“Ah, Dorian,” Mahanon said mildly, as he opened the door. “Come in.”
Stepping through the doorway into the room, Dorian subtly looked the Inquisitor— former Inquisitor over. It wouldn’t do to be obvious about it. They both knew, of course, that he would be looking, searching for any indication that Mahanon was doing even more poorly than was to be expected. But then, everybody was looking. Every time he stepped out of his quarters, the eyes of every guard, servant, and passerby turned in his direction. The polite ones at least looked away after a few seconds. Most simply stared.
Beneath the delicate branching lines of the vallaslin, Mahanon’s skin was wan. There were shadows under his eyes that attested to how little sleep he was getting and his hair, usually so meticulously groomed, hung in limp, tangled strands around his face. He looked thinner than he had when they’d reunited in the plaza outside the Winter Palace just days ago. And his eyes were sad and haunted.
Dorian summoned up a bright smile he didn’t feel in the slightest and leveled it at his friend. “Shall we commence with the pleasantries and the extremely tedious inquiries into your health and well-being? Or shall we forgo all of that and instead speak of something more interesting?”
“I was actually hoping you’d do me a favor,” Mahanon returned, looking as though he knew exactly what Dorian was doing—and that Dorian had come expressly to ask how he was and didn’t have anything even vaguely interesting to discuss—but was choosing not to call his bluff.
“Of course. Anything.” That came out somewhat more serious than Dorian meant it to sound and he casually cleared his throat. Keep it together, Pavus. He needs your strength right now. Not your sympathy or your concern.
Turning away, Mahanon went over to a low chest of drawers near the bed, picked something up, and carried it back to where Dorian was attempting to affect a relaxed, casual stance. No doubt Mahanon saw right through it. The pointy-eared bastard was far too observant. As he stopped in front of him, Mahanon held out his hand and Dorian obligingly looked down.
A wooden hairbrush, the handle and back intricately carved to depict halla standing in a forest clearing, and a pair of sharp silver scissors.
Dorian looked up, meeting Mahanon’s eyes. The elf shrugged his right shoulder.
“I’d like you to cut my hair.”
A dozen emotions surged through Dorian, but thankfully he had the wherewithal to keep the whole bloody lot of them off of his face. Instead of evincing visible surprise or dismay or Maker-forbid, sorrow , he furrowed his brow and frowned. “Do I look like a hair stylist to you?”
Mahanon pointedly glanced at his hair, sides neatly shaven, top perfectly tousled to appear effortlessly elegant. “I think you manage well enough,” he said dryly.
“Yes, but—” He floundered, momentarily at a loss for an appropriate rebuttal. It wasn’t that he couldn’t cut Mahanon’s hair. Of course he could. He didn’t want to cut it and he was pretty damn sure that Mahanon didn’t really want him to cut it either. The trouble was how to address it without actually calling attention to the problem and addressing it. “I haven’t the first clue what’s considered fashionable among the Dalish. I daresay our people have enough cause for animosity. I don’t need to go making it worse by giving you an offensive haircut.”
In ordinary circumstances, Mahanon probably would have engaged in the banter. Now, he simply shook his hand at Dorian in a clear demand to take the items. “I don’t want to deal with the questions or the pitying looks.”
So much for not addressing it. “What if I give you pitying looks and ask all manner of intrusive questions?” Dorian asked hopefully.
“It’s too hard, Dorian,” Mahanon said plainly. A hint of frustrated anger slipped into his voice and hardened his eyes as he continued. “ Everything is too hard. Figuring out how to save this damn world again . Eating. Dressing myself. Using my magic. I can’t—I just need something to be easy.”
Swallowing past a sudden uncomfortable lump in his throat, Dorian took the brush and the scissors and gestured helplessly with them. “Do you have any idea what you’d like me to do?”
“As long as it’s short, I don’t really care.”
It was on the tip of Dorian’s tongue to make a harmless joke about shaving his head, but at the last second, he realized that that might bring up a whole host of other bad memories and kept his mouth shut. Damn Solas, anyway. That miserable bastard has ruined everything.
“All right, well…” Looking around the room, Dorian spied a cushioned stool tucked under the gilded, ostentatious dressing table and went over to fetch it. “It’s a hideous thing, I know. Orlesians couldn’t choose a tasteful pattern if their lives depended on it. But here, sit down.”
