There really is no word for the way her bones feel at the moment. Cold? No, far too weak of a word. Chilled? Closer, but not quite.
She hates this weather. She wants balmy evenings and salted breezes by the beaches colored peach with the sunset. But no. Here she is, sitting in a pile of furred blankets (which also stink to high heaven, Maker), in a nightshift that feels like it should be twice the thickness it is. If she had wooled socks, she would use them as well. She’s already let her hair down for warmth, but it does little past her waist, and it’s not sheepswool. Lady almost lets herself sulk, but she is a teacher and she has a duty. She tries to think of the next question to ask him.
This isn’t an interrogation, she tells herself. No need to ask where the money is, or who shall be killed next. Normal, ordinary things. Yes.Normal. That’s what she needs to keep reminding herself of.
“…Your favorite color. What is it?”
The blankets slip down her shoulders and she obstinately pulls them back up, determined to cocoon herself in whatever warmth they can offer.
He’s used to the cold, used to something colder actually. He smiles at the sight before him, watches as the blankets slip down her shoulders. He shrugs off the ones around him to bundle in his hands. Then he slings it over Lady’s form, pulls it tighter around her. Afterwards, he sinks back to his spot inches from her.
He understands her tongue better now. The tenses still confuse him, but he tries his best. He narrows his eyes, recalling how Fereldans called colors. His eyes stray to hers briefly. And he thinks brown. Dark brown. The kind you can lose yourself in. Then he looks away to stare at the crackling fire. He pushes his lower lip forward.
How can such a simple question be so hard to answer?
He clears his throat. “Green.” His voice is low, his tone punctuated with longing. Green makes him think of spring, his favorite season. It’s not so green in Ferelden. In fact, there is too much brown. And it saddens him for a moment. Brown is now a color he associates with her. /Too much thinking,/ he chastises himself silently.
“What,” he pauses making sure he would say it correctly, “is Lady’s… your… favorite… season?”
Her heart does this odd little lolloping hop when his arms settle down around her to swathe her in the extra blanket, and a fizz of ridiculous happiness diffuses through her when she realizes it’s warm and it smells slightly more palatable than the ones she’s bundled in. She watches him slink away and startles when she thinks that the distance is a bad thing. It’s most certainly good. No attachment.
She props her hand up on her chin as she thinks of her answer. Spring made Carmen sneeze and become irritable. Winter was dreary and rainy in Rivain, and far too colorless. Autumn reminds her of Ilia.
“Summer.” The answer is out before she realizes it. “It’s… Rivain is at her best in summer. The wines, the songs, the celebrations— and the sunsets. Definitely summer.” She remembers Carmen as a toddler barely taller than her waist, careening across the beach and tripping into the waves. They had ended up in a sodden tangle of arms and feet when Lady had tried to pull her out, drenched from head to toe and liberally covered in wet sand.
Her hands are getting cold again. With the extra blanket, she’s not too cold around the neck region. So she sets about braiding her hair while she thinks of what to ask next.
“Do you… like the sun?”
The thought that the question is possibly the stupidest she has ever asked hits her only after she’s said it aloud. Ah, well, too late now.
“Yes,” that might be the fastest answer he had been able to give. He likes the sun, very much. It’s a welcome reprieve from the cold. “Back home. Very cold. Colder than… to-night. Usually colder. Rivain… sounds… nice.” He pauses to scratch his ear and look away from her. Looking at her makes his heart go faster. And it makes him think of the sun now - its warmth kissing his skin just like how her skin would feel against his. /This is bad,/ Qanik thinks.
He spies her hands shaking, and he inches a bit closer. He holds out his hand and whispers, “Warmth.”
As he waits for her to respond, he asks her, “What is your favorite flower?”
“I don’t think I’d survive long in your home,” she says through gritted teeth. Even the summer nights here can be chilly beyond belief.
