Ephemera: Chapter 5

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Karl lay back on his bunk, allowing the book he’d intended to be reading to drop to his chest, and scowled at the shadowed recesses of the rafters. The high, vaulted ceilings of the dorms got a couple of good goings over a year, during the spring and before the winter, but it never stopped the dust and the spiders gathering up there in the shadows.

One of the girls said she’d seen a spider the size of a cat up there once. It was only a rumour, but people said that it happened every so often; magical energy leaking from the relics and whatnot in the basement stores, and affecting things in odd ways. It might be possible, he supposed. Of course, rumours and tall tales were the Circle’s lifeblood, so there wasn’t much point in taking it all too seriously.

The dormitory was largely empty. Karl assumed most people were in the library, or possibly that one of the lectures was overrunning again. He didn’t really care… although, today, he found he missed the low buzz of conversation, and the comfortably numbing sense of other people, standing between him and his thoughts.

He didn’t know where Anders was, or what punishment he’d been given for that idiotic outburst. Stupid bastard deserved it, anyway. If it made him see sense—made him just think for once—then he bloody well did deserve it, no matter what the templars chose to do, unless… no.

Karl didn’t want to think about it, and yet he couldn’t wrench his mind away from the possibilities. Usually, it wasn’t that bad. The normal round of punishments and detentions involved stacking shelves in the library—a thankless task, given how many of the enchanters were perpetually removing books they needed without signing for them, or putting them back in entirely the wrong sections—or mopping endless miles of stone floors, or polishing pews in the chapel, under one of the sisters’ watchful eyes. Sometimes, if you’d really pushed it, punishment meant reporting to the dark and terrible bowels of the Tower’s kitchens and being given three buckets of potatoes to peel or, worse, barrels of fresh fish to behead and pack in salt.

He shuddered at the memory of the smell, and the way the coarse granules ground their way into everything, making skin dry and sore, and leaving the beds of fingernails rough and bloody.

Of course, there was the other stuff, too. A caning, or a strapping… one of those swift, sharp lessons that instilled the basic principles of discipline: ‘do what I say or I’ll hit you’. There’d been a fair bit of that when Karl was younger. It was something the children learned early, contrasting the firm hand of authority with the warmth and security that obedience within the Circle offered.

Oh, yes… he could see it for what it was now. As a child of six or seven, cuddled into the arms of one of the more matronly enchanters as she cooed and wiped his tears, he hadn’t thought about it that way. He’d simply equated good behaviour with acceptance and affection, and learned quickly that being naughty not only brought punishment, but also closed off the only option he had for that kind of comfort.

It was simple logic, and they didn’t apply it so much with the older apprentices. They didn’t need to, Karl supposed.

Anders had never had that. He said it was just another example of the Circle getting into people’s heads, screwing them up as young as possible so they were so well-trained that they never even thought about challenging the way things were.

Sometimes, Karl thought he was right. Other times, he listened to the scorn and derision in Anders’ voice, and thought how much it sounded like jealousy, and how very hard it must have been to never belong anywhere.

He ran his fingers thoughtfully down the spine of the book resting on his chest. It was a slim volume about imbuing herbal preparations with healing magic, and would really have been quite interesting… if he’d just been able to concentrate.

You heard stories, of course. Rumours. And rumours were the Circle Tower’s lifeblood… but it didn’t mean some of them weren’t at least partly true.

Of course, some of the templars were worse than others, just the way the enchanters were. They were people, never solely a homogenous group. Some of them were kinder than others, and some pitied mages, while others even understood them.

Karl had always thought it was the ones who really, desperately believed that were the worst. Oh, in theory they were all meant to be evangelical believers, weren’t they? That was the whole point of the order. It didn’t necessarily work out like that in practice, but some of them were fairly rabid. It was obvious in their faces; that distant, shining look they got, like they truly knew they were doing the Maker’s work. They were the ones who often treated mages like lepers, pariahs and freaks in the eyes of the Chantry.

They weren’t the worst, though.