He kicked a plush rug out of the way and set the stool down on the tile. It really was hideous. Golden legs, bedecked with filigree that was presumably meant to be roses or wings or perhaps winged roses, and a horribly busy pattern on the cushion’s fabric full of purple, gold, white, blue, and puce.
Although Mahanon’s opinion of Orlesians wasn’t any higher than Dorian’s, he evidently didn’t share his visceral disgust at the eyesore masquerading as bedroom-appropriate furniture because he sat down without a second glance. Dorian turned his critical gaze to Mahanon’s hair, trying to envision a style that would compliment his features, possibly be considered stylish by the standards of the Free Marches Dalish, and wouldn’t look like it was done by someone with Tevinter sensibilities.
“If it’s all right with you, I’m going to cut the bulk of this off and then brush it out,” Dorian said. “Avoid having to brush out the worst of the tangles.”
“Go ahead,” Mahanon replied, without hesitation. “I trust you.”
I’m glad one of us does because I certainly don’t. Taking a deep breath, Dorian sectioned off a hunk, set the scissors, and cut.
The last two years had been quite eventful, though they’d also been rather frustrating and disappointingly depressing as well. A few weeks after he’d finally returned to Tevinter, Dorian had received a letter from Mahanon that had done nothing to ease his mind or his heart. There had been no word from or sign of Cullen anywhere. Mahanon had sent Rylen to the Frostback Basin to check in with Red Lion Hold, but Cullen hadn’t been there and none of his clanspeople had heard from him since he and Dorian had left. Leliana had even sent some of her scouts out to search for him, figuring that a normal Avvar would be relatively memorable if spotted by anyone and Cullen especially, given the way that he was in general and the animals with whom he was presumably traveling. But even her most wily spies had been unable to locate even a rumor of him.
It was, the Inquisitor had written ominously, as if he’d simply disappeared from the face of Thedas. He had, however, vowed that the Inquisition would keep looking until he was found.
Despite having neither the resources nor the freedom of the Inquisition, Dorian too had done a bit of surreptitious searching of his own. He’d had to work it in while reacquainting himself with his homeland after his time away and helping Maevaris set in motion their plan to enact some positive change in Tevinter, but he’d had a few favors he was able to call in and a magical trick or two up his sleeve. Unfortunately, he’d been no more successful than the Inquisitor.
Magic had not been able to help him. An expensive investigator he’d hired had turned up nothing. The benevolent spirits he’d reached out to in the Fade had been unable to tell him anything. And, in a moment of desperation, he’d even queried a Desire demon, but that had ended rather bizarrely, with the demon refusing to so much as pretend to help and seeming strangely sympathetic about the entire business.
Eventually, after a few months of hard work, mounting frustration, a deepening depression, and precious little in the way of progress, Dorian had taken his leave of Tevinter and returned to the Inquisition. A tiny, irrepressible part of him had hoped that when he crossed the bridge into the courtyard, Cullen would be there to greet him, but while all of his other friends—dearly missed or otherwise—were waiting to welcome him back home, his husband was conspicuously absent.
For better or worse, there’d been little time to dwell on it. Surviving Corypheus’ machinations hadn’t taught Thedas how to avoid falling into chaos and catastrophe at the slightest provocation. It had seemed like he hadn’t been back longer than a week before the Inquisitor had received a missive from Orzammar regarding a mining disaster on the Storm Coast. There had been an earthquake that had not only trapped some of the miners but had also unleashed a flood of darkspawn and could the Inquisition send some people to help rescue the miners and kill the darkspawn. Never one to turn down a request for help, no matter how inconveniently timed or how little he wanted to get involved, the Inquisitor had marshaled a force of soldiers, engineers, and a traveling party of his own.
Felix, of course, had volunteered to join the engineers, but Dorian had forbidden it. Carver too had been opposed to his joining the venture, inadvertently kindling the tiniest bit of positive regard in the darkest reaches of Dorian’s heart.
“But I can help,” Felix had argued, glaring at both of them in a way that Dorian had recognized as a precursor to doing whatever he damn well pleased regardless of how they felt about it.
And Dorian would have conceded that it was his friend’s life to do with as he chose, but something about escorting Felix into a place overrun with darkspawn seemed too much like tempting fate. Especially since they were woefully short on helpful, Avvar-aligned spirits who might be willing to drive off the Blight should Felix contract it again.
“No, Felix,” Dorian had insisted, making himself ignore Carver’s presence in order to deploy the most devastating weapon in his conversational arsenal. “Perhaps it’s selfish of me, but I don’t care. I came far too close to losing you once. I won’t stand idly by while you deliver yourself to the darkspawn so they can finish what they started years ago. It’s more than I can bear.”