And here she had thought perhaps bringing her gloves would be a bit too much. Ha! The very thought of it. She should have outfitted herself for mountain-climbing, the way the some of the villagers living at the foot ofMountSerinado; those are brave people. She has faced bandits and warlords and even crawled through the lower chambers of the Great Divine’s palace— but the thought of facing Mother Nature in all her wrathful glory makes her shiver.
She blinks at his outstretched hand. They haven’t… touched, since that night with the book. Some sort of barrier had been set then. The little voice in her head rises again, cautioning, and she surprises herself by completely ignoring it. It’s because she’s too cold to care, she tells herself. His hand is really very warm. And nice to hold. And—
/Stop right there./
“You’re doing well,” she says quietly, and then gives her answer. “Lilacs. They’re everywhere back home, this time of year.” Ilia would weave them into her hair and press them into her clothes. Lilacs remind her of soft morning light and Ilia’s kind hands. “What… what is your favorite food?”
Ordinary, she tells herself. /I can do this./
The contact brings a smile to his face. And the feeling of her hands in his is a welcome thing. He had almost forgotten. Almost. She does remind him of the sun. He’s unsure if all these comparisons were good for his health, but he liked the closeness of their skin. Liked it enough to ignore the wall he built between them. He rubs her hands gently.
“Lilacs, beautiful flower. It suits you.” And he coughs awkwardly. “Qanik - I am glad I’m doing well.” He thinks he sounds like a bird that the spirits didn’t bless with the right chords to sing a good song. His words feel broken but he has to get through this so he can help her. /Help her then go away./ And the sadness creeps back into his heart. He gives Lady’s hand a final rub before he pats her knuckles. Then he sinks back into his spot again.
“Food? Soup. Chicken soup.” The one his mother used to cook. Sadly, no one was able to cook it like she did. And he misses the taste but he knows he may never know it again. His thoughts jump to the vague memory of her singing. The pots singing and the fire gentler than usual. He was smaller, and the world seemed bigger.
“Do you miss home?” He asks, longing taking a hold of his heart.
“Thank you,” she says softly, and draws her hands back, sure to keep them under the blankets. It’s warmer now. Her ears twitch at the compliment and she shuffles in her mountain of furs, and she tries to ignore the sense of loss she feels when he moves back to his own spot. “Yes, you learn very quickly. A lot faster than I did.”
She had been stubborn about learning Fereldan, and Leroux had had to more or less browbeat it into her, insisting that she’d never know if she would need it in the future. Lady is half-ready to name her old mentor an oracle. Qanik’s next question makes a lump appear in her throat. She gathers her knees up to her body and sets her chin on them, trying to keep her breathing even. It was only an innocent question, she tells herself. He has no way of knowing.
“I do. Every day.” She swallows, hoping it will kill the sentimentality in her voice. “But I can’t go back yet. Not yet.” She looks at him, shifting her focus there instead of at the fire. He looks contemplative. There’s a furrow between his brows. “What are you thinking about?”
The question is simple, yet his lungs feel like they have been robbed of air. So he breathes heavily, his eyes falling upon Lady. Her hair is soft upon her fortress of blankets. He watches her as her fingers weave through it, misses the feeling of it between his own fingers. And he sighs, feels his fist tighten. He wants to touch her so much, so much that it hurt. And should he tell her that is what he is thinking?
Should he tell her he wants to hold her hand again, keep her warm throughout the night? Should he tell her he liked how her curls arranged themselves?
Should he tell her that he longed for her as much as he longed for his home?
He clenches his jaw as his eyes dart away from her the hundredth time that night.
“Home,” he tells her, “I am thinking of home.” Even if his mind was getting lost in her dark locks.
“Lady,” he says, a little proud that it’s probably the best thing he can pronounce right now, “Why did you help me? I am Chasind. Qanik called you a whore… even though that wasn’t really… what Qanik… meant.” He pauses, his lungs empty once again. And he heaves, “Why?”