There’d been some kind of scandal a few years ago. Karl had been too young, really, to hear most of the details, and the First Enchanter and Knight-Commander had, between them, managed to keep a very effective lid on it. The templar concerned had been transferred back to Denerim, and the girl had been sent to another Circle. Some people said she’d been made Tranquil so she wouldn’t remember it or talk about it, but Karl wasn’t sure about that. As far as he was aware, the branding only took away a mage’s emotions and connection to the Fade… it didn’t make them a slave. He believed the other thing, though: that they confined her until the baby was born and old enough to go to a wet nurse, and then it was given to the Chantry.

Ironic, really, he supposed. It was only once she fell pregnant that it had all been discovered. It hadn’t been the first time it had happened, and nor had she been the only one. Some people said that was why the smarter bastards went for the boys: no possibility of spawning brats, and yet all the satisfaction of a warm body to bend over and violate.

Karl exhaled slowly, the burn of bile rising on the back of his tongue. He swallowed heavily, and told himself it was just a rumour, and an old one at that. Knight-Commander Greagoir was tough, but he was a fair man, for a templar. He didn’t tolerate indiscipline on his command, and if he and First Enchanter Irving had covered something like that up, it was only because the Tower would have imploded with the degree of outrage and chaos that would have broken out.

That didn’t make it right, obviously, or fair, or…. He took a deep breath, held it, and watched the motes of dust dance in the high, thin shafts of evening light.

It would be suppertime soon. Anders was probably scrubbing his way through a hundredweight of potatoes at that very moment.

Karl hoped so, anyway, although he supposed that was a perverse thing to think.

Up under the Tower’s eaves, their forgotten little eyrie would be flooded with the thick, golden light of a flaring sunset. It would be beautiful, and Karl didn’t think he’d ever wanted anything more than, just then, he wanted to be up there, sitting on the grubby floorboards with Anders resting his head on his shoulder.

“Oi, you gone deaf, you lazy sod?”

Karl started. He hadn’t heard his bunkmate’s arrival, and frowned as he realised that the dorm was filling up with apprentices filtering back in before supper and chapel.

He peered down at Behim—the dark-skinned, sharp-chinned elf with eyes the colour of burnished copper—who had the lower bunk, and found him grinning broadly.

“G’ahhrn!” Behim said, in his customary broad Denerim drawl. “What’s the matter with you, then?”

Karl stuck a finger in his book to mark his place, and rolled over, propping himself up on one elbow.

“Nothing,” he lied, squeezing out a thin smile.

He and Behim didn’t have much in common, but they’d shared a bunk for the best part of two years, and that gave anyone a certain amount of kinship. Karl knew, for example, that the elf’s family were dockers, and that twice a year—at Wintersend and for his naming day—they paid a scribe to write him a long letter full of gossip from the alienage. Sometimes, the letters even got passed along, though they’d always been opened and carefully examined first, and Behim stored them in a box under his mattress, where he also kept a stack of mucky drawings he’d done, and some cloutweed and rolling papers he thought nobody knew about.

Very occasionally, he was allowed to write a letter back to his parents… as long as it was read, redacted if necessary, and signed by the Knight-Commander before being sent.

Behim smirked. “Yeah, nothing. Right. I heard about your friend, the nutcase. Did he really kick a templar in the balls?”

Karl winced. Amazing things, rumours. By the morning, they’d all probably be saying Anders had been in a fistfight with the Knight-Commander himself, and set fire to the entire fourth floor just with the power of his mind.

“Anders has got a big mouth,” he said. “That’s all. He needs to learn when to keep it shut.”

Behim sniggered. Karl frowned again, and licked his lips nervously.

“Did you, er, hear what he copped for it? I haven’t.”

The other boy leaned against the bunk, one shoulder propped on the scarred wood marked with generations of apprentices’ initials and graffiti, and shrugged nonchalantly. “Jammy little sod, by all accounts. Maya says he got a week’s demerit off Enchanter Wynne… got him scrubbing pots or something. Dunno. If it had been left to Greagoir, you can bet he’d have had worse! Stupid sod.”

Karl agreed with him, but it didn’t mean he could deny the twist of protective irritation that prodded at his chest.