Whether it was the genuine emotion or the fact that Dorian had been willing to be vulnerable in front of a man he didn’t particularly like, Felix had at last been swayed. He’d agreed not to go and in a rare moment of accord, Carver had promised Dorian he’d keep an eye on him when the party set forth so that he couldn’t have a change of heart and sneak off. Dorian had been planning on doing the same thing, only for the Inquisitor to disrupt that plan by bullying him into joining the mission. Felix had been less than impressed when he’d heard the news, but Dorian had calmly pointed out that of the two of them, he was the only one who’d never contracted the Blight.
Not that Dorian had wanted to go. Far from it. There was nothing remotely interesting about dwarves, the Deep Roads, miners, or darkspawn. But saying no to the Inquisitor had always been difficult and the alternative to joining him was to stay at Skyhold and contend with the ghost of what had been and was now lost. Darkspawn, Dorian had grudgingly decided, were more appealing than sitting around moping and drinking himself into a stupor.
At first, it had been as miserable as he’d assumed it would be. But dwarves and darkspawn and dilapidated thaigs had turned into mysteries and Titans and with his insatiable appetite for knowledge and magic, Dorian hadn’t been able to pretend that he wasn’t enjoying himself just a little .
It had, however, been an extraordinarily strange experience. There had been magic using dwarves, completely unheard of and supposedly impossible until he’d seen it with his own eyes. Riddles hinting at lost knowledge so profound it had the potential to change life on Thedas as everyone knew it. An awe-inspiring raw lyrium mine. What appeared to be a self-sustained world, full of flora and fauna, sky and actual sunlight deep in the bowels of the earth. A creature so old it had fallen out of legend and was only a whispered rumor among the dwarves.
The strangest, and perhaps most ominous, part of the journey had been an exchange that had occurred during an equally strange, though wholly ridiculous, encounter between the Inquisitor and a nug that had found what appeared to be an old, abandoned dwarven throne and evidently possessed aspirations of royalty.
Dorian had been standing near the back of the cave, surreptitiously eyeing the crowd of nugs that had gathered around to witness the incomprehensible meeting. Mahanon had been speaking as if the nug understood Trade and the nug had been chittering back at him like either of them understood the other. There had been a flicker of movement at the corner of his eye, heralding the silent arrival of Cole. Oh, for Andraste’s sake, Dorian had thought irritably. Leave it alone.
Maybe he’d heard his thoughts and had decided to have mercy on him for a change, because instead of mentioning Cullen again , he had asked nonchalantly, “Do you believe in gods, Dorian?”
Which, to be quite fair, hadn’t been that much better. Dorian would have preferred to avoid the topic altogether, reminded as he was every time he heard any variation of the word of the Avvar and their preoccupation with such things.
“Which gods?” He had tried to keep his voice light and careless, and he’d thought he’d even succeeded there at the beginning, but it had darkened somewhat as he’d continued. “There are a bloody lot of them these days.”
“Statues,” Cole had responded, as if that made any damn sense. Dorian had done his best to ignore the impulse to make comparisons between him and another frustratingly vague conversationalist he’d once known. “Everywhere statues, perfection in the ruin. All the same, except different.”
Grudgingly, Dorian had allowed himself a moment to give it some thought and once he had, he had been able to possibly coax a tiny bit of meaning out of it. “The Old Gods, do you mean?” He had shaken his head. “They weren’t gods, Cole. They were dragons. My people merely thought they were gods. So, no, I don’t.”
Cole had stared at him from beneath the brim of that decrepit hat for a disturbingly long time. Finally, just a bit chidingly, he’d said, “They believe in you.”
The impromptu audience with the nug had come to an end before Dorian could press him further on his discontent-inducing comment and then they’d been beset by more angry Sha-Brytol. One thing had followed another and by the time they’d put the Titan, the thaig, and the mine far behind them, Dorian had forgotten all about it.
Right up until he’d returned yet again to Tevinter and, walking along a broad avenue in Minrathous, had happened to glance up and spy some particularly well-kept dragon statues. Cole’s words had come back to him then and had left him thoroughly unsettled for entirely too long. Not only had the sentiment been disturbing on its own—the concept of anyone believing in him was a largely alien one, save of course for Felix, the eternal exception; all it did was open up endless avenues for disappointment—but Dorian had the discomforting sense that there was something very obvious he was thoroughly missing. What it could possibly be, he hadn’t the foggiest idea. But the suspicion had lingered in the back of his mind, itching at the most inconvenient of moments.
