AN: Oh my goodness, look at my life look at my choices.
This fic was inspired in a roundabout way by a number of kinkmeme prompts asking for Tevinter stories. I saw many fills featuring Magister!Hawke and slave!Fenris—which I do love, by the way, almost to an unhealthy degree—but they were all AUs in which Hawke met Fenris while he was still a slave under Danarius, and any subsequent relationship that developed was based out of that slavery. That made me wonder what would happen if Hawke and Fenris as we see them in Kirkwall, with Fenris a free elf for many years in everything but name, had to go back to Tevinter together under the ruse of Fenris returning as a slave. And so this fic was born.
I have fudged bits and pieces of canon for the sake of the story, though I hope it isn't noticeable enough to suspend disbelief; the worst victims are the length of Act Three and the Tevinter political system, which I've slightly reworked to make fit within the confines of fanfiction. This license is inexcusable, I know, but so it goes.
I'd also like to say no languages were harmed in the writing of this fic, but unfortunately, I've mangled Latin rather badly. If you recognize any familiar body parts in my cobbled-together Arcanum—well, I hope you'll forgive me.
Finally, for anyone hesitant to dive into a lengthy WIP for fear of abandonment, please know that as of this moment this fic is complete. I will be posting chapters as they come back from beta and as I can edit them, but since I knew I'd better finish the thing before starting to post it, the wait will hopefully not be too long between chapters. And considering I started writing it a full year ago, I really, really hope y'all enjoy it.
My thanks go first, as always, to my best friend Jade, for being the most incredible beta in the world, and whose patience with my love for Fenris over Anders borders on the truly angelic. (One day I will write a fic that doesn't whump on him, I promise. One day.) Any decent parts in this fic are wholly her influence, either directly or indirectly; the blame for everything else falls squarely on me. You are the Andraste to my Sebastian, Jadeykins, face-belt and all. Thank you for everything, but mostly, thank you for being so eminently rip-off-able. (Just kidding. JUST KIDDING.)
Secondly, I need to thank Hikki, who kindly lent me all the linguistic parts of her brain whenever I asked, and who helped me get a major sticking point unstuck. I can't tell you how much I've appreciated your constant ear. I'm sorry this doesn't have more Andurrs in it. (I'm also sorry I apparently need more Fenris-loving friends.)
Finally, katiebour's Almost Totally Made-Up Tevene Dictionary/Reference (archiveofourown dot org/works/227715/) has been an invaluable resource, and any decent-sounding Arcanum I've managed is due entirely to her work. Thank you so much for sharing this with us!
Fasten your seatbelts, kids. This is gonna be a long one.
AN2: Catullus is a rather famous Roman poet, although I have bastardized his lovely lines into something closer to Arcanum. The original Latin poem can be found in Catullus V.
To-day we take the great breath of lovers,
to-morrow fate shuts us in.
—Homage to Sextus Propertius, VII, Ezra Pound
In the deep shadows cast by infrequent torches, a man leans over one of the Arcanist Hall's heavy oak tables. Its polished surface is scattered with books and sheaves of crumbling, ancient paper thick with dust; only a few squat white candles in bronze dishes hold the darkness at bay, but the man seems to care little about the weakness of the light. Within moments, a second figure slips through the aisles of tall narrow bookshelves to join him at the table, the agitation of his movements visible even under his thick, well-worked cloak. He leans close to the first man under the pretense of surveying the papers, close enough that whispers will not carry.
"I heard today that the Senate adjourned with consensus reached. Is this true?"
"Truer than either you or I would like."
"The whole situation is ludicrous! You cannot allow this—this farce to continue."
"It is done already."
"She's a foreigner! Worse, she's Fereldan! A dog-lord raised to power in the City of a Thousand Spires—it is inconceivable!"
"Lower your voice! I said it is done. The courier is already away, bearing the papers signed and sealed with the Archon's own hand."
A sharp intake of breath cuts through the hush and the second man sinks into a chair. "I don't understand. The woman is nothing more than a refugee from that barbaric little mud-country. She has few ties to Danarius save that slave, and none at all to the man's estate. How can the Senate allow this?"
"You think I did not voice these objections? The Fereldan has advocates, Lord Priscus, who bothered to unearth records better left underground." The first man slides a stack of loosely-bound papers across the table, his black-gloved hands nearly vanishing in the shadows.
"What are these? They look like the Circle's registries."
"The girl's father was recorded in the lineages at the Hall."
"What?" He flips through the pages quickly with little care for their cracking edges. "A sanctioned mage?"
"Recognized by the Circle and the Senate alike, and granted all the legal claims of a citizen of the Imperium. And not only is he included, but also—"
"—his heirs." The man groans and leans back in the chair, putting one hand over his eyes. "But what of Danarius? Citizen or no, she still has no claims to his estate."
"Danarius was a fool." Emotion shows in the first man's face at last, but the anger flits so quickly through his eyes that it is gone by the time the other man sits up. "He tied every last dram of his estate into that runaway slave of his. That elf is a fortune in lyrium, and everything in his manor from the slaves to the last linen napkin is drawn on that fortune. And you heard what he said to the woman in Kirkwall."
