Anders explores some new experiences, and pushes his luck a little too far.
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Fumbling with the door handle, his fingers shaking and his palms wet, Anders let himself into the storeroom and shut the door behind him, desperately glad of somewhere to hide.
The place wasn’t disused, like the old supply room he and Karl still frequented so often, and yet it was a regular surreptitious meeting place for mages and apprentices alike: a few broken clay pipes and stubbed-out cloutweed papers attested to that, while the barrels and boxes the room held had been pushed around to make convenient seats.
Anders collapsed onto one of the crates furthest away from the door, muffling his mouth with both sleeves, and finally let himself laugh without restraint. He laughed convulsively, with great hysterical hiccoughs, until his lungs burned and fresh tears streamed from his eyes. He pressed his sleeves to his face, choking himself with the fabric, stifling his snorts, and tried to think of a way to tell people.
Hey! Guess what the templars get up to during penance?
Psst… d’you know who really loves Andraste?
You know, one thing about religion is the joy it brings to people. I’ve never seen a templar look so happy as this time I happened to see—
So, two templars walk into a chapel….
No. No matter how he said it, no one would believe him. He wouldn’t have believed it if he hadn’t just seen it with his own eyes. Maker, Anders wasn’t sure he did believe it, despite his own eyes….
The sodding templars were all mad—completely bloody mad!—but no one would believe him. The idiocy of it all slowly began to sink in as the giggles subsided, and left him with a rather chillier sensation.
They’re all mad… all completely off their rockers… and they’re still the ones with the swords.
Oh, but we’re doomed, aren’t we?
He sat there for a long while, hugging himself in the quiet of the storeroom, and trying to imagine what it was like to feel that blind, dislocating kind of devotion, so intense and dangerous. He couldn’t understand it. For Anders, religion had never felt that real. No matter how hard he’d prayed—and he had, a few times; prayed with the desperate zeal known only to those facing imminent death or true terror—he’d never felt the balm of holy munificence, or even that there was anyone there to listen. Andraste had never been more than a graven image to him, a beautiful face cast in wood, marble, or bronze, and frankly, if she had ascended to the Maker’s side after her death, Anders couldn’t see why she’d bother with the world now.
The statues weren’t real, anyway. They weren’t the real woman; not even images of her. How did anyone know what she’d looked like, or what she’d really thought? Time wore away at everything, changed the events into legends and stories… and history was just stories written by the winners.
No, Anders had little time for gods, and even less for their self-appointed voices. He’d always felt there was something unhealthy about the Chantry, something repressive about the sanctity the priests seemed to find in telling everyone else what they weren’t allowed to do. No sex, no magic, no selfish vice… they held a mirror up to the world, and tried to cut away all the pieces of the reflection they didn’t like.
It was no wonder that all the templars went bonkers.
Anders started then, catching his breath at the sound of movement outside the door. Fear shot through him like lightning: how could he have been so stupid as not to listen? He stared, bug-eyed, as the door rattled and began to open. He was trapped. Nowhere to go, and he shouldn’t be in here, and if a templar glared at him right now he was just going to laugh in their face… in fact, he wasn’t sure he’d ever manage to look at one again without laughing so hard he’d be in danger of pissing himself… and that was a really dangerous thing to do in front of a man with a big shiny blade.
A dark-haired girl poked her head around the door and nearly screamed when she saw him, leaping back as if he was a demon.
“It’s all right,” Anders assured her, holding up his hands. “It’s all right.”
“Oh….” She seemed to relax, and slipped into the storeroom, visibly shaken as she closed the door behind her. “Sorry. I thought it was empty. I… I come in here sometimes, to just…. Are you all right?”
She had a slight accent, he noticed. There was something familiar about it: a few traces of clipped consonants and short vowels that echoed in his head, though more than that he couldn’t place.
Anders wiped the back of his hand across his cheek, realising how he must look to her: red-faced and tear-sodden, like he’d popped in here for a breathless crying jag.
“Fine,” he said, brushing the last of the wetness away. How was she supposed to know he’d been laughing himself stupid? “Did you, uh, want to be on your own? I can always—”
“No,” she said quickly, sitting down on one of the barrels by the door. “No, I don’t mind. D’you want a smoke?”
