A Canticle of Arguments: Chapter 5

———————————
Back to A Canticle of Argument: Contents
———————————-

When Selby arrives, Anders prides himself on putting on a good show. He has combed his hair, brushed his coat down, and got through quite a lot of the jobs in the clinic, although the silence still seems to echo like an ocean in his head. 

She removes her cloak at the door—the dark fabric is misted with raindrops, the damp stains of splashes running all along its hem, meaning it’s probably been raining all day, and he had no idea—and smiles at him.

Anders. You look well.”

So do you, Selby. Ravishing as ever,” he adds, and she smirks.

She is old enough to be his mother, and her face is that of a woman who has lived through both her own hardships and those of many others. A thick fall of grey hair frames narrow, sharp cheeks, and her eyes are a dark blue, the irises ringed with lines that are almost black. When she is angry, they are like terrible, swirling pools and, at other times, they soften with an almost maternal kindness.

Selby is not a mage, although her sister is… or was. They were both Kirkwall born and bred, but someone made a report to the templars, and Agnes was taken in the night, her family told to make no attempt to contact her. Of course, that command was ignored and, when Selby did manage to get a line into The Gallows, she discovered more than she had ever bargained for.

Agnes told of the rapes and beatings, the humiliations and degradations the templars inflicted on them for fun, or to exert their power. It set the course of both sisters’ lives. Mariah Selby—up until then a respected wool merchant in the city—gave herself to the Underground, selling her business and all but disappearing from the surface trade. Agnes was made Tranquil, and yet the abuses didn’t stop there. She died three days before her planned rescue, and the templars left her body splayed naked in the prison cell they’d kept her in, her blood congealed on the stones.

But they will pay. They will all pay…. These abuses will not be forgotten, and every last one of them will feel—

Anders blinks. Yes, Justice’s burn. Yes. Fine. There has to be justice. Just not right now.

He dredges up a smile, aware that Selby said something he didn’t hear. They are standing at the back of the clinic, by the banked-down fires, and she is helping him to drain both the linens and a large batch of blindweed, which has been boiled and now needs to mature in the grain alcohol he bought with the money Hawke gave him. Anders has been lucky this time: none of the refugees have nicked it and tried to sell it for a profit, or just drunk the lot.

Selby snorts. “Knew you weren’t listening. Come on. Copper for ’em?”

Hm?”

She grins. “Your thoughts, boy. Head in the clouds again, ain’t you? Thinking about something interesting?”

Anders shrugs. He considers making a nominal complaint about being called ‘boy’ although, secretly, he rather likes it.

Not really.”

Selby slips him a sly, sidelong look. “I did see you brought your friend to the meeting again.”

The wet linens slop from the copper, steam billowing up as Anders guides them into a dry basket with a stout paddle, and tries to play ignorant. Selby is a crafty old minx, however, and she never lets him get away with anything.

Oh?”

Yes,” she says, slapping the bottom of the copper. “You know. Whatshisname. The Fereldan. Dark hair, green eyes… bum like two hazelnuts in a handkerchief?”

That matronly act of hers fools no one. Anders snorts, but it’s amusement instead of disbelief, and he can’t really bring himself to try and be shocked. Anyway, it’s a very accurate description of Tobias’ backside, especially when he’s breaking in a new pair of breeches, and it looks like he’s been practically poured into the leather.

Anders blinks again, aware that serious distraction lies along the path of thoughts like that. He shakes his head.

Really, Selby,” he murmurs in mock reproach. “But, yes, that’s him. Hawke.”

He’s very generous,” she observes, as she helps him heft the linens up onto a table, ready to peg out on the strings that run the length of the clinic, so that hopefully the bandages will be dry by the time they are needed.

Anders nods slowly. It’s true that—ever since he introduced Tobias to the Underground, he has been flinging coin at it. Sometimes, he gifts extremely large amounts of money… and, once, enough to pay for an entire group’s passage to Rivain. It was a very dramatic gesture.

Ye-es,” he says warily, because he suspects—as there often is with Selby—that there may be some hidden sting to her line of questioning.

