Ephemera: Chapter 6

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Back to Ephemera: Contents

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A/N:  There is a nod to Miri1984’s ‘The True Place for a Just Man’ here; a great Anders/Karl fic, with a wonderful landscape of biffs, bunks, and the hot-house atmosphere of boarding schools in its earlier chapters. Go check it out. 😉

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It was all a great deal more boring than Anders had hoped for. Everyone knew there was good stuff in the Tower’s inventory, like rods of flame and lightning, and chalices of fire and ice, and those rare stones and minerals that could be ground up and made into potions with really interesting effects. He’d seen recipes in some of the older grimoires in the library, though it had meant having to sneak around a bit in some of the advanced and semi-restricted shelves.

Lena didn’t seem to be in charge of any of that sort of thing, though. In fact, she seemed little better than a glorified librarian. As Anders followed her into the darkened chamber—these rooms, part alcove and part tunnel, seemed to stretch right back into the Tower’s furthest reaches, and he couldn’t help wondering if, somehow, they were all interconnected—the dim glow of her lantern was barely enough to see by. Huge racks of shelving rose up around them, with only a narrow space in the centre to walk through, and the smell of musty scrolls and old books overlaid with thick, greasy dust was overpowering. Something rustled, high overhead, and Anders looked up at the great skeins of cobwebs that festooned the upper reaches of the shelves.

If there are giant spiders, I’m going. Running, just like that. Not kidding.

Oh, Maker… please let it not be spiders….

There were shelves, and more shelves, and boxes and crates. About halfway down the next rack, a small table had been placed. Boxes of yet more books and scrolls sat on it, and a few sacks had been left at its foot. Lena stopped, set the lantern down, and gestured to the books.

“These are all to be checked. Any with mould or mites are to be put in this box, and will be sent to be treated. The others be replaced on the shelves. You will make the notations, please.”

“Right,” Anders said, with very little enthusiasm.

He was aware that the ‘please’ had really been for his benefit, and that maybe it was the woman’s way of trying to be nice, but he wasn’t sure. Did they do that? Or, for the Tranquil, was ‘nice’ just a way of making a task percolate more efficiently?

Thinking about it gave him shivers, so he tried not to dwell on it, and just focused on marking the books on the slate the way Lena showed him, and passing the old, brittle tomes to her as she resumed stacking the shelves. She explained the system to him briefly, and he found he wasn’t remotely surprised by it.

Each book or scroll had its own code, part of an expansive system of numbers, letters, and symbols, all neatly written on the flyleaves or outer sleeves, and each one corresponded to full written records on the long rolls of parchment that were kept in the main inventory chamber… and those were matched to the card catalogues and inventory ledgers.

So many bloody forms! How do they get chance to do any cleaning or enchanting, or whatever else the templars have them do? They’re always bent over a parchment, scribbling!

“How come there are so many books here, anyway?” Anders asked, peering curiously at the faded gilt lettering on the spine of one slim volume sitting at the top of the box. “Shouldn’t they be stored in the library?”

“Not all of them.”

Lena took the book from him before he could make out what the title actually said. The unevenly worn off shapes of letters were unfamiliar, like runes or glyphs, but they were not of any type that Anders had seen before.

He frowned. “Is that dwarven writing?”

“No.”

The woman’s long, slim, ink-stained fingers moved quickly and smoothly over the shelf, and the book disappeared into a rank of other texts, the lantern’s dim light barely leaving any of those intriguing details discernible.

Occulta de umbris,” she said, gesturing to the slate he held. “One, in inventory, clean and complete.”

Anders’ eyes widened as his chalk skittered over the slate. “So, that’s…?”

Lena was already examining another book, this one in poorer shape than the first, its pages brittle and its binding riddled with tiny wormholes. She didn’t look up, and Anders thought she was either going to ignore him or refuse to answer.

“It is an ancient Tevene script,” she said eventually, glancing at him as she put the book carefully on the pile of things for repair. “Many such volumes are stored here. They are of historical significance, but of interest only to the few scholars who can read them.”