He wasn’t sure what to say, but she was already taking off her shoe, and removing a small leather pouch from the toe of her slipper. She opened it up with slender, dextrous fingers, and pulled out a selection of small squares of paper, and a large pinch of cloutweed, its dried greyish green fibres knotting together like horsehair.
Ooh… quite the little rule-breaker, aren’t we?
He said nothing as she began to roll the weed up in the papers, forming a loose cylindrical bundle, as she’d evidently done many, many times before. He felt a little vulnerable in the face of such experience. Vulnerable, but… interested. She was rather pretty, too, all things considered. Slim, with lightly tanned skin and dark eyes, and her dark brown hair looped at the back of her neck, like a soft, shiny rope fastened with a blue wooden comb.
She watched him while she rolled the papers.
“My name’s Ilsa. What’s yours?”
“Anders,” he said, and she pulled a face, turning her mouth down at the corners as if she didn’t believe him.
“Really? And are you? From the Anderfels?”
He blinked, unused to thinking about it, or answering questions like that. He’d been just ‘Anders’ for years now, and people had stopped asking him his real name… not even the enchanters bothered to write him up as anything else.
“Once,” he said. “I mean, yes… originally.”
Ilsa nodded approvingly. “Me too. Fremde in einem fremden Ort, ja?”
He shifted awkwardly, embarrassed at not knowing the words. He should have done. Her voice, her short vowels and sharp consonants… they were his mother’s, and they struck out from so very long ago, but it was like the memories themselves were wrapped in cloth, and everything was muffled.
She smiled, and sniffed philosophically. “Strangers. In a strange place. You and I… that’s what we are. How long have you been here?”
“Coming on three years,” he said, as nonchalantly as he could manage. She looked at him oddly, just like people always did when he said that.
“That’s not long. I’ve been here since I was ten years old.”
“Yeah?” Anders nodded as Ilsa put the bundle of papers between her lips and, with a flick of her fingers, pulled a small flame from the air.
“Mm-hm.” She cupped the flame in her hand, guiding it gently as if it was a small child, and brought it to the end of the cloutweed roll-up, still holding the papers pinched securely together with the fingers of her other hand. “Still, I would have thought I’d have seen you around. Wait… wait a minute!” Her eyes narrowed as she drew deeply on the cylinder, bringing the bundle flaring into life, and then she took it from her lips, the spicy smoke spooling from her mouth as she grinned. “It was you, wasn’t it? You’re the one who blew up that pie in Enchanter Lennox’s class on fire and convection! Hah! There’s still a mark on the ceiling in the north lecture room.”
Ilsa laughed delightedly, and Anders did his best to try and look modest.
“Well, you know how it is…. Someone had to do it.”
She moved a few seats closer, stretching out to pass him the roll-up, and he took it gingerly, pinching the loose papers closed and trying to pretend that he’d smoked one before. Ilsa didn’t seem to notice his inexperience.
“And you were the one who tried to stow away in that Orlesian boat, weren’t you? And called that templar a nug-fucker? Hmm….” Her grin widened. “Oh, I’m pleased to have met you. Bloody bucket-heads need a few more kicks in the balls, if you ask me.”
Anders had put the roll-up between his lips, and he drew tentatively on it as she spoke, not really expecting the bitterness of the smoke that filled his mouth. He breathed out quickly and tried not to cough, but it was too late. The tickle of it got right into the back of his throat, dragging a spasming, explosive hawk from him, which just made Ilsa laugh again.
“Don’t get to smoke much, then?”
He shook his head, his eyes watering. “Nn-nn.”
Ilsa just grinned. “That’s all right. You have that one on me. So… you got some time free?”
She rested her palms on the edge of the crate as she spoke, her arms very straight by her sides, pressed close to her body, and her head cocked at an angle. She swung her feet listlessly, and Anders didn’t really recognise the signals at first. He shrugged.
“A bit,” he said, not quite understanding the look she was giving him, or the empty sort of edge on her smile.
“That’s good. So have I.”