As for transforming his homeland from a corrupt shadow of its former glory into something worthy of being an empire in the first place, it was very much a work in progress. Perhaps it always would be. He’d been heartened to discover that he and Maevaris weren’t the only people interested in reforming Tevinter. A dozen of the younger magisters, terribly passionate yet terrible at navigating politics, had joined the Lucerni and word on the street was that there were plenty of soporati that supported them as well. Even a few laetans and an altus or two, if the rumors were to be believed. It wasn’t nearly enough to begin the reformation, but it was a start. A few years ago, even that would have been outside the realm of possibility.
Dorian had had every intention of remaining in Tevinter for the foreseeable future. The Inquisitor hadn’t called on him for aid and although the search had never ended, there had still been no sign of Cullen. But the Inquisition had run afoul of Orlais and Ferelden’s increasing paranoia about its power and influence and Divine Victoria had had to call an Exalted Council to quell the discontent. And Dorian, quite unexpectedly, had found himself unceremoniously appointed Tevinter’s ambassador to the proceedings and sent to Orlais straightaway. No stranger to his father’s meddling, Dorian had detected Halward’s hand in it immediately, though there hadn’t been anything he could do except pack his bags and go.
Thank the Maker he hadn’t put up a fuss. If he had, he might not have been there to help the Inquisitor navigate the eluvians, fight the invading Qunari, uncover the lost history of the elves, and stop the Viddasala from unleashing Dragon’s Breath on Halamshiral and the rest of Thedas. Even more importantly, acquiescing to his father’s idiotic nonsense meant that he’d been there to help his grievously injured friend back to the Winter Palace after his heartbreaking reunion with the bald bastard formerly known as Solas and apparently actually known as Fen’Harel.
The Anchor might have been killing him, but Dorian hadn’t been able to convince himself that the Inquisitor had truly been saved by its removal. Corpses reanimated by Dorian’s magic had more life to them than Mahanon seemed to possess. There’d been a hollowness to his eyes when they’d gotten him back to his quarters that had nothing to do with the loss of his arm. Though that in itself had been an undeniably terrible blow. And then there’d been the dissolution of the Inquisition itself.
Dorian hadn’t been present in the Council chambers, but he’d heard how Mahanon had practically thrown Divine Justinia’s writ at the Council, told them he’d save the world on his own again, and stalked out, effectively bringing the Inquisition to an end.
It had been an exit worthy of a man who’d saved the world from an ancient darkspawn magister, closed a hole in the sky, and thwarted a Qunari invasion. Unfortunately, the drama of the whole thing had been somewhat dampened by the fact that he couldn’t simply leave Halamshiral that same day. None of them had that ability.
There were provisions to gather, travel arrangements to be made, and in the case of the Inquisition soldiers, marching orders to be doled out. Dissolving the Inquisition wasn’t something that could be done in a day. Too many people had too many possessions in Skyhold that they needed to retrieve and they all had to figure out what they were going to be doing with the rest of their lives. Some had families to go back to, but plenty did not and would have to start anew.
Which had meant a few more days at the Winter Palace whether anyone liked it or not. Dorian had been firmly in the not category, though the delay had given him an opportunity to spend more time with Mahanon and offer what aid—and comfort—he could.
“Well,” Dorian asked, stepping back and looking over his handiwork. “What do you think? And be honest. My ego can take it.”
Getting up from the stool, Mahanon went over to the mirror to examine himself. Dorian watched him warily, waiting for the verdict, and the longer the silence dragged on, the more certain he became that his friend hated it. Too late now , he told himself. It’ll just have to grow out.
In his opinion, Mahanon looked quite attractive with short hair. And not just because he’d been the one to cut it. The back and sides were uniformly short, not cut close to the skin like his own but only a couple inches in length. Long enough for Mahanon to run his fingers through, but short enough that it wouldn’t be necessary for him to comb it. The top was just slightly longer and likely would benefit from a comb if he wanted to style it in any way. All in all, easy to maintain, yet not so easy that it couldn’t be modified to look more dashing or elegant if circumstances, whim, or desire took him.
But that was human sensibilities talking. Tevinter human sensibilities, which were rather unique. For all Dorian knew, the Dalish attributed meaning to hair styles and lengths and how many braids or ornaments were woven into it.
