“Cousin!” Shianni ran to meet them as they exited the alley, excitedly gripping her arms and nearly dancing, a shine in her eyes Illuviel never thought to see again. “You’re amazing, which I shouldn’t say to your face because it’ll got to your head, but it’s true!”
“Oh stop,” she laughed.
“Are you sticking around for a while? You’re staying for dinner, right?”
“You’d better. I’ll weasel a bottle of wine from Alarith and we can catch up.”
“Make it two bottles and you’ve got a deal,” she laughed, glancing back at her companions for approval.
“Ooh, elvish cuisine.” Alistair rubbed his hands together with glee. “Will there be cheese? I hope there’s cheese.”
“That can be arranged,” Shianni chuckled.
“Count me out,” Morrigan refused, making Illuviel wish once more she’d brought Wynne instead. Wynne, even as seemed to disapprove of Illuviel’s romantic endeavors, would have delighted in the chance to spend time with her family in the alienage. “I’ll make my way back to camp if you no longer need me.”
“I don’t need you, but it would be nice to have you around. Are you sure you won’t stay?”
Turning to Zevran, he only shrugged and said he didn’t care either way, words that made her still uneasy gut feel like a clenching and unclenching fist inside her body. As Morrigan departed, the three of them fell into step behind Shianni, walking the path toward Illuviel’s father’s house. He was already inside, already scolding Soris when they entered, noting that the least he could have done was keep the house clean in his absence. Turning his head to cough into his shoulder, Soris glanced up, his eyes widening when he saw her walk in behind Shianni.
“Look who I found!” her cousin beamed.
“Illuviel?” He took a faltering step toward her, hand reaching out to stay her father, whom he’d bumped into, and then he approached, just staring at her in awe. “Uncle Cyrion said you were alive, that it was you who saved him and the others, but I thought he was hallucinating with fever.”
“It’s good to see you, Soris.”
“Good to see… Oh, you!” And then he embraced her, his arms squeezing her so tight, for a moment she could scarcely breathe.
In the last year she’d blocked out how much subtle embraces like that meant to her, how delightful and wonderful it was to be loved in that way. There was a definite amount of camaraderie and closeness between herself and her companions. She and Alistair spent a lot of time together talking, playfully nudging each other as they walked, Illuviel trying to knock the over-sized bucket of metal off balance and on his backside, Alistair almost always remaining steadfast and strong. Sometimes Oghren regaled her with hilarious, drunken tales and it wasn’t an unheard of thing for her and Leliana to lose themselves for hours on the road in conversations about the delightfulness of a pair of beautiful shoes.
But of them all, she felt closest to Zevran, the almost alienation of his culture and upbringing something she could easily relate to. No one understood what it was like to grow up in an alienage, a pariah only fit to serve her betters in a world that loathed the very site of her. It would be silly to compare life in the alienage to being raised a Crow, but the stigma of it felt familiar. He’d once told her that people like the two of them were not the products of happy circumstance, and while just about everyone in their merry band of misfits came from a place so far outside the expectations of normal society, it was with him she resonated most clearly.
Though that resonation was certainly growing muddier and muddier by the hour.
“After all we went through together, after spending the last year thinking you were dead, all you can think to say is good to see you? Couldn’t you have at least written us a letter to let us know you were still alive?”
“She is a woman of few words, or so it would seem,” Zevran muttered at her back.
“Actions speak louder than words,” Cyrion declared. “And it would seem she has taken far more action than any of us ever dreamed her capable of before she left this place with Duncan what seems like a lifetime ago.”
Her face flushed warm with embarrassment when she saw the pride in her father’s eyes, and to distract herself from everyone staring, she stepped away and gestured toward her friends. “These are my friends. Alistair, my fellow Grey Warden, and Zevran Arainai.”
The Zevran of two days earlier might have made some full-of-himself comment that he considered himself the guard of her body, before charmingly laughing off the absurdity of his purposeful misuse of the common tongue. It would have made her father cringe and glower at her, to be sure, but Zevran made no such admission. He only nodded solemnly and uttered that he was pleased to make acquaintance with his warden’s beloved family.
It wasn’t a large celebration, but it was cozy and comfortable, and for a few hours she could forget the weight of the world pressed hard upon her shoulders as she watched Shianni shamelessly flirt with Alistair, who blushed and laughed and tried like hell to play coy, only to fail miserably when her cousin’s suggestiveness grew almost bolder than even Illuviel could bear.
Zevran was quiet, unusually so for him. Observational and contemplative, he drank cups of pitiful wine and pushed food around on his plate, but he did not eat much and at several points when she thought she might actually catch his gaze, he made a deliberate display of looking away and asking Alistair something inconsequential just to avoid the moment.