“He’s not stupid,” he said mildly. “Very not stupid. He’s just—”

Behim snorted, and those coppery eyes danced with amusement. “All right, all right… I forgot you were fucking him.”

“I—” Karl took a breath to argue, but let the words hang, unfinished. He sighed. “Yeah. Whatever.”

Behim’s smirk broadened, and one small, brown hand rose to pick at the loose wool of the blanket at the foot of Karl’s bunk. He never could stay still for long. “No point denying it, sunshine. Everyone’s noticed. You don’t even look at anyone else anymore. Still, I s’pose he keeps you occupied. Eager young thing like that. I bet he’s never—”

“Shut it, will you?”

“All right, calm down…. Don’t worry, anyway. He’ll be back before you know it, and you’ll have access to all borders again, know what I mean?” The elf grinned wickedly, and gave a filthy chuckle. “Hur… unless he kicks another templar in the chestnuts and gets himself sent to Aeonar, of course. Or—”

“Did you actually want something?” Karl snapped, caught partway between irritation he could no longer control and a burst of sudden, genuine fear.

Behim wrinkled his nose. “Not really. Just being polite. Oh, and Maya was looking for you. Something about you and her going to see Enchanter Uldred after supper and registering your applications for his summonings class next month. You going to do that? I heard summoning sciences can be well dangerous.”

“Only if you don’t do it right,” Karl said, swinging his legs off the bed and preparing to jump down. “Where is Maya, anyway?”

“Library. You’d better hurry up if you’re going. Er… tell her I said good luck with it, will you?”

Karl grinned as his slippers touched the stones, and reached out a hand to ruffle Behim’s knotty hair.

“Gerroff!”

“I’ll tell her, loverboy. Don’t you worry.”

The elf pulled a face. “Oh, go fall in the Void!”

Karl cackled as he headed off towards the library. It was possible Maya could have a few more details about Anders’ punishment assignment. He could hope, anyway. Then supper, then chapel… and Anders might be there, because they normally had to let you off a detention for prayers, otherwise the sisters complained, and pretty much everything about life in the Tower was to do with striking a balance between the Magi and the Chantry.

Somehow, thinking that—thinking that Anders was down there now, in the kitchens, robes pushed up to the elbows and scrubbing saucepans while he muttered a litany of curse words under his breath—cheered Karl immeasurably.

Maybe the silly bugger might even learn something from it.

~o~O~o~

All things considered, the punishment could have been worse.

Anders kept telling himself that because honestly, really, it could have been. There wasn’t anything that bad about fetching and carrying a few scrolls, or shelving books. It was just… them.

None of the apprentices liked dealing with the Tranquil. None of the mages seemed to, either, though mostly they were pleasant enough about it, and always made a point of telling students the Tranquil were to be treated with respect.

Well, respecting them was fine. Spending all week taking blank, emotionless orders from those blank, emotionless faces, delivered in soft monotones and with all that execrable calmness… that was something completely different.

Anders reported glumly to Owain, who managed the stockroom at the centre of the Tower—‘room’ being a misnomer, as the vast, sprawling network of chambers actually stretched over much of the third floor—and stood before the man, nervously rubbing the toe of his left slipper against his right calf.

The central inventory office was a large, dim chamber lit only by enchanted lanterns. Like the library, there was no fireplace, due to the rows upon rows of shelves and pigeonholes, which held carefully enumerated scrolls, detailing regular stock checks of every piece of magical equipment the Tower had. Then there were the card catalogues, and the forms. Anders had never realised there were so many bloody forms.

It seemed as if, any time a mage wanted to sneeze, he had to fill out a request form in triplicate, then wait for a Tranquil clerk to file it and approve the correct form in response for a handkerchief. The system was there—as Anders well knew—to prevent any of the Circle mages from conducting illicit experiments without the templars’ knowledge, and to stop headstrong apprentices like him getting their hands on anything potentially explosive, messy, or otherwise hilarious.

Owain finished reading Wynne’s note, and peered at him over the parchment.

