An unlikely ally appears, and with his help, Raven deals with a variety of injuries, old and new.
Previous Chapter (To Dream of Dragons – Chapter 8: Leading a Horse to Water)
Zevran Arainai had never been particularly good at planning. Assassination, yes. Planning, no. So, while it was disappointing that he’d failed to fulfill his contract to kill the Grey Wardens, it was not terribly surprising.
The mage he’d hired had been frozen solid by a sultry witch, and a Qunari with a giant sword had shattered her into a million glittering pieces before the woman had even cast a spell. Clearly, he had overpaid her.
His archers had fared little better, looking as if they’d upended their quivers and fallen on the contents, courtesy of a lithe redhead and an adorable brunette firing bows. When he’d moved on them, two strapping lads with shields had lunged at him in a fury. As a final irony, the last member of their party had appeared behind Zevran, a dagger at his throat. Even their dog was laughing at him. It was, frankly, embarrassing.
The blond elf sighed waiting for the death he had more or less expected. His captor…one of the two Wardens, naturally…growled, “We need to have a little chat.”
‘Blast. So it is to be torture, then,’ he thought. ‘How tedious.’ Wearily eager to get the whole thing over with, he said, “Ah! So I’m to be interrogated. Let me save you some time.” And he told them everything.
A short time later, somewhat to his bemusement, he was settling into camp with the targets he’d failed to kill. It was not wholly without precedent; he’d charmed his way out of death before. But this time he’d left his employers to do so. The Antivan Crows all but ruled his homeland, and it was not because the assassin’s guild was forgiving; they would send someone after him eventually. But, here amid this group of elite warriors, he set that aside as a concern for another day.
Around him, his new allies were tending their injuries. Nearly all were minor, though the pretty girl with the spectacles had to have an arrow removed from her upper left arm. She made little more than a muffled whimper as the bad-tempered witch used a tiny frost spell to numb the area and cut out the arrow, but her pallor and trembling hands suggested she’d been more affected than she let on.
‘Poor girl,’ he thought. ‘I will offer to comfort her later. It’s the least I can do, after all.’
After a day or two on the road, they had begun to relax around him…or at least, to eye him with less hostility. Surprisingly, the injured scholar, Raven, was the most cordial among them. He knew it was inevitable she would be drawn in by his charisma and good looks, but he had expected it to take somewhat longer.
Zevran found himself in her tent soon enough…but only to tend her half-healed wound. Morrigan, the mage, had snapped that she’d already done her part, and everyone else was busy, so that left one idle elf to help out. The task was not without reward, however. The fascinating brunette reacted beautifully to his charm, giving playful replies, turning a delightful shade of pink, or sometimes both. It was quite entertaining.
“You know, ravens and crows are closely related. It must be a sign we are likewise fated to be entwined.”
“But you aren’t a Crow anymore. Alas, we can only wonder what our ‘entwined’ fate might have been.”
“I have many ideas about being entwined with you, my dear, but some are best delayed until your arm is fully healed,” he purred. “It would distress me greatly if our exertions caused you any harm.”
Raven’s laughter had a musical lilt, and her faint blush deepened the blue of her eyes in contrast. The elf smirked lazily. All in all, he could think of far worse ways to spend his time.
“Exertions? Whatever do you mean? Are we planning to participate in some sort of tournament now?”
“Hmm, that is intriguing, but I believe these repressed Fereldans would be too scandalized to appreciate our performance as an exhibition sport. If you wish to train just in case, however, I would be delighted to assist.”
She grinned, giggling. “If I were studying innuendo, you’d be the trainer to call, I admit. It’s almost a shame you’re wasting such impressive talent on me.”
Amusement filled the elf’s hazel eyes. “I have many impressive talents I would be happy to use upon you; you have but to ask. And I am alone in a tent having a stimulating conversation with a lovely woman. How could that ever be a waste?”
“Oh, good grief,” she laughed, rolling her eyes. “All I meant was that I know I’m not anyone’s first choice to waste his best lines on. It’s fine; I was just making a joke.” She gave a self-deprecating smile.
Zevran frowned briefly. There were many things flitting unspoken beneath her words and, having little else to do, he decided to ferret them out. “Hmm…you may be right. I have never worried overmuch about the perils of bedding nobility, but since I do not wish any of our brawnier associates to crush my skull while I sleep…”
Raven snorted in exasperation. “Not that again; I’m not even…ugh, you’re just being obtuse on purpose now.” With a glance of mild reproach, she started to rise.
The assassin caught her wrist, his free hand sliding up the arm still bared from tending her injury. Her skin was shockingly soft, he noted absently, as he met her surprised gaze. “I beg you to accept my apologies if I have offended, my dear. If I am misunderstanding something, perhaps you could explain?”
Her eyes narrowed. “You can’t be serious.”
“Indeed I can. It is a skill I rarely use, I admit, but I do possess the capability.”
