Alistair did nothing but chatter all the way back to camp, asking her questions about Shianni and offering dopey grins when she asked in a singsong voice, “Do you like her?”
“You do,” she laughed. “You like her. She’s a terrible drunk, just so you know.”
“Like an Oghren drunk, or like that adorable time you got drunk after we left Ostagar the second time and drowned your sorrows in that bottle of Antivan brandy? Do you remember that, Zev?”
“How could I forget such a thing?” he asked from behind them, though there wasn’t as much fondness or amusement in his tone as usual. “She asked us both to swim naked in the river and make love to her until she forgot her own name and purpose. She nearly drowned herself, wading into the water with all her armor on.”
“That never happened,” she gasped in mock surprise, shooting a tentative gaze back and momentarily catching a soft grin from him before he turned away again. For the briefest second, she forgot that everything had changed.
“Actually, it did happen,” Alistair nudged into her. “We were both too gentlemanly to take advantage of you like that, even though we’d all been drinking. Well… I was, but Zevran…”
“Zevran is always a perfect gentlemen,” he insisted. “I helped her back to her tent, covered her with a blanket and watched over her while she slept. You know, to make sure she did not vomit in her own hair, or something equally disgusting.”
“Zevran is always the perfect gentleman.”
But Alistair was the only one who laughed.
After that, they didn’t say anything else on the walk back to camp, the three of them strange and quiet, an odd thing for Alistair, who seemed to know exactly how to brighten any mood with a few well-placed, comedic words.
Zevran walked several paces behind them, silent as the dawn before a storm and staring down at his own boots every step of the way. She was beginning to fret that a simple apology wouldn’t fix whatever broke between them that morning, and she was terrified. She thought maybe it would be better to act nonchalant and indifferent when they returned to camp. She could pretend nothing had changed at all, invite him to her tent and lose herself in his arms. They’d wake up in the morning and carry on as things had always been, right up until the end… whatever the end was, whatever it meant for the two of them. A parting of ways, perhaps, either through death or other factors.
Surely, a man of his disposition wouldn’t turn down the opportunity for a little harmless fun; he never had before, and she could forget for a little while that the things she felt for him weren’t shared.
She was likely going to die anyway. Let her die with the illusion of love encased like ice around her slowly breaking heart.
Arriving back at camp, she carefully wrapped and tucked her mother’s blade into her pack, then went to find him near the fire, where he was rooting almost absently through his own pack, as though trying to decide what he could keep and what he should finally throw away. They picked up the strangest things sometimes, just as he’d pointed that morning. Things with little, to no value at all, and they pooled in the bottoms of their packs like little mementos of dark times they should all want to forget, but couldn’t stop themselves from keeping.
“Zev,” she started.
“I am yours,” he glanced up, the smile he offered not quite reaching his eyes as he confessed his unwavering devotion to her.
“Can we talk?”
“Again? I’m game.”
“Look, I’m sorry I didn’t tell you about the wedding that never was.”
“And why should you be sorry? You owe me no such explanations.”
Judging from his careful tone, she wondered if he actually meant that. He had told her so many details about his past, things she hadn’t thought to be intimate at the time, but playful boasting. It wasn’t until much later she realized he’d told her those things because he wanted her to know exactly who he was, he’d bared his soul to her and she’d never given him the same courtesy. She’d never spoken of her family, her past, her almost marriage to a man she’d only known for a few short hours before he died trying to save her life.
“I don’t know… I should have told you. I just… I never told anyone about it, except for Duncan, and I didn’t really tell him either. He was just sort of there for the whole thing, so I didn’t have to, and afterward Duncan and I never spoke of it either, so I just sort of tucked it away inside me and pretended it never happened, or that it happened to someone else and not me.”
“I see,” he nodded.
“It was a dark and awful time. I didn’t want to marry a stranger, but it was arranged and I had no say in it at the time. He was kind, and he got himself killed trying to save my cousin and me from the arl’s son. He and his guards kidnapped us at my wedding, and horrible things happened in the arl’s castle. Nelaros’s death included.”
“He died a noble death, then,” he noted.
“Indeed, it was.”
“That must have been difficult for you to endure, as you were to be married.”
“A little,” she said. “Mostly I just felt guilty about the fact that Shianni and I got him killed… She’s always had a big mouth. Never did know when to keep her teeth together, and it brought us nothing but trouble.”
“So I noticed,” a bemused grin toyed at the edges of his full lips.
