Illuviel hurriedly stalked through the camp, head down, cheeks burning and heart thumping with untold rage.
The nerve of that old woman. Rolling her eyes, wagging her tongue in scolding like an unwanted mother berating and trying to guide a child to do her bidding.
Who did she think she was, anyway?
Just because she’d been with them almost from the start and had more life experience than most of the companions combined, Wynne often felt the need to lecture and offer unwanted advice. But this time she’d gone too far.
“You’re quite taken with each other, aren’t you?”
At first she hadn’t know what she was talking about, but when the old woman’s eyes shot toward the assassin, Illuviel felt her face flush and burn with embarrassment. It was no secret, and she honestly didn’t care who knew, but no one save for Alistair had ever really asked her about it. “You know about Zevran and me?”
“I almost wish I didn’t,” she scuffed a perturbed sigh. “Half of us aren’t getting any sleep the way you two carry on all night.”
“Oh,” her throat tightened and for a moment she felt like she couldn’t breathe. “I’m sorry. We’ll try to keep it down next time.”
“That’s… uh… kind of you, I suppose, but anyway…”
It felt like the world was spinning, and she didn’t even know why. It was nobody’s business who she took to her bed, and while she certainly felt guilty about having disturbed their fellow companions, there was a look in Wynne’s eye that made her feel as though her father had caught her in the middle of doing something she should have known better than to do.
“I’ve noticed your blossoming relationship, and I wanted to ask where you thought it was going. It seems he only ever has one thing on his mind. I question the wisdom of a Grey Warden being involved in such an affair.”
“We’re just taking it one day at a time.” How hard it had been to form those words, how easily they seemed to stick in her throat, like old, dry bread with no water to wash it down.
“You are a Grey Warden, Illuviel. You have responsibilities which supersede your personal desires.”
“I think I can handle my responsibilities and my relationships, Wynne.”
“Love is ultimately selfish.”
Who said anything about love?
“It demands that one be devoted to a single person, who may fully occupy one’s mind and one’s heart, to the exclusion of all else. A Grey Warden cannot afford to be selfish. You may be forced to make a choice between saving your love and saving everyone else, and then what would you do?”
“So what am I supposed to do?” She felt her jaw tighten, the muscles clenching, molars grinding together until twinges of pain pulsed in her temples. “Should I just tell Zevran to go away?”
“You may have to, to save one or both of you anguish later on.”
“So I should inflict pain now to avoid it later on?” The sound of her own laughter surprised her. It was bitter, callous and cold, and for a moment something dangerous flashed in the old woman’s brilliant, blue eyes. “Great logic, Wynne!”
“I have given my advice,” she said. “Do with it what you will.”
She spun around and stalked away, marching straight to her tent with every intention of hiding away there until the embarrassment cooled from her cheeks and her anger began to abate, but at some point during her conversation with the old mage, her companion let himself into her tent, stripped out of his armor and propped himself casually atop the bedroll to wait for her to join him.
Pale golden hair casually draped across his tattooed cheek as he tilted his head to grin at her in that devilishly delightful fashion that sometimes made her knees feel weak.
“Ah, there you are.” He cocked his brow upon seeing her enraged expression, but did not comment. Instead, he spoke of the one thing he always talked about, which Wynne had so profoundly pointed out during her lecture. “I was getting anxious, beginning to think you might never come to bed. You should know,” he went on, “that this afternoon after battling our way out of Fort Drakon, I happened to look over and see you painted in the blood of our enemies like some goddess of war and it… Well, let us just say I have been uncomfortable in my armor ever since. I walked rather stiffly back to camp, in case you did not notice, and I had hoped that we might…”
Was that a hint of nervousness she detected in his genuinely over-confident demeanor?
“Well, I thought it would be in my best interest to worship you as you so rightly deserve, my goddess of war, lest my discomfort lead to unavoidable sleeplessness. There is always so much going on, and one cannot afford to go without sleep, am I right?”
“What?” She shook her head, attempting to clear the red haze from her thoughts. “Oh… yes, well, I may very well never come to bed again, and I hardly doubt I’ll be sleeping if I do.”
