Despite what Karl said, Anders couldn’t adjust to it. He couldn’t just accept the fact that there was no choice, no freedom… no option.
The way Karl seemed able to believe in it bewildered him. He wouldn’t have thought anyone who was willing to question so many of the templars’ stupid rules would so blindly take the things they were taught about the Circle at face value, but Karl did. He defended it, parroted back the same benign platitudes the priests and the enchanters fed them, and that enraged Anders.
They argued over it. First time they’d really fallen out over anything, and it wasn’t exactly private.
“It’s not fair!” Anders protested, flinging out a hand to encompass the entirety of the junior common room, and the pinched, high little windows in the far wall. “It’s a sop to the rest of them, that’s all it is! Ignorant, stupid bastards who’ll never be anything other than ignorant, stupid bastards, because they’re never given the chance to learn, because we all get shut up places like this to protect their delicate little sensibilities!”
A couple of the apprentices sitting at the various desks and tables that dotted the room shot him wary or censorious looks. One haughty, horse-faced girl scowled, so he stuck his tongue out at her and, ostensibly offended, she pursed her lips and swept off to do whatever it was haughty, horse-faced girls did. Probably in the library, he reckoned. He didn’t care… he just cared that all these bloody people were there, in his way while he was trying to be annoyed.
Ordinarily, Karl would either have laughed or affectionately told him to behave and stop teasing the locals. He didn’t do either; he just looked very solemnly at Anders, his brow wrinkled in consternation.
Anders sighed and let his hand drop to the edge of the table he was sitting on. His feet were propped on a wooden chair with a square back, very much like the one Karl was currently occupying, and Anders rocked it irritably, flexing his ankles so the chair wobbled on two legs… the way they always got nagged at for doing in class.
“I don’t know if it’s ‘sensibilities’,” Karl said doubtfully, his voice rather lower than Anders’. “I mean, all right, you’ve got a point. People are nervous of mages because they’re not familiar with us, but—”
“They’re not nervous,” Anders snapped, glaring down at him. “They’re bloody terrified! They believe we’re dangerous, that we need to be locked up… and the Chantry does nothing to change that.”
Karl had his arms folded on the table, leaning forwards with the warm glow of fire and lamplight behind him, catching at the patterning on his robes and outlining his broad shoulders. A muscle twitched in his square, firm jaw, and a small curl of reprove touched his lips.
“Well, most people can’t set other people on fire, you have to admit,” he said, with a dry and infuriating calmness. “At least, not without the aid of some lamp oil, a tinderbox, and maybe a bit of dry kindling. We do have an advantage.”
Anders wanted to kick him in the head. And kiss him. And yell at him, and argue, and touch him… possibly all at the same time.
“You really think that, then?” he demanded. “You think we’re all automatically dangerous enough to warrant locking up?”
Karl sighed. “That’s an overstatement. The Circle is here to provide instruction and security and, yes, I agree with that. Mages need to learn how to control their powers, and that takes years of study. You can’t argue with that. I mean, the enchantments on this building alone—the doors, the stones themselves—not to mention the presence of the templars—”
“Oh, yes!” Anders sneered. “Oh, goody, let’s not forget them!”
“—provide more safety,” Karl continued, determinedly talking over him, “than any apprentice could hope to find if he stayed with his family. Not to mention all the access we have to world-class scholarship, the opportunities to study magic in all its forms….”
A note of awe had entered his voice, the way it always did when he talked about the big conferences in Cumberland, or the treatises that occasionally trickled out of Tevinter and made it past the Imperial Chantry’s censors.
Anders wanted to be bitter about it, but he understood that interest in academia. He shared it, really; another of Karl’s passions that had somehow leached into his identity. He’d shown Anders how to study, how to turn problems around in his mind until he didn’t just see how to weasel out of them in the quickest and easiest way, but how to deconstruct them and find out how they worked. Karl wanted to study some esoteric branch of spirit magic after his Harrowing. He already had it planned… and part of Anders resented him for it.
“Is it worth it, though?” he asked hollowly.
Karl looked faintly confused. “What?”