Maybe she should have left him at camp. Maybe it was a bad idea sharing a deeper part of herself with him, when he so clearly did not wish to know her beyond the breathy sighs and gasping whimpers that escaped her as he ground his body skillfully against her own in the dark.
She didn’t remember announcing that she needed a bit of air, nor did she recall actually getting up and walking outside until she was standing by the vhenadahl staring at the one tree in all of Ferelden she’d never thought to see again. All her life, she’d fought hard to get out of that place, out from under the canopy of that monstrous tree. She’d wanted nothing more than adventure and intrigue, the endless road beneath her booted feet and the promise of never ending excitement.
She’d gotten all of those things, at a heavy price, and though she knew she’d never be able to return to that not-so-simple city life, that realization actually made her sad. There was no returning to the alienage, not ever again. No matter what happened, she could never live in that place that once made her feel safe and restricted.
“I prayed for you.” Soris ambled up to stand beside her, both hands folded at his waist, eyes trained on the tree in front of them. “I told Uncle Cyrion to not lose hope. That if anyone in this world could survive something that awful, it was you. You always had a knack for getting yourself out from between a rock and a hard place.”
“Only just,” she muttered. “Alistair and I were in the wrong place, at King Cailan’s insistence. We should have been there at the battle, in the heat of it with everyone else, but we weren’t. Sometimes I think Alistair hates us both for that… Well, not hate, maybe. I don’t think Alistair has it in his heart to truly hate anyone. But sometimes I think he resents me almost as much as he resents himself for living through it. We should have died with our brothers in Grey.”
“I don’t know about that,” Soris mused. “I hear you’re supposed to put an end to this Blight. That if you and your friend Alistair hadn’t survived that atrocity, there’d be no hope at all.”
“There is always hope,” she said softly, though the greatest part of her wasn’t even sure she believed it when she said it. Steering away from things she did not wish to dwell on, for fear they’d consume her, she turned her gaze on her cousin and asked, “So, how is married life?”
“Not bad. Not bad at all. She’s kind, though she can’t cook to save her life. Uncle Cyrion worries regularly she’ll burn the house down.” They both chuckled, Illuviel glancing back at the shadowed home nestled into the slums behind them. “I tell him it wouldn’t be much of a loss, but then where would we go?”
“There’s a whole world out there, Cousin.”
“For people like you, Illuviel,” he shrugged. “I sort of like it here. For all its lacking charm, this place is home.”
Silent and introspective for a time, Illuviel didn’t know that she agreed. Home was such a difficult concept to her; it always had been, but never had it seemed more muddied and inconceivable than it did to her at that moment. She’d been to the circle, deep in the wild forests of Brecilian and in the Deep Roads, and though nothing about any of those places was homelike or familiar, they all had one thing in common: she’d been there with Zevran. They’d come through and out together, side by side, him laughing, her gasping breaths of exalted relief as the sun shone down upon them.
It was a fool’s thought to think of him as home, a man who wanted no strings to tether him to any one place too long, but she couldn’t help it. Wherever he was, wherever they were together, she felt more like herself than she had in any other place before.
“So… you and that roguish fellow from Antiva…?” Soris prodded, nudging his elbow into her ribs. “Huh? Huh? He seems far more your type than Nelaros ever was.”
“He’s an assassin.” She felt the right edge of her mouth drifting toward her ear in admirable grin. Zevran was dangerous and delightful in all the ways a woman like her enjoyed, but he wasn’t hers and he probably never would be. “An Antivan Crow. Or… rather, he was. Now I don’t think he knows who he is or what to do with himself.”
“So he follows you around? I’m sure he’ll never get bored,” Soris laughed.
“I don’t know about that. He gets bored very easily.”
“The way he looks at you, I don’t think you’ll ever have to worry about that.”
“I don’t know that disdainful glares count in my favor.”
“I saw no disdain in his eyes,” her cousin pointed out, and for a moment she was hopeful again, thinking maybe she’d missed something, hadn’t caught his eye quickly enough and missed whatever it was Soris seemed to catch before Zevran looked away from her. “Though I can’t imagine Uncle Cyrion would approve of such a match, so you might want to keep that one to yourself if he doesn’t bring it up. Though how he didn’t notice, I’ll never guess.”
“Didn’t notice what?”
They hadn’t heard her father come up behind them, Illuviel’s stomach guiltily tightening inside her and making her feel all of eleven years old again, caught in the act of mischief she’d dragged her cousin into with her.
“That you look a little rundown, Father. My friends and I shouldn’t linger here much longer, you need rest.”
“I’ll go and make sure Shianni hasn’t talked your fellow Grey Warden into marriage,” Soris excused himself. “It was so good to see you again, Cousin, but even better to know you’re still with us.” After landing a quick, affectionate kiss on her cheek, Soris left them alone, and for a long time she and her father seemed to have nothing to say.