“That sounds like my kind of fun.” His full lips widened appreciatively. “I do hope you were planning to invite me along for this sleepless night of yours. And since we won’t be sleeping…”
“I don’t know that I am in the mood tonight, Zevran.”
“Really?” His face lengthened with curious intrigue. “I… I never thought to hear you say the dreaded, ‘Not tonight, I have a headache, Zevran.’”
“A heartache, maybe.”
The corner of his mouth twitched, his brow furrowing between annoyance and unspoken, arrogant curiosity. “If this is about Alistair again…”
“Alistair?” She jerked her head back, shaking it almost furiously in denial. “It has not been about Alistair for months and you know it. No, this is about Wynne, the insufferable old bat!” She felt instantly guilty for calling her an old bat because despite how often she tended to pry, Illuviel genuinely liked Wynne.
“She had the nerve to poke her meddlesome nose into our… my… well into business that is simply not hers to meddle in.”
“And this meddlesome old bat… she has washed you of your filthy desires for me? I must say, I am… surprised. I know you have always been accepting of my history with both men and women, but I did not take you for one to find your heart leaning toward another woman. Especially not one so… experienced, but perhaps all this adventure has piqued curiosities within you were previously unaware of…”
“Stop.” She brought up her hand and held it out to silence him. “Just stop, Zev. I am not attracted to Wynne. I’m angry with her. Furious, actually.”
“You know, you are beautiful when you’re angry.”
“That headache you thought to give me…” she began, her eyebrow twitching above her left eye, “I think I’m starting to feel it.”
From the corner of her eye she watched him stiffen, his bare shoulders drawing back, chin lifting almost defiantly. “I happen to know exactly how to rid you of this ache in your head, but somehow I get the impression you would not appreciate the gesture.”
It seems he only ever has one thing on his mind. I question the wisdom of a Grey Warden being involved in such an affair.
She’d never asked to be a Grey Warden. Duncan conscripted her in order to save her from execution in Denerim, but she’d taken it in stride. It was an opportunity to do something for her people, something they might very well never appreciate or thank her for, but she could save them if she stopped the Blight.
But what Wynne said was true, for the most part.
Zevran did only ever seem to have one thing on his mind, but they’d promised each other nothing else from the start. They were only having fun, a little reckless pleasure together before the end of the world.
Which wasn’t to say her heart didn’t flutter just a little bit every time she glanced over and caught him staring at her… and that had been happening to her more and more often of late. The quick exits after satisfying his itch in her arms had all but disappeared, the two of them falling asleep together, sometimes talking in quiet voices long into the night about the uncertainty of the future if they could not finish the task she and Alistair, the last two Grey Wardens in Ferelden, set out to accomplish.
Sometimes she woke in the morning to find him propped up on his elbow above her, watching her with intrigue while she slept, but the moment she opened her eyes and caught him in that position he quieted any curiosity she might have about his careful scrutiny with a kiss and a quick tumble before the rest of their party members began to stir and pack up camp.
They did not talk about feelings. They never had, and though she certainly felt enough of them every time their eyes met, it was difficult to imagine he might ever want to talk about the future—assuming there was a future to even discuss.
“Zev…” If making her feel guilty was his intention, he’d done it well and as he started to rise, intent on leaving her with her thoughts, she reached for his forearm and held onto him. “I’m sorry. I just… I’m so confused.”
“By your feelings for Wynne?”
Cocking his brow arrogantly, the corner of his sly mouth jerked upward again, making her want to slap the smugness from his expression before he had chance to say another sarcastic word. She was not in the mood for sarcasm, nor was she in the mood for feelings. Wynne made her think about her feelings, and when feelings came into the picture it stirred confusion and doubt and drew into question everything that existed between them.
Unfortunately, not wanting to confront those feelings meant she had to resort to the same tactics he was employing in order to avoid a conversation that terrified her.
“Yes,” she finally said, rolling her eyes. “I’m torn and confused by my insatiable appetite for Wynne.”
“She is a rather enticing specimen, I agree. She is old enough to be my grandmother, but she has true fire and her bosom is quite remarkable.”
“I’d like to set her on fire right now,” she bristled, dropping down onto the bedroll with a huff and stretching her legs in front of her to begin unlacing the leather strip that lined the side of her boot.