Anders scoffed. Knots of students hung around the common room, chatting and milling about between the great stone arches of doorways—forever open, each guarded by a pair of templars—and the fireplace, and all he could think was that they were like cattle, wandering aimlessly around a field and mooing at each other.
“Being taken from your family,” he said, and though the words were quiet, they dripped with venom. “Having it all done by force. No one explains, no one says why… they just take you, and you can’t refuse, and they won’t even let you say goodbye. Is it worth that?”
He stared at the scattering of apprentices, all in their nice, neat, clean robes; all smiling, talking, learning. No mud, no running, no draughty hut that wasn’t home, and no very, very tired smile on his mother’s face when she said it was all right, and that none of it was his fault, although he knew she was lying.
Karl’s voice was tinged with concern, and his hand moved to Anders’ knee, a conciliatory touch through the slippery fabric of his robes. The warmth of it reached down to his bones, and the sound of that one word made his gut tighten… even though it wasn’t truly his name. Not his real name.
He’d been so scared, when they took him from the village. Too scared to talk to anyone, and the farmer who’d finally sold them out hadn’t even known the family’s names anyway. They’d been running for months. ‘Anders’ had echoed first from the metal mouth of some faceless templar. Leave the last two—the little elf and the Anders—on the wagon for the night. Just a stop along the road, just one of many, but it had been his first night away from the people who loved him. They’d pulled up by a coaching inn that didn’t have enough room for everyone, and left him alone in the dark in a closed wagon with bars on the back, and an elf-child who cried himself sick because he didn’t know where he was, and only spoke broken Common Tongue.
There wasn’t much point in explaining it all to Karl, he realised. Mostly everybody in the Tower had a sob story—loving fathers and doting mothers who’d wept when they said farewell—but it was amazing how similar the descriptions sounded. Almost everyone’s mother was beautiful, for a start, and most of the fathers were firm yet kind, probably with twinkly blue eyes. They were memories, yes… but they were honed down, polished by years of forgetting.
Some people remembered. A lot of the elves did, he’d found, but they weren’t worth talking to about it because, to them, they’d died and gone to the Golden City itself the moment they stepped into the Tower.
Anders supposed he’d think the same, if his earliest memories were of alienage slums. The Circle fed and clothed and cared for its children, and made no distinction between races. Being a mage was probably the best thing that could happen to an elf, at least in a certain light. It was the only way people like them would ever know any kind of equality, anyway… and that made him just as angry as the fact any of them were taken at all.
“You know,” Karl said softly, squeezing his knee again in order to attract his attention, “I went through exactly the same thing.”
Anders pulled away from his touch, properly irritable now. “Oh? Really?”
Karl nodded, apparently pretending to miss the sarcasm that dripped from the words. “Yes. Really. A lot of us do miss our families, even if we did have rough times before we left them. The Revered Mother said something that—”
“Oh, Maker’s cock….” Anders rolled his eyes theatrically. “Please, spare me.”
“—I found helpful,” Karl continued, frowning at him. “You know, priests don’t get a choice either, a lot of the time. Children get given to the Chantry, just the way we get given to the Circle.”
“Hmph.” Anders rocked the chair again, enjoying the way its legs bucked against the stones, and made a noise that echoed around the chamber. It was a small rebellion, but it was disturbing a couple of people from their reading, and he felt a childish sense of triumph for that. “My heart positively bleeds for them.”
“She said we find our family in the people around us,” Karl said meaningfully. “And she said we all have a purpose. It’s not what it is that matters, but how we choose to fulfil it; to fight what we’re meant for, or to embrace it and make the most of it.”
Somewhere behind Anders’ eyes, a small thatched hut burned, and his mother’s voice screamed the name that he had sworn he was never going to tell anyone, because it was the only thing he had left that truly belonged to him.
It wasn’t him anymore, anyway. He might have lost the accent a long while ago, but the nickname had stuck, and what was he now except Anders the mage apprentice? There was nothing else to be. Nothing else except that great glaring brand of it—robes, soft shoes, pale skin—and sometimes he thought the templars might as well really brand them, just make every last one of them Tranquil. It might even be kinder to be dead inside than to look at all this hypocrisy and unfairness and know that this would be it, for the rest of his life.
