Hunting in Sets
Pre-game, spoilers. Zevran/Taliesen/Rinna. Growing up among the Crows, Zevran must find ways to survive - and he is not the only one.
The brothel madam lies when she sells him. She says that he is younger, so that he will be easier to mold. She says that they never knew his parents, so there is no danger of desperate, offended relatives. She says that he has a head for numbers, that he comes out first in squabbles with the other boys, that he is quick enough to snatch an egg from a robin's nest and never alert the bird.
She says, also, that he is untouched.
The Crows know that she is lying, but they take him anyway.
He does not like them at first - he does not like anything that is not the familiar world of the whorehouse - but the Crows are professionals, and Zevran has long outgrown the foolishness of tears. Crying would do no good anyway. The Crows know exactly how to deal with children who have been plucked from their homes and given new masters without warning. It helps that they choose from the worst districts: the brothels, the slums, the households where slaves are typically beaten all the harder if they are found to be breeding. Few slaveowners enjoy the byproducts of their own indiscretions.
They load him into a wagon, and jostle him all the way to a narrow, crumbling building that is filled with enough children to be more flesh than mortar. The larder, as it is called, becomes Zevran's new home. It is the larder because it is stuffed to the brim with apprentices, as a nobleman's kitchen might be packed until the food is so deep that the jars at the back begin to spoil, unseen. The metaphor is apt. The children are given racks of shelving to serve as their bunks, wooden boards so narrow that they must crawl between them to sleep, so old that the racks sag in the middle. One boy dies from smothering on the second night, crushed by the weight of those above him, too weak to cry out for help. There are few windows, and those that exist have bars. The pooled body heat of the recruits turns the cramped rooms into saunas. The children breathe with their mouths panting open, dehydrating further with each gasp. No one comes to save them. They are stored in the larder, and the meaning is clear: the apprentices are reserves of food, to be taken out and gnawed upon at whim by the masters, to be split and cracked so that their lives may be sucked like sweet marrow.
There are several larders scattered about Antiva City, marked in rotation for each fresh crop the recruiters bring in. The most recent batch is assigned to the leathermaking district. Their apartment is as gnarled and twisted as an old woman's finger. It reeks. When it rains, which is often in the Antivan summer - and only slightly less often in the winter - the apartment's floorboards become soft and swollen with humidity, growing coats of streaky black mildew. The odor of lime on the air combines with smoke and steaming water, joining with haze of tannin and the endless cycle of slaughtered bodies to create a miasma that coats every inch of the apartment. The other children complain of foulness, but Zevran soon comes to associate the mixture with safety. In the larder, he is allowed to sleep. He is allowed to burrow under the other children and hide. The scent works its way into his skin and the skin of all the other apprentices, and he soon learns how to rely on its presence. Anyone who smells like him is part of his local nest. Anyone who does not is either a target, a master, or competition.
Zevran's first experience with the punishments of the Crows comes within a month of his being bought. One of the more sullen boys refuses to perform the exercises they have been given, a long list of stretches and pushups and strange poses with open hands. Instead, he throws himself to the ground and refuses to get up.
The Crows kill the boy outside of the apartment, with all the newest recruits gathered to watch. Then they drag the body up to the middle floor. There, in the central landing of the stairwell, they leave the corpse to rot, and tell the recruits that anyone who is caught moving it will have their right hand removed. At the joint. It will double as an anatomy lesson; waste not, want not.
No one touches the body. Skin bloats, then begins to decay. Muscles ooze; an arm detaches and tumbles down, leaving smears of rancid goop on the railings. After only a few days, the children naturally turn their resentment not onto the instructors, but onto the boy who was stupid enough to be killed, who put them all in this situation. In order to distract themselves, they speak loudly about how they will not be as idiotic. They will not be weak; they will not disobey, and risk mockery of their corpses by the other children.
As the stench rises, and it becomes harder and harder not to vomit upon entering their quarters, Zevran is the one who is bright enough to curry favor with the chemists. He stays late after delivering a bundle of herbs, and offers to help wash the floors. The next day, he comes and asks again. For his persistence, he is given the leftovers of one of their mixtures, a small smear of the ointment that is provided to cleanup crews, and which can be applied safely along the inside of the nose. He shares it - but not with everyone, only his chosen favorites. He is no fool.