Anders said nothing at first. He suspected it was much more to do with the sorts of things books like that were rumoured to contain than any kind of scholastic obscurity. Forbidden knowledge, dark secrets of ancient magister lords… all that stuff. There were rumours among the apprentices about it, but no one had actually ever seen anything. Anyway, most books that came out of the Imperium were censored by the Chantry. The occasional scroll or treatise by a Tevinter enchanter slipped through—there were a few in the restricted stacks in the library—but actual books on actual magic? That was pretty unheard of. He wondered how old some of these tomes were. Centuries, probably… all bursting with ancient power.

Anders eyed the box of books carefully. No wonder they locked them away in here, where the Tranquil couldn’t do anything with them, and any curious mages had to sign half a dozen forms just to look at them.

Or get themselves on a punishment duty. Am I meant to be seeing these?

Lena’s fingers tapped the ragged book she’d just set down.

Per oculus daemonibus,” she said. “Damaged and to be sent for repair.”

Anders nodded glumly and made a note of the code. They worked quietly for a bit, nothing breaking the silence except the litany of odd, foreboding titles. De principiis exitium, Vetito Arcanum… it seemed the Tevinter Imperium’s mages had no use for normal creationist or primal magic.

The atmosphere in the dark, closed in little space started to get to him after a while, too. It really was like a tunnel. Everything was so thick, so stifling. It felt warm, and Anders found—despite the fact robes were usually a bit on the draughty side, especially in a stone tower—that he was sweating rather heavily. The urge to cough tickled at the back of his throat, but he suppressed it, a little afraid he might not stop if he started.

Lena didn’t notice anything, of course. She just kept going, blank and silent. She didn’t hum to keep herself occupied, or chew her lip, and she didn’t even have any of those weird facial expressions people normally have when they’re concentrating, even if they don’t know they’re wearing them.

Anders thought ruefully of Karl, and that little rucked-up frown he got, right in between his eyebrows, when he was reading.

“C-can I ask you a question?” he blurted suddenly.

Well, he had to speak, had to say something. Just some kind of sound to cut through the dry rustle of paper, and this awful, oppressive quiet that felt as if it could choke the breath from a person.

Lena didn’t turn from her shelf-stacking.

“You are quite able to do so,” she said, with that terrible, flat, calmness. “I will answer, if it is within my ability.”

“Um….” Anders swallowed. His throat itched like mad. “How did you, er, become Tranquil?”

He thought he saw her hand pause slightly on its way to the shelf, but she might just have been locating the right slot for that particular book. Of course, when she spoke, her tone hadn’t changed. He found himself wondering if it could: if, had she wanted to, she could have lifted her voice in a shriek or a shout, or if that merely seemed an irrelevance. Just how much were a person’s emotions a part of them, anyway?

Lena looked at him over her shoulder, and the lantern’s glow made her face seem soft, yet shadowed her eyes like two black pebbles, hard and expressionless.

“I elected to receive the Rite when it was offered,” she said, making no effort to soften her voice, as if she was speaking of nothing more than yet another book to note down on the slate. “The First Enchanter said I might choose before my Harrowing. I chose Tranquillity.”

A cold knot of horror closed in Anders’ stomach. So, it was true. Whatever the Harrowing was, it was bad enough that people chose… this.

He tried not to shudder, but didn’t succeed. He could feel the mask of revulsion his face had twisted into, and he felt bad for looking at her like that—like she disgusted him, or like he thought her choice was some marker of cowardice or something—but, he supposed, at least she had no ability to be offended by his grimace.

“You think it is a poor decision,” she observed.

She held a slim, leather-bound book in her hands, its cover embossed with tiny floral details. For a moment, Anders thought he saw her fingers trace the design, and anyone else might have frowned, looked down at the object… drawn some kind of comfort from the physical feeling of something beautiful when speaking of awkward things.

He knew how important that was. Touching. Seeing, smelling… just knowing something was real, and you could reach out and hold onto it. The Tower was full of small opulences; thick rugs, heavy tapestries, bold embroidery, and ornate curlicues on even the most serviceable bookcase, and he’d always thought that was why.