He resisted the urge to sigh impatiently. Harder to do was hold his tongue against asking. He’d never been very good at that. Finally, just when he thought he might have to break his silence after all, Mahanon put him out of his misery.
“My hair hasn’t been this short since I was a boy,” he remarked, though his voice was neutral and he was still looking at the mirror, preventing Dorian from gleaning any clue to his feelings from his expression. “I like it. It’ll do nicely.” Turning, he smiled. It was a small, fleeting thing, but after everything he’d just been through, it was enough that it was genuine. “Thank you, Dorian.”
Never one to turn down an opportunity to preen, Dorian grinned back at him. “Perhaps if this whole magister thing doesn’t work out, I can try my hand at barbering.”
He expected a witty rejoinder or a little gently teasing banter. What he got instead was Mahanon sobering entirely, until he looked grave, and a quiet, “How are you?”
Dorian looked at him blankly, initially nonplussed at the abrupt change of tone and then, as he caught on, hoping to avoid an awkward conversation by feigning confusion.
Instead of taking the opening Dorian was giving him to either drop it or alter the line of questioning into something a little more palatable, Mahanon waved his hand. “After everything. We didn’t really have much time to talk about it before the Council started.”
“After everything” was a polite way of saying “ after your father died and made you a magister” and Dorian knew it. Just like he knew Mahanon knew he knew it.
“I…” He didn’t want to talk about it. Given the chance, he’d quite happily not talk about it ever. But he also couldn’t help feeling like his problems, while important to him, weren’t nearly as important compared to someone who’d lost a lover, an arm, a home, an occupation, and the foundation upon which his life and beliefs had been built all practically at the same time. “Shouldn’t I be asking you that? You’ve just been through far worse than I.”
Mahanon put his hand on his hip and looked at him. “Dorian.”
Dorian met his eyes, mulishly refusing to answer. It didn’t matter. Because it did matter a great deal and there wasn’t anything he, Mahanon, or anyone else could do about it. So he couldn’t see much use in discussing it and dredging up a whole slew of pointless emotions he’d have to suffer with until he managed to beat them back and compartmentalize them again.
Unfortunately, he was dealing with someone who knew him. Actually knew him. And once he put his mind to something, Mahanon was extraordinarily difficult to deter. “Let me worry about someone other than myself for once.”
“For once ?” Dorian scoffed, seizing on the tangent and running with it. “All you’ve done since I’ve known you is worry about every one else. Friends. Acquaintances. Total strangers. Enemies.”
He shrugged his right shoulder in a casual dismissal of that appeal to logic. “Then you ought to take advantage of my expertise while you can, hm?”
Maker take nosy, well-meaning elves. He wasn’t going to let it go. Dorian knew that he could either make him work for it or get it over with as quickly as possible. And really, faced with those choices, there wasn’t really a choice at all.
“Oh, very well,” he capitulated with a sigh. “If you must know, right now it…” How to word something out loud that he didn’t even want to think about in the privacy of his own mind? “It doesn’t seem quite real. More like a morbid joke than reality. I imagine it won’t truly seem real until I get home.”
Mahanon accepted that answer with an understanding nod. “If there’s anything I can do…”
Dorian raised his eyebrows, eager to put maudlin, uncomfortable topics aside for something lighter and more amusing. “Would you like to come stay with me in Minrathous? You can help me terrorize the magisterium and I can help you look for some way to stop Solas from tearing down the Veil.”
Thankfully, mentioning the bald bastard didn’t cast a pall over the moment. “You don’t think that would cause too much of a scandal?” Mahanon asked lightly. “The great Magister Pavus bringing home a one-armed Dalish elf?”
Sniffing, Dorian waved the notion away. “Oh please. The scandal’s the best part.” Then, somewhat more seriously, he added, “Besides, they’d be so busy fawning over the dread Inquisitor, hoping for a sliver of your regard or an invitation into your inner circle of confidants, that they wouldn’t even notice your ears.”
“The former dread Inquisitor,” Mahanon corrected him mildly.
It was Dorian’s turn to level a serious look on him. “And how are you ?”
Unlike him, Mahanon didn’t have to waffle over an honest answer. “I thought I’d be more upset about it,” he said, taking a seat on the edge of the bed. The corner of his lips twisted ruefully. “Although maybe I’ve just reached my limit and grown too numb to feel much of anything.”