He took another tentative pull on the roll-up, prepared for the smoke this time and stiffening his throat against it. That helped, and he let the smell and the taste of it—this new, strange sourness that made his head unaccountably light—fill him up completely. After a few minutes, his chest started to feel warm and fuzzy, and the sleeves of his robes seemed to slip against his arms like finely spun silk. It was a dislocating sort of sensation, and so he tried to grab at the first logical thing to pop up in his head.
“Isn’t… ahem… isn’t everyone still at dinner? I thought they’d be down there for ages.”
Ilsa wrinkled her nose. “I left after the terrine. Bored out of my skull, and it was Lumpy Betties for afters. I hate custard. Said I needed the privy, and never went back.”
Anders grinned. “Great minds think alike.”
She shuffled along the crates, leaned closer and—rather suddenly, Anders felt, because somehow he hadn’t seen it coming—kissed him.
Her mouth was a bitter print of cloutweed, spicy and sour. He hadn’t really been expecting it, and he wasn’t sure he wanted it, but it was a new experience and—especially with his senses a little hazy from the smoking—Anders had to admit he was all about new experiences. It felt very different to kissing Karl. Wetter, and… slower, he realised, like it was a thing he was doing rather than feeling.
Ilsa took hold of his hand and pressed it against her right breast. He could feel the shape of it beneath her robes, straining at the fabric, and it was so firm, and yet so yielding under his fingers. He gave it an experimental squeeze, and she moaned into his mouth, and that… that really was all right. He dropped the cloutweed at that point, and the bundle of papers scattered from his fingers, sprinkling glowing embers and hot ash all over his sleeve and the right half of his robes. Anders broke away from her, cussing and batting out the sparks, but Ilsa just laughed. She did that a lot, he realised; he rather liked it.
“Stop messing about,” she said, giving him a curiously focused look as she reached across to help him brush the last of the ash off his front. “We haven’t got long.”
Anders started to frame a reply, but then she was standing up—climbing up, really, standing over him, straddling him with her feet on the edges of two of the crates—and then suddenly she was sitting in his lap, kissing him again, and rolling her hips like an ocean. Her breasts pressed against his chest, and she smelled of cloutweed and white soap, and the heady, sweet smells of the potions laboratory. His body responded to her without question, without hesitation or thought, but she was the one to reach down between them, pulling up her robes and taking his hand again, pressing it impatiently between her legs. She didn’t have any smallclothes on.
He nearly panicked then. He had no idea what to do. She moved against him, and she was all softness and slickness where he didn’t expect it—and so much heat!—and she buried her face in his neck, laughing softly as she crouched across him.
“Oh, Andraste’s tears… don’t tell me you’re a sodding virgin…!”
Shame and embarrassment flooded hotly into Anders’ cheeks as he tried to stammer a denial, because of course he wasn’t, because… because of Karl… but thinking about Karl right at this moment really wasn’t very helpful.
Ilsa pushed his robes up anyway, and he helped her, and she turned aside his underwear and took hold of him with a firm, determined sort of grasp, which helped matters exponentially, and then—somehow, in some sudden, unexpected, impossible way—they were actually doing it: coupling awkwardly with nothing but the bare necessities… well, bared… and it was electrifyingly naughty.
At first, he thought maybe that was what he liked—this dirty, fumbling awkwardness that was so very basic and instinctual—but he quickly realised there was an even simpler explanation. It just felt good… and Anders didn’t care who she was, or who he was, because in those few moments neither of them existed. They were outside the Tower, away from the stones and the walls, and this snatched, greedy pleasure was something the templars couldn’t touch. The crates rocked and chalked against the stone floor, and Ilsa’s robes rustled as she bounced determinedly, making sets of tiny little squeaking noises behind her teeth. He lost himself in it, in her, and in the blind elation of pleasure.
It didn’t take very long at all.
Once it was over and she got off him, shaking her robes down and smirking at him with mild contempt, the act was nothing but a memory… and the—what had she called them?—the bucket-heads couldn’t take that, either. Even if they made you Tranquil, they couldn’t take your past away.
“I’ll see you around, Fremde,” Ilsa said, and those were the only words she had for him before she left the storeroom.