The chemists like having Zevran about. He is able to follow orders quickly, without forgetting the seriousness of the materials he is entrusted with. He does not juggle vials, corked or uncorked; he does not leave poultices out in the sun to bake while he flirts with the stewards. There is a natural desire in him to serve, to yield, implanted in him by the whorehouse. It is the most basic lesson: when you can submit, it hurts less.
Other children did not learn this as well as Zevran. Other children nurse welts from strappings and sulk through extra hours of remedial practice. Not Zevran.
He basks under the attention of the chemists. He flourishes with their approval. They like it when he shows interest, but not when he asks too many questions; they like it when he knows to be careful with the elements that react poorly with heat, but not when he touches them too often. The whorehouse did not teach Zevran to read, yet the Crows seem to find it essential, so Zevran applies himself to letters as well, all the better to educate himself on the poisons he is handling. He does not even mind when the chemists test their new concoctions on him, laughing at him whenever he convulses or hallucinates the dead.
But special attention is dangerous in its own way, and when Zevran is called to his first combat lesson, he is given a reminder of this. The bell rings in the practice yard; he scrambles out of the larder and is quick to line up with the rest of the apprentices. It is to be an exciting day, or so he hopes.
The master who is parceling them out to their instructors is a heavily-tattooed elf, whose markings ripple in broken waves over the scarred lines of his face. "So you're the upstart I've been hearing about," the man intones when Zevran proudly presents himself. The feather of his quill jiggles as he makes a notation on the scroll. "I enjoy upstarts."
Zevran cannot resist. "Oh?"
"They squeal the loudest when their fingers break." Finishing his evaluation, the master jabs the quill in a pot of ink to wet it. "It's wrestling first for you. Next!"
By the end of the day, Zevran is coughing and wheezing in the dust. His windpipe feels squashed. One knee has developed shooting pains whenever he leans his weight on it. All of his slipshod education does not help when it comes to direct combat. His elven heritage makes him lean, makes him wiry, and childhood at the brothel has taught him how to eel out of the way of a direct blow. It is not so good at preparing him to fight back. He is not the type to cultivate anger for the purposes of aggression, and this works against him.
But he likes being able to plan out his maneuvers, and he likes the fulfillment of a job well done, and he does not think he minds killing either, when it comes down to it. He can survive this. He can figure out how to apply his particular strengths to these new demands. It is only a matter of learning how.
His own willingness to please encourages Zevran to pay attention to all his lessons this time, not just the chemists. It earns him the approval of many of his tutors, even while it invites the scorn of others. He stops thinking of assassination as a task they will be forced into - like emptying chamber pots or polishing boots - and more as a means of enjoying a life which will end eventually, one way or the other. He begins to smile more. He fears less.
One evening, as he is perched in the top of a belltower feeding the messenger birds, Zevran realizes that this is the quality that the Crows are teasing out of each crop of recruits. This is what they seek. The apprentices who want to obey the most are the ones who will learn to love the work. They are able to submit to the new rules in their life, to value the art of the kill, and these are the ones that the Crows will find the most value in.
The revelation feels like a dash of cool water. Zevran's lessons are more interesting, now that he sees a direction in them. He lines up for their combat training eagerly the next day, almost bouncing on his heels. Poisons are entertaining, but there is much more in the world that he must learn how to tame.
The masters prove this when Zevran sees his new sparring partner. Paired up against him for the week is a fresh apprentice, a lanky human boy whose skull has a thin fuzz of hair from being shaved for lice. His face is bruised and sullen. He is named Taliesen.
Taliesen is difficult for Zevran to understand at first. There are many snap judgements that could be made. Taliesen is brash, but many of the recruits are so, Zevran included. Taliesen is very forthright, while Zevran likes to dodge around unpleasantness whenever he can. Taliesen is also a human, which is not common among the recruits, and his physical charms are rougher. Zevran was bought at a favorable price, an entire three sovereigns. Taliesen barely fetched one. As such, he must work twice as hard to match up to what the Crows desire from their students. He has more to prove.