“She suffered for it, more dearly than I can even begin to imagine. The arl’s son… He hurt her pretty badly. Sometimes I wonder if Nelaros wasn’t the one better off in the end, the way the rest of us were made to suffer, but either way, I made the men who killed him pay before Duncan conscripted me to save me from the gallows. I made them all pay.”
“I would expect no less,” he decided with appreciation, then added, “and I would do the same, were I in your shoes, though I have a hard time imagining such a case.”
“Anyway, I should have told you before.”
“As I said, you owe me no such explanations. But I am glad to know you trust me enough to share it with me now, my friend.”
He couldn’t possibly understand how much that single word cut and stung, as if dipped in poison and dragged through her heart. Or maybe he knew exactly what he was doing. Maybe that had been his plan all along: make her fall in love with him so she might die of a broken heart before all was said and done.
The silent assassin, killing her with kindness and earth-shattering orgasms.
It had been so long since she doubted his intentions, but now she wasn’t sure about anything at all anymore.
“That being said, I do not mean to seem rude, but I think I am going to bed,” he decided. “I’m… very tired.”
“Can I join you?”
He looked down, his beautiful, amber eyes darting across the dirt in front of him before he shook his head, the braid jostling from the back of his hair and rustling against his cheek before he whipped it back into place again. “No, I… no. I mean no offense, I simply… no.”
“You’ve been acting so strange all day. I know I was… This morning I said things, and I shouldn’t have…”
“Think nothing of it.”
She wanted to feel relieved, but there was no such reprieve from her terror. “Is something else wrong?”
“I do not wish to talk about it.”
“Oh,” she nodded, taking a step back. “Then I’ll leave you alone.”
“Good,” he nodded, relief mingling with apprehension as he added, “we have plenty of other things to deal with, after all.”
“Then I guess I’ll leave you to it.”
She strode across camp without looking back, ducked into her tent and dropped down in the middle of her bedroll with a confused sigh. She’d upset him, refusing his gift and asking him to give her more than he was willing; she knew that much, but there had to be some way to make it right again. Couldn’t she just tell him it was a mistake, she didn’t want anything more from him than he was willing to give, even if it meant he was never willing to give more than his body?
Something was better than nothing, wasn’t it?
Once more, she felt like crying. It had been a long, confusing and emotional day, and every time the tears rose to the surface she’d nearly given into them, but Illuviel was not prone to wearing her heart on her sleeve.
Though if Wynne could be believed, she’d been wearing it right on the front of her pliable, studded leather armor all along, and now the assassin who’d been sent to kill her all those months ago was crushing it in his hand as though it had never meant anything to him at all.
She felt stupid, anxious in ways she’d never felt before in her life. Losing him was different than losing Nelaros. Nelaros had been a promise she didn’t want to keep, one she’d not made on her own behalf, and yet he’d nobly sacrificed himself for her, even though she didn’t really want to spend the rest of her days as his happy little housewife.
Zevran was a promise she wanted desperately to make, someone she wanted to clutch and hold close to her until her fingers were bones and there was no more breath in her body to exhale.
Zevran threw himself in the line of fire to save her again and again, but sometimes she thought maybe he had a death wish. He called her amor when he kissed her forehead, tucked the hair behind her ear before sometimes nuzzling the tip of his nose into her cheek and confessing, “I am yours.”
But he wasn’t hers. Not really, and the cold manner in which he’d pushed her away confirmed in her heart that he never would be.
Of all the things in the world she had endured, nothing hurt as much as him pushing her away. Nearly run-through with an ogre’s horn—painful, but healable. Stabbed in the thigh with a rusted genlock blade—excruciating, but easily patched up and treated. Having her heart crushed by the hand of a man she loved more than anything else in the world—absolutely unbearable.
Curling up on her side, she was surprised when a rustling sounded at the opening of her tent, and eagerly she lifted her head in hopes to find him there, ready to embrace and forgive her, but instead she found a large, boxy, tilted head staring in, a pair of brown eyes, sad and imploring as the sound of thunder echoed in the distance.
“Come on, boy,” she patted the ground beside her bedroll, inviting the mabari into the tent.
He pushed in, taking up more space than she and all her belongings, and circled several times beside her before stretching his front paws, flouncing down on half the bedroll and positioning his big head on her pillow. How Ser Barks knew she needed him, she’d never know, but she was grateful to have at least one being on the planet who understood she needed a friend.