"I had hoped it was a rumor."
"No chance of it. He acknowledged her as the elf's new mistress, the imbecile, and every witness there heard it before he proceeded to lose that duel to her. Worse, the spies say she is the elf's master in truth, that she commands him easily and he follows at her heels like a dog."
"And there is no other heir to contest her claim? This chain is so tenuous even a bastard might break it with the right leverage."
"None have presented themselves, and with Danarius's apprentice dead before him and no new one named, we do not even have that as recourse." He collects the papers with sharp motions, and the taut set of his shoulders belies the calmness of his voice. "Her advocates in the Senate underestimate her. They think her nothing more than a delightful oddity to bring novelty to the social season. But this woman defeated the Arishok in single combat, and it would be a great mistake to take her lightly."
"She has few friends here. Perhaps she will stay in that fetid city-state of hers."
The man shakes his head slowly. "No. I think she will come, and I think she will bring the elf with her. And as long as she holds his leash, I do not think I will rest easy at night."
"You exaggerate her danger, Magister."
"Perhaps," he says, turning away from his companion and stepping into the shadows between the tall shelves, the candlelight flickering desperately in the breath of his passing. "But I tell you now, keep an eye on this woman. This...Hawke."
Hawke slams the door shut with her heel, her eyes focused on the letters in her hand. This is a disaster—this is impossible—and Fenris is going to kill her. Just reach his hand right in and pop out her heart, like pitting a cherry. "Fenris! Where are you?"
Maybe he isn't home. Maybe he's out doing...angry elf things, or brooding elf things, or anything, really, that doesn't involve her imminent demise. Hawke trips over the broken flagstone in his foyer out of long habit and swears absently, blowing a loose hair from her eyes and sincerely regretting a good number of recent choices. The manor seems empty enough, the morning sun spilling down clear in the silence, though his door is closed at the top of the stairs. Flipping through the letters again, the words as clear in her mind as when she'd first read them, Hawke wonders absently if it might be better to just gut herself now and save Fenris the trouble.
Well, she's come this far. "Fenris?" she tries one last time. Her voice rings in the rafters of his ruined great hall, sounding rather more plaintive than she means it, and when the last echoes die away and Fenris still has not emerged, she gives up. It might be more thorough to see if he is indeed upstairs, but the stairs seem more foreboding than usual and his closed bedroom door especially bleak and she can't seem to make herself cross the grimly sunny expanse of the hall without better incentive. At least she'll live another day, she thinks as she turns towards the door, if the weight of the words in the letters doesn't crush her before Fenris does.
"There is no need to shout." His voice drifts down from the landing, deep and rough with sleep, and Hawke turns to see Fenris yawning as he approaches the balustrade above her. His hair is tousled and his jerkin not pulled quite straight, and he looks altogether so adorably rumpled that she almost forgets why she's come. His green eyes are clear, though, and piercing in the light as he leans his forearms on the railing and looks down at her, a slim red volume of poetry dangling from one hand. "Hawke."
"Good morning." She nods at the book in his hand, inwardly delighted at the sight of it, though she wishes the words in her own hand were more pleasant. "How's Catullus treating you?"
"Fair enough," he says, glancing at his page for a moment. "He chooses his words very…precisely."
Hawke laughs. "Darevi basia mille!" she cries dramatically, putting on her most woeful gaze and throwing a longing hand up towards Fenris. Her Arcanum is passable at best, but her feigned fit of passion makes the words seem almost fluid; Fenris's eyebrows shoot into his hairline at her choice and she winks. "Dein-darevi centum, dein mille altera, dein secunda centum—"
"Too many," he says as he shakes his head, but she sees the corners of his mouth twitching.
"Just one, then," she says in gracious compromise. It's a fair enough trade for what she has to tell him, really, and besides, Fenris is already making his way down the dilapidated staircase, leaving behind on the railing Catullus's poetical pleas for a thousand kisses. For an instant she almost wants him to stay on the landing, kisses be damned—at least that way she'd be out of immediate arm's reach—but before she can quite articulate the sentiment he is already at her side, and Hawke figures that if she has to die she might as well have kissed Fenris first.
The touch of his mouth is gentle and quiet, perfectly suited to the kind of morning she's about to ruin, but in the end she puts too much of herself into the embrace. She knows it even as she does it, feeling the barely-calmed frustration leaking out through her hands on his arms, and far too soon he draws back with a frown. "Something is wrong."
"No! Well—yes. But not—ugh." Hawke steps back, taking a breath and squaring her shoulders; she is many things, but she is not a coward. "I have some bad news."
"Frankly, Fenris, I am doing my level best to distract us both, but I don't think it's working." The corners of the envelopes prick her palm and she grits her teeth, fanning them out in the air between them. Just tell him! "Three letters were delivered this morning at the crack of dawn. One you'll dislike, one you'll loathe, and one you may try to kill me for reading." She ticks them off with her fingers and offers him a wan smile. "I did warn you about the dangers of literacy, right?"
