Title: Semper ad Meliora
Fandom: Dragon Age: Inquisition
Pairing: Dorian Pavus/Idhren Lavellan, Idhren Lavellan/Tainan Lavellan
Chapter 4 - There is But One Truth
Those who bear false witness
And work to deceive others, know this:
There is but one Truth.
All things are known to our Maker
And He shall judge their lies
- Canticle of Transfigurations 1:4
Vyrantium, Tevinter Imperium, 9:34 Dragon
For two years now Idhren had served as apprentice to Magister Linus Canidius. For two years he had spent his days buried in academic texts, performing experiments and taking furious notes. It had been everything he loved about his time at the Circle, without the constant abuses and with the guaranteed once-weekly time to visit his family, still confined to the slave quarters. His parents and his elder brother were doing as well as could be expected in their situation, and were always happy to see him, for all that they always looked exhausted.
His mother still worked in the kitchens, his father still worked in the orchards. His brother had made his debut in the proving grounds while Idhren was still at the Circle. With sword and shield and barely any armor he had faced down everything from other gladiator slaves to exotic animals to Qunari prisoners straight from Seheron. That he was still alive after so many years of weekly bouts was nigh a miracle, and his squad was building a bit of a name for itself. Idhren was proud of him, even as he worried over the scars that marred Sahren’s tanned skin. And worried that as the popularity of the games waned it would not be long before Sahren and all his fellows were shipped off to Seheron themselves.
For now, though, his family was alive and well, and Idhren was allowed to pursue his research with Canidius’ oversight.
And wasn’t that the problem.
Idhren had not realized it before his time in the Circle, but Canidius was not all that talented a mage himself. He wasn’t untalented by any means. No one survives in the Magisterium without a fair amount of talent and intelligence. But on several occasions now Idhren had posed a hypothesis to him that Canidius had not been able to understand without extensive explanation of the theories that backed it.
Eventually he realized that Canidius had no published works. This was not a man who had been interested in academics previously. But Idhren kept his mouth shut. The magister was still the man to which Idhren owed everything, who had provided for Idhren his entire life, even after his freedom. Without Canidius’ kindness Idhren would still be a slave, his talents never allowed to develop past what Alvinius was able to teach. Idhren was still determined to pay back that kindness. He would not humiliate the man by suggesting he was academically inferior to an elf, even if it was true.
At least, that was what Idhren had promised himself. Now he was not so certain.
For two years he had toiled and sweated over experiments while the magister stood back and nodded approvingly, and now he held in his hands the result of all that work but it was not at all what he had expected. The book that Canidius presented to him was slim, barely two fingers thick (and Idhren had very small fingers), bound in plain brown leather, the pages ungilt, but the binding solid and the printing good quality. None of that was the problem. Embossed on the cover, the title read Potentia Tempestatis, the Potential of the Storm, and below it was printed the name Magister Linus II of House Canidius. Frowning, Idhren opened the volume to the first page, but the words there were exactly the same: Potentia Tempestatis, written by Magister Linus II of House Canidius.
There was no mention of Idhren anywhere.
Like an idiot, Idhren opened his mouth and asked, “Where is my name?”
Canidius chuckled softly, and when he spoke it was with a tone like he was talking to a child. Never mind that Idhren was now twenty years old. “Don’t be silly, Idhren. No one would believe an elf wrote this. Besides, you don’t want all that attention, do you? There’s a note at the back, of course, acknowledging your assistance in the research. After all, you were absolutely vital.”
Absolutely vital was a disgusting understatement when all the ideas and all the work had been done by Idhren himself. When he sat down to read the book would it be word-for-word exactly what the elf had written?
This was his theory. This was his paper. It should have his name on the cover, not as some footnote at the end. No one would believe an elf wrote this? But an elf had written this. Idhren had written this. Canidius barely understood the theory, couldn’t even begin to explain it.
But what could Idhren do? What could he say that would not come across as ungrateful?
“I’m planning a small celebration, provided the book is well received. It will be in a few weeks time,” Canidius continued, completely oblivious to Idhren’s plight. “You will be expected to attend,” he said, and it did not sound like an invitation, it sounded like an order.
“Of course,” the elf replied quietly. How could he argue?
That evening Idhren snuck out of his room and down to the slave village, into the dirt and plaster hut where his family still lived. He brought the book, even though it would mean nothing to his illiterate family. Part of him knew that it was incredibly rude to demand their time right now, when they must surely be exhausted from a long day of physical labor, but most of him just wanted comfort and sympathy from the only place he was certain to find it.
Only Idhren did not make it to the slave village. He didn’t even make it out of the estate before someone spotted him. Stealth was not a skill he’d had much reason to learn, and it showed. Thankfully, he was not set upon by anyone who could get him in trouble. While Idhren technically outranked everyone in the household aside from the magister himself, that wouldn’t stop some of the servants from telling on him. That was Idhren’s first thought when he saw a door open at the end of the hall he was sneaking down – not very well, apparently.
A figure emerged from the doorway, holding a single candle to light the way and peered up and down the hall before setting eyes on Idhren. “Who’s there?” the figure asked quietly, voice tremulous and mired in a thick Ferelden accent.
“Valora?” Idhren asked, just as quietly, and took a few cautious steps forward, not relaxing until his eyes could make out her face in the gloom.