After their first bout of partnership together, Zevran promptly ignores Taliesen as ineffective competition. If it were not for chance, he would have forgotten about the boy altogether and moved on with his life.
But he encounters Taliesen again only a short while later, and this time, the impression lasts.
It is after Zevran has been recaptured by the Crows, after his time with the Dalish - after he has finally lost any lingering desire to try and change his fate. The Crows have beaten him well. One rib has either fractured or come close to it, and Zevran tries to be careful each time he inhales. He has seen firsthand how a stressed bone can saw upon a lung even after the initial injury; he heard the girl cough and spit blood before the fever took her, and then the masters did. If he had spare cloth, he would attempt to bind it, save that he fears cracking the rib the rest of the way. For now, all he can do is try to remain as limp as possible, and hope that submission is the cure.
The surgeon dumps him off in a darkened storage shed, alongside the quietly groaning bodies of the other students that have been recovered. Runaways are common enough that the capture of them is part of the routine practice for journeymen; apprentices are their first prey, like kittens batting around a half-chewed mouse.
Zevran, wincing, thinks he will try to be gentle to the apprentice he will be assigned to fetch someday. If he lives that long. Each day brings new wonders.
"You're lucky," croaks a voice from across the wall. "I heard that sometimes, if you're not considered worth it, the journeymen get to kill you instead of bring you back."
Zevran works his head around until he can glimpse the speaker. Having a clear view of the other boy doesn't help much. Taliesen's face is so swollen that he seems like an inflated nug's bladder; one of his eyes is blackened shut. There is a crust of blood over his lips. Looking at him, Zevran thinks he may have been lucky after all.
"Where did you try to go?" he asks, half-curious.
"Ferelden. My mother was from Ferelden. I thought - " Taliesen breaks off there, shaking his head, and then halting the motion with a grimace. "Never mind. Same thing as you, probably. Where did you end up?"
Zevran's stomach tightens. The Dalish were a disappointment. Even knowing that dreams could be silly things, it hurts to think about how the reality had been so different. "It seems as if our only homes are here after all," is the limit of what he says, and the swell of bitterness is unexpectedly powerful. To distract himself, he focuses on Taliesen. "So, Ferelden, was it?" He tastes the word. "I am surprised that the Crows have not ordered you to train out of your accent, my friend. It does make you stand out around here."
Taliesen shifts, lying back down, though he has to prop his head against the wall to keep his cheek from being compressed against the floor. "I'm trying not to give them an excuse. I'd like to try and keep something from before this place. Something they can't take."
Remembering the feel of a pair of gloves, Zevran finds himself silent for a moment. "I understand."
As they get older, and more of the apprentices die out, the larder becomes easier to breathe in. This is a good thing, for simple reasons: all the surviving apprentices have put on a great deal of height from their earlier years, and if the space was cramped before, it would be doubly so if everyone had survived. Nor is the larder refilled; the Crows do not mix age categories for the simple reason that the older candidates would find it too simple to murder the younger, so segregation is a necessity.
Eventually - by virtue of simply remaining alive - the children pass through their apprenticeships to journeymen, and are elevated to living in stables.
The building that Zevran is placed in is comfortable enough. The stable he is assigned to has been converted from a grain shed, and there are storage compartments that provide limited privacy. He settles in gingerly. His joints still feel loose from the tortures he had to pass to advance from apprenticehood; the journeymen had been clumsy, but the masters who had finished off the racking had been worthy of the rank, and had calmly gone about dislocating joints that Zevran didn't even know he had. His body still feels delicate, as if he is going to slide apart with any stray movement. If someone reaches in and shakes him, he will dissolve into pudding.
He tries going to sleep. He fails. His trained senses keep registering the fresh air on his face as a foreign threat, unfamiliar with a location that isn't filled with the hot rustle of the other students. The blankets feel strange: too heavy on his legs, too encompassing. He doesn't know what to do with a pillow. There is even a dirty mat for him to lie upon, the very height of luxury.
When Taliesen raps carefully on the corner of his compartment, Zevran's own heightened tension almost induces him to kick the boy in the face. Instead, he calls out a soft, "Yes?"
