On Books and Reading

Chapter 1

When neither Shadowheart’s magic nor three cups of coffee and an extra portion of gruel render Tav capable of gripping his staff convincingly, he’s summarily voted out of the away party. He watches them prepare to head out west towards the abandoned village, absently feeling the fresh puncture wounds on his neck. As he and Astarion are the only ones with the skills to pry open locks, disarm traps, and spot hidden things, Astarion is obliged to go, and he’s none too happy about it, although the others accepted the revelation of his… affliction… with far more grace than Tav had dared hope. With his expressive brow flattened in resignation and his chin held high, Astarion allows none of his anxiety to show. But Tav senses it nonetheless. Perhaps the others do too, thanks to the worms. Or perhaps he’s projecting his own worry. If things turn south, and he’s not there to make sure no undue harm comes to Astarion… will the others play fair? Or will they push him to take risks in their stead, seeing him as less important because he’s less… alive?

Tav shakes off the grim thoughts, forcing himself to focus on the positive instead. Astarion wasn’t lying last night. He looks more than refreshed—almost, reborn—much as the opposite is true for Tav, he suspects. There’s a new spring in Astarion’s step, a new breadth to his shoulders, and his face is radiant with a faint blush that would be the envy of any pale-skinned elven lady.

His beauty stirs Tav in a way few things can. A finely crafted piece of jewelry enchanted with a mysterious spell. An elegant tune you need to hear times and times again before you can hum it on your own. A painting you could stare at all day and remain unsure of its meaning. A heart-arresting poem in a language you don’t speak.

He laughs at himself, poking at the fire.

Astarion is trouble, Talice whispers, making Tav jump and drop the stick on an oily rag that promptly bursts aflame.

“Godsdamn it.” Rising to his feet abruptly starts the world spinning off-axis, but he manages to stomp the burning rag into the dirt before his boot catches fire too, swaying like a drunkard all the while. What was it that Grandmother recommended to ward off the dizzy spells? They were a daily occurrence in his youth, while his magic ran wild.

Squeeze your buttocks, Talice says, doing her too-perfect-for-comfort impersonation of the old hag’s impatient voice.

Tav squeezes. Blotches of reddish gray expand over his vision with every slow, heavy strike of his heart, pounding in his head like doom. But after a few breaths, it passes.

I’ll be all right. I must be. Or he might not come to me again.

Talice snorts. Let me guess: you’ll eat better. Study harder. Exercise, starting tomorrow! You’ll become the best version of yourself… for someone who doesn’t even pretend to want anything but exploit you.

“Not true,” he hisses, then claps a hand over his mouth.

Standing there wide-eyed, alone in the deserted camp, he realizes he might be going mad.

The away party returns at sunset, covered with blood and foul-smelling gore, and in a mood to match.

Lae’zel marches up to Tav and drops a burlap sack with something box-like in it at his feet. Her face bears the “speak, and I’ll have your tongue” expression, but for once, it doesn’t seem like it’s aimed at him. Gale gasps and Astarion moans as the sack hits the hard-packed dirt, narrowly missing the firepit.

Tav stares at them, uncomprehending. “What’s this?”

“A cursed tome,” Shadowheart says. She sounds exhausted. “If you’re wise, you’ll throw it in the river.”

“I beg to differ,” Gale says, raising a lecturing finger. “The only wise course of action here is to give the admittedly dangerous spell-book to the only person in present company who’s trained to deal with dangerous spell-books, and that’s—”

“Oh, no you don’t,” Astarion interjects. “The book belongs to me. Who discovered the secret passage? I did. Who disarmed the traps that would’ve burned you to crisps? I did. Who unlocked the gate of the vault? Congratulations! You guessed correctly. I did. Your only contribution was talking that ridiculous mirror into submission.”

“And killing the giant spider.”

“Oh, spare me. Your cute little spell finished it off, but only because it was already bristling with my arrows.”

“Silence!” Lae’zel glares at them. “I had enough of your bickering. You!” She turns to Tav. “You will arbitrate. And the two of you will abide by his decision,” she adds as both Gale and Astarion open their mouths to object, “or I’ll cleave the damn thing in two and you can each have a half!”

“Try it, gith,” Astarion hisses, “and you’ll feel my fangs.”