It felt a bit odd, but Anders felt very odd generally at that point, and he supposed that this was people smoked that stuff… and did that. He felt unreal, like the edges of his existence had bled out into the rest of the world, and he could see and feel far beyond his own bounds. It was big, and wide, and wonderful in the way that staring out over the lake by moonlight was wonderful… but then he had the window ledge to lean on. He didn’t feel so rootless, so unfettered, or so close to falling.
He waited a while to be sure she’d gone before he slunk out down the corridor, only to realise when the chantry bells struck time on the floor above that he was late for evening service. Of course, at the thought of chapel, all the memories of the young templar, Edven, came rushing back, and Anders sagged against the wall, light-headed and giggling again. He felt very giggly: loose-jointed and like nothing could really be serious, not even this great wideness the world had now. His mind was full of the desecration of Andraste’s graven image, and the feel of Ilsa’s breasts, and he couldn’t stop laughing about either.
Maker’s breath… how am I even going to walk in there with a straight face?
He was halfway to the chapel—still sniggering in intermittent bursts, though feeling a lot more stable—when he went dizzy. It was much worse than it had been in the storeroom, and it came on in a sudden rush: a lurch in his head like the pitching of the entire corridor some degrees to the side. Anders had to lean heavily against a conveniently placed statue of some long-dead Knight-Captain to stop himself from falling. His stomach lurched and, for a brief yet horrible moment, his mouth tasted of cloutweed-flavoured vomit.
The nasal voice rang out along the hallways, bouncing with auditory violence off the stones and hitting Anders’ head like a blade. He groaned.
“What do you think you’re doing?”
What does it look like, you idiot? I’m hanging onto… onto… who is this? “Knight-Captain Ederic Montfort”… Yes. Right. I’m hanging onto Ederic Montfort’s kneecap and trying not to pass out, puke, or both. Now bugger off.
He didn’t think he’d said it out loud but, while the world was still pitching and quivering in interesting shades of puce, lilac, and electric blue, it was really quite hard to tell. Anders peered up muzzily, and saw with sinking dread the figure of Enchanter Calthorpe bearing down upon him.
“This is no place for messing around!” the mage cried, his highly embellished pale blue robes rustling around him like the wings of a skinny and especially officious bird. “You should be in chapel. Why are you late?”
He looked down his not inconsiderable nose at Anders, bald pate glimmering and heavy-lidded, bright blue eyes shining with the impatience of accusation.
“Well?” the man demanded shrilly.
“Feel sick, ser,” Anders managed, not sure unclenching his teeth was really a very good idea. “An’ dizzy. Really, really dizzy….”
Calthorpe took a step backwards, and slightly to the side. “Are you ill?”
No, this is what I’m always like. Bloody genius….
“Think so, ser,” he ground out, swallowing heavily. “Might need to go to the—oooh dear—san.”
The enchanter’s nostrils flared, and he leaned over Anders, inhaling suspiciously. His mouth twisted as pulled back, giving him a full-on gimlet-eyed glare. It was exactly the same one with which he fixed Anders in Entropy classes, on the regular occasions he had messed up tests or failed to produce papers he was supposed to have written.
“You have ash burns on your robes, young man. And I detect a strong odour of foetent viriditas, if I am not mistaken!”
Anders winced. Was it that obvious?
Well, anyone with a nose like that is bound to pick things up. Bloody bastard….
“Stand up!” Calthorpe snapped. “Stand up this minute!”
He obeyed, swaying unsteadily, and tried very hard not to be sick on the man. He had no idea why he felt like this. He hadn’t felt like when he’d smoked the roll-up… not so much, anyway. Was this how it was meant to come on? He wasn’t sure, and he wished he hadn’t touched it, or touched Ilsa—and then, suddenly, he was thinking, in horribly vivid terms, about her bouncing up and down on top of him, and he was appalled to find himself sporting an inconvenient semi-erection that wouldn’t go away, even though Enchanter Calthorpe had started shouting at him.
Somewhere through the odd and rather disturbing haze that seemed to envelop him—and, frankly, had begun to frighten him—Anders was aware of the man’s red-faced fury. He heard some of the words. Things about disrespect, foolishness, and flagrant abuse of the Tower’s rules seemed to form part of the vituperative roaring and, embarrassed, dizzy, and a bit scared by this sense of being so divorced from the world, Anders lowered his head. That was when he noticed the wet patch that those exertions in the storeroom had apparently left on his robes.