The other apprentice - no, journeyman now - edges closer, waiting for Zevran to beckon him welcome before finally slithering up onto the mat. "I can't sleep worth a damn," he confides in a hoarse whisper. "It's stupid, it's stupid, it's just - "
They curl up as best they can together on the narrow, filthy mat. Even though there's enough room in the compartment to stretch out, they tuck themselves close, like newborn puppies blindly questing for their mother. Zevran starts to overheat after only a few minutes. He closes his eyes, soaks the elevated temperatures in. When he finally drifts off to sleep, it's with the soft thump of Taliesen's heart against his hand.
Time marches on, and whittles the journeymen ranks down even further. The smell of leather starts to fade from Zevran's flesh, weaker and weaker with each application of soap - which in of itself is a novelty, but their tutors insist that they learn the arts of stealth, which is difficult when one reeks like a nug. Zevran tries not to miss the leatherworking district too much. He volunteers for errands which take him nearby there whenever he can, always with a sharp eye for any tasks for the chemists.
He is not as reliant on their favors as he once had to be. The rudiments of combat have been thoroughly beaten into him; he could resort to knives if he preferred. All those lessons have not robbed him of his good humor, however, and he continues to lack the edge that concentrated malice might grant him. He compensates. Blades may be familiar now, yet Zevran does not think he could ever give up the softer methods: the vial of poison, the silken cord, the smile.
He gets into more than his fair share of fights, both on and off the practice yards. Many other students wish to test his skills, and the masters are willing to let such competitiveness play out. Zevran kills several other journeymen before his challengers are bright enough to set terms of first blood, which is equally hazardous in its own way. He can't figure out what injuries do for his value. On the one hand: initiative, aggression, boldness of action! On the other: medical bills. After a bad sprain of his left ankle, however, they send him to the healer who is stationed at the top of one of the watchtowers, so Zevran figures that his punishment is lumped in together with the literal cure.
As an extra measure of insult, Taliesen comes in to pick him up, smirking and cleaning his nails with a lockpick while he waits for Zevran to finish getting his ankle wrapped. They limp down the tower stairwell together, Zevran cursing each twist of the stones.
Halfway down, he slaps Taliesen's shoulder until the other boy takes the hint and stops. They lean on the nearest window to rest. Down in the courtyard, one of the instructors is engaged in a lesson on range positioning, sparring with a young woman that Zevran has never seen before. The instructor is armed with a staff, lined with metal for reinforcement. The journeyman has two wooden nubs for daggers.
Zevran squints. "Who is that?"
Taliesen braces his wrists against the windowsill. "Rinna. You haven't seen her before? She was in one of the other larders across the city, the one that got hit bad a while back. Something about a fire. Possibly an accident, probably not. Whatever the cause, she and a few others from her larder survived the roast. Their stable's small enough now that they were skipped forward, and are studying here with our tutors. Or so I heard."
Down in the courtyard, Rinna spins wide and parries a strike before performing a risky gamble. Rotating the guard of her dagger around to redirect the end of the staff, she slams one boot onto the instructor's weapon, pinning it against the ground. Before he can wrestle it away, she brings her other foot across, and attempts to run up the length of the staff.
Unimpressed, the instructor lets her get halfway up before dropping the weapon, twisting around, and punching her in the kidney.
"She is laughing," Zevran remarks after a moment, surprised. The girl had curled up in the dirt, thoroughly defeated and humiliated, but the ragged sound of her amusement rings up through the courtyard. "I think - she is enjoying herself?"
Taliesen frowns, leaning forward out the window. "So she is. But is it real, or a lie for the instructor?"
Zevran considers the tableau. "Who knows?" he answers, and means it. "Who cares?"
Taliesen snorts agreement and they resume their haphazard progress down the stairs. The meal that night is a thin gruel with chunks of debatable sausage flavoring the broth. Taliesen wolfs his down eagerly, but the riddle of Rinna's laughter lingers in Zevran's mind, and he finds his spoon wandering his half-full bowl, endlessly tapping the confines of the rim.