It was, Anders supposed, the little things that mattered.

Lena didn’t look down at the book, though. Her fingertips skimmed the embossing, but she just kept staring at him with that blank objectivity, completely devoid of judgement or opinion. Her gaze was too blank to be challenging or aggressive, but it was every bit as unsettling as being glared at.

He couldn’t stand it. Couldn’t stand her eyes, or her shaven head, or the soft, relaxed bow of her mouth, like she wasn’t even waiting to say anything. He found himself staring at the brand on her forehead, though he didn’t want to. He didn’t want to look at it, didn’t want to think how the templars did it, but there it was, a neat, round little scar in a dull shade of red, turned to a smear of shadow by the lantern’s light.

They probably chained people, he decided. In case you had second thoughts just at the last minute. Either that, or drugged you. Or maybe they wanted you to suffer, wanted to hear you scream….

“D-did it hurt?” he asked, his voice a little hoarse.

He didn’t know why he’d asked. It was very bad manners, probably. Did manners matter to the Tranquil? They were about as polite as people could possibly be, short of actually being dead. They never shouted, or ran, or made snarky comments or rude noises when the templars walked past… and Anders had never known, never admitted even to himself, just how much they sodding well scared him.

“I… do not recall it clearly,” Lena said, that eerily fixed gaze growing momentarily distant. “When you are Tranquil, you rarely contemplate your life before. The Rite itself is not pleasant, but then one’s mind is very clouded at that time. It is only once things are… clear… that it becomes peaceful.”

Peace? That didn’t sound like peace. He didn’t know what to say.

She blinked slowly, and her gaze returned to him without any kind of hint of what she’d been thinking, or remembering. Anders couldn’t stop himself trying to picture what it had been like; whether the woman he thought she might have been had taken to the Rite willingly, or changed her mind at the last moment—the last moment she had a mind, perhaps—and fought the templars all the way.

“I am content,” she said, in that flat, measured, modulated monotone. “In truth, I prefer my life this way.”

Anders nodded slowly. He felt vaguely sick. “You’re… happy?”

“No.”

He winced. Her expression didn’t alter; she was merely correcting his error.

“I do not think there is an adequate word to express it without conveying some form of emotional involvement,” Lena said, and the infuriating, stifling calmness of the words made him want to scream.

There should have been the trace of inflection there, the feeling of someone wondering at something, trying to grasp the flapping tail of a thought, and there wasn’t even that. There were none of the conventional markers for navigating the way through a conversation—no ups, no downs, no smiles or shared expressions—and it made it all so bloody hard. She just kept looking at him, blank and impassive, and it felt as if his backbone wanted to slide out from under his skin and crawl away.

“It is… sufficient,” she said finally, and inclined her head, presumably indicating she had spoken of it enough, and he should get back to jotting down codes on his slate, which was now more than two-thirds full. “We will soon have to copy these codes to the roll.”

Anders nodded glumly. “Right.”

~o~O~o~

The day seemed to go on forever. After a while, he was fairly sure it had been forever, and that any existence he’d known outside of the dim little tunnel-cum-store had merely been a dream. Time didn’t seem to pass normally in among the shelves. In fact, it barely seemed to pass at all, and just lingered sluggishly in the shadows.

They took one small break for a meal, which Anders ate with the Tranquil instead of in the refectory, and it made him more grateful than he’d ever been for the slop apprentices usually got served. Over-boiled cabbage and dry meat—or even soggy fish in lumpy sauce—was better than the simple, bland meals they took. Bread, cheese, water, and some kind of meat that might originally have been mutton, before it was squashed flat and stored under somebody’s mattress for a month. It was grey and tasteless, and that was what they all were, gathered around a long bench in a chamber off the inventory room, just staring mindlessly into space and delicately, neatly forking the food into their mouths.

He jigged his leg restlessly under the table, the heel of his leather slipper slapping softly against the stones as he fought to contain the urge to shout, or kick something over, or leap up on the table and try to fart a tune. Fucking anything but this….