“Ah,” he said, in that calm, flat way that put Anders’ teeth on edge. “I remember you. A year ago, you told me you were a visiting enchanter from Nevarra, and requested a burning crucible, a rod of lightning, and six pouches of lyrium powder for unspecified experimental purposes. You did not file the correct paperwork… and had no corresponding identification.”

Anders clenched his jaw. As plans went, it had not been one of his better ones.

“Um. Yes. But I did do a very good accent,” he said helpfully, and grinned.

Owain continued to look blankly at him. The Tranquil didn’t smile, which was probably a good thing, because it would be like watching someone trying to do something they’d learned out of a book. It made holding a conversation with them difficult, however, and extremely unsettling. Anders cleared his throat.

“What, uh, what did you want me to do?”

Owain appeared to give this a moment’s logical consideration. He was probably about forty, Anders decided, and most likely didn’t remember not being Tranquil. There was a hangdog quality to his face; its intensely pale flesh had settled into folds around his nose and his thin-lipped mouth, and while he didn’t exactly look melancholy, there was a sort of introspection to him that sent shivers down Anders’ back… almost as much as the brand on his forehead.

It was a small thing, maybe the size of a thumbnail, and it looked a little like a Chantry symbol, a circle with a flame inside it, but the outside edge of the brand was marked with what resembled either runes or some kind of warding glyph. They had been burned into the flesh, Anders thought, although a very long time ago. What would once have been shiny, tight skin, riven with thick ridges and raw places, had turned a dull red, worn by the years to a scar no less visible, but perhaps less violent.

He blinked, and looked away, because it seemed like it was probably bad manners to stare at it, even if Owain gave no indication of being offended. He couldn’t, obviously… all of those responses, all of those feelings and reactions had long since been burned away.

People said the Tranquil were so good at enchantments because the Rite made them immune to the dangers working with lyrium posed to most people—and particularly mages—and because it also gave them strongly intensified powers of concentration and logic. It was as if you could take a person’s mind, and just sieve out all the inefficiencies, and all the bits that got in the way of leading a productive working life.

Stood to reason, Anders supposed, that the Chantry would like that. Stood to reason that they turned people Tranquil and let them get on with all the important things, like managing stock and crafting enchantments to sell all across Thedas. Pack mules and money farmers, every bloody one of them… and they probably didn’t even know it.

“You may assist Lena. She is taking stock in the end chamber.” Owain pointed, and Anders followed the gesture. “She will have the surplus parchment and pens you require. Please refrain from disrupting the stock check, or indulging in any impulse to be humorous. I am afraid it would be quite lost on us.”

Anders stared. If one of the enchanters had said that, it would have been a snide dressing-down, but Owain seemed concerned for nothing more than the balance and well-being of his bloody stockroom.

Owain signed the note Wynne had given him and handed it back. “Here. You will require this if you are stopped in the hallways. All questions may be directed to me.”

Anders took the parchment. Even the man’s signature looked calm and even.

“’nk you,” he mumbled grudgingly, and trudged off to find this Lena woman.

There were more lanterns, their pale glow slightly eerie against the stones, and a couple of small candles in wall sconces lighting the chambers. Everything smelled of the musty stagnancy of old—and possibly slightly mouldy—paper and parchment, with that hint of greasiness that came from very old vellum.

Karl said the Circle’s archives went back nearly eight centuries, in part, and maybe longer. He said some of the restricted texts in the library—and in what people called the hidden library; the First Enchanter’s private collection of books, rumoured to be somewhere on one of the upper floors—held dangerous and forbidden knowledge. Of course, there were a lot of rumours like that: ancient evils imprisoned in the cellars; secret ritual sites and places of power, hidden all around the tower and just waiting to be awoken; horrific demons summoned by long-dead apprentices, chained to the very stones themselves in an effort to stop them wreaking chaos in the mortal realm… Anders suspected most of them were rubbish.

Trouble was, as he walked down to the end chamber, glancing at all the Tranquil working away in their little niches, filing cards and neatly scribing down numbers, he could believe some of the stories. Everything seemed so cold and dark, and joyl— no, not joyless, though… because that would imply the capacity for joy, and they didn’t have that. They were empty, soulless… although the enchanters were always at pains to forbid people from saying that, weren’t they? Not politic, not polite. Just because the Tranquil did not have the emotional range of normal people—

Not any longer. Not since the templars lopped their feelings off.