Faint wariness lights in his eyes at the last of the list, but he only holds out an expectant hand. "Give me the worst."
She shakes her head and hands him the envelope on the end. "Read them in the same order I did. This first one's from Feynriel."
"That somniari? You write to him often?" He pulls out the letter and flicks it open, a slight frown already settling over his face.
"We have a regular but infrequent correspondence. He mostly tells me about what he's learning from that mentor you suggested." She leans over his hands, scanning Feynriel's untidy scrawl upside-down, then points to a particular paragraph at the bottom of the second page. "Read this part."
"'Your name comes up more often than ever,'" Fenris reads, pausing only to make out a word here and there. "'Lady Damia keeps me so busy I'm almost a recluse, but I've heard rumors of your recent acquisitions, and I cannot help but urge you to accept them. I know what you think of Tevinter, but it's not as bad as your friend makes it out to be,'" Fenris scoffs, "'and you could do so much good here with that kind of wealth.' What acquisitions, Hawke?"
She wonders if she looks as uncomfortable as she feels. "I had no idea when I first read it either. That would be the worst letter." She looks away as she hands him the fattest envelope, the one with her name elegantly scripted in black ink on the most expensive paper she's ever held, so she does not see his eyes narrow at the elaborate postmark. She does, however, hear his sharp intake of breath as he turns the over the envelope to reveal the insignia stamped into the scarlet sealing wax, an intricate representation of a hooded ferryman bearing a lantern. She hadn't known what that meant this morning, when the exhausted courier had thrust the letters into her hands. Now she does.
"This is the seal of the Imperial Archon." His voice is accusing. She nods, still without looking at him, and after a moment when his eyes seem to burn straight through her temple, she hears him slide the thick packet of papers from the envelope. He does not read this letter aloud, but she knows what it says anyway.
To Euphemia Hawke, called Champion of Kirkwall:
On behalf of the estate of the late magister Danarius who died on the fourteenth of Umbralis without making a will.
Be it known that this Senate, on the ninth of Eluviesta, with the approval of the Imperial Archon and in accordance with Imperial law concerning inheritance, has named you the sole beneficiary of the intestate.
Due to the unusual circumstances of the death of the intestate (viz. the private nature of the duel resulting in the death of the intestate and the remarkable conditions of your own Imperial citizenship), this Senate hereby declares that the assets of the intestate may not pass lawfully into the ownership of the beneficiary until such time as the beneficiary claims the estate, in person, in the Hall of Records in Minrathous.
Should the beneficiary fail to appear at the Hall of Records by 4 Solis of this year, the estate will pass to the jurisdiction of the Divine.
Please find enclosed an itemized list of the notable property of the intestate.
Signed 5:9 Dragon.
The Archon himself has signed the letter, a graceful looping signature that covers half the page, putting to shame the long line of senators' names that trail after it almost sheepishly. Half a page of dry legalese and her contentment had been shattered; she can't imagine what Fenris what must be thinking now.
She hears Fenris swallow and chances a look at him. His face is white under his tan, the lyrium tattoos fading into the pallor, but his eyes are preternaturally calm as he turns to the next page in the stack, and Hawke does not allow herself to glance away again. This is the sheet she fears most, but the least she can do is give him the courtesy of not flinching from its contents. The first had been bad enough, reading it alone in her study and feeling her heart drop into her stomach, but the second starts the list of Danarius's assets, and at the very top of the page, just under a truly staggering number of sovereigns, is listed the most valuable asset of the estate she now owns.
One elf, male, approx. 35 years old. Distinctive markings: white hair, lyrium brands extending over whole body.
Fenris goes very, very still. Hawke's breath catches as his eyes fix on his name, listed like so much chattel between the sovereigns and a pair of silver chandeliers. Her property. Her property.
"I see," says Fenris. His voice is calm and inflectionless as he looks at the paper, and Hawke doesn't have the faintest idea what to do with it. "I did not know you were an Imperial citizen."
That is not what she'd expected him to say. "My—my father," Hawke says, thoroughly unbalanced. She'd been prepared for righteous anger, for hurt, for even betrayal, but she had not anticipated this…emptiness. "He studied in Tevinter for a few years before he met my mother. In the—ah, the Circle there," she adds faintly. "I didn't know until today. The last page is a copy of his citizenship records."
Fenris turns there. "I see," he says again, just as calmly. "Citizenship granted to the undersigned and his heirs. How fortunate he had the prudence to include that."
"Fenris—" she starts, but his composure unsettles her and she falls silent. He re-folds the letter along its crisp creases, sparing little notice for the six other pages of her new-acquired wealth. Hawke has read them already, anyway: iron candlesticks, lacquered end-tables, a surprising number of tapestries.
And eighty-four slaves. Eighty-four sentient beings given into her ownership with nothing more than a signature.
Fenris slides the packet back into the envelope and holds it out to her. She takes it automatically, still unable to find her footing in his unwavering blankness. "And the third letter?" he says.