At last, it was over, and back he went to helping Lena. Over the course of what must have been the afternoon, though frankly it was hard to tell, Anders became convinced that this had all been part of Enchanter Wynne’s master plan. He was to be put here, doing these stupid jobs, and staring at all these ancient, forbidden books, and the minute he got tempted to stuff one down his robes and squirrel it away somewhere—irresistible lure of blood magic, terrible and potent power, and all that crap—the templars would be on him like a rockfall. That must be the idea behind it. And it would, he decided, be theoretically simple to steal a book. It would just be a matter of switching the codes and marking something as in need of repair when it wasn’t, then whipping it out of the box on the way down to the scriptorium.

It was possible, yes. Difficult to pull off, because of the way the Tranquil worked. They were like the paddles on a water wheel, Anders thought, briefly clutching at the half-held shape of a memory, of a mill at the edge of a village, and a river he’d once bathed and swum in.

The point was, every Tranquil had their tasks, and they stuck to them. Knowledge, like water, poured from cup to cup, and around the wheel creaked… but there were too many points along the way that the records might get double-checked, and the same person probably wouldn’t take the books from the inventory chamber to the scriptorium.

Apart from that, the plan wasn’t bad. Not that he could read ancient Tevinter spell books, or had the slightest inkling towards fiddling around with blood magic. Anders was rather fervent about the whole concept of his blood staying where it ought to be: on the inside of him. The thought of all that messy, unpleasant stuff—whether the blood was his or somebody else’s—left him feeling mildly nauseous. Anyway, he’d looked into the faces of demons before, and he had absolutely no intention of doing it again.

He was exhausted by the time evening rolled around. In fact, he was, for once, looking forward to the opportunity to slope off to chapel. There was never anything that really approached privacy in the Tower, but even slouching in a pew and ignoring Mother Donata would have given Anders some quiet time. He might see Karl, too—not that he was sure he wanted to yet. Well, he did. He badly wanted to apologise… he just wasn’t sure how.

It didn’t turn out to matter much. Ser Maurais arrived to collect him from the central inventory office and marched him directly to chapel, where he was parked in an empty pew at the back and expected to sit and listen attentively while the revered mother droned on for what felt like hours.

He didn’t even see Karl, much less get a chance to talk to anyone. After the service, Ser Maurais glared meaningfully at Anders and, reluctantly, he sloped to his feet and accepted the templar’s escort back to his dormitory.

He was busy doing his best foot-scuffing, arms-folded scowl when the Maurais spoke, and the sudden break in the silence surprised him.

“Did you learn anything from the Tranquil?”

Anders glanced up suspiciously at the man. His silly moustache glinted in the gold-toned evening light that filtered through the small, high corridor window, but his question didn’t seem overly supercilious.

“Huh.” He pulled a face. “Was I meant to?”

Ser Maurais tutted mildly. “You know, we don’t have to be on opposite sides all the time.”

Anders allowed a small sneer to creep into his expression, and looked away, treating the flagstones to an exceptionally sullen glare. The effect was ruined a bit by his stomach rumbling audibly, and the bastard templar had the nerve to actually bloody smile.

“I did wonder if you would be hungry. The Tranquil do not have much in the way of appetites, but perhaps missing dinner teaches you more than anything, hm?”

Anders gritted his teeth. In the small, private world behind his eyes, he flung his arms wide open, the sleeves of his robes falling back with a melodramatic flourish as lightning arced from his palms and—with all the power of one of those ancient Tevinter magisters, and yet none of the messy fluids—he sent a pulsing wave of energy down the hallway, knocking everyone out of his way as he rode the crest of power all the way to freedom.

Instead, he gave a condescending little sniff. “I’m not hungry.”

Ser Maurais shrugged. “Suit yourself.”

They were almost at the dormitory. Other apprentices were filing towards the large, heavy doors, or loitering in the hallway talking, and Anders was aware of the looks he was beginning to receive.

Maurais smiled, though it was a curt and fleeting thing. “Go on, now. On with you, and we’ll have no more misbehaviour tonight! I will speak to Ser Godric there, and ensure he knows you are not to leave the dormitory until you are escorted to your duties tomorrow morning.”