Dorian did his best to hide a grimace at that as he moved over to the chair—also ostentatious and garish, though not quite as hideous as the stool—nearest the bed and sat down. If that were true, it would be a damn shame. Despite having no reason to care, and in some cases plenty of reasons to do the opposite, Mahanon cared . Moreover, he acted on it, often at significant personal risk, in order to make things better. The world needed more people like Mahanon and it didn’t have nearly enough as it was. It couldn’t afford to lose him.
If that Maker-forsaken bastard has stolen what makes you who you are, I’ll send him to the Void myself. How was immaterial. Dorian was a brilliant mage and a learned scholar with the best education money could buy. He would find a way.
“It’s something Solas said to me out there,” Mahanon continued, almost as if he could read Dorian’s thoughts. “About his spies in the Inquisition tripping over the Qunari’s spies. Teagan was right. The Inquisition has gotten too big. Too easy to infiltrate. Too susceptible to corruption. I can’t focus on making plans to stop Solas if I’m too busy worrying about which of my people are actually his people. This way…” He paused, gaze going distant as he sought the words he wanted. “This way will be harder in some respects, but it will be easier too.”
As much as it pained him to see the Inquisition disbanded, Dorian had to admit that Mahanon had a point. Surely all the elves in Thedas wouldn’t side with Solas. Mahanon certainly hadn’t. But it would be impossible to know for sure who was firmly on the side of preventing Solas from tearing down the Veil and killing them all and who was only pretending.
And that was without having to also defend against Orlais and Ferelden. Because if the Inquisition continued as it was, Dorian knew the two countries would move against them. Perhaps independently. Perhaps jointly. Either way, that was too many threats. Especially when one took into account the Qunari spoiling for an invasion to the north and the darkspawn always ready to boil up from beneath their feet.
If they had any hope of stopping Solas, they had to focus on stopping Solas. Not spread themselves so thin putting out every fire that happened to start that they made themselves useless.
“You know,” Mahanon added, thoughtfully. “I haven’t been free to make decisions for myself in so long that I’ve forgotten what it feels like not to wonder how many people will die if I choose one thing over another. I won’t miss that. And I won’t miss everyone coming to me, expecting me to solve their problems like I have any more knowledge or wisdom than they do.”
“To be fair, you likely do have more knowledge than most,” Dorian pointed out. “What with drinking a magic well of ancient forgotten knowledge and all.”
Mahanon gave him a dirty look, though he apparently decided changing the subject was more constructive than responding to that because he said mildly, as if Dorian hadn’t made the comment, “I thought maybe I’d go to Kirkwall once I finalize things. Varric gave me a key to the city before everything went to shit. Apparently it operates the chains in the harbor. If nothing else works out, I suppose I could always give being the harbormaster a whirl.”
Dorian laughed, unable to suppress it. Mahanon, a harbormaster . And not just any harbormaster. The harbormaster of Kirkwall , which didn’t just have the ordinary problems of being a major city and the trade hub between the Free Marches and Ferelden, it was also a magnet for problems and catastrophes. It was the only city in Thedas that seemed to actively have a death wish. Running the Inquisition was probably less stressful than having any kind of power or authority in Kirkwall.
Of course, it would be easy to disappear in Kirkwall. To be just another elf. Just another traveler. Just another refugee or veteran of some war or other, and there were so many to choose from. Mahanon could be anyone there. More importantly, perhaps, he could be nobody.
"Kirkwall's not terribly far from Tevinter," Dorian said, throwing in a positive that was being left out. "I could visit! No more of this crossing the Waking Sea business every time I want to see you."
Mahanon nodded, giving him another one of those tiny fleeting smiles. "I'd like that. And if it doesn't work out and the invitation still stands…"
The comment had the tone of a tease, but Dorian answered it with utter sincerity. "The invitation will always stand." Then, deciding there had been entirely too much sentimentality in the conversation, he continued with bright, gleeful cheer, "And in ten years, if things haven't changed, we can get married and really cause a scandal."
It was meant to make Mahanon laugh, or at the very least smile. A light, silly comment that, were he talking to Felix, would spiral out into a ridiculous, over-the-top fantasy future that would give them a few minutes of amusement. But although Dorian was almost certain Mahanon knew what he was doing, his friend didn't stick to the script.
"I'll keep looking," he promised solemnly. "Even after everyone goes their separate ways. I still have contacts. Leliana will probably always have contacts."