As journeymen, their lessons begin to take a subtle shift. Instead of fellow apprentices serving as competition, now Zevran's greatest rivals are the other stables. It is a gradual means of instruction. As a young Crow, your first enemies are your denmates. After that, you learn how to team up with them; you learn how to hunt as a set to bring down larger prey. It is a form of preparation for working in cells, instead of instinctively assassinating your own ally when they are not expecting it.
Zevran considers this as he and Taliesen are nestled together in his stall. The human has begun to grow a very haphazard set of whiskers, and Zevran privately thinks each night about shaving them off for him. Just as he hopes that Taliesen has fallen asleep properly, the boy opens his mouth. "What did you think about today's lesson?"
Thwarted in his plans to probably induce a terrible accident by placing a razor next to Taliesen's sleeping face, Zevran clicks his tongue against his teeth. Their subject for the last few days has been a spindly human recruit with hair like a dirty haystack, stained with mud so deeply that it seems to have become permanent - very talented with stilettos, but not talented enough. Their instructor has been working on the left half; the right half is for the class to practice on. "I do not know," he admits. "I do not think he will be alive tomorrow. He was not conscious for very much of today."
He hears Taliesen made a whuffing sort of hmmm, a thoughtful noise that indicates his interest is piqued. There is an edge to it as well that implies impatience. There is much that Zevran knows how to interpret about Taliesen, after so long they have spent staying alive together. It pleases him, that he understands these things.
After a moment, Taliesen shakes himself out of his reverie. "Rinna and I spent the afternoon cleaning up the target dummies," he whispers. "Someone has been giving her pointers in how to kiss."
The mental image is intriguing. Zevran lets his imagination fill it out, being generous with the details. He is pleasantly in the middle of thinking about Rinna's fingers clenched in Taliesen's hair when he feels a finger prod him in the leg.
"Do you want to taste her?" Taliesen whispers.
Zevran spares only a moment. "Yes."
Taliesen rolls over. Zevran catches an elbow in the waist, but he relaxes rather than resists. He feels Taliesen settling in on top of him. He feels Taliesen's breath, a sleeve rub against his cheek. He opens his mouth, and lets Taliesen fill it.
Their shortblades tutor kills a journeyman the next day. He calls the girl up, gives her a sword, and then proceeds to dissect her alive. When she finally drops her weapon, clutching her hands to her leaking belly, he opens up her throat with a backhanded flourish. The blood jets in a messy spatter that catches Zevran across the chin and on most of his jerkin.
"It's almost time for your first practice in the field," their tutor announces, taking out a cloth and wiping off the worst of the gore before it starts to dry. "You'll be hunting in sets for a month. I've divided up a list of the runaway apprentices for you all to deal with. If you are assigned a kill, anything less than discretion will be punished. If you are assigned a live capture, you may injure, but not maim. Do you have anything particular to say about this, Zevran?"
Caught daydreaming of Taliesen's lips, Zevran makes a guilty start. "Only that I wish I hadn't been the one standing next to," he makes an offhanded gesture at the ground, "this."
Just for that, he is ordered to clean up the body.
The problem with a neck wound, Zevran quickly discovers, is that if you pull by the arms, the heels leave deeper imprints - yet reversing the position only encourages the neck to bleed that much faster. Messy business, but good practice. Taliesen follows him to the nearest dumping pile. The other journeyman doesn't offer to help, but trails behind silently, careful not to step on the sheet that Zevran is using to minimize drag marks and collect the blood. His gaze never strays to the body. It remains fixed on Zevran, devouring each motion hungrily, as if seeing the elf streaked with the aftermath of a kill brings him unspeakable joy.
For all his intensity, however, Taliesen does nothing until Zevran makes it to the nearest dumping pile. It has been a busy morning; a few legs already protrude from beneath the quicklime-dusted canvases. There, Taliesen pushes Zevran towards the nearest fence, kicking aside the dead girl's arm when it gets in the way. His fingers pluck at Zevran's jerkin. He bears Zevran up against the splintering fenceboards, rough and impatient and and far clumsier than he should be, considering all his grappling practice.
"Is it Rinna you want to kiss right now?" he whispers, his eyes searching Zevran's face, poised for the first hint of weakness.