Trying to impress you, is he?”

Anders frowns at her, though his rebuke is only very slightly less playful. She has her tongue firmly wedged in her cheek, and it looks as if she has a gumboil. Her eyes glitter with mirth.

I couldn’t say,” he demurs.

Selby’s grin widens. “Then you haven’t bedded him yet? Tch! I thought you liked men.”

The corner of Anders’ mouth twists and, once, she might have made him blush… which he sometimes thinks is her life’s ambition. Instead, he just chuckles.

I do. I told you, I like… people. For who they are, not what.”

Well, that’s mainly true. After all, his attractions have, in the past, taken little notice of things like age, gender, or hair colour. And, as much as he would like to believe otherwise, it is not simply physical lust that draws him to Hawke.

So?” A ribald elbow connects with his ribs as Selby crosses behind him, picking the first wet swathe of bandage out of the basket. “I wouldn’t have hung around. You shouldn’t either, my lad… or someone else’ll snap him up. Mind you, given the way he looks at you—”

Selby!”

What?” She raises her thinly plucked brows. “S’true. We all seen it. Smitten, I believe is the word.”

She cackles, and moves away to peg up the bandages. Anders does likewise, but the warm, wet linens are sluggish in his fingers, and he struggles with what should be a simple task. He wants very much to believe her, and to believe in a pretty fairytale, where everyone knows he and Tobias are meant for each other and, the moment they kiss, there will be tweeting bluebirds and sparkly rainbows and everything will be fine.

Unfortunately, life is not like that, and part of him is almost angry with Selby for dangling these impossibilities before him… or maybe angry with himself, for being so obviously stupid. The entire Underground is quite possibly laughing at him.

And yet….

Anders frowns, and looks curiously at her.

D’you really think so?”

She treats him to a broad, smug grin. “I suspect it cuts both ways. Said you was distracted, didn’t I?”

He is a distraction… and it is folly to persist, when you cannot pursue such an… entanglement. Why do this? Why indulge this obsession, or welcome notice of it by others? This is not right. This is—

I’m not. I can still do my work. I’m still—”

Selby’s grin widens even further. “Hush, now… I didn’t say it was a bad thing, did I? Think I’ve seen you smile more in the past two weeks than I have in a year. If that’s what having him around does—”

He’s not ‘around’,” Anders protests. “We’ve just been doing a bit of work together.”

Whatever you want to call it,” she says airily, peering at him over the string of wet bandages.

Anders sticks his tongue out at her, and she laughs.

All I’m saying, Anders, is that it looks like it’s good for you. Little bit of support. Someone to lean on… as long as you’re careful,” she adds, and her smile begins to fade.

He frowns. “What’s that meant to mean?”

Selby comes out from behind the line, brushing her hands together, and picks out another long, wide strip of bandage. She shrugs.

Hawke… I knew the name was familiar. ’Course, he was one of them smugglers, wasn’t he? Got hisself involved in that bust-up between one of the small companies and the Coterie, year or so back.”

Anders winces. Technically, Tobias is still a smuggler, though he doesn’t run any coherent company, or officially associate himself with any of Kirkwall’s organised cartels. He’s a free agent, as it were… and yet a good man. Isn’t he?

He is,” Anders says glumly. “He— he’s a good man, though, I mean.”

Saying it aloud seems to confirm it, at least a little bit. It makes him feel very slightly braver, and he meets Selby’s gaze, watching with curiosity the way she arches an eyebrow, her mouth twisting into a doubtful moue.

He is,” Anders repeats, stubborn and suddenly determined to wring a polite agreement from her, if nothing more. “Anyway, you shouldn’t confuse goodness with legality, Selby.”

He picks up a wet square of cloth used for binding splints, folds it in two, and hangs it over the line. The wet linens are dripping onto the floorboards, little splashes of warm water dappling the tired, scuffed wood with dark stars. He smooths his fingers along the cloth, and peers at Selby from under his lashes, searching for some sign of her response.

She looks guardedly at him for a moment, then her face splits around a wide smile, her cheeks wrinkling, and she laughs.

