Back to A Canticle of Argument: Contents
When it’s late, and they’ve finally cleared the clinic and bolted the doors for the night, and Eryn is saying her prayers at the foot of the pallet she sleeps on—
Chantry lies. Chantry always lies. They weren’t there, they don’t know… what if Andraste herself was a mage? We’re not the enemy, not the cursed ones. The lies they feed us make us stupid, make us easier to control, and that’s all they want, that’s all they’ve ever wanted….
—he can finally breathe again. Or at least attempt to.
He bids Eryn goodnight and goes into his little den, his scrape behind the ratty old curtain hung on a broom handle, where he sheds his coat, boots, and trousers, and he lies on his narrow cot, staring up at the patterns the shadows make against the beams.
He’s tired. So very, very tired. He doesn’t know why that means he can’t sleep. He wants to, wants to fall into safe, oblivious nothingness, but maybe that’s too close to losing himself in the Fade. He’s always hated the Fade. Nothing’s real there, and Anders has for a long time been of the opinion that his whole life has been far too much about ‘not real’.
When he was a boy, before the Tower—before the templars came, before they tore apart everything that was safe and comfortable, and ripped him from the people he loved—he learned about dreams the hard way. He learned that, in the Fade, things are deceitful, and demons hide in the darkness. He learned about the creatures of rage and hunger and desire that prey on the souls of mages who slip the bounds of mortal coils in the night, and walk in those ethereal planes. He remembers waking, screaming, streaming with sweat as the taste of the Fade still lays bitter on his lips, and the dream-face of his baby brother melts into that of a demon, and swaddling clothes turn into curved, vicious talons.
He learned to shield himself. He learned it early, and no one taught him.
He remembers clawing his way back from the dangerous places, sobbing with terror as he wakes in wet sheets, and his mother coming to comfort him… and the burst of magefire that roared in his hand before he knew what he was doing. He remembers her gathering him to her, smoothing his hair and whispering in her native tongue that she knows he’d never hurt her, even as the flame dies on his fingers and tears knot his throat.
In the Tower, the dormitories all had enchantments on them. The youngest apprentices—the little ones of six and seven, who weren’t expected to do much more than accidentally set things on fire and periodically wet themselves—were guarded from it.
They all were, really, until they were deemed old enough to learn how to channel their dreaming, how to walk the Fade and come to no harm. And, he supposes, even if someone did make a mistake, there were always templars guarding the doors. One slip, even while you were asleep, and they’d be only too happy to stick a sword through your chest.
Anders bangs the back of his head softly, repetitively, against his thin pillow. It’s a gesture of frustration. He’s sick of not sleeping, and yet he does and does not want to let himself go. The Fade’s even more dangerous now. It is Justice’s home, and though dreams are not the same as entering that realm in a waking state—alert, with every ounce of his power crackling under his skin—they are still enough to give the spirit the taste of his old freedoms. He rears up at that, and it is frightening… frightening, to be so close to the empty freefall of sleep, and to worry that he may not wake, or that, more accurately, it may not be him that does.
After a while, Anders looses a long, slow sigh between his teeth. He can hear the regular rise and fall of Eryn’s breathing. She sleeps the way everyone slept in the apprentice dorms: neat and quiet and tidy, with her lips tightly shut, because if you snored your bunkmates used to grate soap into your mouth. Anders assumes they do that in Kirkwall too, although he wonders if, being Kirkwall, it isn’t something worse. Karl once told him about a boy who woke up to find a live mouse being dangled onto his tongue… and as he started to scream, it took fright and bit him. There was blood everywhere, and the templars disciplined half the dormitory. Anders was never sure whether the boy in the story was actually Karl or not but, either way, he has never snored, so he was always lucky.
He reaches out for the small stub of candle that sits on the crate beside his pallet, and lights it with a flame he conjures from the air.
There. Magic serving man. Knickers to the Chantry.
For a moment, Anders winces in the light, and then he props himself up on one elbow as he considers the books beside his bed. He has, in the small moments he has to himself, been doing some research. He is writing that manifesto he’s always said he would. The stack of pages on the trunk at the foot of the pallet is growing steadily, and every line hollows out another little piece of truth.
And yet… it’s not the treatise on ancient Chantry law that he reaches for, or the tatty pamphlet tucked between its pages, about the Libertarian bill of secession, or even the book reassessing Brahm’s scale of demonic possession, which he paid a great deal of money to obtain, and which Justice considers an insult.