“Idhren?” the woman replied when she recognized him as well, “What are you doing here at this hour?”
The slaves would all be confined to their various quarters at this point. Idhren would usually be in his room this late as well, reading or preparing for bed. “I… wanted to go see my family,” he said, and realized as the words were leaving his mouth just how stupid the idea had been. If he was found, they would be in more trouble than him. “It was a stupid idea,” he muttered to himself.
Valora heard, of course. It was quiet in the hall this late at night. Slowly she stepped all the way outside of the room and eased the door shut behind her. “Is something wrong?”
Idhren wasn’t certain if he should say. It seemed so insignificant now. Why would a slave care about what name was on a book. None of their work was ever acknowledged or appreciated. And that work was generally much more taxing. Yet here he was complaining that Canidius had taken credit for two years worth of research and experimentation: time spent largely sitting at a table in one of the finer rooms in the estate. “It’s nothing,” he muttered shamefully. “I’m an idiot.”
Valora took a few steps forward, closing the last of the distance between them. “Do you want to talk?” she asked gently.
Over the past two years Valora had quite unexpectedly become a bit of a confidant for him, and he for her. Her primary position was as a gofer, and the nature of her duties meant that she was able to spend a significant amount of time with Idhren. She could read and write, which made her unique among Canidius’ slaves, and made her quite helpful fetching specific materials for Idhren’s research. She had been witness to a handful of frustrated tantrums when his spells wouldn’t go right, brought him leftovers from the kitchens when he accidentally worked through dinner, ventured into the marketplace with him in search of materials. At some point he had come to consider her a friend, and Maker knew he didn’t have many friends.
Idhren bit his lip and looked down at the book in his hands. Looking at it again, seeing Canidius’ name staring back at him from the embossed cover, all those feelings welled up again. “He stole my work,” he breathed. “He stole my work and he’s bragging about it.”
Valora frowned in confusion. “How did he steal it?”
Wordlessly, Idhren handed her the book and she took it with her free hand. “I wrote that,” he said after she had read the cover, his voice thick with emotion. “I wrote every word. He took it, and he put his name on it, and I’m barely a footnote at the end.”
“Oh, Idhren,” she murmured sympathetically, “I’m so sorry. I know how hard you worked.”
“There’s nothing I can do about it, either,” Idhren lamented. “Do you know what he said to me?” he asked, looking into her face. Frustration and grief and anger all swirled and warred in his chest until he didn’t know what he should be feeling anymore. “He told me that no one would believe an elf could write this.”
Valora sighed and shook her head. “Shems are the same no matter where you go,” she said solemnly. “They don’t think of us as people. We’re just things to them. Things to be used as they please and then discarded when they grow tired of us.”
It was a truth that Idhren knew far too well. Was that not exactly how he had been treated by all his peers in the Circle? Why had he ever thought that Canidius would be different? “I’m such a fool,” he whimpered, slumping back against the wall and sliding down to sit on the floor. After a moment Valora joined him, setting the book and candle between them and wrapping her arms around her knees. “I thought he was different,” Idhren said quietly. “He… He set me free. He let me go to the Circle. He said I had potential. I thought…” it all sounded so moronic now, in hindsight, “I thought he actually cared about that, about my potential. But he doesn’t. He did all of that to make himself look good. I really am just a tool to him.”
Valora laid a sympathetic hand on his shoulder. “They’re good liars, aren’t they?” she asked. “They know how to make you trust them, and then they wait to show their true face until there’s no way for you to escape.”
“There was never any way for me to escape,” Idhren murmured. “I was completely dependant on him. I still am.”
“Did I ever tell you how I became a slave?” Valora asked suddenly.
“No,” Idhren replied. He had to admit that he was curious, but he had never asked. He knew a little of the life she had been taken from, a fiancé and a home. Because of that he imagined that it would be difficult to talk about how she wound up here.
“I was in Denerim,” Valora said slowly. As she spoke she stared at the blank wall across the corridor, lost in memory. “After… After what happened to the arl’s son they locked the alienage gates. There was a purge. The city guard came. Anyone found to own a weapon was taken or killed. Even after that they kept the gates locked. With the Blight and the civil war… It was like they just forgot about us.
“And then the men from Tevinter came,” Valora murmured, “They said they were healers, that there had been reports of the Blight sickness in the alienage. We didn’t know any better than to believe them. Everyone who so much as coughed was rounded up and put into quarantine. Some people even went willingly. But inside… inside it was obvious they were no healers. They put us in chains and cages, forced us out through hidden alleys to the docks and onto ships.”
She didn’t need to say anymore. Idhren could imagine how it went from there. He had seen the slave market in the city, the people in rags and chains stuffed into cages and pens like animals. “I’m sorry,” he said softly. It seemed insignificant in the face of what she must have suffered at the time, but he could think of nothing else to say.
“It’s not your fault,” Valora replied. “Humans lie and manipulate. You aren’t the first to fall for it.”
“I’m such a fool,” Idhren mumbled, hanging his head and burying his fingers in his hair.
“No you’re not,” Valora argued. “You’re very smart, or he wouldn’t have gone to so much effort to use you. But you’re naïve. I was, too, before everything.”