Zevran has no need to lie. Not here. Not to Taliesen. "No."
Taliesen does not hesitate to test the truth of it. His hands pin Zevran's shoulders. His tongue is hot as a whip.
Taliesen is a brash companion, but he is also one of the most dedicated of all the recruits. The one-sovereign stigma haunts him; he fights each year to overcome it. He is the one who learns the strictures of the Crows well enough to remind Zevran of dozens of rules that would otherwise be broken. Zevran is talented, but part of that natural genius invites a willingness to work around the restrictions, to think in creative directions. Taliesen grounds him. It is Taliesen who gathers the maps and pays off the necessary bribes. It is Taliesen who keeps track of the safehouses, of addresses and streets, and the idiosyncrasies of their assigned tasks.
It is Taliesen who reminds Zevran to administer the antidote to the first group of runaway apprentices that they catch; it's the second group that's meant to be left dead. Zevran is suitably disappointed. The runts are feisty. They have it coming to them. Vomiting for five days will have to suffice.
Rinna is different. Unlike Taliesen's fanaticism for obedience, Rinna believes in the Crows in her own way: she believes that it is good to kill, and the Crows simply happen to be in the best position to do it. She does not believe in unfairness, or victims, or even pity. She believes in knives. She enjoys her work. She can see a purpose in what they do. Assassination is more than spare coin; to Rinna, it is the balancing of life itself.
Her pleasure and faith both make for a heady form of intoxication whenever she is around. Taliesen is everything about the Crows that keeps Zevran nourished, but Rinna is what makes him dream.
When his usual tasks for the chemists are over for the day, Zevran makes certain to stop by the sparring rings where Taliesen usually works. Rinna is often there, fighting in endless tiny skirmishes with him. She is fast, and can score many hits on Taliesen so long as she keeps a weapon in hand. Whenever she is disarmed, however, he is able to rapidly tip the scales back in his favor.
This day, Zevran is patient enough to wait for the two of them to finish toying with one another, grabbing a seat on the stone railing and working out the kinks in his calf muscles. By the look of it, the fight is already galloping towards a finale. Taliesen circles Rinna like a starving wolf. Every time she tries to bolt, he is there, cutting her off. Closing the distance is a short prelude to Taliesen gaining a terminal advantage, and they both know it; Rinna feints and dodges, but Taliesen knows how to use patience when he needs to, and lets her wear down her energy in fruitless hops. Just as he finally abandons caution, lunging forward in a reckless grab, Rinna lashes out with her elbow. Taliesen takes it in the face. He drops to the packed dirt of the sparring ring, rolling away and coming up with one hand pressed against his mouth; without making a single sound of pain, he pulls it away gingerly and checks for blood.
Rinna flips her daggers over and sheathes them in a proud, flamboyant gesture. She struts over to the sidelines, leaving Taliesen on the ground. Zevran meets her with a smile.
"You take great pleasure in this," he says, a statement that feels so obvious that he wonders if he could have commented on the color of the sky instead, or possibly the weather.
She forgives him for his lack of wit, however, grinning and running fingers through her sweaty hair. The strands stick out like coarse antenna. If she had been a normal woman in Antiva, she would have been kept away from all forms of combat, pampered and cosseted like a delicate flower - but then, Zevran thinks, he would have missed out on this special form of her beauty, and that is too painful to contemplate. "I do. Each time I fight, it's like I'm fighting against the world and proving that I want to live." She stretches out her arms, arching her back. The motion pulls her jerkin tight over her breasts. "And I do want to live, Zevran. I love Antiva - I love everything about it, even the slums. I want to enjoy it as much as possible. Every time I beat one of the masters' tests, it's like I triumph against every single circumstance that put me down here. I get to win, and live, and someday help trim back the corruption in this city. Or perhaps simply winnow out those who are too slow-witted to obey. That is a good place to start."
"You speak as if you cannot wait to be loosed upon the city, my dear," he grins.
The expression that crosses her face is a mixture of fervor and unmatched joy. "I cannot."
"Such blushes are normally brought on by lovers, not by architecture."