He scowled, and swallowed heavily against the tightness in his throat. Over by the fireplace, a gaggle of girls were braiding each other’s hair. One of them blushed deeply as a dark-haired elven boy walked past—evidently just back from the library with an armful of books clutched to his chest—and the whole lot of them dissolved into giggles. The elf looked panicky and made a dive for the nearest unoccupied desk, and Anders stared at the entire scene and felt like he could explode… just, all of him, bursting into a great column of flame that would rip his skin to pieces and leave nothing behind but a few flakes of ash and a scorch mark on the table.
“Oh, right,” he said dully, “that makes it all fine, does it? We mustn’t fight it, because it’s for our own good. So, we just shut up and agree, because clearly the Chantry has our best interests at heart, and we’re too busy being dangers to the entirety of Thedas to be able to understand.”
“Fine.” Karl sighed and held up his hands before letting them thump impatiently to the scarred tabletop. “I can’t talk to you when you’re like this. I’ll go back to my dorm, catch up on some reading.”
He started to stand up, and that struck at Anders with brutal viciousness. He kicked out, sending the chair under his feet clattering to the stone floor.
“Nothing excuses the lying!” he snapped, halting Karl in mid-rise. “It’s not about safety, it’s about control! It’s all the bloody secrecy… that’s what poisons everything! Do you know what it’s like to be spat on? To run from place to place in case they find you? To have your whole village curse your name because of what you are?”
He could hear the note of whining hysteria in his voice, and he hated it, but he couldn’t stop it. People were really staring now. One of the templars would be in any minute to see who was flinging chairs, Anders suspected. Karl’s face stiffened, but he just carried on getting up and walking calmly from the common room.
Anders saw red. He jumped off the table and stalked after Karl, trying to goad him back into a fight, oblivious to all the wide-eyed faces and the sniggering, behind-the-hand gossip.
“People aren’t nervous of mages, Karl!” he repeated. “They’re terrified! They hate us, because they don’t understand us, and they don’t understand us because we’re dragged off as soon as anyone finds out what we are, and they lock us up and we never get out!”
Karl’s shoulders tensed, and he half-turned. “That’s not tr—”
“It is! It bloody well is! Oh, no… don’t you tell me you really think two conferences a year, or maybe some cushy gig playing private physician to a hypochondriac nobleman with no chin is actually having a real life? Because that’s complete—”
Karl whirled around as they got to the common room’s south door, and an anger Anders had never seen on him before marked his features. His blue eyes, so often bright with cheerful mischief, had clouded to a dark, foreboding grey, and his mouth was a hard, furled line.
“It’s a way to make things better, isn’t it?” He jabbed an accusatory finger at Anders. “What are you going to do, huh? I mean, I’m not pretending the Circle’s perfect—you know what I think—but just ranting and railing about it doesn’t help change anything!”
The clank of armour filtered into Anders’ peripheral hearing, and just made him angrier. The beauty of the Circle: where you weren’t even allowed to have an argument without templar intervention.
“I don’t want to change anything,” he complained. “I just want to get out!”
And he did. More than he ever had before. He didn’t know why—why now, why this particular moment should be so unbearable, or what had set it all off except the throttling, awful pressure of people all around him. It never stopped, just went on and on, and nothing ever changed; it just slid away into this empty, endless pool of time, and they were nothing but vapid, mute cattle, corralled and raised like meat.
Karl’s frown deepened, and he curled his lip in distaste. “Well, that’s pretty bloody selfish, isn’t it?”
“Fuck selfish!” Anders yelled, shortly before a gauntleted hand landed on his shoulder. “Fuck the Circle, fuck you, and fuck everything!”
“That is quite enough,” said a rounded male voice, with just a hint of an Orlesian accent. “Come along, now. Time to cool off, I think.”
The hand closed firmly on the back of Anders’ robe, and he knew he should just have taken it. He shouldn’t fight back, because that was stupid and futile and they were in charge anyway. If they said jump, you did it, and you didn’t stop to ask how high until you were already in the air.