“So…” He sat up and leaned over her other leg, taking up the task of loosening the tie on her other boot, stretching the leather until it gaped enough that a deft tug wrenched the restrictive shoe from her foot. He began a gentle massage, the careful pressure of his fingers into the arch drawing attention to just how tired her body felt. “What did the wicked witch of the Circle say to you that has you in so foul a mood, mi amor?”
And that just made it worse. Since their confrontation in the back alley with Taliesin five days earlier, he’d taken to calling her his love, and while she was more than certain it was just an affectionate nickname, sometimes she swore she saw so much more in his eyes if she happened to be looking into them when he said it.
“She asked me about our future.”
“You and Wynne are making plans for the future?”
“Not if she’s going to call into question my relations with you, we won’t be.”
“Ah, so she was prying into our affairs.”
For a long time she tilted her head back, closed her eyes and forgot she was taking off her boot. It wasn’t until he finished the job she started and began massaging her other foot that he said anything else on the matter.
“Perhaps she is only looking out for you,” he suggested thoughtfully. “She thinks I am a horrible influence on you, that I am corrupting you, but clearly she doesn’t know you half as well as she thinks she does. If anything, it is I who’ve been corrupted here.”
“Clearly,” she shook her head and rolled her eyes playfully. “I don’t need her to look out for me. Not in that capacity, anyway.”
“But her fondness for you is no secret. She admires you a great deal, yes?”
“I don’t know…”
“Only because you spend so much of your free time focused on the task ahead. At times, you are so far beyond the present moment, so consumed by events that have yet to occur, you are not here with the rest of us at all, I think.”
“What is that supposed to mean?”
“It is not so offensive as your tone suggests,” he laughed softly. “I am simply saying you focus much on what you must do, and in these last few months with all the travel and the treaty procuration and the killing, I don’t know, you have become… distant.” He hesitated on that word, as if he wasn’t sure it was the right one. “You do not talk nearly as much as you used to. You only focus…”
“When I did talk all the time everyone was always telling me there were more important things to do than talk.”
“I never claimed anything was more important than the sound of your voice, but… how do I say… Hmm… Ah, yes, as this task grows more daunting and we near our final destination, you yourself become more distant to us all,” he went on. “Holding yourself apart from everyone in our little party, avoiding conversations beyond a simple greeting whenever possible, it is…”
“You and I are talking right now,” she interrupted him.
“You and I talk all the time, yes, but not the way we used to. I have become your… reprieve from those things you wish not to talk and think about, no?”
“You are more than that to me,” she insisted.
“Maybe I am, maybe I am not. I only know that every night you come into my arms and I take you far away from all of…” withdrawing his hand from her foot, he held both arms out to encompass the tent around them, but she knew he meant something so much grander, “this. I take away all of your troubles for a little while, do I not?”
“For a time, yes,” she agreed distantly, “you do.”
“Then for that I am glad. I do not mind being your amnesty from hardship, but sooner or later, Illuviel, you will have to face the things you do not wish to see.”
Reaching her hand out to rest upon his arm, she tilted her head to look at him. Even in the dim light of the fire just beyond the tent, he was a breathtaking sight, his golden eyes gleaming as he glanced down at her hand on him before returning his fiery gaze to her face.
“I don’t want to face those things tonight.” Illuviel leaned inward, ducked down her head and brushed her lips across his, whispering, “Take away my troubles right now.”
Surging into her slightly parted lips, he stole her breath as he muttered, “As you like.”
What he said was truer than she cared to admit, but he never forced the issue, and for the most part she believed he wanted to talk about it as much as she did, or rather, not at all.
In Zevran’s arms, she could disconnect from her fate and pretend for a little while she was just an ordinary elven woman, a thief’s roguish daughter locked outside the alienage, kept from home and family. Even when they walked through the gates to the alienage, she didn’t know if it would still feel like home. She didn’t even know what home felt like anymore; she only knew responsibility, duty, obligation, the taint in her blood and the nightmares…
While he was inside her, there were no responsibilities, no duties, obligations or intentions more pressing than the delightful grinding of his hips against hers, the damp, lingering suckle of his lips against her collar bone, her shoulder, the hollow of her throat before he found her mouth again and drank deep from her until she moaned into his kisses.
