A Canticle of Arguments: Chapter 4

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The Mage Underground is a far-reaching organisation. Its tendrils snake into everything, and extend far beyond the borders of Kirkwall, or indeed the Marches as a whole. 

Just as every Circle has its escapees, its ex-templars—who either have their own disillusions or grudges to guide them, or can perhaps be bought for the price of a few pouches of lyrium dust—and its antagonists, there are cells of the Underground there, ready to catch the mis-steps of those who would live free.

Of course, it is a hugely complex and idiosyncratic network. There is no discernible hierarchy, no united common goal—except perhaps staying alive—and no one knows anyone outside of their immediate set of contacts, because it’s safer that way.

It was Karl who gave him Mistress Selby’s name, heavily encoded, in one of the last letters he sent… after Anders had agreed to come to Kirkwall and see the state of things for himself. He remembers the words his friend used:

The sooner you come, the better. I worry more each day. When you get here, stay out of Hightown. Don’t come across the lake. Go to the docks – there is much more to buy or to sell by there. A woman, for instance. Three sovereigns should do it, and ask for Marie A.

It took him a while to work out the clues. The lake and the docks were clear enough, but he was stumbling around Lowtown and the old barracks for days before ‘buy or to sell by’ became ‘Selby’ and ‘Marie A.’ became the woman who calls herself Mariah.

Anders thinks Karl already suspected the templars were intercepting his letters. He, in turn, was careful with what he wrote in his replies—too careful, because he never had the chance to write down the things he really wanted to say—but it didn’t stop Karl from adding a poignant postscript to the last letter Anders ever received from him. He still has it now; he keeps it with the others, in a box at the back of the locked tincture cupboard in the clinic. He kept everything Karl ever sent him.

One last thing: you know that I forgave you, don’t you? For everything. It wasn’t your fault. And I think you may even have been right… but don’t let it go to your head. I hope we’ll talk more when we meet. I should like very much to see you again, my friend. Sometimes, it’s as if the years haven’t passed at all.

Anders was a fool. He knows that now. He’s known it for a while, but somehow it’s worse now that there’s nothing he can do about it… or possibly it’s because of Justice, picking through the recollections and helpfully highlighting all the times he was at fault.

He contemplates it as he potters around the clinic in the evening, putting pots of herbs on to boil and rendering down cheap fat he’s cadged from the least appalling of the local butchers. The stink is horrific, but he’s grown worryingly used to it. Selby will be by later. He’s on his own here now that Eryn has gone on to start her new life. The Underground buys or barters passage out by one of a number of routes: she will be going north with five other apostates, ostensibly as part of a merchant caravan. It will be difficult, but hopefully they will cross the Vimmark Mountains, and break into Wildervale, where there should be enough open country for them to scratch some sort of living. It’s safer than the cities, anyway, though Anders isn’t sure he envies them.

Anyway, Selby always drops by at times like these and says it’s because he needs a spare pair of hands—which is admittedly very useful right now, as no replacement for Eryn or any of his other part-time volunteers-cum-apostate-refugees has yet been found—but Anders suspects she’s just checking up on him. He thinks people are worried he’ll ‘do something silly’, as the phrase so often goes.

He’s thought about it, yes. It wouldn’t take much, would it, just to end things… and he knows how. He has enough herbs in the clinic to mix up some very potent poisons, or there is always the simplicity of steel. Maker’s balls, he could just scramble up to the top end of Hightown and chuck himself off the parapets if he wanted. Maybe it would be easier. Maybe Justice would go back to the Fade, and this unnatural twinning would almost have never happened.

He feels himself rebel at the thought. It hurts the spirit—catches right at the very essence of his existence—to think he has so damaged Anders.

The ultimate injustice.

He smiles mirthlessly at the thought, and hauls a copper full of linens off the fire. They’re as clean as they’re going to get.

No… things aren’t that bad. Not yet. He has good days and bad days, light times and dark times. For now, he is in control. He has learned the limits of his shared body—or so he thinks—and he knows what he can and cannot do. For now, he does more good in the world than evil, and there is a great deal left to do yet.

The fact that there are other reasons—that he doesn’t actually want to die, that he’s terribly, terribly afraid of it, and that he can feel Justice’s hunger to know more of the mortal life, even if he doesn’t understand it—are, Anders tells himself, irrelevances.

Selby says there are plenty of people in the Underground who’d miss him if he wasn’t there. Yeah… like a hole in the head. She’s right, though. For whatever reasons, Anders has good friends among them. Many of them are also very good people, although others he’s not so sure about.

And… it’s true, isn’t it, that Hawke is his friend?

He would miss Anders, and if the peace of death means never seeing him again, Anders knows he’s content to loiter a little longer in this strange, troubled existence.

Besides, the daft sod needs someone around to patch him up next time he goes out on the lash and gets knifed in an alley….

Anders feels Justice harrumph and shift reproachfully. It’s an odd sensation, this feeling of disapproving of himself; very peculiar, because he has never, ever been given to self-loathing or the dichotomies of repression. From the earliest times in the Tower—once his life was torn apart, then given back to him as if it didn’t matter, as if he was worth no more than that patched sackcloth existence—he has known himself completely, up to the hilt of his limitations. He had faced himself, and not been afraid.