It felt almost like a dream, like he was watching himself through other eyes. Karl’s eyes, maybe… which widened in disbelief and horror as Anders wrenched away from the gauntleted hand, twisting and kicking and spitting some of the most creative swearwords he knew.
He raised his hand, fingers curled into a fist—he wanted to smack the bugger in the face, nothing more than that, no magic, no fireball-flinging—but Ser Maurais was surprisingly quick for a man wearing a large metal suit. He grabbed Anders’ wrist, hard, and twisted, applying just enough pressure to just the right point to hold him completely and effectively by that one agonising grip.
Anders’ knees started to buckle as white-hot pain flared through his arm. He gritted his teeth, wincing beneath the templar’s unflinching hold, and staring into an impassive, unblemished face, marked by an expression of arch serenity… and a silly, pencil-thin moustache.
Ser Maurais tightened his grasp just a little further, and Anders let out a whimper.
“Nug-fucker!” he yelped.
On reflection, there might have been better things to say.
The templar turned him around, jerked the trapped arm up between his shoulder blades and, with tears blistering behind his eyes, Anders found himself marched unceremoniously from the chamber. He was aware of every apprentice there staring at him. Some were wide-eyed, some sniggering, some looking shocked or appalled… and then there was Karl, wearing a tight-lipped mask of furious disapproval.
Anders glared savagely at him as he passed, daring some kind of response from him, but Karl just glowered, and then looked away.
It was disappointing, really. Ser Maurais was one of the nicer templars, as far as that went. He wasn’t unkind, or really all that rough, and he actually used apprentices’ names most of the time, instead of relying on ‘oi, you’, ‘magey’, or ‘shift it, robe’.
Anders couldn’t help feeling his exit from the common room would have had more dramatic flair if it had been one of the less diplomatic templars who’d dragged him away. If they’d cuffed him alongside the head, he could have gone kicking and screaming about brutality.
As it was, Ser Maurais and his silly, pencil-thin moustache let go of him once they were out of earshot down the corridor. Anders made a performance of rubbing his sore wrist, at which the templar tutted a bit and gave him a briskly sorrowful look, before marching him along to the closest enchanter’s office, where he was told sit and wait in the antechamber.
The low murmur of voices came from beyond the archway, just a curtain separating the two spaces. Anders didn’t listen to what they were saying. When you were this used to an almost complete lack of privacy, it got easy to just tune out the background noise… especially if it wasn’t very interesting.
The enchanters had nice offices. Plushly upholstered furniture, all dark wood and bold colours with luxurious embroidery. Anders sat on a heavily carved chair padded in red and orange. He wasn’t sure what it was that was carved into the back of it, but it was digging in just under his shoulder blade, and felt a bit like a dog’s head or something. Well, this was Ferelden.
On the wall opposite, a small tapestry depicted a hunting scene in which a white hind was in the process of turning into a beautiful naked woman, apparently surprising the hunters. Anders recalled the myth it was from—one of those slightly dodgy ones that might have been a metaphor for something, or just the trickle-down of half-forgotten stories about the ancient Chasind witches who could shift their shapes—and remembered how the hunters had ended up being chased from the forest by their own hounds. There was a book of myths and stories like that in the library, and the spine was cracked to all the pages of woodcuts with naked girls on.
Anders frowned. The Chantry didn’t have a lot to say on the matter of ancient barbarian witchcraft and the like. Oh, it was very vocal when it came to all the things that were wrong with magic, and mages in general, and how Tevinter was the seat of all evil and why too much power was A Very Bad Thing… but actually talking openly about magic as a force of nature, and its manifestations through different cultures in Thedas? Not so much. And there must be differences—different ways of seeing, of doing—because the Imperial Chantry didn’t reach everywhere.
He bit his lip thoughtfully as he contemplated that, and stared at the woven images of the running hounds, and the hunters, and the woman who was trying to escape them, caught forever midway between human and animal form. Why that moment of the story? He wondered. Why not a few moments later, when she turned back and unleashed her power completely?