More than he didn't want to talk about his father's death, Dorian did not want to talk about Cullen. And yet, there seemed to be no avoiding it. His absence hung over everything when Dorian was with anyone from the Inquisition, so heavy that it was practically another person in the room. They could avoid talking about him entirely, and somehow, that tacit agreement not to mention him still felt like having a lengthy discussion about him anyway.
"You don't need to do that." It started as an automatic response, but by the time Dorian finished the sentence, he realized that he meant it. "I appreciate everything you've already done. Truly. But…" He shook his head. "If he was going to come back, surely he would have done so by now. Or at least sent word to someone that he's still alive. Someone from his clan. A friend in the Inquisition. Either he can't or he wants nothing more to do with me and doesn't want word of his whereabouts to reach me."
"That doesn't sound like Cullen," Mahanon said softly.
"I know," Dorian murmured, frowning.
In those early days, he’d assumed that Cullen was just hurt and angry. Understandably so, of course, and he'd been prepared to apologize profusely when he returned to Skyhold. But as the days had turned into weeks and weeks had turned into months with no word, no return, not even a rumor about anyone having seen him, Dorian had begun to fear the worst. That nobody had seen or heard from Cullen because Cullen was dead. That he'd gone walking in the mountains around Skyhold to burn off some of his anger and something happened. An unexpected attack by bandits that had just happened to be in the right place at the right time or demons that had escaped from a rift and never been dispatched. An accident, like a fall down a ravine or an old dead tree branch finally breaking off and hitting him. Something wholly inane and random that had succeeded where enemy clans, darkspawn dragons and ancient magisters, nightmare demons, and every other Maker-damned thing that had tried to kill them over the years had failed. And he'd died there, a short distance from Skyhold, and no one knew. No one found him.
Maybe Mahanon thought the same thing, because his expression twisted into unhappy sympathy. "I'm sorry, Dorian."
"So am I," he returned quietly. Not just about Cullen. About Solas too. About what Mahanon had lost and what he'd never really had, given Solas' lies and manipulations. He flashed a tired smile. "Our taste in men is dreadful, isn't it?"
A low huff was the closest Mahanon had yet gotten to laughter since the Darvaarad. “I think I may have you beat there.”
Well, that was true. Dorian conceded the point with a tip of his head and a hum. Solas was a bastard through and through. Cullen was… It didn’t matter. The less time spent dwelling on that dead end, the better.
“Actually,” Mahanon said suddenly, straightening up slightly as his voice slipped a notch into something approaching sheepish. “There’s another favor I’d like to ask of you, if it isn’t too much trouble.”
Dorian’s eyebrows rose. About Solas? About Mahanon’s piss-poor taste in men? In either case, Dorian couldn’t imagine his counsel would be overly useful, as he’d never really gotten on terribly well with Solas and prior to his initial journey south, his romantic experience was better than Mahanon’s only by virtue of the fact that none of his past lovers had ever come close to destroying the world.
“You’re far more accomplished with magic than I am. You know more about it in general. If there are any tricks you know that might make casting easier for me now, would you share them with me?”
It would have been better if he’d asked for advice on picking out better romantic partners. It certainly would have made Dorian’s heart hurt a little less. He swallowed, telling himself that his throat felt tight because he hadn’t had a drink in hours. “Of course. Only, well, all of the hand waving and staff twirling most mages do doesn’t actually do anything but help them focus and channel the magic properly. You don’t need any of it to cast spells. Maybe the focusing crystal in the staff might be useful, but quite frankly, I can repurpose it into something more convenient to carry.”
In Tevinter, unless one happened to be a battlemage, a staff was typically only paraded out for special occasions and especially difficult spells. At least among the altus. The magically inept and lazy mages carted them around more often because they needed the magical crutch. And of course, there were the particularly stupid or insecure magisters that thought carrying a staff would demand respect they couldn't otherwise earn.
In the south, however, the Circles evidently taught their mages that magic couldn't be accessed or used properly without a staff. Which was an awfully convenient way to identify someone most people seemed either to be afraid of or want to control. It would have been nice to think that if he tried to trace the origin of such nonsense back to its source, Dorian would find a weak, hopelessly incompetent mage who didn't know any better. But he was certain that it was maliciously done to shackle mages more than they already had been in this dismal place.