The scowl deepened, and Anders slouched irritably into the chamber, past the gaggles of other boys, and to his bed in the far corner, where he ducked behind the perforated screen that divided the rows of bunks to pull off his robe.

It wasn’t quite lights out yet. Candles still burned on the walls, and at some of the desks that fringed the chamber, where a handful of apprentices sat reading. A couple were playing chess, or Nine Men’s Morris, and the quiet buzz of conversation lapped at the edges of the room. Anders didn’t want any part of it. He just wanted to pull the blanket over his head and wait to fall asleep.

He could have tried sneaking out, he supposed, but Maurais’ message to the templars on the dormitory door would be passed on to the next shift… and it would be like this for the rest of the week.

Ugh.

Anders scratched irritably at his smallclothes as he dropped his robes to a crumpled pile on top of the footlocker that stood at the end of the bed. Elric, the boy he shared with—and who was already occupying the upper bunk—was fastidiously neat, so it was a sort of double rebellion, both against the sheer existence of robes, and templars, and everything, and also against the ridiculously clean and tidy set of clothes already hanging on the back of the screen.

He pulled a face at Elric’s robes and lunged for his bed. Diving under the covers, Anders rolled over onto his side in one fluid motion, not stopping until he was scrunched up and facing the wall. Corner bunks were the best thing. They gave you the nearest you ever had to privacy, and sometimes—when the templars checked in during the night—you didn’t even get woken up by the light of their lanterns.

“Psst.”

Anders frowned at the wall and decided to pretend he was asleep. The thin mattress above him creaked and, after a moment, he was aware of Elric’s strawberry blond, freckle-splashed head dangling down from the upper bunk.

Pssst! You all right?”

He didn’t have to look to know the other boy would have a wide-eyed, curious expression on him, even upside down. Elric was about the same age as Anders, but had been in the Tower his whole life, more or less. He’d come from some chantry charity originally; an orphaned ward of the parish who’d sprouted inconvenient magical ability and been shoved off to the Circle at the earliest possible opportunity.

Karl’s words came back to sting him at that memory. Children get given to the Chantry, just the way we get given to the Circle. Anders screwed up his nose. He didn’t want to remember Karl’s even-handed, logical thinking. He wanted to stay angry, because things made sense like that. You knew where you were when it was us and them, and who you were… and that mattered.

“I said,” Elric hissed, “psssst!

Anders squeezed his eyes tight shut. I bloody heard you, you little snotwipe, now bugger off!

The worst thing about Elric, he thought, was the way the daft sod was always so bloody cheerful about everything. He’d only been moved into the dormitory recently, and they didn’t talk much, but Anders couldn’t help feeling—given his back-story—he should have been just a tiny bit more resentful of something. Anything, really.

“I said, are you all right, Anders?”

Oh, bugger off, won’t you….

“Hnn,” he grunted, and flexed one shoulder from beneath the blanket.

Elric didn’t seem to want to take the hint. There was more creaking, and rustling, and something that sounded like the crackle of paper, which Anders had heard quite enough of that day to last him a lifetime.

“I’ve got something for you,” Elric whispered. “I was s’posed to give it to you when you came back. Was it really horrible? I heard you were doing jobs for the Tranquil… talk about creepy…. Are you going to take this?”

Anders sighed and rolled over, glaring at the cherubic upside-down face, with the ruffled blond hair and the big blue eyes. Elric smiled at him and held out a folded piece of paper, which he took warily.

“It was all right,” he lied. “They’re not that bad.”

The upturned nose—or down-turned, Anders supposed, from this angle—wrinkled, and Elric grimaced. “Yuck. You’re braver than me. Don’t think I could cope with being around them all day.” He glanced towards the doorway. “Oops, lights out. Don’t let anyone catch you with that. I didn’t read it,” he added, a softly whispered protest as he hauled himself back up to his own bunk.

