Ephemera: Chapter 7

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Karl’s week passed slowly. It was mainly full up with classes, his study sessions with Maya, and a series of guest lectures by a visiting enchanter from Starkhaven, in the Free Marches. She was a small, bird-like woman with a rather severe bun of grey hair, and a set of tiny, dwarven-made spectacles, through which she kept stopping to peer at her notes with a screwed-up expression that made it look like she’d just swallowed a wasp.

They were all trooped into the Great Hall to go and listen, and the First Enchanter made a little speech first about the brotherhood of mages, and how this was a valuable opportunity for inter-Circle exchange of knowledge and academic discourse. Karl sat quietly in the fourth row, took a few notes from Senior Enchanter Aelfrida’s ramblings about the practical applications of enchantment in a modern economy, and tried not to groan aloud.

He didn’t see Anders anywhere in the hall. Karl supposed that was probably just as well because, if he’d been there, he’d probably have been muttering darkly about the Chantry using the Circle as a milch cow and how, given half a chance, the templars would have them all made Tranquil and set them to churning out enchanted teapots for bored noblewomen to buy.

Karl suppressed a smile at that, and bent his head over his notes. He wasn’t even sure teapots could be enchanted, or quite what the purpose of doing so would be, but he missed the stupid things Anders came out with… and he missed arguing, and disagreeing, and sometimes just nodding and saying ‘yes, they’re all bastards’, just to shut him up.

The Starkhaven woman was a complete Chantry apologist, by the sound of it, though that wasn’t surprising. If you wanted to get out of the Circle, to Karl’s mind, it was sensible to at least pretend to toe the line. A dog who doesn’t pull gets more leash to run on, as it were. Just hold tight, grit your teeth, and wait until you managed to score enough good behaviour points to get a free pass to somewhere else, whether it was an academic transition, or a more practical one. That was why so many apprentices channelled all that effort into improving their healing and creation spells. All right, you were never entirely free, but an attachment to a noble household or estate, with your own set of rooms, your own little stipend… even the whiff of that possibility was worth fighting for.

Karl’s pen faltered on the page as he recalled Anders’ angry words; all that vituperative bile, spat from a mouth contorted with frustration and fury.

Don’t tell me you really think playing private physician to a hypochondriac nobleman with no chin is actually having a real life?

That had annoyed him. It still annoyed him, and largely because the irritating little sod had a point. All right, it wasn’t true freedom, but then mages were never going to have that, were they?

Discomfort of a kind Karl wasn’t really familiar with nudged at his chest, and he shifted awkwardly on the wooden bench he was crammed onto, amid a sea of other apprentices.

Fine, so Anders was right, but only about some of the things. And only partially. Yes, mages were feared… but they probably should be, shouldn’t they? Of all the apprentices in the Tower, perhaps one in three of them had first manifested their powers accidentally, and with surprisingly dangerous consequences. Stories about setting an older brother’s hair on fire, accidentally turning over a cart, or freezing an unwelcome bath into a block of ice were not at all uncommon and, among certain cliques, they were as good as badges of honour. Sometimes, the whispers were darker.

Rumour had it, not more than a month or so ago, a girl had been brought to the Tower with terrible burns over her whole body. The word in the dorms said she was being kept in a hidden chamber near the sanatorium, and the senior enchanters visited regularly, unsure whether she would survive. They said the fire she’d started had burned her own brother to death, and some versions even suggested she’d done it intentionally. Karl wasn’t sure whether he believed that, but the Circle would always have its rumours, and the point was that other people did believe it. Such a thing was easily possible, too and, if it was true, she was certainly not the first mage to kill someone.

Still, being dangerous was one thing. Being captives with no autonomy was something else entirely. Karl twiddled his quill thoughtfully while the visiting enchanter rattled on a bit more, and noted with interest the two Marcher templars who’d come with her, and now stood at the edge of the dais.

Anders would have had something to say about it, he thought. Possibly about how even other templars didn’t trust the Fereldan Circle’s tinheads to look after one measly mage, and at that Karl had to bite down on another smile. They did look different, though; not so much the slight differences on their armour—different badges, different devices on the embossed inlays, although of course the sword of mercy still featured prominently—but the looks on their faces. They were hard, unforgiving expressions on hard, stern-jawed men… looks that reminded Karl a little bit of Rylock, the woman who’d brought the detachment from Denerim. They were still in the Tower, too, though no one was quite sure why. For all the rumours the Circle fed on, not a lot of note tended to come out of the templar quarters.