Anders’ fingers close on the worn cover of the trashy Orlesian romance he’s been reading, and he pulls it towards him guiltily. It’s lurid and improbable, poorly translated (as far as he can tell; he never did learn the stupid language properly, so it may just be bad writing), and has plot holes big enough to drive an ox-cart through. He doesn’t care. These books are all the same, anyway. That is their appeal. They feature noble heroes, strong of arm and kind of heart, who are ridiculously handsome and spotlessly perfect. What’s more, they’re also always decent enough to take their clothes off for a swim or a bath around chapter three, so there’s something to dwell on until the end of the book, when their animal passions overcome them, and the eager young heroine finally gets the jolly good ravishing she’s spent the last hundred and sixty pages angling for.
At the moment, Anders is on page ninety-three. The Duc de Chatonbleu’s luxurious steam bath—wherein the sultry, damp heat misted upon his muscular form, his manly body glistened as his dark curls lay wet against his nape, and there might even have been mention of a turgid member—seems like a long while ago, but he’s holding out for another good bit.
It is not real. These people are not real, nor their lives more than paper copies, parodies of emotions.
Anders frowns. That is true, but he would quite like thoughts of that nature to shut up and go away. It has been a long day.
The girl is not even a very good governess. She has taught those children nothing of morality, and the example she sets is poor. They see only her pining for the man who is their guardian, and he lusting for her in turn. Mortals are too distracted by their flesh. How can they learn to function in the world if they are not taught to respect what is right and just?
The words blur a little on the page, and Anders closes his eyes.
The way the rest of us do, probably. Trial and error.
That isn’t right, he knows. Not strictly speaking. An innate moral code isn’t something you can learn. Look at—
No, don’t look. Please don’t.
Hawke, Hawke, bloody Hawke….
Anders leans his head back, back past the pillow, until it touches the rough wooden wall, and stifles the urge to groan in irritation.
Tobias Hawke would not be most people’s best exemplar of an upright, moral man.
He is what might nominally be termed a fixer; a man who fixes people’s problems, whether they’re to do with recovering lost goods, moving items of merchandise—which, say, might normally be subject to impractically large port fees, or technically in the ownership of someone inconvenient—or eliminating a client’s competition.
He is, not to put too fine a point on it, a smuggler, a casual hired blade, an occasional extortioner and racketeer, and a petty crook. He rarely agrees to a deal unless there’s coin in it for him—or so he’d have people believe—and he’ll dirty his hands in mostly anything if the price is right. He drinks too much, and regularly over-indulges himself with the whores at The Blooming Rose. Anders knows this, not just because of the stories that circulate (and oh, there are stories about Hawke, and not just the ones that Varric spreads…!) but because it’s him that, every so often, has to dole out the discreet little pots of redblossom salve, and pretend that there is not a knife of frustrated, tired jealousy buried hilt-deep in his gut when he does so.
You want injustice? That’s injustice, right there.
People are invariably grateful for Hawke’s solutions to their problems, though. They are, because if they’re not, Hawke is the kind of man who will mention those problems—and the names of the people who had them—to the Coterie barkers, and then everyone will suddenly find themselves in dire need of a fixer all over again.
Some might say that’s dishonest. Hawke says it’s funny how Fate works.
Anders, however, is aware that Justice has other opinions.
Still, they say you can tell a good man because he’ll kill you without a word, whereas an evil bastard will gloat and torture. When Hawke metes out death, it is swift and as clean as he can make it… most of the time. And he uses blades for preference yet he, like Anders, is an apostate.
He has his own ethics, too. Anders has seen him slip plenty of small acts of charity under the fence when he thinks no one’s looking: there are the donations he makes to the clinic, and to the various refugee funds, and that time he cut one of Athenril’s operatives loose after a bungled double-cross, and lied blatantly to the smugglers so the boy had a chance at running. He was kind then, even if he’d rather have died than admit it.
It’s confusing. He is confusing. A contradiction. Yes. The man is, Anders decides, a bona fide contradiction. If you sliced him in two, the pieces wouldn’t even go back together.
He wears those sleeveless leather jerkins—all buckles and dyed hide, and tanned, bare skin—with his worn leather breeches and his heavy, Fereldan boots, and he is always so careful to have nothing about his appearance even whisper ‘mage’. And yet, at every turn, he is their supporter. He defends them, gives his coin and his time to help them… even though Anders could almost swear he’s ashamed of his own gifts.
Anders lets his eyes close, resting himself against the darkness behind them. It lasts barely a moment, before the thoughts—and that overwhelming sense of consternation—are buzzing in the blue-bright veins of electricity inside his mind.
He is not a good man. He is not righteous, or noble. He is no better than any other… far worse, in fact, than many. The brother, Carver—
Ah, yes. The one who referred to Anders solely as ‘magey’ on the handful of occasions they met, and dropped several pointed references to always travelling armed in the presence of an abomination.
—at least he chose a path he believed to be right.
Anders scoffs quietly. Bastard joined the templars in a fit of childish pique because Tobias didn’t take him on that Maker-forsaken expedition into the Deep Roads. His own brother! Could he have done anything more calculated to wound—and, more importantly, more potentially devastating to Tobias’ safety?