"From Feynriel's mentor." He pulls it from her unresisting fingers and Hawke flushes. She'd thought to make a joke of it, when she'd first come—whatever the third letter held, it couldn't possibly have been as daunting as the second, right?—but she sees now how foolish that plan had been, how severely she has underestimated the brutality of the situation. "Lady Damia. She wants me to—come as quickly as I can. She says the Black Divine will grant the estate to a man called Priscus if I don't claim it."
"I know Lord Priscus," Fenris says, and a distant distaste edges into his voice. Hawke is grateful to hear it—anything is better than those colorless tones. "He is no mage, but he is great friends with the Archon. He does not have the reputation of…gentleness."
"Would he come after you?" She has no idea if she is allowed to be this direct, but her concern is for Fenris first and foremost and this worries her more than anything else.
He looks at her at last.
The bitterness in his eyes takes her breath away. Suddenly everything they have worked for, everything they have worked through is gone as if it has never been, as if the words on those letters had been stone rather than ink, re-forging a wall between them that Hawke had only just managed to tear down. His mouth tightens at her expression and she tries to school it into something safer, but it is far, far too late, and he jerks his head away from her transparency.
No—she will not allow him to retreat from her like this—not like this, not because of this—and she steps forward, close enough to touch him without doing so. "What should I do?" she asks, her voice sudden and forceful and loud in the still air of his mansion. He glances at her and oh, his face looks old, and so tired, but she will not falter. "Fenris. Tell me."
"I don't know." His hands hang at his sides, useless. Hopeless. "Priscus will search for me. The lyrium…" he shrugs, letting the words trail off. "I will never be free."
"Stop that," she says sharply. Part of her wonders if she should avoid giving orders with this new and terrifying thing between them, but a larger part refuses to treat him differently, refuses to let this alter what they've made of themselves. "You're free now. You've been free since the day you left Danarius in Seheron."
He meets her eye but there is no spark of his familiar defiance under that bitterness, and she realizes suddenly that she is losing him, losing everything he has given her behind the impenetrable mask of her ownership. Her heart aches at the sight of it and she tears the letter from his hands, shaking it furiously between them. "This? This is nothing, Fenris. Listen to me. I could have burned these letters when I got them and it wouldn't have made a difference between us—they shouldn't matter, Fenris, because they're nothing but ink and paper and you are the only person who can decide what you are." Hawke crushes the letters in her fist. Her throat closes and she swallows, surprised to find she is near tears but too angry to be silent. "Don't give them this victory over you just because they claim it."
"Priscus will come," he warns her, but his hands have clenched at his sides.
"I don't care." She is reckless, storming, angry because he is not, grieving because he can't. "Let him come. Danarius couldn't stand against us—he won't either. I'll burn the letters. Or better yet, let me go to him. Let me go to Tevinter and sign the damned thing and make you free in a way that even they can't contest."
Fenris draws back, astonished, and when Hawke realizes what she has said she closes her eyes, appalled at herself. Go to Tevinter? What a spectacular plan—go to the city bursting at the seams with the magisters who nearly ruined him, go to the home of the man who tore him from his family and make it hers; go and claim as her property the place where Fenris underwent the most excruciating torture of his life. Step into the part of a magister, slaves and all. But—
But she could protect those slaves.
She could free Fenris.
Hawke opens her eyes when his hands touch her chin. He has leaned close to her, the spark relit, his eyes flaring green in the sunlight spilling down from the windows, his lyrium-lined fingers holding her chin in place as he searches her face. At last he sighs almost imperceptibly, shaking his head, but he does not release her and she does not pull away. "This is a foolish idea," he says, though he doesn't sound convinced of it.
He also sounds more like himself than he has since he saw the Archon's seal. He is right, she knows, but so is she; the city will be dangerous, but Priscus's chase would carry just as much danger and she cannot abandon the eighty-four slaves of Danarius's estate to this Priscus. Of her estate, now. Hawke shrugs one shoulder, offering him a tentative smile. "I excel at those," she says, and when he almost smiles in return she adds more soberly, "I think—I ought to go. For their sake, if you won't let me for yours."
Fenris leans forward until his forehead rests against hers, until the white mess of his hair mingles with the black strands of her own. Hawke wraps her arms around his neck and feels his hands settle at the small of her back. He breathes there a moment, letting the silence of his great hall fill the air around them, and then he tightens his arms around her. "It's too much," he says, rough and quiet. "Let me…let me think on it. I will give you an answer soon."
"Take your time." Her nose brushes against his, relief and worry warring in her heart. He seems nearly himself again, but she knows the disquiet seething just under her skin is mirrored in his own. Perhaps this is too demanding of her, given everything she has taken from him today—but she needs this assurance, and Catullus's words seem as good as any to ask for it. "Darevi basia unum."
His breath puffs across her cheek in a laugh. "Solus unus?"
Her eyes fall closed at his response, at his returning humor. Safe. They have walked through the worst of the fire and emerged; they will make it through this not entirely unscathed, not unscarred, but—together. "Certe."
"Placet," he murmurs, and his mouth covers her own in the kiss she'd asked for.