As Anders stared at the tapestry, his fingers began to itch. He didn’t think much about it at first, too busy stewing in the residual fugue of temper and irritation. His wrist ached. Then the idea began to sneak up slowly… just how easy it would be, how quick to simply let a little bit of the anger out.
He allowed his right hand to unclench from the edge of the chair’s plush seat, and allowed that familiar feeling of warmth to begin to unfold under his skin. It didn’t take much concentration. Just… control. Focusing it. Letting the warmth grow from his centre, swelling with his breath, then coursing down his arm, blooming and prickling as it did so. It was easier than it used to be, he had to admit; easier to make it all do what he wanted, and with fewer accidents along the way. The Circle was good for something, however much it pained him to admit it.
The bottom edge of the tapestry—the silk-embroidered lines of all those trees and ferns, through which the woven hunters leapt—began to smoke ever so slightly, and a smile curved Anders’ lips.
It would be easy. All of it: really, really easy.
And yet… it was wrong.
It just lived down to their expectations, and confirmed all that trash about mages being dangerous, and destructive, and so—with a degree of regret and consternation—he snapped his hand shut again, and let out a breath that washed coolness through him. The smoke curled away into nothingness, and the tapestry was barely singed at all.
Anders sighed, and absently shook the pins-and-needles sensation out of his hand. The clank of metal alerted him to the fact he was no longer alone, and he glanced up as Ser Maurais came out of the inner chamber and gave him a stern look.
“The Enchanter will see you now.”
Anders hopped off the chair and dragged his feet as he sloped through after the templar. There was a big mahogany desk in the office, a small, high window, and the pervading smell of paper dust and self-righteous sanctimony.
Enchanter Wynne stood behind the desk, bathed in the warm glow of the two oil lamps that sat upon it. Anders felt his stomach drop like lead. He’d sat through two of her foundation lectures on spirit healing in the past term, and got the worst marks on his papers he’d had all year. Plus, she was a smug, condescending cow.
“Well, young man,” she said, in a well-modulated, precise voice that made the back of his neck prickle, “you’d better sit down, hadn’t you?”
Anders clenched his teeth, and tried to make his face a mask of polite impassiveness… which wasn’t something he was awfully good at.
He folded onto the hard wooden chair beside the desk, very aware of Ser Maurais’ presence behind him, and folded his hands in his lap. Wynne nodded at the templar.
“Thank you, ser. Perhaps you might wait by the door?”
Even she knew better than to ask him to leave completely. Ser Maurais looked dubiously between Wynne and Anders, then grunted and clanked out to the antechamber. It wasn’t much privacy, but it was better than nothing.
Wynne folded her arms and tipped her head to the side, fixing Anders with a pursed-lip, narrow-eyed stare.
She was old, to him: a woman of middle years with a face of clean, hard lines that divided up solid, angular planes. Sharp nose, sharp chin, and very sharp eyes; that bright, pale kind of blue that could be as hard as steel, or glitter like cut glass. She wore her hair jaw-length, tucked behind her ears, and he got the feeling that—as a younger woman—she’d probably been proud of its dark, glossy weight. It was streaked heavily with grey now, turning coarse and white in a contrast against the deep red of her enchanter’s robes.
A thick, embroidered girdle ran around her waist, bristling with keys and pouches and bags of things, and the long, lean fingers that drummed impatiently against her arm were smudged with ink.
“Now,” she said, her voice low and even, as crisply enunciated as a priest, “what do you have to say for yourself, hmm?”
Anders fixed his gaze at a point exactly six inches to the left of her shoulder. He stared mournfully at the grey stonework with a slight pout that should have indicated chastened contrition, and tried to summon up a little bit of dampness in the eye department.
“I’m sorry. I won’t do it aga—”
Wynne sighed. “Oh, do credit me with a little more intelligence than that.”
His mouth hung open. Oh, balls. He shut it with a barely audible snap, and looked at the woman with a new circumspection.