“I won’t be anymore,” Idhren promised himself. Pushing his hair off his face he looked over at the woman again. He still felt hurt, betrayed, but he was also angry. Angry at Canidius and angry at himself. “I know now. I know that he’s a liar and an idiot. He’s not half as good a mage as I am, and I always knew it but I didn’t want to believe it.”
“What are you going to do?” Valora asked.
“I…” Idhren began, but cut himself off. “I don’t know,” he admitted. “I won’t let him steal any more of my research, but what can I do? I can’t leave, I’d have nowhere to go, and what about my family?”
Valora smiled softly at him. She picked up his book from the ground and looked at it for a moment before handing it back to him. “You’re very smart, Idhren, I’m sure you can think of something.” She picked up her candle once more, now burning low in its holder, and stood up, brushing dust off her nightdress. “I should go back to bed before anyone misses me. Will you have need of me tomorrow?”
“Of course,” Idhren replied, he held the book close to his chest as he stood up as well. “Canidius is going to host a party if the book is well received. It seems a good excuse to spend his money on new clothes.”
Valora’s smile widened. She enjoyed going into town with Idhren, the change of scenery was nice. And she had much better taste in clothes than he. “Then I will attend you after breakfast, my lord,” she said with a small curtsey. In private, where no one else could see the formalities, it felt like a joke.
Idhren nodded his head respectfully, “Goodnight, Valora,” he replied, before turning to head back to his own room, a small flame at his fingertips lighting the way.
By the time the evening of Canidius’ fete rolled around Idhren’s mixed emotions had settled into a low, simmering annoyance. He could not bring himself to enjoy the gathering in the slightest, not that he had much reason to in the first place. The magister enjoyed entertaining his fellow politicians, and every time he deigned to host a gathering such as this Idhren was duty bound to attend. After all, he was the magister’s apprentice. He had long since stopped being mistaken for a slave by the usual attendees, but that hardly made the evening more palatable.
The book - Idhren’s book - had been available to the public for nearly three weeks now, but few had read it so far. Most of the conversation involved congratulating Canidius on his work and speculating whether he would dabble further into the subject matter. It was no secret that the magister had little interest in academics. In fact, he stated as much to several of his peers. Canidius had no interest in academics, so of course he would not be wasting his time presenting the paper in a Circle for debate. This was merely a hobby, helped along by his new apprentice, the former slave.
And when they turned their attentions to Idhren - to coo over how lucky he was to be apprenticed to a magister, to murmur how illuminating the whole experience must be for the poor fool elf – he was forced to smile and nod his agreement and proclaim that he was happy with how well his mentor’s work was being received. The whole experience made him feel sick to his stomach.
After his fifth round of smiling and playing the stupid elf, Idhren had lifted a glass of wine from one of the slaves attending the party and found himself a nice quiet patch of wall to prop up. From there he was able to survey the party without forcing a smile onto his face. All of the usual faces were in attendance: Canidius’ acquaintances and political allies. Idhren doubted the magister had any true friends; he was far too concerned with forming alliances and influence mongering. There were also some faces that Idhren did not recognize, and a few he had been introduced to only tonight. Academics like Magister Gereon Alexius and his wife, who until now Idhren had known only by name and reputation. If they had come hoping for insight or debate on what they thought was Canidius’ work they were now sorely disappointed.
There among the crowd, however, was one face that Idhren had never expected to see again. A face he had, in fact, expected to hate if he ever did see it again. Dorian Pavus had a goblet of wine in one hand and was gesturing expressively with the other while he spoke with another guest. He was dressed in the height of fashion, as far as Idhren could tell, robes perfectly tailored of the finest silk and brocade.
Idhren caught himself staring, but still could not tear his eyes away. The man cut a handsome figure, captivating in the way he moved. Somehow Idhren had managed not to think about the man since leaving the Circle, drowning himself in his research until he couldn’t think of anything else, forcing all memories of the Circle down into the deepest depths of his subconscious. With how seldom Idhren left the Canidius estate he had largely been able to avoid seeing anyone he might remember from his four years of schooling, and that had made it easy to try and put everything behind him.
A flash of Dorian’s smile across the room, though, and it all came flooding back. The bullying, the abuse, the hateful words and petty violence. The feel of Dorian’s magic healing his bruises, the way the young man’s eyes lit up when they debated magical theory in the common rooms late at night. The fire in his eyes when he had said Idhren was the smartest mage in the circle.
He wanted to hate Dorian because hating him would be easier. But for all that Dorian had done wrong, for all the times he had turned a blind eye or actually made Idhren’s life more difficult, the man had been the closest thing he had to a friend in that place.
Idhren was still staring. Across the room Dorian turned his head as though he could feel the elf’s eyes on him. It all happened too quickly for Idhren to escape from. Dorian turned his head, Idhren considered running, and then the Altus’ eyes met his, confused for a moment and then widening in recognition. A moment later Dorian was making excuses and bowing out of his conversation and heading across the room to where Idhren was standing.
Panic shot through him for a moment, his eyes darted around the room in search of an escape, but by the time he was debating between jumping out a window or slipping out through the servants’ entrance Dorian was already standing in front of him.