He has promised not to report him.
Fair enough. For now, perhaps. For now, Carver is merely a recruit. No one has asked him if he knows of the whereabouts of any apostates. He’s just there to learn about discipline—
Because if there’s one thing the bloody templars know, it’s discipline, isn’t it?
—and how to hit things that misbehave with a sword. He’s not yet fully one of them. Chances are, it could be years before that happens. Maybe things will have changed by then.
Kirkwall is due a change.
Anders clings to that. He knows Hawke loves his brother, despite all the bad feeling and resentment. He doesn’t want to see him hurt… even less than he wants to see any more mages rounded up and carted off to The Gallows.
Would Carver Hawke still be so bloody righteous if he sold his own brother to the Knight-Commander?
Fear curdles in his gut at the thought, and he knows he mustn’t think it.
Anyway, nothing about the templars is right. Bloody Chantry watchdogs, doped up on lyrium and trained to be mindless slaves. Bark, bark, bite, bite… it’s an army of idiots, where the sadists rise to the top, like rotten eggs.
He doesn’t want to dwell on it. He doesn’t want to let his thoughts go that way, and he determinedly picks up the book again, forcing himself to focus on the words.
I’ll kill him myself if he turns anyone in.
The words jump and jumble, and Anders squeezes his eyes shut once more, though there’s no peace in doing it. He takes a long breath, counts for ten as he draws it in, then out for three, in for three, out and in, then out for ten, repeating until at last he lets all the air leave him in one slow, controlled sigh. He is empty, hollow… still, like the Stone. It is a dwarven exercise, taught to him by Sigrun back at the Vigil, back when the first templars came there; their auditors, their observers, poking their noses into Grey Warden business and making all their little notes.
He opens his eyes, and his small, candlelit world doesn’t seem quite real for a moment. He blinks, concentrates on the cheap Orlesian romance, and finds a kind of stability in its familiar rhythms.
The useless governess is still pining after the duc. She sprains her ankle—
Silly bitch can’t even manage walking. It’s a wonder she can breathe without an explanatory pamphlet.
—at a ball, and is aided by the dastardly Lord Fontaine, who endeavours to press his attentions on her in the cloakroom, which of course Chatonbleu discovers and misinterprets. Anders skims a few pages and, at the end of the chapter, it’s starting to look like Miss Might-Snap-A-Femur-If-I-Try-To-Run won’t end up getting her ravishing after all.
She will, of course. It’ll all come right in the end.
The duc will realise she was pure and blameless, and grovel for her forgiveness. He will confess his passionate, undying adoration, and as she whispers that she loves him too, he will probably crush her to his manly chest and press fierce, tender kisses to her lips. She might even swoon a bit… and eventually he will take her, thoroughly and with repeated rounds of mind-throttling bliss, on the colossal four-poster bed in his mansion, amid the seas of white silk sheets.
There will not be a wet patch, or any bumping of noses or elbows, and no one will accidentally break wind at an intimate moment. It will be utterly, rigorously perfect.
Anders wrinkles his nose. These books are all the same. They are like the smutty, sensationally vivid tales Varric makes beer money from, and he supposes maybe that’s why the heroes all end up reminding him of Hawke.
He closes the book and sets it carefully back on the crate, between the reassessment of Brahm’s Scale and the history with the ragged pamphlet tucked inside it.
Anders can’t remember the last time he got a jolly good ravishing.
It was a very long time ago, he decides. There was one pleasant encounter during his final week of freedom, before the templars caught him en route to Rivain, and dragged him back via that fateful pit-stop at Vigil’s Keep. Cheap pick-up in the tavern he’d been staying at. He can’t remember the girl’s name… probably hadn’t known it. Pretty, though. Long, red hair, and pink, well-scrubbed skin. She giggled a lot, and she was fun. Sweet, effervescent, delightful fun. He hadn’t even minded that she stole forty silvers from him before she left in the early hours of the morning.
Didn’t really count as ravishment, though… and Justice disapproves. Anders isn’t sure why, whether it’s the theft or the cavalier casualness that offends the spirit more. He doesn’t think it ever offended him, but then very little ever has. There are certainly, in Anders’ opinion, more important things in the world to be outraged by than sex.
That thought occurs to him, all at once silly and poignant, the same way that—in that moment—he remembers his first time. He can’t even keep the memories straight in his head anymore… and this one is dangerous. It’s just one more of the things he mustn’t think of, because it’s still too soon to think about Karl, and he can’t do that. Not yet. Still too raw, too painful. It makes the anger swell, with corded, bloody edges, like rope biting into abscessed skin.