"Seco. Secare, secui…secus?"
"Sectus," says Orana, and Hawke curses under her breath.
A week has passed since her visit to Fenris's mansion. She'd given him the space he requested, taking the others on her errands to the Wounded Coast, though the idea of letting him stew in his ruined mansion had held as much appeal as the Bone Pit on its best days. She'd done her best to keep her mind on her long list of busy-work at first, as they'd cleaned out the coast of its myriad unwelcome inhabitants, but the third time she'd failed to notice a six-foot-tall spider sneaking up behind her, Aveline had kindly asked if she hadn't better go home and leave the spiders to her. Isabela, though, had a nose like a bloodhound and the tenacity of a cat after cream, and when she'd sensed Hawke's secret she'd prodded her mercilessly until Hawke had given up and explained. The ensuing innuendos had been unwelcome, if not unexpected, but despite her teasing Isabela had offered both her ship and her services, and Varric hadn't been far behind with Bianca. Hawke had tried to explain, to say that she wasn't sure yet if they would even be needed, but Isabela had only laughed and said, "Preparation is always a good idea, sweet thing."
It had seemed like rather sound advice, which is why Hawke now sits across from Orana in the fat armchairs of her study, the detritus of breakfast still surrounding their feet, trying and mostly failing to conjugate Arcanic verbs.
"Vetui," says Orana.
"To forbid," Hawke answers, glancing down at her empty cup. "Is there any more tea?"
She tuts, her slim fingers touching the lip of Hawke's cup. "Aen thea…?"
"Aen thea amplius, dictatora?"
Orana laughs, a sound that surprises Hawke every time she hears it, and nods. "Ita est, discipla," she says, and Hawke takes both her cup and Orana's to the kitchens to refill them. The cups had been her mother's last nameday gift; they are a deep, deep red, the color of crushed berries, and delicately etched with an intricate pattern of white flowers around the base. They'd cost a fortune, but the way her mother's eyes had misted over at the sight of them had brought tears to her own—then Hawke shakes her head roughly, dispersing the memories, and reaches for the ceramic kettle. It'd been hard enough to get Orana to allow her to fetch her own tea; if she dawdles now, the woman is more than likely to take back the office on the grounds of efficiency if nothing else.
She adds a sprig of mint to Orana's cup and a dollop of honey to her own and is just lifting both cups from the counter when a footstep sounds behind her. "I'm coming—er, veni-tui, Orana—" she says as she looks up, but the face that greets her is decidedly masculine. "Oh. You're not Orana."
"I am not," says Fenris dryly.
"Do you want any tea?" Hawke asks, and he shakes his head, falling into step with her as she starts back to the study. This is the first time she has seen him in a week, and though he is a little pale, he shows none of the uncertainty she'd expected.
He says nothing for several moments. Hawke fishes for conversation topics, discomfited by the silence, but just before she can ask what polish he uses on his gauntlets, he throws her a sidelong glance. "You are practicing your Arcanum?"
"I'm trying," she offers ruefully. "I'm more out of practice than I thought. Orana's being very patient. Vetui—to forbid. Vetari, vetare, vetitus."
"It's not a simple language. You are fortunate you learned as young as you did."
She pauses at the study door, letting Fenris reach over her head to push it open, and shrugs. "My father thought it was important, for both me and Bethany. Any mage worth her salt ought to know the language of magic, he said, or she might as well stick to lighting candles and icing water glasses. Bethany was much better at it than I was."
Orana jumps up as they enter, curtseying deferentially at Fenris. Hawke suspects it is a habit she will never break despite how frequently Fenris has vocalized his dislike of it, and she shakes her head as she hands Orana her tea. "Do you mind if we break for a while, dictatora?" she asks, trying to break the tension; Orana flushes and nods, glancing again at Fenris's grimace, and nearly flees out the study door.
Hawke sinks back down into her chair with a sigh. "You scare her, you know."
"And you coddle her."
She waves away his accusations, both of them aware this is not why he has come. Fenris stands in front of the unlit fireplace, his eyes on the Amell crest without seeing it, and then he turns, pulling her letters from his jerkin. Two of them he returns to her, the ones from the Archon and Lady Damia; the third he keeps, sliding Feynriel's letter from the envelope and unfolding it.
"Do you know what this boy says?" he asks at last, his eyes turning to hers over the pages.
Confused, Hawke hesitates, cupping her tea in both hands. "He wanted me to take the estate."
"Not that." Fenris waves the letter in the air impatiently. "What he says about the senators in Minrathous, and the qunari."
"Oh!" It takes Hawke a moment to readjust her thoughts, to find the memories of Feynriel's letter that do not concern her unwelcome inheritance. "He said…oh, what was it? Something about rumors of an attack, about a group of magisters trying to strike against Seheron. They thought the qunari would be unsettled by the loss of the Arishok and their defeat in Kirkwall. He wanted me to look into it."
"Ah—" Hawke blinks. "I might, if the opportunity presented itself. I hadn't really thought about it. Should I?"