She taps his nose: an impish, daring gesture that nearly gets her fingers snatched. She's fast enough to evade Zevran's hand, leaving him with nothing but air. "Speaking of blushing, will you come see me tonight?"
"If Taliesen can cover for me again," Zevran replies, still occupied with making another grab for her fingertips. "Yes."
"You ask him to bend the rules for you too often, Zev."
Zevran's answer comes without thinking, supremely confident. "He will do it for me. I know he will."
Rinna lets him catch her this time, but only for the duration of a kiss, as brief and sweet as strawberry honey. She giggles into his hair. With that, she scoops up her supply bags from the bench, buckling them on as she heads towards the armory to turn in her practice blades.
Still pleasantly warmed by the conversation, Zevran looks around in search of Taliesen, wondering what has taken the man so long to recover from his spill. What he discovers is an empty sparring ring. While Zevran and Rinna passed the time talking, Taliesen had silently left.
Considering the man's dedication to the Crows, Zevran expects that Taliesen would stick to Rinna's side like a tick. Rinna loves killing for the Crows; therefore, Taliesen should love Rinna. Zevran likes Rinna. Therefore, Taliesen should love her even more. So to have a disparity is worrying, and one that Zevran does not want to leave unattended.
He tracks Taliesen down through the various supply depots, getting lost on several of the more obscure entrances, until finally running his quarry down in the back of a bakery. Several small tables line the wall, occupied by a few patrons that know better than to look up while they partake of their meals. Zevran winds his way around them all to the very furthest corner, where Taliesen is murdering something puffy and covered with powdered sugar.
He sneaks himself a piece of the sweetbread as he slides into the opposite chair, and ignores Taliesen's miffed, white-dusted scowl. "Why the disappearing act, my friend?"
Talisen makes a shrug, using his thumb to wipe at the corners of his mouth. "I didn't want to interrupt you and Rinna. You looked like you were having such fun. I daresay you're fond of her," he adds flatly. "Aren't you."
"But of course." Dismissing the accusation, Zevran steals another bite of the snack. "She is always full of such delight. Such passion. She is an inspiration. I find myself compelled to invent new garrotte techniques simply by witnessing her in action. A woman like that will go far, in our line of work."
Strangely enough, Taliesen's humor does not lift. He pulls the last scrap of the sweetbread apart with an undertaker's precision, abandoning the pieces on his plate. "A good thing that she's working for the Crows, then. All that passion would be terrifying if she ever decided to change occupations."
Zevran laughs. "Sooner would you see me joining the Chantry, my friend. Rinna likes killing far too much."
"Hmmmmm," Taliesen says, a thoughtful and lilting noise, and Zevran realizes with a sudden jolt of unease that he cannot interpret this particular sound at all.
The graduation ceremony from journeyman to assassin is a momentous one. It is private, it is formal, and it is short. Once a student has survived long enough to qualify for bidding out, they are not considered true assassins until they make their first kill. No amount of congratulatory words hold any weight until an assassin comes back dripping with success. In Zevran's case, they barely go through the motions before pointing him towards the lists.
Rinna takes down her mark before either Zevran or Taliesen, and promptly stays drunk for a week to celebrate. She is given an assignment in a cell that has recently acquired several vacancies. Not wanting to take too long in case those openings fill, Zevran scrutinizes the unfilled jobs, eager for any opportunity to prove himself. He bids low, sells himself cheaply, but nets himself a fine enough contract in the end. It is enough.
The job is unexpectedly refreshing. It is not the first time Zevran has killed, but he intends it to be memorable. His own intentions nearly hamstring him along the way as he debates: this angle? That angle? Poison on the knife, or in the glass? Yet he makes his choices eventually, grateful that there are no other assassins around to mock his indecision, and tromps back to headquarters while thinking about hot baths.
Word of his victory has arrived before he does; now that he is an assassin, the stables are a thing of the past. As he approaches the roost where the masters hold audience, an apprentice steps forward to stop him. "Ser Zevran?" Sawdust clings to the boy's clothes: a recruit fresh from the woodworker larder. "I bear a message from the masters. I am here to acknowledge your success, and to inform you that your new quarters are with the Blackrift Cell, third floor, fifth room facing east." The boy gulps, then bows, lifting his eyes hesitantly to meet Zevran's amused gaze. "If you want anything, ser, I would be happy to - to get it for you. Ser."