Fair point,” she admits with a nod. “We ain’t so spotless on that either, are we?”

Anders smiles back at her as they finish off the linens, although his expression is a little forced. It’s true that the law and real justice are not always the same thing, and the Underground is of course illegal by its very existence, but he feels a little uncomfortable with it sometimes. For all the years he spent enjoying the flouting of rules, he worries that some of the apostates he has met want to see the whole world burn, just to salve the anger they bear.

And should there not be fire? Doesn’t the Chantry itself speak of being cleansed in the flames? If the apple is rotten throughout, it is useless to pare it back to the core. Besides, they must pay.

They must all pay….

He shakes himself as Selby crosses to the pot of blindweed, and he pads after her, readying the jug of grain alcohol and the vat they will soak it in. She places a large metal sieve over the vat and holds it steady, so he can pour off the water that the tough, woody herb parts have boiled in. Anders thinks, for a moment, he’s gotten off reasonably lightly, but then she’s looking at him again with that peculiar, speculative expression in her eyes.

So,” Selby says, as he bites his lip and tries to focus on pouring out the copper without spilling the blindweed everywhere, “about this Hawke of yours.”

He’s not—” Anders begins, as the sodden herbs splosh out, all rough stems and greenish pap. It smells vile, and he wrinkles his nose.

What’s stopping you?” she demands. “Hm?”

He sighs as he upends the copper, tipping the last of the water out, and swipes a hand around the warm belly of the metal, scooping out the last bits of herb.

I-I can’t. That’s all,” he mutters, flicking bits of blindweed off his fingers. “Everything I touch ends up… you know. Anyone I’m close to, I’m scared I’ll hurt, or put in danger. Hawke’s an apostate too, so he’s already at risk, and… I’d never forgive myself if anything happened.”

And what about if it didn’t?” Selby asks dryly. “Ain’t that just as bad?”

Anders blinks owlishly at her as he sets the copper down. She smirks and draws off the sieve, and says nothing as he helps her lift the vat and tip the water back into the copper, ready for the next batch. It’s still clean, or as good as, and they don’t waste resources here.

I—”

You give yourself too much credit,” Selby says, narrowing her eyes. “Every damn one of us is capable of fouling up, my boy. You’re not special in that respect.”

Together, they tip the blindweed into the now-empty vat, and Anders winces as he pours on the alcohol. He wants to bluster and weasel away from her words, but he has to admit she’s right… and her brusqueness does help. Selby sees the world in refreshingly crisp divisions of black and white, and he’s grateful for that sometimes.

I don’t know,” he says dubiously, looking to her for another small shove. “I mean, I wouldn’t want to hurt him.”

She smiles, her deep blue eyes twinkling lasciviously as the rough smell of the grog seeps through the air between them. “Oh, he looked like a big boy to me. What’s the harm, eh?”

Anders chuckles. She has a point. Tobias Hawke is well known across certain parts of the city for his ability to take care of himself… and that’s discounting most of Varric’s more imaginative stories. And he has made the first move. Numerous times, as a matter of fact. That is powerful stuff all by itself, as far as Anders is concerned. For so long, he’s played the cad, picked up fun where he found it and been the pursuer, the cheeky, winking rogue. Now he allows himself to admit it, he finds it has struck home with unexpected force to be the object of someone else’s attentions… especially an attractive man who makes no bones about his desire.

I say you should go for it,” Selby says, nudging him in the ribs again with one bony elbow. “Have a little fun.”

Anders smiles politely, but wringing the gesture out leaves a bad taste in his mouth. She doesn’t understand. People don’t. It’s not as if he can really explain about how Justice sees things—how he sees them. How they feel.

He doesn’t want fun. He wants… well, what he wants isn’t a good idea.

I’m going to ask him to come with us,” Anders says, and he doesn’t know for the life of him why. It’s a stupid thing to say, something he shouldn’t mention yet, because he just knows Selby won’t approve. Damn it, he’s barely made the decision himself. “At the end of the month. The Gallows run.”

Selby’s face stiffens, just as he knew it would.