Fenris looks back at the letter, his dark eyebrows drawn tight, and Hawke seeks refuge from her bewilderment in her tea. She cannot imagine where this sudden interest in the qunari's wellbeing has come from; he'd certainly seemed willing enough to defend Kirkwall against them at her side, and news of Tevinter's schemes of war since then had rarely spurred more than a derisive comment. He respects the Qun, she knows, though that hardly seems reason enough to involve them in another country's hostilities. Why now?
His eyes slide to hers, and she realizes she has said the last out loud. There is something strange in his expression, something old and long-buried, but before she can put a name to it he has crumpled the letter in his fist and turned to look out the window. "They would lay siege to Alam first," he says at last. "It's a coastal city, the nearest to Minrathous."
"I see," says Hawke, though she doesn't. Alam is a small-enough city, if she remembers her father's lessons correctly, notable only for its position at the mouth of Seheron's largest river, and for its reputation as a haven for—Oh. Her mouth forms the word without voicing it, and Hawke rises to her feet, tea forgotten, her eyes on the stiff lines of Fenris's back. "There are Fog Warriors in Alam," she says. Her voice seems loud in the quiet room.
His weight shifts, just slightly, just enough to tell her she is right. She closes her eyes—this is a deep wound in Fenris, long scarred over but never healed, and the strength of his trust in her, in allowing her to see this defenseless part of him, sucks the breath out of her. She knows the deep-seated guilt of survival, of failure—she carries it herself, after all, though hers bears different names—and when she can speak again, her next words come carefully. "I will do whatever I can to find the truth of these rumors," she says to his back, and though she means every word, the promise seems somehow paltry in the face of his regret.
"Hmm," Fenris murmurs, a low exhale rather than a real response, and then he turns to face her. The morning light glances off his hair through the window, the faint halo paling his hair to quicksilver; it makes a sharp contrast with the darkness in his eyes, and a faint part of Hawke is reminded of the stories of the old gods, descending from the Golden City in terrible beauty to bring doom upon their enemies. "You cannot go alone."
"I won't." Her heart races. Tacit permission is still permission, and though Fenris's fist tightens around the creased letter, unsteady anticipation is already coursing through her at the thought of the voyage. "I won't go alone. Varric and Isabela already said they would go. They can help me track down the rumors. Isabela said there's room for one more on board her ship; I thought maybe I'd ask Sebas—"
Hawke's mouth closes with a clack. Oops. "Ah…maybe. Not everything!" she adds at Fenris's deepening scowl. "Just the—just the Tevinter bit. And—the, ah, slave…bit."
"The slave bit," Fenris repeats in tones of patent disbelief, and Hawke winces. "How fortunate you were so circumspect."
Her cheeks heat so quickly that Hawke feels lightheaded. "I can be circumspect! I don't give everything away just like that, Fenris."
He looks at her, his face calm, and then he shakes his head. "You do," he says, as if it is obvious, and then says in the same tones, "and that is why I will go with you."
Her racing heart stops dead.
The word bursts out of her. His eyes narrow at her emphatic negation, but Hawke sees only the scars on Fenris's back, the magisters pulling at his lyrium, the impossible weight of slavery bowing his shoulders again. "No," she says again, softer but just as forceful, her hand cutting through the air between them; her sleeve catches the teacup and it tumbles off the chair's arm to shatter unnoticed on the carpet. "Out of the question, Fenris."
"Oh?" he asks, one eyebrow raised, as if she has objected to nothing more than his choice of wine.
"Oh, yourself. You can't seriously be suggesting this. Why would you even want to go?"
"Aside from my wish to keep you safe, you mean."
Her chest feels suddenly warm, but she refuses to be deterred. "Yes. Besides that."
Fenris shifts to lean against the window, a loose, relaxed movement that jars against her tension, and Hawke realizes suddenly that the time he had asked for he has spent on this, on making this decision, and that he is as certain of himself in that choice as she is that it is wrong. "The benefit outweighs any risk. You will need my help in that city if you wish to have any hope of negotiating it safely."
"—would be no more than you are facing. And yet you would go without question."
"I am not a—a lyrium treat for magisters with no self-control! And from what you've said, that would be all of them."
He snorts in derision. "No. You're an unwanted upstart from a backwards country famous only for its mud and its dogs." He ignores her insulted gasp and crosses his arms over his chest. "So easily they will provoke you. In truth, I think you have more to fear from the magisters than I."
"You don't mean that." He can't possibly mean that—a magister chased him across lands and seas alike, desperate for his return, not hers; they have done nothing more than send her an impersonal letter, and Hawke herself, she knows, is hardly a social threat to the entrenched blue-bloods of Minrathous. "Besides," she adds, trying a different tack, "you hate the Imperium. You hate everything they stand for. Wouldn't going back just—rekindle that hatred?"
"Not if it is by my choice. There are some things I would hate more." The light from the window at his back throws his face into shadow, though the darkness is not enough to truly blot out his expression, and Hawke blinks. There is something in his eyes, then, something she feels she ought to recognize, but she cannot shake the visions of Fenris torn away from her on a lead for no more crime than re-entering the country so desperate to own him—enslaved again, because she allowed him to follow her to his doom.