Zevran is not foolish. He knows what the boy asks. The blush is a blatant giveaway. He remembers making similar offers himself in his own time, chasing after the chemists - desperate for praise and affection, and equally desperate for the favors they could bestow. Now that he is an assassin, he is in a position to dispense the same.
The boy is pretty enough, but Zevran's tastes today are for the fully mature. "Go," he tells the fledgeling apprentice, with some sympathetic fondness. "Tell the cooks to send some wine. That will be all, for now."
Blackrift pleases him. It is Rinna's cell, and either the masters approve of his performance or they have noticed all the time he has spent with her and Taliesen. It is located in the secondary wing of a rather fine manor, one that is conveniently near a few shortcuts through the textile district. The estate is a far cry from the larder. Zevran takes the time to admire the building as he approaches it, looping around to the servants' entrance and keeping track of how many windows are nearby as he does. There is a fine walled garden that nudges up against the west half of the manor; he will make good use of that. There is even an ornamental fountain.
The servants drop their eyes respectfully when he wanders in through their quarters. He trots up the stairs, not minding a few flights. Living too close to a ground floor only invites troublemakers.
When he pushes open the door to his room, Rinna is standing there.
She's not right at the doorway, which is wise; he had his fingers on a dagger the moment he sensed another living presence nearby. Instead, she's several feet within, in plain line-of-sight. Her hands are behind her back. She's dressed in tight leathers, boots laced up along the insides, but Zevran knows better than to assume the lack of a visible weapon to mean that she's harmless. He once saw her pluck out an eyeball with an Orlesian relish fork. Such memories linger.
"So you're a full-fledged Crow now," she purrs. Tapping a slim finger against her lips - one hand empty, the other still suspect - she lets her hips shift back and forth, her weight rolling like a dancer. "Which means you get to have your pick of whatever indulgences you please to satisfy your appetite. Tell me, what do you plan to ask for, Zev? Women? Men?"
"Chantry sisters dancing naked in the streets?" comes Taliesen's voice from deeper in the room. The other man slinks in through a side doorway, dressed as practically as Rinna - all rich, chocolatey leather, smelling delicious enough for Zevran to want to rub his face against the hide - and with the same predatory smugness. He leans against the wall, arms crossed, mouth sly. Both his hands are empty, but his vest could conceal anything, all cunning pockets and hidden stitching. "Anything that suits you. Tell us what you want."
Rinna inclines her head towards him, but her eyes remain on Zevran. "I figured, let's let you have your pick tonight. Just once."
Zevran lets himself be drawn into the room, dropping his supply packs on the floor and kicking the door shut behind him. "How do I know you are not both simply teaming up against me, and planning on subverting my victory by claiming it as your own somehow?"
"He has a point," Taliesen interjects. "I do need a kill under my belt."
Rinna flashes them both a smile, dazzling in her lack of concern. At last, she holds out her other hand to Zevran in a silent command. Danging loose from her palm are two wide lengths of burgundy silk. Underneath them is a blindfold.
Zevran laughs in delight when he sees it. "Come prepared in case I resist?" he muses. The silk warms quickly against his skin as Rinna loops the fabric around his wrist. "Why choose? I believe I can handle you both."
"That's a relief," Taliesen says, coming up and taking Zevran's other hand. He wraps his fingers around Zevran's thinner arm, applies pressure until Zevran feels his fingers start to tingle and his bones ache. The bruises tomorrow will be glorious. "I told Rinna I'd kill her if she didn't let me partake in a bite."
Taliesen's grip is harder than Zevran expects. He follows proper instinct, letting his muscles go slack so they can absorb the pain, but Taliesen doesn't release him. The other man is near enough that the scent of fresh leather is overpowering, but he does not back away, and he does not come closer.
Rinna is the one to break the standoff. She pushes at Taliesen's shoulder playfully, nudging at his vest until the man relents, and takes the other strip of silk. "Don't worry, Zev," she murmurs, shaking out the blindfold and lifting it expectantly. "You're in good hands with us."