“Ugh. You want it spelled out? Fine.” The music of her voice had fallen into a minor key that ached like an old bruise. “The reason I know you wouldn’t choose me to flirt with is that no one does. I’m not…tall, thin, and beautiful like Morrigan or Leliana. I’m a four-eyed bookworm who’s too short, too heavy, too…everything that no one wants.” Her eyes were fixed upon empty space, and she gave a short bark of something that wasn’t laughter. “I mean, the last person I loved cared so little for me that he couldn’t be bothered to dump me in person.” Angry that she’d said more than intended, she shook her head and tossed him a bitter glance. “So there that is. Clear enough now?”
“No,” he said simply.
Before her shocked glare led to words, he continued. “It is not clear why you have this misguided view of yourself. Nor why you think height and slimness are necessary components of beauty, as if stretching a starving peasant on a rack would produce a goddess.” She blinked, her mouth slightly agape, and he held her in his gaze. “There are as many exquisite women in the world as there are flowers in a meadow, little bird, and the delicate elegance of a lily does not diminish the lush sensuality of a rose. You are lovely, darling Raven. And trust me when I say that any man who fails to see that when it is before him is, quite simply, a fool.”
Raven hadn’t cried when the arrow was pulled from her arm, but at those words, a few silent tears slid down her cheeks. Zevran caught one as it skated over her satin skin. “Now now,” he said, the brazen glint returning to his eye, “when I planned to make you cry out for me, this was not at all what I had in mind.”
After a shaky laugh, she managed a bold reply. “We’ll have to work on that, then. I may need practice to get it perfect, though. I’ve always been an overachiever.”
Nearly a week later, they reached Kinloch Hold. The two Grey Wardens set out the next morning, sailing across the lake toward the Circle Tower, accompanied by the lively bard and the scholar’s handsome brother.
As they headed off, Raven urged them to take care, while Morrigan complained about being left behind. The lead Warden laughed. “Yes, of course,” Aedan said. “I should definitely take a scholar, an assassin, an apostate, and a Qunari to a tower full of nervous Templars. Whatever was I thinking?”
The scholar’s brother Rob grinned. “Change that last part to ‘walked into a bar,’ and you’d have the start of a great joke.” Alistair, the other Warden, snickered.
The prickly mage retreated in a huff into her tent on the edge of camp. The others left, followed by the merchant and his son who were visiting a friend near the docks, and the Qunari, who went to examine a place some of his former comrades had fallen in battle. It seemed rather morbid to Zevran, but as it left him alone with Raven, he was not inclined to object.
After that first conversation, Zevran had made it his mission to shower her with admiration. Appreciating beauty was his hobby, and endless walking was otherwise extremely dull. But keeping his sole focus on the lovely scholar also gave him the pleasure of combatting the wrongs other men had done to her. It was his responsibility as an Antivan, really.
The fact that it had made the bard glow with approval and the witch grumble with jealousy had only added to his amusement. And thus far, though both Rob and Alistair had bristled at some of his racier compliments, neither had hit him with anything other than the occasional glare. It had been a good week.
“So, my darling Raven, we are alone at last.” His eyebrow rose suggestively. “Shall I assist with your recovering injury as an excuse to remove your clothing, or shall we just skip the pretense?”
“What, with no sensual massage or naughty Antivan love poetry? How barbaric! Clearly you’ve been among the Fereldans too long, Zevran.” Her eyes laughed a challenge as he sat beside her near the fire pit.
“Oh, cruel woman, you cut me to the quick!” She leaned back against his chest, giggling. It was pleasant to see her growing more relaxed, losing the wounded look from behind her eyes. “Even so, I must admit you have a radiant smile,” he said, stroking her cheek.
She pretended to ponder. “Hmm…I’m not sure that counts as poetry, even with your charming accent.”
“Such a critic! How about, ‘I would willingly dive into your exquisite sapphire eyes, if I could emerge to rest upon the silken warmth of your alabaster skin.’” His breath skated over her ear with each word.
“Definitely better,” she breathed with a shiver.
“Marvelous; I trust that will be the first of many ways I please you today.” His purring voice dropped lower; Raven rolled her eyes at his roguish confidence, but moved to lay her head and shoulders in his lap.
“I suppose we’ll see, won’t we?” Her wicked smile required attention, so he ran his thumb over her lips…and was delighted when she gave a teasing nibble. He almost hated to delay things with conversation, but it was always best to be clear in these matters. And really, they had time.
“Tell me, my dear…if I may ask…other than the fool you mentioned, have others stoked your passion? Do you find pleasure to be a light-hearted pursuit, or something to be treated only with serious devotion?”
She looked up at him, amused. “Don’t worry, Zevran. I’m not some nervous innocent about to declare my undying love.” She chuckled wryly. “To be honest, I never saw myself that way even when I was one. So many friends had paired off while I stayed alone, that eventually virginity felt less like a cherished treasure, and more like a depressing burden.” She blinked. “And I don’t know why I keep telling you things like that. I guess since you spent all week talking about my bosom, I’ve lost the ability to feel self-conscious.”