The silence tells her more than his words could have. She hears an entire story behind his answer, but she won’t pry. It’s not her place. She shifts a bit in her seat and looks away at his question, mulling her reply over. The crackling of the fire settles her heart a bit, quieting its stuttering rhythm.
“What kind of lady would I be if I hadn’t?” she asks back, a small smile curling her lips upward. “There are some things that… that simply aren’t done. I’m a rogue, not heartless.” She wraps her arms around her knees. “Chasind or no, influent or no, no one deserves to be left alone like that.”
She chuckles, trying to lighten the mood. “Besides, that stick looked painful.” Lady sighs, feeling drained and tired, like a burden has been lifted from her shoulders. “And you— why did you stay with a complete stranger?”
Qanik manages to keep that to himself. After the events a few nights ago, he is quite sure he should keep his feelings to himself. “Well, thank you.” He opens with that. “Qanik… I… I get lost a lot. I do not think I shall survive out of your… room.” Navigating the area downstairs was hard enough when he mustered enough courage to step out. He needed to get some bearing for the time he left her. It would come, he knows.
“And you’re the only one I know. And I want to help you. The letter.” He continues.
Then it is that moment he remembers the letter. He reaches toward the nightstand. Then he folds the letter between his hands. And he remembers his decision as he unfolds the sheet of paper. He looks down in silence to stare at the images scrawled on its surface.
Helping her would be a nice way to say good bye, right?
“One of my friends gets lost a lot too,” she says, nearly laughing at the thought. “He can’t find his way out of an empty room.”
And he would have roasted her for saying that, but Alvaro is miles and miles away, probably hiding under some rock and shivering for fear that the templars will find him. If he’s lucky, he’ll be hiding under the sheets of a bed at an inn, which sounds unlikely. Alvaro has the social skills of a block of chalk.
“The letter…?” Her voice trails off at the end of the question. “It’s part of a… project. I know it’s related somehow, but I can’t read it.” She probably shouldn’t mention the fact that it was taken from a very dead slaver, and that it was strung together with other pieces of correspondence that talked about a very special type of cargo. Cargo she was after. She’s so close she can almost taste it, but the last piece is missing. She doesn’t know where the shipment is stored.
Without that location, Carmen, sweet little Carmen who hates pickles and loves sand between her toes, is as good as gone.
“I… I will owe you a lot if you can read it.
She’s done and will do anything for her sister. Even the flogging at the hands of the boy-noble. She’d do it again, without second thoughts, if it would bring Carmen back.
He is pondering about not reading it because reading it would mean his reason to stay with her was gone. (He had already decided to forget the marriage. He did not wish to hassle her with that. There is probably a man waiting for her back home, he thinks. Someone better than him. Someone who reminds her of the sun like she reminds him of the warmth.) Yet when he sees the glimmer of hope in her eyes, he knows he’d rather leave than force his presence without telling her what the letter means.
So he swallows the sadness in his heart. He stares at her briefly, burning the memory of how the firelight would illuminate her features into his mind.
“Three cycles,” his throat feels dry, “In three cycles…. of the moon… two…? two days away from here, as the… bird… how do you call this.. .oh crow. As the crow flies, there will be a time when the sun… the sun and moon meet in the sky.”
He raises his gaze to look into her eyes.
“In three cycles of the moon, two days away from here…. as the crow flies, there will be a time when the sun and moon meet in the sky.”
Then he folds the letter again. He reaches out to take her hand. He places the folded letter on her palms, his hand lingering against hers longer than it should before he decides to pull away.
She waits for a minute, for the words to sink in, thinking about them. The letter has been with her for a month. Three. She has two months left. As the crow flies. Leagues— in what direction? South, her mind supplies. The other letter, the one in Tevinter, it had said something about the southern warehouses being two days’ march away from the city. And then, in a quiet certainty, the two halves of information come together. It clicks into place as her eyes widen.