—didn’t mean they weren’t people, and deserved to be treated with respect. Especially given the amount of money they brought the Circle, Anders suspected.

He suppressed a shudder as one of them glided past him: an elf, with milky-pale skin and coppery red hair, his eyes a bright, keen leaf-green, which made the unblinking focus in them all the more obvious, and unsettling. He had an armful of scrolls, and didn’t acknowledge Anders as he passed; he just headed straight for the centre of the chamber. They didn’t even walk normally. There was no expression in their bodies, just a calm precision and… well, tranquillity. Whatever you thought about it, the word was appropriate, and Anders hunched his shoulders, feet scuffing on the flagstones.

He couldn’t help a kind of ghoulish curiosity about how the templars actually performed the rite, either. Oh, for all they had drilled into them—being made Tranquil was not a punishment, not a terrible thing, and there was no shame or stigma in it—there was still an impenetrable shroud of secrecy.

Anders had visions of mages being strapped down, screaming as some steaming, red-hot enchanted iron was plunged onto their foreheads, then turning limp and passive as the brand burned into their flesh. It didn’t feel very magical. Maybe there was a complicated ritual, and the templars all dressed up in embroidered robes for it, their faces covered as they prayed and chanted over the terrified victim… because they basically used magic, didn’t they? All those horrid nullification and cleansing abilities they had, fuelled by lyrium and unpleasant levels of piety, they were effectively spells, the hypocritical bastards. Anders wrinkled his nose. The stockroom was extremely quiet, and the sound of his own footsteps—damn it, his own breathing—seemed louder every second. He wanted to run the length of the chamber, yelling and whooping, to climb up the walls and shout ‘knickers!’ at the top of his voice… and also to be somewhere very, very far away.

Maybe it was the Fade itself that did it, he thought, as he neared the area Owain had pointed out. Maybe they poured raw, molten lyrium down your throat—not the carefully brewed potions that the templars, and even the mages themselves sometimes used, and which were kept under strict lock and key, but the hard stuff, the stuff that killed people with just a breath—and flung you into the Fade, then cut the connection back to your body while you were dreaming.

He shivered, but dismissed that notion. No, because the mage would never know anything about it, and that seemed too kind. Anyway, trapping someone entirely in the Fade like that wouldn’t mean just removing their magical ability and emotional responses, but probably their capacity to walk around, breathing and talking and everything… which wouldn’t be profitable.

Anders stifled a snort, arms hugged around his middle as he entered Lena’s niche. Under the wide, stone archway from which it opened out, there was a small table, upon which stood a lantern, the little ball of white light inside it humming softly, and a large scroll, held open with two metal weights, padded on the bottom with fabric so they didn’t damage the parchment.

The chamber itself stretched back much further than he’d first imagined, like some labyrinthine cavern running right into the Circle’s bowels. Anders glanced over his shoulder. All the niches did. From the middle of the chamber, it looked like they were just shallow bits of rooms housing card catalogues or shelves, but from here he could see the racks went back much farther, scything off into the shadows. A small shudder snaked between his shoulder blades.

Why does it all have to be so bloody dark?

He frowned. Was the stockroom enchanted? It would certainly deal with the danger of ever running out of space, he supposed. When he first came to the Tower, and kept getting hopelessly lost, he’d been fairly convinced that the library operated on a different physical plane, on account of how some of the shelves never seemed to be in the same place twice.