Creer said we wasn’t doin’ ’em no more,” she says, her brow crumpling into a frown. “It’s too dangerous. We risk losing people every time, and the templars are getting wise. Creer said we were better off focusing our attentions on the north road and the docks, where they bring ’em in. Get ’em out before they get ’em in. For one, I agree.”

I don’t.” Anders shakes his head. “I don’t agree with a single mage being in that place… not when there are templars like Alrik on the loose.”

He swears he can feel the temperature of the room drop by several degrees. The look of irritation that swipes across Selby’s face is swift, and brutal, but then it softens into sympathy.

Anders… you’ve got to let that rest. He’ll get his, you know it, but don’t make it worse than it is.”

He scowls. “And how can it be worse, exactly? You know what he did, what he’s planning to—”

You have no proof of that!” Selby reminds him sharply, and the words slap Anders into silence, but the voice in his head is roaring.

Ser Alrik is one of those rotten eggs… one of those sadists who float to the top. And he must pay. We will have him for what he did.

After Karl died, Anders couldn’t let it be. He bribed and cajoled the information out of places he should have known better than to go fishing—and there were details he didn’t need to know. Details Justice didn’t need to hear. They fuelled everything for a while, made it worse… made it almost impossible, until he was—yes, all right, distracted—by the news about Hawke’s Deep Roads expedition, and how only Varric’s brother had made it back alive, and Tobias was lost, or dead, under the ground.

It was a shock, and it brought him back from the edge for a little while. Just long enough to remember that there were people who needed him, that—just because some sadistic bastard tortured and humiliated Karl until he was too weak to resist the Rite of Tranquillity, and just because a man like Hawke could die so senselessly, when Anders could have insisted on joining the expedition, and maybe protected him—other people’s small, everyday tragedies didn’t simply stop or go away. So he stayed. He tended the sick and nursed the dying, and healed the ones he could save. And that was something.

It wasn’t enough, but it was something.

Of course, Hawke came back. Surprised everyone… surprised Anders by the strength of his own reaction. He’d never imagined just hearing the news that Tobias was all right would have floored him the way it did.

He’ll believe me. After the things he’s seen, the things he’s done… he knows that, even if something sounds impossible, it might still be true.

Tobias might believe him, or he might not. Few others in the Underground do, and Anders blames himself for that. He was incandescent when he first reported back what he’d heard—the rumours about Ser Alrik’s great plan to turn every mage in the Marches Tranquil—and his brothers and sisters in the cause pursed their lips, furrowed their brows, and tutted in consternation. No one thought it possible, no one rose up in righteous fury… and then Selby took his arm, made him sit down, and gave him half a cup of watered wine, and he realised how loudly he’d been shouting.

He suspects some of them still think he’s mad.

Now, Anders bites his lower lip, and looks guardedly at Selby. “There’s enough to make me think it could happen,” he says, and the words chime like dark stones of prophecy against his ears. “Men like Alrik won’t stop until they’ve either yoked or killed every last one of us. Gethyn’s with me. He agrees.”

Her cheeks hollow just a little; she’s drawing breath to tell him he’s a fool. Ordinarily, he’d agree. Gethyn Drummer is one of them, yes, but the whole Underground knows he is a firebrand set with a hair trigger, unreliable and unpredictable. And they don’t know Hawke at all… only as the man Anders has dragged along to a couple of meetings, and who has dropped more coin on the cell than any new face should, apostate or no. Some of them probably think he’s a plant by the templars or the viscount’s administration—and he does have too much to do with the guard and the city officials to be considered safe enough to hear much of the Underground’s really sensitive information—but they don’t know him like Anders does.

It doesn’t matter, in any case. Anders trusts him. Anders would trust him with his life and—if they are going to enter The Gallows, instead of pulling back from those missions, the way their self-appointed leader, Elias Creer, would apparently like—he can’t think of anyone he’d rather have fighting beside him.

Anyway, he figures Hawke probably owes him one after messing around with all those bloody bandits. 

———————————
Chapter 6
———————————
Back to A Canticle of Arguments: Contents
———————————
Home
———————————

Leave a Reply