Hawke shakes her head, resolved. "The risk—it's too much. You can't come."
"You say that like a command."
This is dangerous ground, but she cannot back off now, and she grits her teeth as she says, "It's not negotiable, Fenris."
His eyes narrow, the soft thing in them gone; now they are bitterly satisfied. "So quickly she assumes the mantle of magister."
It knocks the breath right out of her. Magister, he calls her, his voice laced with humorless mirth—Hawke steps forward, flushing with anger now rather than embarrassment. "This is not a joke. You are not coming with me, and if you come to the ship I'll have Varric tie you to the pier."
He smiles then, the hard and unkind smile he sometimes gives just before he spits a slaver on his claws. "Vetui, indeed," he says. "You certainly forbid me my choices like one of them."
"Then have this instead," Hawke snaps. Her pulse pounds in her ears, racing from both her anger and the words on the tip of her tongue. She says, "Amaro," and the accusation of it strikes the air like a bell. The smile vanishes from Fenris's face and Hawke continues, relentless, closing the space between them without dropping her eyes from his. "Amareis. Amara. Amari," she finishes, her voice dropping on the last word. To love; they love; she loves.
Her anger drains away suddenly and totally, as if she has spoken the key to a great puzzle, and its passing leaves her tired to the bone. Fenris shakes his head. His lips are pressed tightly together, his face pale, but he does not pull away when she rests her hand on his chest. "Tell me you wouldn't do the same in my place."
It is the closest either of them has come to naming this thing between them, and for a moment his eyes seem to pierce through her in their green intensity. His hand closes around her wrist, gently, and without anger. "You bare your soul too easily, Hawke," he says only, but she can feel the thudding of his heart under her fingertips.
"I can protect myself from the magisters, Fenris. Minrathous nobility can hardly be much more conniving than Kirkwall nobility."
Fenris shakes his head again, and his free hand comes up to brush her hair from her eyes. "Anger," he says, his fingers brushing over her furrowed eyebrows, and then his hand slides to the corner of her eye where her faint crow's feet are pulled tight. "Worry," he adds, and then he drops his fingers to her lips in a ghost of a touch. "Unhappiness," he says at last, and suddenly he looks as weary as she feels. "You show your heart in your face, Hawke. All these things they will use against you."
Hawke has no answer for that. She has always shown what she felt—indeed, with a family as open as hers, it was hardly avoidable—but now it seems that openness is more a danger than a blessing. There is no denying that Fenris's knowledge of Minrathous, of Tevinter's men and women of power, would be invaluable, just as there is no denying that every part of her fears to take him back to that cesspit.
He is too close; she can't think properly with his fingers still on her wrist, and she pulls away, taking his place at the window with jerky steps. "The magisters will recognize you."
"The same would be true for you."
"I'm invited," she points out. "My status there would protect me. You—yours—wouldn't."
"You are mistaken," he says to her back, his voice too bland for anything but the abhorrent. "No magister would openly thwart courtesy by toying with another's property without permission."
"What a comfort." Hawke feels tears prickling behind her eyes, her wild frustration lodging in her throat and making it hard to swallow. "I don't—want anyone to think of you like that. I don't want you to have to be near anyone who thinks of you like that."
"You wish to secure the estate? To investigate these rumors, and to use the power of a magister to save the other slaves?"
The other slaves. To save the other slaves. Hawke crushes the heel of her hand against her eyes, cursing that bloody letter, the bastard of Fenris's former master, and Minrathous itself up, down, and sideways. "Yes," Hawke says at last, though they both know that it is not only that. The word sits heavy on her tongue, pressing her voice to a whisper.
She hears rather than sees him shrug. "Then you will need to ingratiate yourself with the magisters, Hawke. I already wear your crest at my hip, your favor on my wrist. What better way to show your power than to bring to heel the slave not even Danarius could tame?"
There it is. There it is, the sickening truth, the sudden breach between them. Danarius's last bequest. Hawke sags against the windowsill. "Maker, Fenris."
Fenris says nothing. Hawke stares blindly out the window at her little herb garden, the neat rows of basil and mint and thyme she and Orana have so carefully tended offering no comfort to her now. She is horrified; she is appalled; she is revolted by these very ideas, aghast that Fenris could yield his freedom to her so easily, even if it is only in appearance.
But—he has chosen this. But, the magisters—
Fenris lets her war with herself silently. The danger would be so great, so great—the very thought of it makes her hands shake, but—
But Fenris chooses to go. As a free man, he chooses to go.
Hawke closes her eyes, feeling the decision slip into place. Just as he will not stop her going, so will she not stop him no matter how much she wishes to. Her fears are hers still and no simple words will shake them, but she can respect his decision. She can trust him to keep himself safe. She can honor his trust in her.
"All right," she whispers, unable to muster anything louder. The key turns in the lock, the seal set on her word. "We go to Minrathous together."