The templar on the door—one of the young ones, Anders noticed, with a scrubby little beard and eyes that seemed altogether too honest and open for his line of work—made a desultory pass down the aisles and declared lights out. He waited at the door until the last of the apprentices had scrambled into bed, then nodded to the enchanter who’d come to join him. Anders recognised her as Enchanter Wilhemina, one of the matronly types with a well-padded bosom, a kindly face, and a double chin that wobbled when she talked. She raised a hand, made a brief motion in the air and—with a soft swish of static that he felt that as a cold breeze on his skin—every candle in the dorm went out.

Anders counted to five, heard the heavy oak door close, and felt the whole room breathe out, like a collective sigh of relief.

He didn’t dare conjure an entire light to read the note by; there were too many snitches, grasses and otherwise pains in the arse in the dorm, so he burrowed under the blankets and let just enough light to make out the words swell around his fingertip. He smiled at the familiar handwriting, hastily scrawled in broad pencil strokes.

I heard about your punishment. Please try to behave – a week’s long enough. See you soon as you’re back on regulars. Miss you until then.

It wasn’t signed, but it didn’t need to be. Anders let the light wink out and shoved the note into his pillowcase. Briefly, his fingers brushed against the other treasure he kept hidden there—the pillow his mother had sewn, the only thing of hers that he possessed. He allowed himself a moment to touch it, and recall long winter evenings in front of a smoky fire, and the look he was sure he remembered his mother having when she worked on her neat, precise embroidery.

He supposed, really, to call the thing a pillow was stretching the imagination a bit. It was like one, but smaller; the kind of thing girls did to test some new skill, or display the neatness of their stitches. Just a small, soft square of carefully sewn fabric with a cotton pad inside it, and delicate traceries of chain stitches picking out an intricate pattern of interwoven lines on its domed top. He suspected it was older than he was. She’d used it as a pincushion for as long as he remembered—or thought he remembered. He wasn’t even sure how it had come to be in the bundle of things she’d tried to send with him when the templars came. Perhaps it had fallen out of her pocket, or off her wrist… there had been a ribbon on it then, Anders recalled, to keep it tied on so she could reach it with ease when she was sewing their clothes. Pins in her mouth, stuck in the cushion on the back of her wrist… lean, clever fingers, red-knuckled and weathered, working through endless patches and seams.

All that was long gone, just like the other things in the bundle she’d pushed into his hands as the templar lieutenant loaded him, shackled, into the cart. He remembered that; remembered her crying, and the smell of burning thatch, and the village breaking out in chaos around them. How she begged and pleaded with the men in metal suits to let her give him warm clothes for the journey, and something to eat… and how his father had held her shoulders as she sagged, weeping, into the mud.

The rolling creak of wagon wheels filled Anders’ head, and he wished he knew whether they’d got away before the village turned on them. He wanted to think so, but it seemed a slim hope, especially given someone must have ratted them out to the chantry in the first place.

In his mind’s eye, he sat on the hard wooden bench in the back of the cart, and watched sullenly as one of the templars rooted through the cloth bundle. They ate the food, and he never saw the clothes again, or anything else… anything except that little embroidered pillow, which fell out, unnoticed, and rolled across the wooden planks until he stopped it with his foot. It was just a matter of hiding it then, snatching it up and tucking it into his vest and, later, into his robes.

He’d relaxed a bit more since coming to Ferelden. The Circle here seemed softer, in some ways. A few boys in the dorm even had things parents had sent to them, or sent with them when they were parcelled off to the Tower. Horribly knitted winter caps, perhaps, or thick socks or scratchy underwear, things like that… things that held little whispers of home, and the promise of remembrances and affection. You could hide things in your bunk or your footlocker and know, most of the time, they’d still be where you left them when you came back—as long as they didn’t contain chocolate, or anything else worth eating or nicking.

Sentimental value was fine, though. Sentiment was… respected, almost, among a lot of the apprentices. Anders hadn’t expected that.

He curled his hand inside the pillowcase as he closed his eyes, and began to drift into sleep with his fingers around the cushion, and his thumb lightly brushing against Karl’s words.

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Chapter 7

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