Wynne shook her head and, with a small ‘tsk, tsk’ of mild disapproval, sat down behind her desk. Besides the oil lamps, it was laden with a lot of paperwork, Anders noticed; that, and a number of small curiosities… including two inkwells engraved with what looked like dwarven runes, and a small onyx sphere on a silver stand. He’d seen painted skyballs before, once or twice, but this was different. The sphere appeared to have an enchantment on it that caused tiny stars to swirl over its surface, like a shifting image of the night sky, complete with clouds, and moving in almost real time.
He realised he was staring, and cleared his throat awkwardly. She wasn’t yelling at him, or being all stern and disappointed, or telling him he’d let himself down, or… or anything that any of the enchanters or the sisters or even the templars usually did.
“Now… Anders, is it? Yes. You’re officially under Enchanter Lennox’s tutelage this year, aren’t you?”
He nodded dumbly. Lennox—who had still not quite forgiven him for the exploding pie incident—was a fully subscribed member of the bony-finger-waving brigade.
Wynne reached out one slim hand and straightened a sheaf of papers, her thumb nudging the stack until they were exactly parallel to the edge of the desk. Anders had a quick squint, but couldn’t read what they were upside down.
“Well,” she said gently, “I don’t see he needs to hear anything about this.”
Anders frowned. The Tower took a firm line on discipline. Yelling and cussing and kicking furniture around usually resulted in a good talking to and a lecture about self-control being a mage’s greatest asset, and necessary for his survival… if you were lucky. As for swearing at a templar and suggesting he enjoyed the intimate company of large, hairless rodents; well, it was probably a safe bet that this wasn’t going to be his best week ever. It was bad enough if one of the sisters caught you cussing. That usually meant copping an hour kneeling in the chapel and reciting the first six verses of Transfigurations until you thought your brain was going to turn to cheese and melt out of your ears… not that it happened to him all that often.
Anders peered suspiciously at the enchanter. “A-am I in trouble?”
Wynne steepled her fingers and looked back at him with those clear, bright, unflinching eyes.
“Do you think you should be?”
He blinked, confused. “Um….”
Somehow, it was very hard to keep feeling angry and choked up and frustrated. All that bubbling rage had congealed, and now the cold tendrils of embarrassment and regret were taking the opportunity to coil around him and— oh, Maker, what had he said to Karl?
Anders blinked again, more rapidly. He couldn’t shake the vision of his friend’s angry, hurt look from his mind. They’d never disagreed about anything like that before, and… he’d been an idiot, hadn’t he?
It was awfully quiet in the enchanters’ offices. This whole corridor—this whole side of the building, to the west of the common rooms and the stairs up from the great hall—had very thick walls. It probably went right back to the original construction of the tower. Foot upon foot of ancient stone muffled everything except the odd murmur of distant voices travelling through the tower’s odd acoustics, and the occasional swish-slip or clank of someone passing by in the hallway. That… and the sound of Ser Maurais, just beyond the curtain: waiting and listening.
Standing guard, Anders thought bitterly, just in case.
He swallowed, hard, and genuine pressure began to build at the bridge of his nose, instead of the sting of put-on damp eyes, which so often worked on the middle-aged female enchanters… and some of the men. Didn’t work on Enchanter Wynne, though.
“Don’t know,” he mumbled sulkily.
“How long have you been here now?” Wynne asked rhetorically. “Heading on for two and a half, three years, isn’t it? It must have been very hard to settle.”
Anders shrugged, and looked steadily at the edge of the desk.
“I do know what it’s like,” she said, tilting her head to try and catch his eye. “It may not seem like it to you, but there was a time I was just as young and rebellious as you. Didn’t want to be here, didn’t want to listen to anyone….”
He cringed inwardly. Maker’s arse, now she was going to try and understand him to death. Could it get worse?
“But you must understand something.” Wynne fixed him on the lance of that severe, sharp gaze. “We do not do the things we do lightly. We ask a lot of the apprentices, I know—especially young people your age, when you are so hungry for all that life has to offer—but it is for your own good.”
Anders felt his face tighten, even as he tried to school his features into blankness. Somehow, he’d known those words were coming. They tolled over and over again at the back of his head, echoing like a bad headache, and he just knew that this daft old bag had never been anything like him. She didn’t know him, didn’t know who he was or where he’d come from, and she didn’t understand, whatever she said.