Calthorpe appeared to have noticed that too, because now he was calling Anders names, and shrieking in a rather wild-eyed manner about fornication, which just seemed to suggest to Anders that the enchanter didn’t have the opportunities or the friends to fornicate with… and, on reflection, out of all the words he could possibly have chosen to slur at that point, those were not the best ones.
He was dimly aware of a couple of templars appearing at the end of the corridor—either on patrol or just seeing what the noise was about—just before Enchanter Calthorpe raised an arm and gave him a ringing back-handed slap across the cheek.
It surprised Anders, and surprised his stomach, which promptly emptied itself over the enchanter’s embroidered slippers.
Less than ten minutes later, Anders found himself—escorted by Enchanter Calthorpe and the two concerned templars—being marched into First Enchanter Irving’s office.
It did not go well.
Refusal to admit he had indeed been smoking a contraband substance and engaging in illicit relations, much less say with whom, or where and how he had obtained the cloutweed, left Irving—so he said, in his usual gravelly, sober manner—with little choice. Privately, Anders suspected it wasn’t his disobedience so much as Enchanter Calthorpe practically hopping from foot to smelly, slightly damp foot and squealing encouragement that meant he had to be punished but, either way, there was a principle involved.
Irving gave him the statutory ‘one last chance to come clean’, and perhaps even intimated that—as there had been a young lady involved—he would be understanding, but Anders maintained his silence. He didn’t know Ilsa, and he didn’t really want to repeat what he’d done with her, but that didn’t mean it was all right to give them the satisfaction of saying a single word about it. So, he just shook his head, and said nothing.
He didn’t flinch or yelp very much during the caning… just laid his hands out on the First Enchanter’s desk, and stared into space while he counted the strokes. They weren’t that hard, and didn’t really split the skin much. It was meant to be a lasting reminder more than anything; you’d be sore every time you cast a spell for weeks, even after the lacerations healed, and maybe it was a not-so-subtle allusion to the fact that, if a mage truly was convicted of a crime, then he could have his hands cut off… because they were weapons. They were weapons, and the Circle had the right to beat them, tie them up, or tell the law to take them away.
Anders thought about that as Irving so seriously administered his punishment. Enchanter Calthorpe stood to the side, his eyes wide with some twisted kind of vicarious thrill, and his enormous nostrils quivering like a horse that had scented blood. There was a bit of blood. Anders apologised politely for it as it dripped onto the inlaid leather top of the First Enchanter’s desk, and Irving gave him a very dark, very strange look.
There’s power in blood. They all tell you that—tell you about how terrible blood magic is, and why it’s so forbidden—and then they beat you ‘til you bleed, and wait to see if you’re tempted. That’s the game, isn’t it?
Oh, he did feel it, very briefly. As the blood seeped from his hands and the cane’s sting bit into his flesh, there was a shift under his skin. Power, and magic, and the distant breath of demons.
Anders regarded it with precisely the same bored cynicism that he turned on the two elder mages when he asked if Irving had finished.
He hadn’t, of course. There was the matter of a full disciplinary punishment. Three days of solitary confinement out of dorms, with no privileges.
Ooh, serious stuff, then… I’m quaking. Really.
“I would not normally insist on so severe a penalty,” Irving said, frowning gravely at him, “but you show continued disregard for the rules, my boy. This is far from your first infraction.”
Anders’ insolent smirk didn’t waver.
“Yes, ser,” he said, his red-striped hands hanging meekly at his sides. “I know, ser. But I do keep practising, and I think I’m getting better at it.”
“You see?” Calthorpe practically screeched. “You see? I was tasked with misfortune of trying to educate this smart-mouthed whelp for an entire term! He learns nothing, and does nothing but cause trouble!”
Irving didn’t crack a smile, but he didn’t acknowledge the enchanter, either.
“You would be advised to desist,” he said, glaring at Anders from beneath his extremely impressive eyebrows. “You will not be an apprentice forever, child. And this foolishness must end, before you seek your own destruction.”
Anders pouted, mainly at being called ‘child’. “Not seeking destruction, ser,” he said sullenly. “Just wanted to feel alive.”