“What can I say? It is a very fine bosom, and merits frequent and ardent admiration.”
She rolled her eyes again, but the corner of her mouth quirked upward. “I can’t say my bosom minds being admired, so I won’t complain. But yes, to finish answering your question, I eventually found someone to fling myself at. When he quickly lost interest, I was sure it was because I was…bad at it. So, I started to study techniques and…why are you laughing at me?”
“I feel certain you are the first woman I have met who approached the art of lovemaking as a research project,” he chuckled. “I find it somehow fitting, however. It adds to your charm.”
“Yes, well.” Pink had flooded her cheeks again at his words. “It was less embarrassing than asking someone. But then I found…well, several people…to, ah, practice with.” She looked pensive. “And it was fun. But after a while it just felt empty. I want to view sex as more than recreation; that’s what I thought I was doing with my ex. But right this moment, that’s not what I need.”
Her eyes were serious upon his. “I wasn’t great at thinking anyone would want me in the first place…so my last relationship pretty much broke me. Right now, I just want to feel…wanted? To feel…anything, really, so I can put all that behind me.”
A wry grin spilled across her face. “And when it comes to the perfect man for a rebound, I just know you’re one of the best possibilities this world has to offer.”
Zevran lazily smiled down at her, lost in thought as he traced the heart-shaped outline of her face. Born in a whorehouse, sold at auction, trained in killing…nothing in his experience had given him reason to see sex as more than a physical act. It had been different for a time, with Rinna…but much like Raven’s ex-lover, Zevran had thrown away the best thing he’d ever had. He had no illusions about who he was…but despite his profession, he’d never thought himself stupid or cruel. Then he’d been both, to the one who deserved it least.
Here, with the sable-haired woman whose yielding warmth filled his lap, he knew it was not love. But Raven needed to feel desired…and after Rinna, Zevran needed to find some speck of worth in his soul, some hint of the man he’d believed himself to be. Perhaps, in helping each other, they would help themselves.
They migrated into her tent out of the chill Fereldan wind, and slowly, he met her lips at last.
She was tense, he noticed…not reluctant, but perhaps nervous? “Are you comfortable, sweet Raven?” he purred against her neck, settling himself behind her. She shivered. He pressed his lips lightly to the skin just below her hairline to confirm her reaction, and her head tilted dizzily in response. ‘Oh, the little bird has a sensitive spot,’ he thought with amusement.
He paused. “You didn’t answer the question, my dear.”
“I…um…” He watched the color creep over her profile. “Ah, what was the question, again?”
“I asked if you were comfortable,” he chuckled smugly.
She laughed. “It would seem so, wouldn’t it?”
“Mmm,” he agreed. “I think I would like to release your lovely hair from its bindings, if you will permit me…?”
“My hair? Oh, sure, go ahead, if you want. My ex complained it was always in the way.”
“Yes, well, we have already established the man had all the wisdom of a novice pickpocket targeting a Crow grandmaster, so his opinion is hardly valid.”
“True,” she giggled, then sighed. “In fairness, I should say he wasn’t a terrible person. He just…didn’t love me. And he sucked at communicating that.”
The elf deftly unpinned her hair from its neat twist. “I see. And is the man here, perchance?”
“What? I mean, no, obviously, but…why do you ask?”
“If he is not here, I see no reason to be concerned that I might insult his delicate feelings, and every reason to accept the evidence before me that he was an idiot.”
Raven’s surprised laugh turned into a soft noise of bliss as he raked his fingers through her newly-freed curls. Her hair was a rich, earthy brown, surprisingly silken around his fingers. Unbound, it flowed nearly to her waist. “Your hair is so beautiful,” he breathed, massaging her scalp with strong fingers.
She turned to look at him, and his genuine wonder must have shown on his face, because she ducked her head bashfully, a small and delicate smile lighting her face. It made him pleased to have put it there, and sad that she seemed so unused to such admiration.
He rubbed his face against her hair like a cat, inhaling its scent: rain and a hint of lilac, layered with the smoky traces of last night’s campfire. Every part of her he’d touched so far was velvet softness.
He wanted more.
Afterward, as they rested with her head upon his shoulder, he smiled. “Feeling better now, little bird?”
“Actually, yes. Probably more from the conversation than the activity, but that definitely didn’t hurt.”
“Good,” he said in lazy satisfaction. And then he grinned. “You realize, of course, that Morrigan definitely had to overhear our…hm, conversation.”
She blushed, but feigned indifference. “So?”
Zevran couldn’t resist. “It seems unlikely, given their dislike for each other, but I hope she doesn’t give the wrong impression to young Alistair…now that you may be ready to admit how smitten you are.”
Raven glared at him. “Ugh, not you too?!?” she growled, and pulled a blanket over her head.
Next Chapter (To Dream of Dragons – Chapter 10: The Better Part of Valor)