“If I so much as see your fangs, you will feel my sword, as itenters one of your apertures and comes out the other!”

“Nice to see everyone was getting along so well without me.” Tav picks up the mystery sack as an excuse to put himself between Lae’zel and Astarion. She might be joking, but he doesn’t know her well enough to be sure. “I wonder what else I missed, besides talking mirrors, giant spiders, and cursed spell-books?”

“Well.” Gale clears his throat. “We dispatched a number of goblins. The village was swarming with them.”

“And defeated three ogres,” Lae’zel says, raising her chin with pride.

“Four, if you count the one Astarion interrupted in the middle of coitus,” Shadowheart points out.

Tav raises his eyebrows.

“We also rescued a gnome the goblins had tied to the wing of a windmill,” Gale says.

“That was you, darling, not we,” Astarion says. “I wanted to pull the other lever, but I was outnumbered.”

Tav smiles at him, grateful to see him play along. While far from resolved, the tension has gone down a few notches.

“Dinner’s here,” Karlach yells just then, walking into the camp with a cluster of fish hanging from a chain in hand. Wyll follows a few steps behind carrying a small cask on his shoulder, looted from who knows where. Lae’zel and Shadowheart move to meet them, leaving Tav with Gale, Astarion, and the combined weight of their distrust.

“Go wash up and change,” he tells them. “Let me see what’s what. We’ll talk later.”

They exchange a look. Gale shrugs. “He can’t open it without the stone.”

“What stone?”

“It’s with Lae’zel,” Astarion says, spitting out the syllables like they were dipped in poison. “I no longer like her. And I like you even less,” he adds, pointing at Gale.

“I assure you the feeling is wholeheartedly reciprocated.”

Astarion looks at Tav, then, and he steels himself for being told off in a similar fashion, but Astarion just sets his jaw and walks away.

Not for long, however. The first whiffs of the fish roasting on the spit have only just reached Tav’s tent when Astarion appears at the entrance, a black shape against the darkening sky. It takes Tav a significant effort to pry his eyes from the locked tome balanced on his knees and look up. He doesn’t quite understand the nature of the danger oozing from the book in rivulets of malice tangible enough to cut in cubes, not the way Gale might, but he feels it well enough. The inexorable pull, the desire to hold, to posses, like the throes of new love, is part of that danger.

“If you came here to talk me into giving this to you, you’re out of luck,” he says.

Astarion freezes in mid motion. “You intend to keep it for yourself?”

“No. And before you ask, I don’t plan to give it to Gale either. We will share.”

“What do you mean, share?”

“It’s a book, not underwear.”

Astarion stares at him incredulously. “A book? It’s not just a book. Can’t you feel the power it holds? Even I can feel it, and you’re a sorcerer, for goodness’ sake.”

“Will you come in and sit down? This is no way to talk.”

For the longest time, Astarion remains motionless, like Tav’s tent might be the stage of an ambush. But at last he deflates and steps in, letting the flap fall behind him. “All right,” he says. A faint scent, of rosemary and brandy, spreads from his fresh clothes as he sits cross-legged at the feet of Tav’s bedroll. His hair is still damp from bathing in the river. Following Tav’s gaze, he runs a hand through it, coaxing the curls over his forehead into their familiar shape. “Let’s talk.”

Tav gestures over the book. The magic within eagerly resonates with his, manifesting filaments of eerie violet light. “Of course I can feel it,” he says softly. “But what could you hope to gain from it? Gale might learn some rare and powerful spells from it. Perhaps I could too. But you’re not a caster. Are ancient cantrips truly worth the fuss?”

“I don’t care for spells. What I want is knowledge, of death and undeath. And no one in this hodge-podge party is more entitled to it than the resident vampire, wouldn’t you say?”

The book resists as Tav makes to put it away. His fingers cramp around it, turning to claws, while ambition rises in him to the tome’s dirty whispers like carnal lust. Drained of strength by last night’s ordeal, he panics and throws it into the side of the tent.

Astarion gasps. “What in the—”

“Listen,” Tav pushes through his teeth, hands smarting. “I’ll swear that no one will stop you from studying this thing to your heart’s content—if you’ll agree to let others do the same.”

Astarion leans back, affronted. “After everything we shared—and I don’t mean just that lovely neck of yours—I thought you’d be on my side.”