Calthorpe bristled and muttered something about ‘subversive behaviour’. First Enchanter Irving sighed wearily, and waved a hand towards the door.
“Wait outside. You will be escorted downstairs shortly. I only hope you learn something from this, my boy… I take no pleasure in it.”
He scrawled his signature on a hastily written note and thrust it towards Anders, who took it gingerly. His hands had started to hurt now that the numbness had worn off the cane marks.
Three days in solitary. What does that actually mean, anyway? The box probably isn’t that bad. I mean, it’s a room to myself. A room to myself can’t be bad. And three days isn’t as long as they made me work with the Tranquil. So that’s something… right?
The door to the First Enchanter’s study swung closed behind him, and he stood beside the stone pilasters that flanked it, waiting for the allotted templar to collect him. It turned out to be Ser Maurais, who eyed Anders wearily, then tutted and shook his head.
“What have you done now, then?”
“Me?” Anders widened his eyes, and put one bloodied hand to the chest of his robes, fingers spread wide. “Nothing! Picture of innocence, I am, ser.”
The templar snorted and, with a glance at the cane stripes on his hands, gestured him to move off.
“You were not born innocent, boy. Come on.”
Anders dwelled on that one as Ser Maurais marched him down to what the apprentices darkly referred to as ‘the box’: the containment and isolation cells, reserved for punishment and, should it ever be needed, confinement of dangerous mages.
I was born a mage. Does that count as non-innocent, or non-human? Or did you just mean me as an individual… you can’t have meant that, because that would involve actually seeing mages as people, so—
His nonchalant smirk began to falter, the further down the Tower they got. The staircases grew narrower, and the torches fewer, and Anders’ footsteps began to slow. Ser Maurais nudged him in the back with the heel of one gauntleted hand.
“Come along. I’ve got better things to do than babysit you for own stupidity all day.”
“I… I’ve never been in here before,” Anders said, his voice turning a little thin as they reached the lower corridor. It was awfully dark, and the cell doors seemed to stretch away into eternity.
“Then maybe you’ll learn something,” the templar said curtly, leading him to a blank iron door that he wrenched open with an ominous creak. “In you go. You are permitted to make your own light, but there are enchantments on the doors, so no other spells. Someone will bring food later.”
Ser Maurais gave him another light shove, sending him stumbling into the dark, narrow space the door bounded. Anders stumbled, his leather slippers scudding on the stones, and panic started to well in him, as if everything that had led up to this—the girl, and the cloutweed, and all that inward contemplation—hadn’t really been real. The room was awfully small. And dark.
“But… but what if I need to—”
“There is a bucket,” Ser Maurais said shortly.
He was right: there was. A bucket, a narrow pallet with a single blanket… and nothing else. Anders’ throat bobbed rapidly and he turned to the templar, searching desperately for something to say; some way of snatching back control over this strange slice of insanity that appeared to be spiralling away out of his grasp.
“You’ll be fine,” Ser Maurais assured him briskly, already beginning to close the door.
The light from the last torch on the last wall sconce at the end of the corridor danced dimly against the man’s armour, outlining his broad body with a soft corona that Anders somehow couldn’t bear to see subsumed by the shadows. The panic grabbed him by the throat, the seeping darkness like cold, wet wool on his skin. He’d do anything, say anything… anything at all, if it meant not being left alone here.
“But I-I…. Please…. Wait—”
The templar gave him a small, hard, awkward kind of smile, his ridiculous little pencil-thin moustache quirking above his upper lip, and then the light died around him, and the door closed with a dull, metallic clank.
Anders felt his mouth go slack around the word, his voice fading away into the shadows. It was really very dark, and there was a feeling of dampness on the air that, he knew from previous unpleasant experiences, was going to become extremely uncomfortable after a few hours.
All I did was throw up on that officious twat…. This really doesn’t seem fair.
He let out a long breath and, raising one slightly shaky hand, conjured a small sphere of light from the darkness. The little ball glowed dimly, illuminating the stonework and, briefly, the scuttling shape of some kind of beetle that disappeared beneath the pallet. Anders stifled a whimper.
They probably hadn’t meant an entire three days. They weren’t going to leave him down here for that long.