“Well, I knew there was a reason Canidius’ name was so familiar,” the Altus looked as cheerful and unaffected as ever, “But it didn’t quite click until I saw you hiding over here in the corner. It’s been a long time, Idhren,” he smiled. Idhren was surprised the man remembered his name. Then Dorian’s eyes looked him up and down and Idhren shifted uncomfortably under the scrutiny. “You look well, if as drab as ever. I understand if Canidius doesn’t pay you enough for nicer clothes, but you could at least do something with your hair.”
Self-consciously Idhren reached up to tuck a stay lock of hair behind his ear. There was nothing wrong with his hair. It was clean and brushed, and he had intentionally worn it down for the evening instead of in his usual ponytail. It hid his ears better this way. “I see you haven’t changed at all, either. If anything, you’ve become even more insufferable.”
Dorian looked shocked for a moment, and then let out a bark of laughter, “You’ve grown some teeth, it seems,” he commented in amusement.
“I didn’t have much choice,” Idhren told him flatly. “You saw to that.”
“Ah,” the smile faded from Dorian’s face. He glanced around the room, but no one else at the party was paying them any attention. “I suppose you would appreciate an apology? It really was never my intention to make things more difficult for you.” All the more reason he was glad to see that Idhren was, physically at least, in good health. For several weeks after their conversation in the dungeon it had haunted Dorian, the thought that he had only made things worse, wondering whether or not Idhren was alright. And then he had been swept off to Minrathous and a new school, an even worse school, and if when he escaped he sought company of the petite, elven variety it was completely unrelated.
“And yet that’s exactly what you accomplished,” Idhren muttered.
Dorian looked decidedly uncomfortable. “It was apparently an ill thought out idea to come over here,” he said. He hadn’t expected Idhren to be completely happy with him, but it had been years and he had expected the elf’s anger to dampen with time. Apparently he had been wrong. “I’ll leave.”
Idhen had not meant for his words to come out so bitter and angry. That wasn’t how he felt at all. Well it was, but not entirely. “Dorian, wait,” he said as the man turned around, and much to his surprise the man stopped and looked back at him. “I…” Idhren hesitated. “I do… appreciate everything you did for me back then,” he managed to get out. “You were one of the only people who were kind to me, even if you weren’t very good at it.”
Dorian turned around to face him fully once more, swirled the wine in his cup, took a drink, and then spoke again, “I suppose I wasn’t very good at it, was I?” Too concerned with keeping up appearances in public rather than doing the right thing. If he hadn’t been, he might have been able to prevent Idhren getting hurt in the first place. “I’m sorry about that.”
The apology was better late than never, Idhren supposed. He still bore scars, physical and emotional, from his time at the Circle, but he was trying to put that part of his life behind him. He had learned to fight his own battles, or thought he had. But one glance over at Canidius reminded him that he wasn’t nearly as strong as he thought. “What are you doing here?” he asked, eager to change the subject. “Shouldn’t you be off getting drunk somewhere?”
“I am getting drunk somewhere,” Dorian informed him, equally happy with the change in conversation. “Right here. At the expense of your very generous patron.”
“I’ll be sure to extend to him your compliments,” Idhren mumbled. Generous was not a word he was willing to apply to Canidius at the moment.
“I take from your tone that you’re not enjoying the party?” Dorian asked.
“Smiling politely and playing the stupid elf for a bunch of Alti just to make Canidius look good?” Idhren asked in turn. “No, it’s not exactly my idea of a good time.” His eyes sought out the magister across the room unwillingly. Canidius’ substantial form was hard to miss, even surrounded by a group of fawning brown nosers. At the sight Idhren was unable to suppress the sneer that crossed his face.
“You don’t look terribly happy for your patron,” Dorian commented thoughtfully. “His work has been quite well received; it’ll do wonders for his reputation.”
Idhren clenched his jaw and his frown deepened. Canidius’ reputation. What did Idhren care about the magister’s reputation? He saw the man now for what he truly was: a liar and a manipulator who cared only about keeping himself powerful, wealthy, and fat. “It was mine,” Idhren said, lips barely moving and so quiet that Dorian had to strain to hear him. “The research was mine. That paper was mine. Every single word, I wrote it and he just…” the elf cut himself off, hands clenching tight, fisting in the fabric of his robes. Dorian realized why he’d seemed so tense, it wasn’t nerves from being around so many important and influential people; it was anger. The elf was furious, and rightly so if he was telling the truth.
“I read the paper,” Dorian commented, his tone light despite the suddenly heavy mood. “In hindsight the theory is… rather what I would expect from you, to be honest. You were a bit obsessed with storm magic back then, as I recall. It was… Not quite genius, but it was certainly inspired. The idea has great potential.” Idhren scoffed and turned his head away from Dorian so the man could not see his face. “If he’s taking credit for your work why haven’t you said anything?”
“You think anyone would take the word of an elf over that of a magister?” Idhren asked bitterly. “I don’t have any proof. No one else saw the research, no one else knew about it. Besides, no one thinks an elf is capable of doing anything smart.”
That was unfortunately true, Dorian had to admit. He had thought much the same until Idhren proved him wrong. For all he knew elves as a whole might not be terribly bright, but Idhren was clever enough to impress Dorian and that was no easy task. “So you’re just going to sit on your hands and bite your tongue?” he asked. “I take back my earlier comment. You haven’t grown teeth at all.”