So what is it you fear now? Losing yourself?

The choices you make are yours alone. The repercussions are yours. The price is yours, and there is no sense in resenting it.

That might be true, but it doesn’t mean he has no regrets.

Your regrets are for others. For what has been, and what cannot be.

Why?

Anders sighs. Justice can be remarkably obtuse. Either that, or he can. Sometimes, it’s hard to tell.

What is past is past. What you desire and yet deny—the distractions and the follies—is best left undone. So why do you yet dwell upon it?

Anders grits his teeth.

Because. Just because, all right?

But that is not a reason.

Sometimes, he closes his eyes and lets his thoughts roam, and he chafes himself so hard against his memories that it feels as if his soul could bleed.

Justice doesn’t understand them. When he thinks of Karl—of those times back in the Circle Tower, when he was young and everything was new—he still feels the same sweet flood of nostalgic longing. They were in love, whatever he’s tried to tell himself over the years. He should have been kinder, braver… more persuasive. All those times he tried to convince Karl to come with him; he should have tried harder. They should have run away together, lived in isolated bliss on some windswept stretch of moorland somewhere, and grown old surrounded by wild sheep and hedge mustard.

He smiles at that, despite the flare of confusion in his head. It’s a silly fantasy. Karl would have hated it. Karl loved books and learning and ideas, and he would have withered up like a weed stuck out in the middle of nowhere, away from everything. Plus, Anders has never much liked the amount of mud in the great outdoors. Seems daft now, when he spends so much time up to his ankles in Maker only knows what at the clinic, but it’s true.

Still, there should have been something better. Something good. He wishes he’d been able to give Karl that. He didn’t deserve what happened, and the weight of tears is suddenly tugging at Anders’ eyes. He blinks and swallows, hard, and through the blurred veil he sees a boy of nineteen, brave and beautiful, who taught him so much about love, and desire. He wishes he’d learned more quickly… particularly the part about not being a selfish arsehole.

It’s over, though, isn’t it? Too little, too late. Someone who really cared about me, and I managed to fuck it up more comprehensively than I’ve ever fucked anything up, and that is really saying something….

Justice feels uncomfortable with the idea of love. Anders knows this because of the wave of self-loathing that crests up in him—and isn’t that rich, in him, of all people—and the sense that he, himself, is a monster for desiring to possess another person. It is wrong. It is oppression, the very thing he detests above all things. It is presumptuous and ugly, and it brings shadows with it.

No, he thinks… no, because that is only partially true. Yes, love can obscure things. Yes, it can become heavy, and dark, and—

You seek to possess. That is wrong.

No, not possess. Just… share. It’s part of it. Of course, he regrets thinking that right away, because Justice and he share this body—his body, his mind, his own entire self—and after that it all becomes confusing.

Anders sets the clarified fat to cool, makes himself some tea, and sits quietly in the corner of the empty clinic, elbows on the table and his forehead resting on the heels of his palms, as if he needs to press hard to keep his brain from falling out. His head hurts when it gets like this. Everything hurts.

Love isn’t possession. Desire isn’t about possession. Well, not totally.

I never owned Karl. He was a different person… his own person. That’s why we never—

I failed him. If I loved him, I should have convinced him to save himself, shouldn’t I? Or saved him on my own, somehow, or—

because you can’t force anyone to be anything, or feel anything. You can’t change their mind for them, or stop caring for them, even if it’s a stupid thing to do. That’s what loving someone is….

Or, potentially, that’s an obsession. No. Yes. It’s distracting—

Yes, of course, because love is bigger than one person, or two people. It’s…

the biological imperative to procreate?

No! No, that’s lust. And that’s not always… I mean, yes, sometimes. Maybe. But….

Anders groans and tries to pick up his tea, only his hands don’t want to work properly, and he can see two of everything again. The outlines of the world are blurry, and Selby will be here soon, and he doesn’t want to look like a complete headcase in front of her, because she’ll worry.

All right, yes. That’s what it is. Fine.

His fingers close around the tea, and he lifts the cup gingerly to his lips. The warmth of the liquid is soothing, and he inhales deeply, taking in the scent of spices and tannins instead of piss and boiled elfroot and fat, and that really is a comfort.

And yet you desire Hawke.

Fuck. Anders swallows his mouthful of tea and coughs as it gulps down his throat. He fights it and fights it, because he doesn’t want his mind to go that way, but trying to harness the thoughts is like trying to punch the tide.

Oh, shut up. That… that isn’t the same.

It isn’t, anyway. It’s definitely not his body’s urge to procreate—

although we could have an entertaining time trying to get him pregnant—

shutupshutupshutup—

and it… well, it is lust, isn’t it? No more than that. Tobias is an attractive man. They just… happen to share several opinions, some common interests, a sense of humour, and a certain kind of inexplicable closeness that makes Anders feel a tad weak in the knee department whenever the bastard smiles.

I have a tiny crush. All right?