Every touch brought only pleasure, each kiss a temporary distraction, a rare blessing that forced her mind away from the inevitable.
Death, so much death and destruction. It was all that waited for them beyond that moment.
She was probably going to die, him too if she let him follow her to the end. She didn’t want him to follow her, didn’t want him to die for her cause. Somehow she knew he would never forgive her if she didn’t take him all the way. She’d set him free, and though he had not said as much in words, at times his gestures seemed to suggest he longed to do the same for her.
Zevran wanted to free her and freedom could only be found in the death of the archdemon.
Could the archdemon even be killed? Alistair knew about as much as she did, though she hoped speaking with the Grey Warden they’d found in Arl Howe’s dungeon might provide more clarity on what needed to be done. She hadn’t made time to seek him out yet, part of her terrified about what he might actually have to say on the matter when she did talk to him.
For the moment it seemed death was all that waited for them; she didn’t want to die, nor did she want anyone she cared about to die either, which made her think about Wynne again.
They’d spoken extensively on death during one of their late night conversations near the fire. Wynne was not afraid to die; some part of her actually seemed to be looking forward to the release, but Illuviel wasn’t ready to unclench her fingers from life just yet. She was young, there was still so much to do…
Not for the first time in the last year, she found her thoughts turning to Nelaros. Her betrothed, the perfect match her father hoped to make for her. Nelaros had been handsome, successful and kind enough, but she hadn’t chosen him for herself and that never quite sat right with her. Maker curse her for not wanting him while she had the chance. The Maker removed him from her life just hours after she and the other women from the alienage were taken from her wedding.
Playing the role of hero, Nelaros came to rescue her and her cousins from the arl’s dungeons only to be cut down before he ever reached them. She hadn’t loved Nelaros; she hadn’t felt anything for him at all until she saw him lying motionless, unseeing eyes staring toward the door and a trickle of blood painting the corner of his slack mouth. In that moment she wanted to avenge him and she hadn’t even known why.
Funny of her to think of Nelaros while in Zevran’s arms. As their bodies came together, her pleasured moans self-consciously stifled by the bedroll while he took her from behind, she found herself wondering if Nelaros would have learned to please her with the same ferocity and knew the answer without exploring the thought too deeply.
She and Nelaros had not been made for one another. It was never meant to be.
Whether the words were ever spoken, or not, Zevran was her perfect match. Nelaros promised before their wedding to do everything in his power to make her happy, but a simple life in Highever would have never made a woman like Illuviel happy. She wanted complication, adventure, excitement, danger…
She backed into him, rising slowly as he drew her against his chest and stroked attentive hands across her quivering stomach, upward until he cupped and squeezed her breasts and stirred delighted whimpers from her with every stroke. Burying his face in the crook of her neck, he murmured and purred in Antivan. She had no idea what he was saying half the time, but she didn’t care. She liked the way it sounded, loved the way he spoke to her.
She couldn’t imagine a future without him in it. She’d do anything to save him, to save herself…
You may be forced to make a choice between saving your love and saving everyone else, and then what would you do?
Couldn’t she do both? Couldn’t she save everyone and still save her love?
Maker’s breath, she loved him. How was that even possible?
Collapsing onto the bedroll beside her, he lay on his back with eyes closed, grin playing at his full lips and nostrils flaring as he caught his breath. Illuviel curled up on her side, but didn’t cuddle with him until he maneuvered his arm beneath her neck and drew her across the slip of space between them to kiss the top of her head.
“And now you no longer have a headache,” he purred, kissing her again.
Only that wasn’t true at all. If anything, she was only more confused than she’d been before she stormed into her tent and found him waiting for her, Wynne’s words still burning through her like a raging fire.
She was in love with him, and love made her weak. It meant she’d let her guard down, exposed herself and made herself vulnerable. She couldn’t imagine life without him in it, which of course made it seem all the more reasonable that when the end came, she would have to die.
So he could live, so everyone could live, she would have to die.
Andraste’s holy knickers; Wynne was right.
Love made her vulnerable. It skewed her thoughts, distracted her mind and made her heart feel so very heavy in her chest. She would give up everything for Zevran, to make sure he lived—even her own life if she had to.
She just hoped it didn’t come to that.