Idhren turned furious violet eyes up towards Dorian, his gaze filled with enough venom to frighten Dorian a little bit. “You’re still a blind fool,” he snapped, voice low so as not to be overheard.
“You still won’t do anything against the people who hurt you,” Dorian accused. “You’ll keep letting people use you for the rest of your life because you’re too scared to fight back.”
“Because if I fight back they’ll throw me back into slavery, or worse,” Idhren hissed.
“Leave his service then,” Dorian argued, “Find someone who will recognize your work.”
“People aren’t exactly lining up to take an elf as an apprentice,” Idhren shot back, “Besides, Canidius still owns my family. Though I suppose it never occurred to you that I might have one. If I leave here I will never be able to see them again.”
“You’re just going to keep letting him walk all over you, then?” Dorian asked.
Idhren fumed, “I realize you Altus pricks don’t actually have feelings,” he sneered, “But my family is important to me. So yes, if that’s what it takes to keep them safe I’ll pretend to be the perfect servant for him.”
Dorian scoffed. And that was why Idhren would never get anywhere in life. He would stew silently in his anger but never act upon it, too afraid of the consequences. “Then by all means,” he replied flippantly and ducked a shallow, mocking bow, “Enjoy your life of servitude.” With that, Dorian turned on his heel and slipped back into the crowd, leaving Idhren to fume silently in his corner.
And fume he did. Idhren downed the last of his wine in two swallows and put the goblet back down with more force than was strictly necessary. He was furious at Dorian, but also furious at himself. Furious at Dorian for provoking him, for the man’s willful ignorance and flippant attitude, but he was furious at himself because Dorian was right. People like Canidius would continue to manipulate and use him as long as he didn’t fight back. And if he didn’t fight back, what right did he have to complain?
Idhren was also furious at himself because deep down he wanted Dorian’s sympathy and his support, and receiving neither was more of a disappointment than he wanted to admit. For two years he had been able to purge his mind completely of all thoughts of Dorian and the kindness he hid behind that maddening self-absorption. Then one look at his stupid face, the first time in years, and all the confused feelings from his fifteen-year-old heart came flooding back. Desperate for a friend, and Dorian was so kind but so cruel at the same time.
As soon as it could be deemed polite Idhren slipped away from the party. At first he headed back to his room, but halfway there changed his mind and slipped out of the estate through the servants’ entrance and began walking toward the city. Though on the outskirts, Canidius’ estate was about as close to the city as was possible without encroaching on the city walls. The magister could not abide being too far from civilization.
Idhren’s footsteps lead him toward the slums, down through the circles of the city, past the broad, gleaming avenues of the city center, the high walls of Altus estates and toward the alleyways and ramshackle houses where the rest of his people made their homes. He needed to be away from the gilded prison that he lived in, away from the suffocating grasps of propriety and respect. He did not care where he went except that he needed to get away.
Gradually the smooth flagstone streets and regularly spaced street lamps gave way to more rough cobbles and smaller lanterns. Only then did Idhren pause to take stock of his location. He was not far from the upper market district, where magisters and their ilk did business. The streets here were still clean and well lit and the buildings in good repair, though everything was decidedly more cramped, homes pressed up against each other or with only narrow alleys separating them. This was probably what Altus brats like Dorian thought were the true slums. Maker save them from ever venturing into the true bowels of the city, where their expensive incensed lampposts did not stand and no amount of incense would ever cover the smell of filth and decay that permeated the place. Idhren’s wanderings had only led him that far a handful of times. It was not somewhere he was eager to revisit, though he knew in another life he could easily call that place home.
At this time of night most of the shops were shuttered. A few lights flickered in second-floor windows where families lived, and a few doors down a small lantern hung in front of an otherwise un-noteworthy store front. The lantern was lit with blue flame. A lyrium den.
Idhren had certainly imbibed his fair share of lyrium; every mage had needed a potion at some point in their life, but he had never used it recreationally. That was an Altus hobby, sophisticated and mindless and potentially very expensive. Prone to addiction.
Smoking lyrium was supposed to be a completely different experience from drinking it. Less rush of power but other pleasurable side effects. At least, that was the rumor. Dorian would probably know.
Maker, no, he didn’t want to think about the man anymore.
A mixture of curiosity and the desire to numb his mind and forget about every problem in his life guided Idhren closer to the blue lantern. The windows were shuttered but the door was open, flooding the street directly outside with the scent of incense and lyrium. A familiar smell to anyone from the higher echelons of society. But the incense here was sweeter, not meant to cover up anything unpleasant, but to compliment the scent of lyrium that hung in the air.
Without giving himself a moment to second-guess himself, Idhren stepped through the door and into the dim, smoky interior. It took a moment for his eyes to adjust, even given how dark it was outside. The streetlights kept the city well lit, but inside only candles and glow lamps illuminated the area, and much of the light was obscured by a thin cloud of smoke.
“Well, you’re quite an unusual sight,” a voice purred from Idhren’s left, and he turned instinctively. Leaning against the wall beside the door stood an elf dressed all in silks, red and gold flowing and floating around him, loose fabric revealing tantalizing glimpses of dark bronzed skin at the slightest movement, ebony hair hung loose around his shoulders and down the length of his back. “An elf all dressed up like a magister,” he smirked, and dark eyes ran up and down the length of Idhren’s body. “What brings you down here, pet?”