Of course, Justice despises the lie. The lie is almost as bad as the things Anders thinks when he lets his mind dwell on that crooked grin, or on the eyes and the broad shoulders and the long, long, leather-clad legs….

Justice cannot assimilate the idea of this man they—he—sees on a regular basis, and knows and speaks to and, all right, yes, flirts with—because, come on, he’s attractive and available and, often, he starts it, and Anders knows he could… it’s just that he mustn’t—and the thoughts that are there in the night.

You would possess him?

No. Yes. Not like that.

Anders doesn’t know. He can’t deny the desire that bubbles up between them—Tobias has made it so abundantly clear that he’s both capable of acting on it and more than willing—and, oh, Maker, he wants to. But it isn’t that simple. It never bloody is. And yet, he can’t help his thoughts. He can’t help thinking of those strong, tawny arms wrapped around him, or the feel of that broad, solid body against his. He wants that, wants it so very badly, and he can’t explain it to Justice… to himself. This want, this ache that is like need in its sharpness… he feels it gnaw at him when he has to watch Hawke from afar, or to smile and talk with him, when all he really wants is to fling himself at the man and kiss him so hard neither of them can breathe.

He wants to see that dry, lop-sided grin turn shaky and desperate, to hear all the cockiness drop out of that deep voice as Tobias murmurs his name, and he wants to be held close to that broad chest, sated and comfortable in a room that smells like Hawke.

Then you would yield yourself. You desire to be possessed… subjugated?

It isn’t that! His head pounds with frustration. I want him. I want him to want me. I want us to be lovers… that’s different. And it is. It is different. It’s not about power or control, though those things can be a part of it sometimes. But they’re not the games Anders that wants. He wants… well, what he wants he can’t have. He knows that all too well. But Justice doesn’t understand. He feels that bewilderment as keenly as he feels the ache of desire, and the burn of frustration, and he can’t even work that off himself without things flaring up afresh.

He’s thought about going to a whorehouse, but it wouldn’t help. The fact he sees half of Kirkwall’s red lantern district pass through the clinic’s doors in any given week puts him off the idea to start with, and that’s not even touching on the fact that Justice would probably explode.

Anyway, Anders doesn’t want a tart, although he rather wishes he did. Somehow, it would be a lot easier if all this were simply an itch that needed scratching. He knows it isn’t, despite the fact it’s been a very long time since he last got laid.

Then you… care for him? This is what it is to l—

Bugger it! Knickers! Shut up!—

It’s been such a long time since there was someone who affected him like this. Well, not like this, exactly, but… so long since he felt any kind of attraction that was something more than the initial piquing of interest, the acknowledgement of seeing something pretty and wanting to play with it.

Anders misses those days. He misses that man he used to be, back when he thought he was world-weary and jaded. He misses keeping his anger locked up inside him, safe beneath the lacquer of dry wit and blarney, because he didn’t want to be dragged back into that whole ghastly mess.

No… he spent himself on the moments, and let the days take care of themselves. That was safer, and it didn’t hurt so much. It was easier to—

Avoid it.

Perhaps. He said that to Justice once: avoiding his oppression instead of fighting it. There was a time when it genuinely felt like a more elegant solution.

It wasn’t that he didn’t care, just that he didn’t see himself as bound to a cause by solidarity. The idea of mages as a single brotherhood was a Circle lie, and a stupid, flimsy one at that. Anders decided that after years of watching the members of the bitterly divided fraternities glaring at each over their oatmeal every morning. Besides, it’s not like anyone’s ever looked out for him, have they? He can count on one hand the people he’s really trusted. They’re all gone now, anyway

Except Hawke. You trust Hawke. You probably shouldn’t, but you do, don’t you?

or as good as, and there aren’t any elegant solutions left.

Instead, there are lines drawn across great swathes of the world that—if this was the Fade, if people were simple, or sensible, or as easily defined as Justice’s kind—would divide everything into black, white, right and wrong. Trouble is, the lines get distorted. They get bent out of shape, pushed and pulled and chewed around by all the chaos and stupidity and impossibility of life, and nothing is simple.

No one is simple. Not even him.

He looks back on the man he was, and he misses it, and yet he is appalled. Or Justice is. Maybe both. The casual pleasures, the drinking, the silliness… even those Maker-forsaken days in the Vigil, which he hated so much, have a rose-tinted glow to them.

Justice never understood why Anders was not proud to be a Grey Warden. He still had the taste of Kristoff’s memories, of course… a man who had not been conscripted against his will, exchanging one prison for another, and who had not had Gerard Caron yelling at him every day for the best part of a year.

Bastard. Maker’s breath, I hated that cock-head,

No, despite all the privations and strife of Kirkwall, Anders can’t find it in his heart to miss the Vigil.

The part of himself he thinks of as Justice grumps and shifts irritably at that, and the rest of him grins uncharitably and drinks his tea, and doesn’t think anymore about darkspawn, or his old friend Oghren, or even Tobias Hawke.

He does a few of Sigrun’s breathing exercises, too, although it doesn’t help, or stop much of the heaviness in his head. It doesn’t make anything go away, and it’s all still there when he closes his eyes.

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Chapter 5
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