretend it never happened.
There were many things I wanted to say as a response to his little speech, perhaps probe a little deeper in retaliation to his own intrusions in my privacy. But seeing the look on his face, and for once reading it correctly, I decided to let that one go.
"I'm not sure, but I can see your point of view," I said.
"Good," Zevran said and returned to his work.
I will be the first to admit I knew very little about women, relationships and the like, but Zevran's reaction was loud and clear enough that even I could see through it.
"So... who was she?" I asked.
"The—" The woman who broke your heart? The one who made you so wary of emotions that you cannot even answer a simple question about intimacy without throwing a fit? Both fine questions, good enough to have him spluttering for a solid hour, but I couldn't bring myself to do it. When Zevran teased, he went for the jugular, sure, but he was never intentionally mean. I couldn't do that either. "Uh, never mind," I finished, and went back to watching his handiwork.
"So... which spell do you think Morrigan will use should I suggest I want to tattoo her?" Zevran asked, and his coy, mischievous grin was back.
Typical, stubborn elf. Even then, when I had divulged so much about myself and he could have been kind enough to return the favor, he retreated back into his shell and changed the subject. Which is a pity, because at that moment I'd have liked to tell him that I understood how he felt. Mind you, since I heard him whisper a thanks for my discretion (a whisper so faint I think I wasn't supposed to hear it in the first place), I rather think he knew anyway.
A/N: It is mentioned that the PC had longer hair at some point. The way I picture it, the night her parents were murdered, my Cousland cut her hair in mourning, ending up with the very short ponytail you can also see in-game on Wynne. Since she was on the road, she did it with a dagger and didn't really do a good job, but she didn't care about how she looked anymore. Hence the tidbit about Leliana asking to straighten her hair out.
On a final note, the whole POV switch and the very final paragraph are a shout-out to the amazing Bartimaeus trilogy, by author Jonathan Stroud. Check it out if you're unfamiliar with his work; it's a brilliant fantasy trilogy.
(1) – Acronesia is the DA equivalent of Japan in my stories. It comes from the Greek words for 'edge' and 'island', and the name means 'the island on the edge', as I picture it on the very edge of the map to the east. Hur, hur, I r creative like whoa.
(2) – Irezumi is a real name, and art. It's one of the traditional tattooing methods from Japan. The results are sometimes even more impressive than a tattoo done with a machine.
(3) – Belladonna is a a real plant. Its extract is toxic in big amounts, but in smaller portions it acts as an anesthetic, one that may some times induce hallucinations.
(4) – He means the Blood Dragon armor set. The story mentioned later, as well as the ethnicity of the warrior who commissioned it, can be found if you inspect any of the pieces of the set.
(5) – Toso is a variation of sake. It is indeed used in a rather ritualistic manner at times, but as you can probably guess, I've mostly drawn inspiration from the Japanese culture and customs to create my own DA version of it. My apologies if you happen to be Japanese; I did not mean to stomp on your culture like that, but I am fascinated by it, so I tried to do it justice with what little research I could do beforehand.