He feels it now, right at the centre of his chest, and he feels the weight of Karl’s head in his hand as he cradles him… the crispness of his hair, the warmth of his skin, and the wetness of his blood as he looks up at Anders with the blankness closing in his eyes, and thanks him for the blessing of the knife. It is agony.
Justice doesn’t understand time. It doesn’t work the same way for his kind. Everything that has happened simply is, and there are few distinctions in when. Memories, for Justice, do not dull with the passage of months or years. They remain tangible, and terrible, either in their torment or their joy. Anders wants so badly to forget that night at the chantry… although not completely, because they were still Karl’s last moments. He wants to forget the failure, and he wants that sharp, bitter edge to be ground away from the pain, so he can see past it and remember other, happier days. He wants to relive the memories he has of their apprenticeship, when he was so young and naïve, and Karl was everything he wanted to be. He wants to remember the sweetness and the secret, stolen times, when they pretended they were happy—fuck it, when maybe they actually were.
It is all there, suddenly, behind his eyes, because Justice feels that nostalgic ache in him, that sense of loss and grief, and Anders knows he is curious. He senses that; this feeling of a part of himself carefully taking out his memories, turning them over and touching them like treasures that have long been packed away.
The first time they kissed—his uncertain nervousness, and Karl’s breathless, gleeful grin—and the fun they shared, breaking rules and evading strictures… like it was all a game, like the templars were the clumsy, clunking bogeymen who could never, ever catch them. He remembers sneaking away from evening chapel to hide in the old supply room Karl had found, staring out of that tiny window over Lake Calenhad, and talking rubbish about the places they’d go and the things they’d do when they escaped.
Anders remembers how Karl would smile indulgently whenever he said stupid things like that—
Because he loved me.
—and how his skin smelled just after it had been licked, how one eyebrow grew ever so slightly differently from the other, how he would hold his spoon in his left hand while he salted his food… and all those hundreds of tiny, yet deeply significant things. They pile on his mind, a wall in which every brick is its own private recrimination, and his nerves are strained beyond endurance. He relives, remembers, revisits every moment all at once, and yet he feels Justice’s bewilderment.
Justice has never understood the messy, chaotic plethora of human emotions, much less the whole business of impulses, needs, and urges. Kristoff’s body—oh, his first host was hardly an ideal introduction to humanity—had held traces of feelings, but that was different. They were memories, filtered through the man who had once inhabited that half-rotted flesh. Anders can, if he concentrates, taste them now, through Justice. He feels the edges of the spirit’s confusion, the remembered love for a wife—the poor woman who was so angry and distraught at discovering her husband’s fate. There is pain there; grief, and loss, and regret at having hurt her, both as Kristoff and as Justice, and also in that strange, twilit, in-between-world, where Anders now walks so perilously.
I, us, him, me… they’re just words, aren’t they?
Given that experience, Justice shies from emotion. He considers it dangerous.
He’s right. They even agree on that point… they always did, didn’t they? Back when they first met, that’s who Anders was. He’d wrapped himself up in slickness, so the world would slide off his back. Laugh, joke, but don’t let it break the walls. Karl was the one to teach him that, though he may well not have known it.
He swallows, and realises his cheeks are wet. He is weeping, but there are no convulsive sobs, no damp and strangled breaths. His eyes are simply leaking, as a faulty tap might do. He doesn’t even know if he is crying for Karl, or himself, or Justice, or Kristoff and his wife, or for any of the thousand things that have never been and now never will.
There is a lot to weep for in this world. But mourning injustice does not rectify it. To bemoan is not to challenge, to put action to inaction and effect change.
He can’t. He can’t do it. Not any more. It’s been nearly two years, and his head is not his own. It wasn’t this bad in the beginning, and he thought he was strong enough. Justice thought he was strong enough… if he hadn’t, he would never have consented to this. The benefits were meant to outweigh the dangers and the sacrifices. Their combined power, the good they could do—it was such a beautiful idea, and he had wanted Justice to live.
He is. Anders is sorrier than he’s ever been for anything. Sorrier than he is for what happened to Karl—the lover he betrayed all those years ago, who forgave him, and yet who he could not save—and sorrier than he is for the family he lost and has never been able to find again.
It is too late to regret. What is done is done, and there is more in the world than one man’s desire.
The guilt cuts in then and, though he’s ready for it—oh, yes, it comes as a familiar gall now—Anders still winces. He is a snivelling child, a whining, puling, petulant brat. How dare he put his own petty, maudlin concerns above the importance of a greater good? What does his panicked loneliness matter against something so much more? Look at everything happening in Kirkwall… the abuses the templars inflict, the iron rod with which Meredith seeks to cow the city, and the weak-willed slackness of government and Chantry alike that allows her to get away with it! Everything is corruption. Everything is broken, damaged…
And you wondered why you found yourself here.