Idhren bristled slightly at the term. “I am no one’s pet,” he said bitterly. He had spent too much of this evening being treated as such, and he didn’t want to be reminded.
“Ah, my apologies then,” the elf replied in a voice that was low, but sounded sincere. “I meant no offence. But that does not answer what has brought you to this place.”
Idhren glanced away from the elf in the scarlet robes and into the lyrium den, well aware that he was still standing in the doorway. Through the dim lighting and the haze of smoke he could see that the place was structured like a lounge, with low sofas and plush cushions surrounding tables on which the lyrium pipes stood, some in use and some empty. There were few customers in the salon at the moment. To the side of the room a man with bloodshot eyes and a birthright on his neck that Idhren could not make out lounged with a pair of young men in silken robes similar to those worn by the elf, one of them almost entirely in the Altus man’s lap.
This wasn’t just a lyrium den, it was a brothel.
Idhren’s face flushed at the sudden realization of just what he had walked into. The door had only had a blue lantern, not a red one as well. “I…” he stammered, suddenly at a loss for words. “I don’t…” What had brought him here? The desire to forget about the outside world for a time. Maybe that hadn’t been a very good idea.
The dark-skinned elf pushed himself off the wall and approached Idhren slowly, practically gliding, and Idhren was frozen to the spot, eyes instinctively drawn to the patches of bare skin revealed as the elf moved. He was taller than Idhren, but that was not so unusual. “Is it your first time in a place like this?” he asked, an amused smile curling the corners of his mouth. Up close Idhren could now clearly see his face, the dark almond eyes lined with gold paint, the deep dusky red of his lips. “What’s your name?”
“Idhren,” he answered without thinking about it.
“Idhren,” the darker elf replied, “It suits you. I’m Varius. Perhaps I can help you find what you need.”
Idhren’s mouth went dry, but his chest clenched in fear. Varius was incredibly attractive, obviously aware of the fact, and knew how to make good use of it.. It would be a blatant lie for Idhren to say he was not the slightest bit interested in what was clearly being offered. But Idhren had never willingly let anyone see him undressed, let alone considered letting anyone touch him in that way. He had never even touched himself that way.
“You’re so tense,” Varius purred, slid a hand around Idhren’s shoulders, which were tight with mixed fear and anticipation. “Why don’t we share a pipe, help you relax a bit.”
Mutely, Idhren nodded and allowed the whore to lead him into the establishment. To his great relief, Varius lead him towards a rather secluded corner of the lounge and gestured for him to take a seat amidst a pile of plush cushions on the floor. From there, a half-wall hid them from view unless someone were to walk directly past their little alcove. Idhren made himself comfortable while Varius turned his attention to the lyrium pipe, a contraption of bowls and pipes that needed to be filled with water and charcoal along with the mixture of lyrium dust and herbs. It was unnecessarily complicated, but that was how the upper classes liked to do everything. Down in the slums you would find lyrium addicts smoking dust and elfroot straight from handheld clay pipes, but this was supposedly more sophisticated, more pure, and less addictive.
When Varius sank down into the cushions beside Idhren he held a pipe in each hand and offered one to Idhren with a smile. The elven mage took it hesitantly, but only stared at the object blankly. He still wasn’t certain this was a good idea. How much did this stuff usually cost, anyway? How much money did Idhren have on him?
“It’s best if you don’t breathe too deeply at first,” Varius instructed, pulling Idhren out of his thoughts. The whore smiled gently at him and lifted his own pipe to his lips, wrapping his mouth around the tip before sucking in a deep breath. Taking the pipe away from his lips, Varius held the smoke in his mouth a long moment before blowing it out again.
The smell of lyrium had already been noticeable throughout the room, but it became even more prevalent as Varius breathed out. Idhren had to admit, he was curious. He had only ever used lyrium in potion form, and only ever when training exercises depleted his natural mana reserves and left him weak. Only as much as required to keep himself from fainting, never to give himself more power, and never recreationally. The sharp metallic smell mixed pleasantly with the incense that filled the air and the effect was intoxicating. So Idhren lifted the pipe to his mouth as well and took an experimental breath. The smoke was heavier than air and it caught in his throat, forcing Idhren to pull the pipe from his mouth as he coughed.
Beside him, Varius chuckled, light and low, and rubbed a hand up and down Idhren’s back until he could breath easily again. “Easy there,” he murmured.
Eventually Idhren’s breathing evened out and he looked dubiously at the pipe still in his hand. “Why does anyone start doing this?” he asked. It seemed so unpleasant that anyone would be turned off after the first breath.
“Once you get used to it, the effect is really quite pleasant,” Varius assured him. “Moreso for mages, I’m told. Do you want to try again?”
To his surprise, Idhren found that he did. Even though the first attempt had been rather unpleasant, he could taste the lyrium in the smoke and that, at least, had been pleasant. It was not enough to have any effect on his body, but it was enough to make him want more. Again he brought the pipe to his lips and took a shallow breath. Prepared now for the sensation, it did not bother him as much. His throat hitched a few times and his outward breath was unsteady, but he managed to keep from coughing all the smoke back out immediately. The next pull from the pipe was even easier, and afterward Idhren thought he could feel it starting to take effect. “Is it supposed to make my fingers tingle?” he asked.