She hears his step behind her and she slumps sideways, resting her hot forehead on the cool stone of the window. He joins her at the windowsill, looking not at her garden but at her face, and Hawke sighs without lifting her head. "How did this happen, Fenris?"
The words are meant more rhetorically than anything else, but Fenris gives her an answer anyway. "Dueling between magisters has a long history in Tevinter. There are rituals, codes of honor, long and well-kept records—and naturally, a deep tradition of blood magic to ensure the sanctity of every match is upheld."
"I'm not a blood mage. I didn't even know we were dueling."
He shrugs. "Danarius called you, a citizen of Tevinter, my mistress," he says, and though the word in Fenris's voice makes her sick to her stomach he seems to give it little notice. "He acknowledged you as an equal, he set the terms of victory, and he entered the contest without coercion. It met the requirements of a duel, if only barely."
"But you were the one who killed him!"
Fenris cuts his eyes at her as if she is being dense on purpose, and Hawke falters. Oh. Her property. A slave, with as much legal weight as a knife. "Ah," she says articulately, and shifts further into the window, away from him.
In a furious fluttering of black and gold wings that startles them both, a little finch lands abruptly in the black-eyed susans below the window. The head of the flower bends under its weight, swaying back and forth in the bright sunlight; the finch turns its eye from Hawke to Fenris, as if assessing them, and then it turns its back on them both to peck at the still-unready seeds of the flower beneath it. They watch it in silence, both grateful for the reprieve, and Hawke feels an unsteady smile tugging at her lips. The finch cocks its head, lets out a short, sharp burst of song, and then, in another sudden flash of yellow feathers, it is gone.
Hawke laughs, delighted, and the tension between her and Fenris snaps like a dry twig. She runs a hand through her hair and strides back into the room, collecting the leftover tea-things briskly and with new purpose. This conversation has not been brief—Orana must be wondering what keeps her—but Hawke feels as though days have passed, as if who she is now is so distant from who she was that she might as well be another person. It is not in her nature to dwell on a decision already made; this is done, for better or for worse, and now she will make the best of it. "Are there songbirds in Minrathous?" Hawke asks over her shoulder, kneeling to gather the dirty saucers before she sees the broken teacup. "Ah, damn it."
She stacks the saucers on the padded arm of the chair and begins collecting the cup's broken pieces into a spare linen napkin. The damage is not great, thanks to the lushness of the carpet cushioning its fall; the handle has snapped off, and the cup itself has split into four large shards on top of the dark tea-stain in the rug, the deep red dye looking less noble against the stark white porcelain inside it. Fenris approaches from the window, looking over the back of the chair at what has stopped her as he answers her question. "There are many. The wealthy prize those with the sweetest songs." Hawke rises carefully, the broken shards held in the cradle of the napkin, and Fenris nods at the porcelain. "That is not irreparable."
"I know. Sandal's clever with putting things back together—I'll give it to him and see what he can do with it. It should be all right."
Hawke hesitates, looking down at the broken pieces in her hands, and then she meets Fenris's eyes straight on. "Are we all right, Fenris?"
It sounds like such a simple question to her ears, like something a child might ask, but—but a lifetime has passed since this morning and she needs to know, needs to hear it said aloud for them both. Fenris looks thoughtful for a moment, as if he is searching himself, and then his gaze steadies on her face. "We are, Hawke."
"Oh, good," she says, the lightness of her tone not quite convincing enough to mask her relief, and she turns away towards the door. "Will you put those saucers on the tray? I'll tell Orana to come get it." There's a clatter of ceramic behind her and Hawke throws her thanks over her shoulder, trying to reach awkwardly for the doorknob without dropping her bundle, but before she can get it open a hand has dropped heavily to her shoulder to spin her on her feet.
His mouth slants across her own, hot and insistent, and Hawke barely manages to keep enough of her senses to grip the folded napkin closer to her stomach to protect her precious burden. His hands slide from her shoulder to her arms, holding her firmly in place; his kiss is not possessive, but it is deep, and deliberate, a mark not of his ownership of her but of their equal ties to each other, and the intent of it would have taken her breath away had it not already been gone. His weight shifts closer to her and Hawke leans into it, matching his movements with her own, and she feels the tears burning at her eyes again as his mouth moves over hers, as his hands slip with too much gentleness farther down her arms to her elbows, to her wrists, to her fingers still wrapped in white cloth. She'd said amari earlier and meant it; this is as much a declaration as that had been, and when Fenris breaks away at last Hawke slumps against the door, as drained if she has run too long without rest. His thumbs brush over her knuckles lightly, a touch of affirmation rather than comfort, and then he straightens.
His eyes meet hers, and Hawke understands.
He has given her his freedom.
It is not the work of a letter, this time, nor a machination of Minrathous's pedigreed elite—this is all his own, a gift that no ink or paper in the world could hold, and he has given it to her. His trust overwhelms her, stunning in its magnitude; his freedom is hers to protect, hers to defend, hers to safeguard in a city that waits to tear it from her grasp.
She tucks it into her heart, into the secret place that belongs only to Fenris.
Hers to keep, until the day she can give it back to him with her own two hands.