"As for the staff," Dorian paused, biting on the inside of his lip as he considered the possibilities. "It's more than I could teach in a few days, but you can learn to wield it one-handed if you're inclined to use it as a weapon. And there are ways to make it lighter. Enchantments that can be set into it. Different materials that can be used in its construction. I could draw up a few schematics and rune configurations tonight if you'd like and you can give them Dagna, ask her to make it for you before she leaves Skyhold."
If she left Skyhold. Rooting her out of her workshop might prove to be an impossible task.
For the first time in days, Mahanon’s eyes lit up hopefully. “Really? Thank you . I feared that—”
A sudden burst of sound drowned out the rest of what he said. Almost as one, he and Dorian turned toward the room’s windows. The noise was coming from outside: a veritable chorus of loud, discordant horn blasts and ringing bells. An alarm.
Jumping to their feet, they hurried to the windows. Mahanon’s room looked out onto the main plaza. Down below, people were running. Those dressed in civilian clothes were running toward the palace. Those dressed in the uniforms of soldiers—Orlesian, Fereldan, and Inquisition—were running away from the palace, toward the terrace at the southwest edge of the courtyard. Many were readying weapons.
“Another Qunari attack?” Dorian asked, trying and failing to see what the problem was.
Mahanon shook his head helplessly, already turning from the window. “I don’t know. Let’s go. I can practice casting spells without my staff.”
Dorian, on the other hand, would have liked to have his staff. The blade on the end had just been sharpened. As a last resort for anything that got through his magic, it was extremely useful. But he hadn’t been carrying it and there wasn’t any time to go get it.
They left Mahanon’s room at a run, but their progress was quickly impeded by frantic people fleeing in the direction opposite of where they were trying to go. Dorian went first, pushing through them and clearing a path so that Mahanon could keep up without being jostled or knocked down. Voices were raised in fright, people shouting to one another or calling for friends and associates from whom they were separated. More than once, Dorian could make out declarations of “We’re doomed!” and “There’s nowhere to go!” and “They’re going to kill us all!” but none of that told him exactly what was going to kill them.
Outside, it was no better. Alarms were still going off the length and breadth of the grounds, louder now that the palace walls weren't dampening the sound. The plaza had had time to empty out; those seeking shelter had made it inside and those heading to meet the threat had mostly gotten to their destination. There were still a few people scurrying in different directions, but with more room to maneuver and considerably less obstacles than in the palace, Dorian and Mahanon had no difficulty reaching the terraces.
There, soldiers lined the edge, facing out toward the countryside, weapons in hand. There were no panicked shouts now. Just a low murmur that was impossible to make out over all the horns and bells.
“Inquisitor!” Carver emerged from a throng of Inquisition soldiers and hurried to their side, his face a worrying shade of white.
“What’s going on?” Mahanon asked, not bothering to correct him on the use of the title.
“It’s—” There was something in his eyes, some shade of shock and disbelief mixed with a deep, deep fear, that twisted Dorian’s stomach into knots. Whatever it was, it wasn’t good. “It’s—Dragons, Inquisitor.” He pointed to the sky. “Three of them.”
Dorian followed the direction of his finger. At first he saw nothing but sky and clouds. Then, as he scanned the sky, squinting, he saw dark smudges just beneath one of the clouds.
“I don’t understand,” Mahanon said, audibly confused. “Surely there are enough people here to turn away three dragons.”
Except that wasn’t normal, was it? Three dragons, flying together straight at the Winter Palace? A chill slid down Dorian’s spine. He was no expert, obviously, but he’d certainly fought enough of the things over the last couple years and there were quite a few dragon enthusiasts in Tevinter. One might encounter a dragon in the wild. One might even see one of the beasts flying over a populated area. But dragons were solitary creatures. They didn’t fly together in a flock like birds. And none of the dragons he’d seen in the wild flew in such straight, orderly formation. They swooped around, they dipped and dove and twisted as the air currents took them.
“They’re big. Bigger than high dragons. And they look different.” When both Dorian and Mahanon looked at him sharply, Carver added, nodding toward a nearby part of the terrace, “I got a look at them through the telescope over there. They aren’t high dragons, Inquisitor. I was at the Battle of Ostagar.”
Battle of Ostagar? It sounded familiar, but not being from the south, it took Dorian a moment to place it. Ferelden. The Fifth Blight. The chill slithering down his spine became an icy torrent.
“ Fasta vass ,” he swore under his breath, willing Carver not to say it.
But Carver continued, a haunted look in his eyes as he glanced toward the sky. “The only dragon I ever saw as big as what’s heading toward us right now was an Archdemon.”