“There aren’t any sides. We’re all in this together, for better or worse. You stand to profit from any spells Gale acquires just as much as he. Please, think about it. I’m not asking you to give up the knowledge you seek. I’m only—”

“Are you truly that dense? Knowledge is power, and you’re asking me to let someone else have it!”

More than anger looms behind his scowl. Fear. As deep and dark as a subterranean lake. It invades Tav’s mind through their twisted telepathic connection, a paralyzing weakness that spreads down his limbs, both like and nothing like the blissful numbness he felt while Astarion held him last night. The voice from Astarion’s nightmare booms in Tav’s head. To the kennel with you! No—not like that. Men walk. Worms crawl.

“Damn you,” Astarion cries, squeezing his temples. “Damn this thing!”

“I’m so—”

“Save your apologies! Yes, I know it wasn’t on purpose,” he recites with vicious mimicry, “and yes, I know you’ll never do it again, because you respect me and my wishes. I’ve heard it all a thousand times.”

Tav stares, speechless.

“And now you’re going to make me tell you all about him, aren’t you?”

“You don’t…” Tav tries to swallow, but his throat is dry. “You don’t have to tell me anything you don’t want to.”

“Then let me have the damn book!”

A headache has started to brew behind Tav’s forehead. He massages it as his eyes drift from the anthill that has sprouted around one of the tent-poles, over the dusty blanket getting even dustier on the ground, to Astarion’s bony fingers clutching his knees with the desperation of a man hanging off a cliff. Panic roils underneath Tav’s outward calm and he can’t tell if it’s all his own. What to do? If he outright refuses, the nascent bond between them will snap. He doesn’t want that. But what Astarion asks is irrational, and to agree with it would be irrational too. Worse still, it would set a dangerous precedent. He’ll know exactly how to manipulate Tav the next time some whim takes hold of him.

Well. At least you’re not too far gone to put it past him, Talice whispers in the back of his skull. Yet.

You’re the one to talk, he thinks back at her. You were just like him.

Yes, but you want him. One could hardly dream of better leverage.

Yes, and I fucking loved you. What of it?

That shuts her up.

“You put me in an impossible position,” Tav says aloud. “The others, perhaps you too, trust me to lead, for now. Which is how I was able to prevail upon them this very morning to accept your nature, with little to go on but my word that you’ll not harm them in their sleep. But if I… take your side now, if I allow for sides, that trust will be forfeit. They will resent me at best, and accuse you of glamoring me at worst. Hells, they might even leave us behind. Either way,” he raises his eyes at Astarion, “you lose more than you gain.”

Astarion holds Tav’s gaze for a few excruciating moments, then shakes his head. “Accuse me, of glamoring you?” He snorts. By degrees, the harassed look he had about him turns into something like grim acceptance.

Tav wasn’t aware of how shallow he’d been breathing till a long sigh of relief spills out of his chest.

“Swear it, then,” Astarion says. “Swear that neither you nor the wizard will keep the book from me. And that you will share any findings relevant to my… condition.”

“I swear it.” Tav licks his lips. “On my blood.”

Something new sparks in Astarion’s eyes, warring with distrust. Focus, interest, hunger. Then he too licks his lips. Such a tiny gesture, yet it flings Tav into a whirlpool of conflicting feelings. Shame, for bringing it up, like dangling a piece of meat over a starving dog, followed by bitter self-loathing for making the comparison, and on top of it all, a pang of lust as he inevitably remembers the touch of that tongue on his skin, the taste of it in his mouth. If anyone’s a dog here, it is he, not Astarion.

“I drained a goblin today.” Astarion grimaces. “She stank worse than her warg. But her blood was… plentiful. I am… happy… for now.”

He looks about as far from happy as Tav is from relieved to hear this news. “Good,” he manages. “I’m glad.”

Sounds of an impending meal reach them from the outside. The clanking of crockery, the shuffling of feet, Karlach’s unhinged laughter. Tav was hungry before Astarion came in, but no longer.

“It’ll be a while before they call you,” Astarion says, reading his mind. “The fish isn’t cooked yet. I used to love fish, you know. When I was…” He begins to wring his hands, then catches himself, and folds them neatly in his lap. “There’s time enough, I suppose. To tell you about… Cazador.”