Varius laughed, “It can do that, yes,” he replied. “Starting to feel it, then?”
“I think so,” Idhren said. And what he felt so far was actually rather nice.
After several more lungfuls of smoke Idhren was definitely feeling the effects. The tingling had faded, but there was a pleasant humming running through his entire body. He felt immensely relaxed, mind muddled and yet more alert at the same time. At some point he had relaxed enough to slump against Varius’ silk clad shoulder. The whore allowed it, shifting so they could lay together slightly more comfortably amidst the pillows and cushions, and wrapped an arm around Idhren’s shoulders. It was more physical contact than Idhren would usually allow, but with the lyrium humming through his veins and the herbs clouding his mind he couldn’t bring himself to care. Actually it was rather nice. Varius’ body was warm and comfortable.
“Do you want to see my party trick?” Idhren blurted out at the exact moment the question came to mind, immediately embarrassing himself.
“Party trick?” Varius asked curiously. “I would love to.”
Idhren struggled to sit up slightly, setting down the pipe in his hand. “Give me your hand,” he said, holding both of his out. Varius arched a perfectly manicured eyebrow but held one hand out to him. Idhren held it palm up in one of his and held his other hand a few inches above. The first spark of lightning that jumped between their fingers was barely visible, but it made Varius gasp softly, his dark eyes wide with surprise. Idhren built it up gradually, let the little bolts of blue-purple energy jump between their fingers and dance along Varius’ skin. The same trick he had shown Dorian in a dark empty hallway all those years ago. “It’s warm,” Varius said softly, “It’s… nice. I thought it would hurt.”
After a moment Idhren moved his hand father from Varius’, leaving enough space between them to form shapes with the bolts. Geometric shapes were always the easiest, a sphere, a cube. “Lightning travels point to point,” Idhren commented thoughtfully. “People think that makes it hard to control, but it’s not, really. I used to do this to practice my control, now it… helps me relax. It’s comforting.”
“You’re very clever, aren’t you,” Varius purred. It was not a question, and as he spoke Varius leaned closer to Idhren. Too close for it to be considered proper. Idhren could feel the other elf’s breath hot against his cheek, could smell the scented oils in his hair and on his skin. The magic between their hands guttered and cut out, Idhren felt his face heat up and he jerked away, eyes wide and uncertain. Varius looked at him with confusion. “What’s wrong?”
“I…” Idhren stammered, finding it difficult to collect his thoughts enough to speak. “You’re…” He very suddenly realized exactly where he was on a level that he previously hadn’t acknowledged. This wasn’t just a lyrium den, this was a brothel, and that meant that Varius was a whore. So if he was coming onto Idhren it wasn’t because he actually wanted to, but because he had to.
“I’m what?” Varius asked, head tilted to the side and long hair cascading over his shoulders in a black waterfall. “I’m not a slave, if that’s what you’re concerned about,” he said slowly, and traced a finger along his collarbone, free of chains or scars, “I’m a free man, just like you.”
That hadn’t been entirely what Idhren was concerned about, but it was a mild relief. It meant that Varius was not forced to be here. But whether or not the dark skinned elf was interested in him by choice or not was, in fact, the least of Idhren’s concerns.
“Let me ask you, Idhren, what is holding you back?” Varius asked. “Is it because you do not desire me? Because of some moral quandary? Or because you are afraid?”
It was obviously not the first, and Varius had to be aware of that. Idhren had been blushing practically the entire time he had been in here, and it could only be blamed on the drugs for the past half hour or so. Varius was not a slave, he wasn’t exactly being forced to sell his body, so there wasn’t much moral grey area there. The truth was that Idhren was afraid, he was afraid of letting anyone see or touch him, afraid of a negative reaction. He was afraid that once Varius saw him the other elf would be disgusted, would mock him, would hurt him. Because that was what always happened.
“Can I assume that you have never been with anyone before?” Varius asked softly, gently.
“Not by choice,” Idhren admitted quietly.
“Ah,” Varius sighed, and his expression softened. “I’m sorry you’ve had to go through that,” he murmured, and when Idhren chanced to look over he was surprised to see not pity in his eyes, but sympathy and understanding. “Then I’ll stop offering, if that makes you uncomfortable. But, if you wish I could also show you that it does not have to be painful and frightening. It should not be.”
Idhren knew that, though it was hard to imagine when he had such a painful relationship with not only sex but his body as a whole. “It’s not just that,” he said, and looked down at his toes, buried beneath the pillows on which they sat. “I’m… I’m not…” Could he actually make himself say it? “I’m not… entirely male.”
A moment of silence, and then “Is that all?” Varius asked. “You would be surprised by how many people do not live as the sex their body dictates.”
If only it were that simple. That might even be easier to bear; perhaps fewer people would look at him with disgust. “I’m not that, I…” Idhren felt himself choke up and panic well up in his chest. Self consciously he pressed his knees together. “I’m not either… Or I’m both, or… I… I don’t know.” He could barely get the words out, and was resisting the urge to just flee the situation, run back to Canidius’ mansion and live the rest of his life miserable and alone.