The blankets around her shoulders fall back when she all but flies out of her seat to get to her desk, sorting through the stack of letters and manifestos to find the one she is looking for. Finally, she finds it— it’s a dog-eared piece of paper, read over and over, because she was certain it had been the one to contain the cargo’s location. Her eyes scan the lines of print quickly.
‘The ships won’t sail before the eclipse. Superstitious bastards. We’ll have to wait it out. The warehouses will be cleared, as per the master’s orders. If you’re not there three bells after the eclipse has ended, we will leave without you, regardless of whether your portion of the cargo is delivered or not. I strongly urge you to think about what we discussed.’
She feels her hands shaking. Months later, after so many nights sick and sleepless and worrying, after all the nightmares and the heartache and the dead-ends, she will have a chance to make this ordeal end. Carmen is strong. She will have survived the journey from Rivain. Lady knows this as surely as blood runs in her veins. The slavers were obviously expecting another part of their caravan to meet them there.
If she has it her way, none of them will leave the warehouses. At least not while they are still breathing.
She turns on her heel, feeling weak at the knees. The information still makes her head spin with a sick kind of elation. “Thank you,” she says to Qanik, but the strain of her emotions makes her voice sound more like a croak than anything else. “I’ll never be able to repay you for this. Thank you.” Unshed tears gather in her eyes as she speaks.
Lady has not cried in years. Not in sorrow, not in regret, not in pain— she had forbidden herself from doing so. And now she finds her tears are born from relief more than anything else.
He doesn’t hesitate this time. He darts from the bed to cross the distance between them. Her tears make his brain work on its own. And soon his arms are around her. He cradles the back of her head and gently coaxes her to rest her forehead against his shoulder.
“Qanik is glad to help. No need to repay,” he whispers to her. “We are even.” And he thinks, not really. He owes her more than she knows. He bows his head to bury his nose against her hair.
/Lavender and thyme,/ he thinks. He’ll want to keep this in his memory. Then his mind backtracks to planning his departure. Tomorrow he will be gone. And she will have her peace.
And he will have his.
It takes quite a bit of self-restraint to stop herself from bursting into pathetic hiccupping sobs (she’s always been of a mind that her weeping is peculiarly ugly, as far as weeping goes) at the excruciating, icy relief that has overtaken her. He is solid, and he is here, not a memory or a ghost, and that is all that matters. She circles her arms around his waist and bites back another rush of tears.
“Thank you.” It’s become somewhat of a mantra now. “You can’t— you don’t—” The words are hard to find, and all she ends up doing is stuttering like the fool she is. “You don’t know what you’ve done. This will save lives.”
She wishes she could stay here longer, with her face pillowed against the soft-rough shirt and the warmth of him behind it. She’s been strong for so long. All she wants is a rest. Somewhere to stop and breathe. Somewhere where she doesn’t need to think. “Thank you,” she whispers a final time, and tightens her embrace.
She doesn’t know what more she can say.
“You’re welcome,” he says that because it’s the only thing he can think of right now. He pulls her closer once he feels her arms around his waist. He adds this feeling to his mental list of the things he likes about her. He’d like to keep her in his arms the whole night, but he knows it should not be, so he lets go. He loosens his arms around her.
/I should tell her I am leaving in the morning. I should./
He looks down, their faces closer than it should be.
Her name is stuck in his tongue like a well-kept secret. The kind that you only share to a person that you trust the most. “Lady, I…”
He is close. The fact blares its way through her mind, dries her tears, and makes her aware. Too aware. She backs away, not far enough to be out of reach, but enough to give her space to think. Thinking. Yes. There’s not much of that being done right now.
She shifts a bit. The floor is cold against her bare feet. “You can tell me. If you want.”
His eyes fall to the floor. Yet his hands are finding its way to her hair again. His fingers travel through her locks until he reaches the curve where her neck and shoulders meet. He makes sure his touch is light, gentle. Then he places a kiss on her forehead.
