Maker’s Breath, did he really? He had removed the incense from his office hours ago! Perhaps the introspection was unneeded — he could smell it too.
“Forgive me. Is it overpowering?”
“Not at all, First Enchanter.” Hawke’s smile matched her tone as she peered between the spines of two worn tomes on his bookshelf. An impressive collection, and doubtlessly read to completion unlike her own. “You’re forgiven,” she said, straightening. “Unless there’s a spice cake hiding in here somewhere that you’re not telling me about.”
“Well, Isabela would have a remark or two hundred about this,” I mutter as I push open the door to the brothel. The scent of incense, perfumed oil and honeyed wine wash over me, overpowering the wet-leather smell of my armour. It rains far too much on the eastern coast for my liking.
The Madame, her flame-red curls piled high in an array painted combs, glides over to me with a smile that doesn’t strike me as a smile at all. Or maybe I’ve just gotten paranoid these last years. Being betrayed and hunted at every turn will do that to a person.
I hear myself agree to the fee – a pittance – bobbing my head as she leads me across a worn red carpet while asking my preferences. I chew the inside of my cheek, embarrassed that I have no answers; doubly so when she reads my silence like a book.
“Let’s start simple. Male?” A pause and a quirk of a pencilled-in brow. Her gaze roams to my short hair. “Female?”
I feel the blood rush to my cheeks. “Male!”
She smiles again and takes me further down the hall while a thought lodges in my mind: less foreign than I’d like to admit. I swallow the tightness in my throat and make my lips move. Sounding assertive when I’m terrified is one of my special talents. “A blonde.”
“Ooh, I’ve got just the one,” she assures me in the same tone I’ve heard the woman at the hat shop back in Kirkwall use. Why do these women always ‘ooh’ at everything?
We come to a stop outside a deep violet curtain and I find myself obscurely wishing Aveline was here. She’s the only one who might understand how the years can slip by while you’re taking care of everything but yourself. That and I’m probably in need of a stern talking to by someone besides me.
The curtain ripples shut behind me and I find myself in the presence of an elf with perfectly tousled blonde hair, which is splendid and not at all triggering.
“Greetings,” the flashing warmth of his smile is practiced, no doubt honed to captivate scores of women (and men, let’s be realistic here, Hawke) of all tastes. I don’t find myself captivated, however, I find myself wanting to sprint back to the tavern down the road to the half-drained bottle of whiskey I was much more comfortable getting intimate with; nice pectorals not withstanding. Maker, I can’t even remember the last time I saw a man shirtless unless you count Varric and his superfluous necklines.
“Hello,” I answer, starting to wave then deciding the gesture is too formal and running my fingers nervously through my hair instead. I need a haircut, but I don’t let anyone but Bethany near my hair with a blade and I have absolutely no idea where she is.
“How about a drink, honey?” The elf lifts his smooth chin at a decanter on a gilded tray. I don’t like the way he calls me honey, but I have a drink anyway because holding the glass gives my restless hands something to do.
He moves behind me, close, breath warm in my ear. Men leaning over my shoulder like this are usually gargling as I run them through not asking if I’d ‘like to get more comfortable’. I jokingly reply that I’m a long way from comfortable, then start with my gauntlets.
He keeps his eyes carefully trained on mine as he, too, begins to disrobe. Slowly. Matching my pace even in this preliminary phase. He’s considerate, I’ll give him that. Then again, I guess he’d have to be.
My undershirt puddles at my feet and I hear my companion suck a breath in through his teeth. I cover the jagged line on my abdomen immediately, flushing. “Sorry, it’s an old scar,” I say, knowing full well there are older ones, and newer ones, spanning from the welt on my right knee to the purpling under my left eye that remain on display. “Perhaps if you dimmed the–”
“No.” The elf interrupts me, running the backs of his knuckles down the pale skin of my arm. “It’s just that you’re so beautiful.”
“I bet you say that to all the banged up girls.”
His laugh is blowing petals in Bloomingtide and I relax an iota at the sound. I like making people laugh. Maybe I should have told the Madame that.
“I mean it.” His gaze takes on a sudden directness as he touches my collarbone. My attention snaps to the finite point of contact and I have to remind myself to exhale.
I let go of my stomach. “There isn’t anything here that might…put someone off?"
"Not unless they’re dead from the neck down,” he admonishes, and I notice of the fabric of his smalls rise and for a moment I let myself believe it’s because of me – not just for my benefit.
“What about stubborn from the neck up?” I suggest, every nerve ending in my body focused on the fingertip skirting my décolletage.
“People sometimes do more for their stubbornness than they do for other people.”
Now it’s my turn to laugh, the sound harsh from lack of use. He looks up from his preoccupation with my bosom to the scar on my nose. “But you aren’t like that are you?” he whispers and I hear a familiar note of caution in his tone, the one people use when they aren’t sure they want me to know they know who I am. “You’re a giver.”
“Oh, is that what they call gullible people in Antiva?”
“It’s what we call someone who deserves more than they think they do.”
My breath hitches as he bends to lap at my neck. No one has kissed me since Fenris, no matter how many nights I left my light on and my door unlocked.
The tip of his tongue in the shell of my ear coaxes forth a moan and I realize for the first time since leaving the bar that I actually might go through with this. Which means I owe myself a sovereign. I miss having other people to bet with, cheaters and all.
“Can I tell you something, sweetheart?”
“Only if you promise to stop calling me that.”
“Then what should I call you?”
This close to the edge I’m feeling reckless. “Marian,” I turn my head so that my lips brush his, tasting wine, tasting what I can’t keep, not caring, too curious. drunk on my own exposure. “What should I call you?”
“Girthamen,” he chuckles, grazing my skin with his teeth. “Keeper of Secrets.”
Something inside me twists. “I think you mean Dirthamen,” I point out, torn between amusement at the wordplay and disappointment at being given a pseudonym. Suddenly, I’m the one who is most naked, even though his smalls are sheerer than mine. Suddenly, I’m playing guessing games in the Deep Roads again, then reading gravestones in the Anderfels, trying to correlate my findings. One man knows his name and won’t tell me. Another doesn’t wish to know himself and in that memory I am still undressed.
“I’m sorry,” I echo. “I can’t do this.”
Girthamen gives me space while collect my clothes, though his thin brows are high on his forehead. “I’ve never met a human who takes the elven pantheon so seriously.”
“It’s not that,” I assure him as I button my trousers, feeling like more of a prize idiot than when I walked in here. The Champion of Kirkwall, everyone, disconsolate spinster and chickenshit. “I…didn’t exactly think this through.”
In three strides I’m back in the doorway, dressed except for my helm which is tucked beneath my arm. I begin to push the curtain aside then stop and look back. He’s taken a seat on the bed, lounging on his many pillows with his glass freshly topped off. His perfect mouth curves. “You change your mind, you know where to find me."
"Can’t I just send a raven?” Not my best joke. A few seconds pass. “What were you going to tell me?”
“Something to keep you from forgetting me,” he promises around a swallow of wine, leaning forward so that the candlelight catches the glint in eyes caught partway between green and brown.
“No need,” I turn with a shake of my head. “I never forget a thing.”