The woman Anders assumed was Lena came towards him then, holding a large wooden box, which she set down carefully on the table. She was slender, of average height, and clad in the muted blue robes many Tranquil wore. They didn’t seem to share the mages’ intense sartorial one-upmanship, Anders had noticed. Owain had a heavily embroidered belt with his various keys on it, and presumably there were different robes for different degrees of clerks or stock-keepers, but nothing like the level of detail the rest of the Circle indulged in. The apprentices, near enough, all wore the same robes—despite the subtle difference between juniors and seniors, and the myriad customisations enterprising sorts could make to their own clothes—but fully-fledged Circle robes were an entirely different matter. There were enchanters’ robes, senior enchanters’ robes, faculty robes, and robes for every single degree within each of the Fraternities of Enchanters. Anders had always assumed, given the rivalry between them, that this was how mages knew to start snubbing each other at a distance, without having to actually communicate in order to find out a colleague’s allegiances. Of course, that didn’t even touch on things like sashes, belts, brocades and embroidery….

Anders supposed, if he was honest, the sharp threads were one plus point of a mage’s life, even if robes could get a little draughty in the winter.

Lena looked enquiringly at him, her eyes wide and dark in a round, open face. She had her head shaved. Several of them did that, he’d noticed. He guessed it cut down on the time taken mucking about with combs and washing it, and it wasn’t as if they cared what they looked like anymore, was it?

“Er… Owain sent me to help you,” he said, thrusting the note out in front of him.

She took it in slim, ink-blotched fingers, and moved back to the table to read it, holding the parchment near the candle’s light. After a moment, she looked up, and regarded him coolly.

“This must be an irritation for you,” she said, in that flat tone they all had, clear and precise, and devoid of almost any expression.

“Oh, no,” Anders said hurriedly, more out of habit than anything. “No, I—”

Lena tilted her head to the side slightly, in an action that was almost birdlike… if birds had been given to analysing situations from purely logical perspectives.

I remember birds. Swooping all through the sky, free and wonderful.

He still saw them sometimes, from the window of the supply room, when he was up there with Karl. That, Anders reflected, was where he really, really wanted to be right now. There… or maybe somewhere incredibly far away, like one of those places he’d read about in books, like Seheron, where the tea came from, or Nevarra, with its magnificent tombs for the dead. Somewhere else, anyway; drinking perfumed wine on a balcony, with a tray of pastries and nibbly things at his elbow, watching birds swoop in the sunrise over a rank of terracotta rooftops.

“Few receive a punishment willingly,” Lena said, handing back the note, and it was a statement, not merely an observation. “To do so must imply acceptance that one was at fault.”

Anders frowned. Fair enough, technically he had been… not that he was about to admit it. He shrugged, and ground the toe of his slipper against the flagstones.

“I called a templar a nug-fucker,” he mumbled.

Lena didn’t react. He’d known she wouldn’t, but it still left him feeling a bit empty. Misbehaving—and being punished for it—had a very valid moral principle, but it wasn’t necessarily worth it unless it shocked people, or made someone snigger. You didn’t change anything if you didn’t raise a reaction.

“It would appear that must be inaccurate,” she said, after a moment, “given the order’s vows. And, such an activity is most definitely taboo. This would make it an effective insult, however.”

Her face remained unchanging, her eyes devoid of any glimmer of mischief… and yet Anders imagined her grinning and snorting with laughter. She was probably about twenty-five, he reckoned—less than ten years older than him, though at that moment it seemed like much more—and he wondered how long she’d been Tranquil, and what she’d been like before they turned her that way. The corner of his mouth crumpled into an awkward smile.

“Yeah. I think it was.”

He could have said he was sorry, he supposed… only he wasn’t. He didn’t regret any of it, except saying those stupid things to Karl, and he’d do it again. He didn’t care if the Tranquil passed that message back to Enchanter Wynne, or Lennox, or Irving himself, or even Knight-Commander Greagoir. Sod them all, because he was right. Life here wasn’t fair… none of what the templars did to mages was, and neither was the way the rest of the world saw them.

Lena turned to the table, picked up a slate and a piece of chalk, and passed them to him. They were already a number of tally lines on the slate, and his brow furrowed afresh.

“Um, what did you want me to—?”

“You will come with me,” she said, another statement instead of even an order, “and we will resume taking inventory of the supply store.”

“Oh.”

She picked up the lantern, and Anders traipsed grimly after her, into the shadowy recesses of the chamber, glancing anxiously at the things that skittered under the racks.

He really, really  wasn’t keen on the dark thing.

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Chapter 6

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