“Thank you. For everything.” He feels a tug at his heart. His limbs suddenly feel void of strength. He hesitates for a moment, but he pushes forward. He bows to press his temple against hers. “Thank you. I… I just want to tell you that tomorrow I’ll leave. I… there’s no more reason… for me to stay.”
Gooseflesh breaks out along her shoulders. She takes a deep breath. Steady. This is nothing she hasn’t done before. In truth, she hasn’t. Every touch she can remember has been mechanical, devoid of pleasure— at least, the ones that spring to mind at first. She is once again reminded of her height when he has to bend a good few inches to look into her eyes.
The thought of him leaving suddenly makes her throat clench. She thinks of the room, empty and quiet, shared only by the fire and the silence; and evenings of poring over texts and her belongings alone, without another to share laughter with over the things a tired mind does when it has had too much work to do.
She lets her hands cup his face, cold as they are, and she thinks this is by far the stupidest and best thing she has ever done. The most selfish.
“Don’t go,” she says. “Not until— I’ve helped you back. Please.”
The floor is still chilly against the soles of her feet when she stands on her tiptoes to kiss him, her lips pressing against his.
If this is selfishness, she thinks, then it is a very sweet thing.
This feels like home more than anything. It surprises him, yet he doesn’t pull away. Because he likes this. He likes her. Her lips are soft against his. And nothing hurts anymore. He throws away his plans to leave while they’re locked in a kiss.
He wraps his arm around her waist to lift her. He kisses her back, gently, still afraid to scare her away. When they part, he buries his face against her neck, his breath heavy. Then he sets her back on the ground, his hands linger at the curve of her back. He sets his forehead against hers once again, but this time there’s a sweet smile on his face.
“Okay,” he whispers softly, “Qanik will stay.” He gazes into her dark brown eyes before he pulls her into a close embrace.
“Is… Lady still cold?”
At this point, he knows he’d do anything for her. That includes being her blanket, he muses with a smile.
Her squeal of surprise at being lifted is muffled, but she’s too busy trying to keep herself from giggling to be too shocked. She smiles up at him this time genuinely and fully, a little breathless but no worse for the wear.
“No, I’m fine. More than fine.” She laughs, overwhelmed. “And you? I didn’t scare you?”
“Perfect,” he replies to her, the scent of lavender and thyme filling his senses. His hands move to cup her cheeks. He places another kiss on her lips. “Scare Qanik? No. No. Never.” Then he breaks away from her, stretches out his hands to her. And he smiles the brightest he has in the past days.
“I have a question.” He pauses, the smile keeping him from functioning normally, “How would you like to spend tomorrow?”
It’s the coldest night in Ferelden, yet in that room, there was a flood of warmth. And Qanik wouldn’t even dare to be anywhere else.
When he smiles that widely he gets dimples, she thinks. It’s adorable. He’s two heads taller than her and just as much wider, and she finds him adorable. Oh, Maker help her, there is something more going on here than a passing fancy. The thought scares and delights her at the same time.
“Tomorrow?” she repeats, at a bit of a loss. She hadn’t even thought that far. “How… would you like to meet some of the people here? I could introduce you. If you want,” she adds hurriedly. “If not— we’ll find out, I suppose.”
She squeezes his hands back, the fluttering happiness in her heart still not having ceased. It’s oddly liberating.
There’s something different about her, he notes silently. She seems happier, more carefree. It makes him smile wider. He brings her closer again. (There’s something about her that makes him want her to be close at all times.)
“I think… I think… that… would be good? Yes. That’s the word. Good.,” he brings her hands to his lips, kisses the roughness on her fingers like it was the most sacred thing in the world, “but… but keep me close, okay? Qanik gets… lost. A lot.”
He pulls her towards the bed, (she’s jumpy at first but when he smiles at her, her shoulders relax) and starts covering her in sheets again. Then he rests his head against her lap. It’s not long before he dozes off. And he sleeps soundly that night.
That night when he slept with her hand in his.