These Mortal Bones: Against My Body Set

Standard disclaimers apply


"These mortal bones against my body set

For all the puny fever and frail sweat

Of human love -"

-Edna St Vincent Millay, "Cherish You Then The Hope I Shall Forget"

#

###


###

#

Jarin Silverhair hears the rumours. How not, when rumour comes first to the Pearl and Sanga's careful, accommodating staff, her sharp, listening ears? The Wardens all died at Ostagar. The Wardens killed the king. Loghain killed the king and one - perhaps two or three, depending on who's telling the tale - Grey Wardens escaped to reveal his treachery.

There's a rumour that the Wardens travel in company with bloodmages and demons; that the Wardens have left for Jader; that the Wardens are led by a qunari assassin; that they have sworn to take the teyrn of Gwaren's head. A rumour for every tongue, and few of them comforting.

He contemplates rumours, sometimes, while he exerts himself to be charming - winning - with the patrons who gather in the lesser parlour. He has been a whore for years, and the game's familiar: it is not his features, but his skill with a flattering quip, his ability to gauge a mood and respond with precision worthy of a general, that bought his way out of a dockside crib into the scented beds and carpeted hallways of the Pearl.

A good face is cheap, when all's said and done. The alienage has fair faces aplenty. Or it had, before the barred gates swung shut and the guard established their cordon. (A captain of the city watch who passed the night in his company cursed the nuisance, and thoughtless, muttered that high walls never stopped a plague. Jarin smiled and praised the man's skill, though his heart twisted for his kin.)

Rumour is a fickle bitch. If sometimes less awful than the truth.

The evening Sanga bids him attend a patron in the blue room - Asked for you special, my lad, she murmurs discreet in his pointed, gold-ringed ear, so watch you mind your manners - is dank with late autumn chill. He fixes his lace collar in the mirror in the private hall, oils his lips, slides another ribbon through his braid, and, thus armoured, sails forth to dazzle, conquer, and submit.

The blue room is the smallest, least conspicuous chamber in the Pearl, tucked away near the kitchen stairs. Uppermost in his mind when he turns the doorhandle is I hope Aveline remembered to lay the fire, it's a bloody nuisance having to do the job when you're freezing your bollocks off -

"Hey, Jar," his patron says. "Long time no see."

What - "Kallian?" he manages, dry-mouthed and incredulous. "Aren't you supposed to be dead?"

"Several times over," Kallian Tabris agrees, dryly. She is as lean as a feral hound, her cheeks stark shadows against bone in the lamplight. White scars trace livid maps on the fingers curled around her drink. The narrow lines around her eyes - still dark and watchful, that much hasn't changed - bear witness to fresh depths of pain, but the quirk of her lips is genuine amusement. An amusement that fades almost more quickly than it came. "Come and sit down, cousin." Soft, over iron: "Sit down and tell me who else is still alive."

His distant Tabris cousin is many things. A Warden, a killer - but before she was either, she was his friend.

So he sits where she points, ignoring the mail draped on the arming stand, the battered shield leaning against the dresser, the sword laid aside within reach. She has the padded chair, a commanding view: he draws his knees up on the bed's coverlet, close enough he can smell the iron tang of sweat worn into her gambeson. If Sanga saw me now, she'd have my head, he thinks ruefully."You're paying my exorbitant fee just to chat? You must be rich, Kal."

"Yes, killing darkspawn and being hunted all over Ferelden is so very financially rewarding." Her tone is mild. "You're stalling, Jar."

"I hate bearing bad news," he mutters, and flinches from her eyes. "But have it your way, then. You might've taken the blame for that particular bit of madness over Bann Vaughan, but when the Warden hauled you off, the mob had no one to flay. There was a pogrom." He swallows. He'd seen the bodies, afterwards. Days afterwards, when the mood of the city had calmed enough that he felt it safe to check whether his mother and sisters still lived. "About the usual number murdered by the mob or executed, afterwards. Some were still missing when the watch came along and barred the gates, a month later. Cousin Soris, Clem, Black Anna, a few others that I know of. Maker knows what's become of them." He meets her gaze, spreads his hands helplessly. "Cyrion was still alive, last I knew, but the alienage's shut up tighter than a virgin's arse, Kal. Plague, word has it. Everyone with family inside is bloody terrified, but..."

His voice trails away. She won't weep, he knows. Since her mother died, she never has. But the brittle set to her shoulders, the way her scarred hands tighten on her cup - that's almost worse than weeping, to see her swallow down her pain.

"Thank you," she says, very quiet. Her eyes close, briefly the shadow of weariness on her features. When they open again, there's nothing left but bleak resolve. "Help me with my armour, and I'll go."

Kallian...

A killer. A Warden. But before either, a friend.

His hand covers hers on the rim of her cup. Hot skin, rough scars; cold metal. "Wait," he murmurs, and turns, very calm and still, towards her. Offering himself. "Stay?"

"Are you certain?"

He thinks of the dull roar of the mob and the flinch in his mother's face; the tired pain around Kallian's eyes and the scars on her hands; of rumour, the wind that blows no good, and his smile is honest. "Yes, Kal. Let me at least give you this."

The only gift he can give, and hardly free.

#

###

#

He hears other rumours, afterwards, and in the months that follow. Rumours of a woman he would not recognise, but for the look in her eye.

He would not care to be Loghain Mac Tir, should the teyrn stand in her way.