Wynne folded her hands on the desk and looked at him kindly.
“You’re not the first mage to feel this way. You won’t be the last.”
Anders crunched the toes of his leather slippers into the hard floor, stared down at the edge of the desk, and mumbled under his breath.
“I beg your pardon, young man?”
He winced. “I said, ‘No, ma’am’.”
“No, you didn’t,” Wynne said patiently. “But I quite understand.”
Anders glanced up in surprise, but she’d already moved on, tugging a blank piece of parchment towards her and dipping a quill into one of the silver inkwells. He watched the tiny blanket of stars shift on the surface of her enchanted skyball. It must be valuable, he supposed, a trinket like that. He caught the thought, mid-sneak, and wondered why he’d had it, then blinked hurriedly and tried to read Wynne’s upside-down scrawl.
“You will have to be given a detention punishment, of course,” she said, as she signed the note. “I’m sorry about that, but if I don’t do it, the templars will… and I doubt you’d care much for whatever Greagoir thinks a suitable reprimand. Here you are. Next time, remember why you are instructed to keep a tight leash on your temper… and, who knows, perhaps this will give you a valuable opportunity to think things over.”
Anders hadn’t got a clue what she was talking about, but the look on her face as she pushed the paper across the desk towards him was unsettling. If, just moments before, she’d been trying to be kind and patient, now she was hard and unyielding, and there was something almost anxious in her expression. Her thin lips had drawn into a tight line and, as he took the paper, Anders had to bite down hard on a whimper.
To whom it may concern,
The bearer of this note has incurred one week’s detention punishment for poor conduct and is required to assist in whatever workings of the stockroom and inventory schedule Regulator Owain deems necessary. Bearer may be excused to attend classes and chapel only, and shall be subject to normative regulations as required.
It was signed with the enchanter’s neat, concise moniker, and labelled with the day’s date. Anders felt his stomach gnaw against a knot pure, cold dread, and the breath ran thick and low in his throat.
“Th-the Tranquil? You mean I have to…?”
“You might as well make yourself useful,” Wynne said coolly, giving him an oddly hard-eyed look. “Better than peeling potatoes or scrubbing pots in the kitchens, isn’t it?”
He said nothing. The slight tone of flint in her voice—and the particular light in that sharp blue gaze—suggested an entirely different truth lay behind her reasoning. After all, what better way to convince a misbehaving brat to toe the line than to show him exactly what it was like to have all those emotions he had failed to keep in check permanently disabled?
Maybe, Anders thought, that was what they did to you if you didn’t pass the Harrowing… or if you annoyed one templar too many. Maybe they came in the night, like they did for the apprentices who were due to be Harrowed, and spirited you away. Maybe you never knew anything about it.
Maybe you did, but—after they were through with you—you just didn’t care.
“You can report immediately,” Wynne said, with the slightest twitch of a smile. “After all, the sooner you begin, the sooner it’s finished.”
Anders glanced up at her. She thought she was being kind, he realised. She thought this was the best thing for him—because they always think they know best, don’t they? Self-righteous bastards!—and she thought she was doing him a bloody favour. He could barely believe it, barely swallow it… that she thought she could palm this simple, slick blade of cruelty off as anything other than a cold-blooded threat.
He nodded stiffly.
“Yes. Thank you, Enchanter.”
Wynne inclined her head. “All right. Ask Ser Maurais to see you to the stockroom, then. You may go.”
Anders nodded again and, her note firmly clasped in his hand, rose from the desk and headed out to the antechamber, determinedly not thinking of the sweet, irresistible pull of power that burned beneath his skin.
He rubbed his palm against the smooth fabric of his robe, and tried to ignore the heat building in his fingers. His forehead stung, and it would all have been so very easy….
Ser Maurais put a gauntleted hand on his shoulder, and Anders blinked, pulling himself back to practicality, and calmness, and control.
They left the enchanter’s office and began to walk down the corridor towards the stockroom, and every footstep echoed with the swish-slip of robes, and the dull, biting clank of metal, whispering away against the empty stones.