“You’re not lingering,” he finally insisted. “After spending the last year thinking you were no longer with us, I don’t think there is any way you could overstay your welcome here, Illuviel.”
“Oh, Father,” she leaned into him and glanced toward the vhenadahl with tired eyes. “I wish I could stay, but I can’t.”
“I know,” he nodded. “You’re a Grey Warden now. Big, important… I always knew you’d make me proud. I’m sure Adaia would be more than proud of you as well. In fact, I think she would have wanted me to give this to you a long time ago, but I didn’t know how to part with it. This was her blade,” he drew it out between them, the metal glinting beautifully in the lantern lights swaying outside every house and shack in the alienage. “Fang, she called it. It was in her family for a long time, and it’s time I pass it on to you.”
Illuviel took the blade, the pommel warm from his grip, the metal sheening beautiful along the curve in that pale lantern light. Something odd moved through her, a sense of connection she’d never felt before to the woman her father always she reminded him of. She didn’t remember her mother, but in that moment she felt like Adaia was with her. That she’d always been there, standing just over her shoulder and encouraging her to take risks and chances, to live her life to the absolute fullest and without regret.
“It will do far greater things in your hands, than it ever did in mine. Did you know Duncan tried to recruit her into the Wardens, as well?”
“No.” Leaning outward, brow furrowing, Illuviel shook her head. “I didn’t know that.”
“Valendrian talked him out of it. There was no Blight at the time, and he insisted she was needed here more. You were just a baby at the time, and it would have been cruel for him to take her away from us. I don’t know, maybe he should have,” he lamented. “Maybe she’d still be alive.”
She wondered why Duncan never told her that, then sadly realized her time with Duncan had been stretched so very thin. As they traveled from Denerim to Ostagar, they talked of little things, the Grey Wardens and the Blight, darkspawn and archdemons, but never enough to open up any windows that allowed her to crawl in asking questions that might lead him to admit he’d known her mother.
“Maybe she would be.”
“When he came on your wedding day, I had a bad feeling in my gut that all my plans for you were for naught.” A long, wheezing sigh deflated his chest. “He couldn’t take your mother, so he took you in her stead. I suppose it was only right, but I would never have wanted this for you.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” she edged into him almost playfully and tilted her head onto his shoulder, “being a hero sort of suits me, don’t you think?”
A thin smile stretched his lips. “I suppose it does, dear girl. I suppose it does.”
It seemed like forever that they stood there in the shadow of the vhenadahl, neither of them saying anything. She could hear Alistair’s boisterous laughter in the house behind her, Shianni’s obnoxious giggles and Soris’s protests, though what he was protesting, she couldn’t begin to guess.
“I am so very proud of you. I know I didn’t always say it, Illuviel. I know you always felt like I tried to oppress you and hold you down, and I don’t know, maybe I did. I was afraid that if I let your mother’s spirit drive you, I’d lose you both, but I was wrong to hold you back from becoming the woman you wanted to be.”
“You only did those things because you love me, Father. Because you didn’t want to lose me…”
“Love is a selfish thing,” he chuckled, though she didn’t find the humor in those words at all. They reminded her too much of Wynne’s admonition the night before, asking her what she would do if tasked with saving her love and saving everyone else… “But selfish or not, it’s one of the most beautiful things in this world, Illuviel. I know everything is tentative right now, the future itself is up in the air, and there’s no telling what will happen. If any of us will make it through this Blight. But I hope one day you know the selfish kind of love I had for your mother with someone and that you cherish every minute of it as long as it’s yours.”
Her throat tightened so severely it was almost impossible to swallow the emotions sticking within it. She was pretty sure she already loved someone that selfishly, that just as Wynne feared, she would put the fate of the entire world on the line if it meant keeping him alive.
And in that moment she knew she needed to apologize somehow, to make it up to Zevran and try to return things to the way they were before. Because even if he didn’t feel the same way she did, she didn’t want to lose him. She wanted him with her until the end, even if it was, as her father said, selfish.
“I hope so too,” she finally muttered.
“That Alistair seems a nice young man,” her father noted, “for a shemlen.”
Illuviel laughed. “He’s very nice, but he’ll probably be the king of Ferelden in a few days, and to be honest, we just don’t have that kind of relationship. Sorry to disappoint you, Father.”
“Ah well,” he grinned. “A father can always hope. I’ve always only wanted best for you, Da’len.”
“I know,” leaning forward she kissed him on the cheek, and as he withdrew, he muttered, “Dareth shiral,” as he squeezed her shoulders and once more let her go.
She didn’t know if she would ever see him again, but she hoped so. She really, really did.