He didn’t realize he’d been crying until Varius reached over and wiped the tears from his cheeks with gentle fingers. “Shh,” he breathed softly, “I never meant to upset you.”
Idhren sniffled and turned his face away in shame.
“You’ve been hurt because of this, haven’t you?” Idhren had expected to find only disgust and pity from his admission, but instead Varius’ voice was full of sympathy and understanding. Once more gentle fingers wiped the dampness from Idhren’s cheeks. “The Maker has a cruel sense of humor, doesn’t he? The magic doesn’t really make up for everything else, does it?”
Idhren shook his head weakly. He was incredibly glad to be a mage. He loved his magic and everything it allowed him to do, the opportunities it had given, but there were times the elf thought that trading it for a body that made sense would not be so bad.
Lips pressed softly against his temple, and then Varius drew away from him. “I think you need a drink,” he said in a voice that was trying to lighten the mood. “Have another pipe, puer dulcis, I’ll fetch us something a bit stronger.” As he spoke he took up the lyrium pipe and pressed it into Idhren’s lax hands, then he bent and pressed their lips together. The kiss was soft, chaste, and over before Idhren even realized it was happening, by which point Varius was already leaving in a swirl of crimson silk.
Two hours later Idhren stumbled out of the lyrium den, in a significantly better mood than when he had arrived and with a significantly lighter purse. Somehow he had spent nearly half his monthly wages, meager as they were, but could not bring himself to regret the extravagant purchase. His thoughts were clouded by alcohol and lyrium smoke, the flash of gold around Varius’ eyes and the taste of his lips. There had been several more kisses throughout the course of the night, some light and chaste, others decidedly less so. Despite that the evening had not progressed beyond kissing and a few over clothes caresses, the whole experience left Idhren feeling rather euphoric. Or perhaps that was an effect of the lyrium smoke. For the first time in his life Idhren did not feel ashamed of his body.
Three weeks later, after several sleepless nights and two traumatic, disastrous attempts at exploring his own body, Idhren was back on the doorstep of the lyrium den. He had forgotten to take note of the name last time, which made it a little more difficult to find, but he did not miss the sign today: Magister’s Mercy. How painfully ironic.
He found Varius again and with the aid of an entire bottle of wine, allowed the whore to pull him into a private room. When Idhren’s hands trembled too much Varius peeled the mage’s robes off his shoulders, cooed comforting words softly against his skin as he kissed Idhren’s lips, neck, chest, stomach, thighs, until the mage was trembling not with fear but with desire. Then he put his mouth between Idhren’s legs until the mage cried out with pleasure and stopped trembling entirely.
Varius laid himself out beside Idhren and traced comforting circles on the smaller elf’s stomach as he came down from his climax. When Idhren finally opened his eyes again his companion was smiling softly, and it was a gesture that was impossible not to return. “Thank you,” Idhren sighed softly, still breathless.
“Whatever for?” Varius’s voice was somewhere between a laugh and a purr.
“Not… being disgusted with me,” Idhren said quietly. That had been his biggest fear coming here tonight. His only experience with sex had been painful and humiliating, something that haunted him to this day. Everyone who had ever seen him naked had looked at him with disgust and pity, but not Varius.
“How could I be disgusted by such an adorable creature?” Varius asked with a smile. “There is nothing wrong with you, Idhren. You are perfect just the way you are. Anyone who thinks otherwise is not worthy of your time or your thoughts.”
Idhren swallowed thickly and rolled onto his side to lie facing Varius. Even though the dark elf was paid to do this, he found it difficult to believe any of this was an act. “How can you say that so easily?”
“Because it is true,” Varius insisted. “We have no control over how the Maker shapes us. He does not make mistakes, so however He has chosen to form us it is for a reason, even if we cannot see it.”
“You believe in the Maker?” Idhren asked.
“Don’t you?” Varius asked in turn.
It was an idea that Idhren had not given much thought lately. When he was younger, and at the Circle especially, he had wondered why the Maker would give him this body. Later he wondered why the Maker would curse him with both this wretched body and also make him an elf. Eventually he had concluded that it had to be a mistake. But the chantry said that the Maker did not make mistakes. If that was the case, then the Maker could not have had a hand in his creation. “I don’t know,” he admitted.
Varius reached out and pushed Idhren’s hair back from his face with gentle fingers. “I suppose that’s no surprise, given how cruel the world has been to you.”
“Has it not been cruel to you as well?” Idhren asked in confusion.
“You think because I work here that I am miserable?” Varius smiled indulgently. “I’ve had my struggles and my heartbreaks, but I’m happy as I am now. I am not a slave; if I wanted I could leave this place, learn a trade, get married and have children. Perhaps it seems strange to you, but I choose to stay here because I enjoy it here.”
It did seem strange to Idhren that anyone would willingly choose this line of work. “Truly?” he asked. “You enjoy it?”
“I do,” Varius confirmed. “Because I get to meet sweet things like you,” he grinned and tapped Idhren’s nose playfully. It made the mage blush. “And I can make people happy. Are you happy?”
Idhren took a moment to think about that, and much to his surprise he realized that he was. In this particular moment, lying on silk sheets with a prostitute, Idhren was happy. Or at least, he wasn’t miserable. “Yes,” he breathed.
Varius smiled and leaned in to kiss Idhren’s lips softly. “Good.”