Karl stifled a sigh and stretched out his neck and shoulders as subtly as he could. It was all a mess; a big, complicated, impossible mess, and there was no simple way of fixing anything.

Still, they should talk about it, he decided, once Anders was off his punishment week. Talk about it properly, without any yelling or chair flinging.

As far as Karl could see, there was only one sensible alternative. The Circle had to become self-governing. It could be, and it could, just as Senior Enchanter Aelfrida was blathering about, be self-supporting. Mages’ skills—and, yes, even the skills of the Tranquil—could be integrated into the mundane world, and they could actually be useful, instead of being shut away in their towers, confined to books and sterile thought. It wouldn’t even necessarily mean seceding from the Chantry’s governance… just a little bit of loosening up, and a few changes in people’s attitudes. Magic was a natural force, a part of the world; it seemed ridiculous to cage it and pretend it was some kind of aberration.

Of course, that wasn’t to say aberrations didn’t happen. He’d argued that with Anders before.

Yes, but if someone in your dormitory got possessed by a demon, he’d said, oh so very sagely, in the middle of one of those ‘all-templars-are-arseholes’ tirades, you’d be very glad there was a templar there to stop the abomination breaking you in two like a dry twig, wouldn’t you?

Anders had simply pulled a face. That doesn’t happen. They just say that, because—

Bollocks. It could happen. I mean, a fire doesn’t usually rampage through a house and kill everyone; it gets contained neatly in the hearth, and we sit round it and dry our socks, and feel all warm and toasty. But, if someone isn’t careful and doesn’t bank it properly, it can take hold and burn the house down, can’t it?

Karl recalled the scowl that had won him with a perverse flash of pleasure. Anders did not like to have a point logically proven when he disagreed with the argument it was supporting. He wasn’t much on logic generally, really, because he was a beautiful, bright flame of a creature, all emotion and anger and ideals. Karl found it unspeakably appealing, and yet it filled him with a terrible sense of sadness, because he knew it couldn’t last.

One day, Anders was going to find that the world didn’t revolve around him, and that the injustices that so offended him weren’t the only terrible things out there. He was going to realise that life wasn’t divided neatly into segments of black and white, truth and untruth, and Karl suspected he was going to feel very lost indeed.

Part of him hoped he was there when it happened, because—as he found he ached to do more and more often these days—he wanted to be the one to hold Anders close and tell him it didn’t matter, and that even if life wasn’t fair, it still was, and that was enough of a miracle for anyone. Part of him, however, just wanted to see the cocky little bastard fall on his arse, and maybe get some of that block-headedness knocked out of him.

Maker knew he deserved it.

~o~O~o~

The library was quiet that evening. There were a handful of other students around, but they all had their noses buried in assorted tomes, and even the templar on the door looked half-asleep.

Outside, it was cold. It had been raining for the best part of three days, and the damp chill had seeped into absolutely everything. Karl wondered how Anders was getting on, down in the bowels of the inventory stores, and whether the Tranquil had fires to keep them warm. He supposed they must do; being emotionless didn’t stop you getting chilly. Maybe they just wore extra smallclothes.

He winced as a small, dainty foot prodded him in the ankle.

Ow,” he murmured. “What was that for?”

Maya grimaced at him across the table, the light from the enchanted lantern bolted to its centre throwing odd patterns of shadow across her sharp features. He could see why Behim had a crush on her. She was pretty, if you liked that sort of thing, with lively green eyes that made a striking contrast to the warm golden-brown tones of her skin, and she wore her thick, black hair oiled back into a tight braid. The overall effect served to enhance the delicacy of her bone structure, and of her neat, high-set, prettily tapering ears.

I’m sick of looking at you mope,” she hissed, wrinkling her nose. “That’s what’s the matter.”

Karl frowned, Summoning Rites of the Early Steel Age: An Archaeological Record sagging gently in his hands.

I’m not moping,” he protested. “I was just—”

Yes, you are. And it’s pathetic.”

“—thinking about Anders, and—”

Ha!” Maya flashed a triumphant sneer, and stuck her tongue out at him. “See? Told you so.”

He pulled a disgruntled face. “I hate you.”

She just grinned. A couple of tables along, a few of the more serious apprentices shot them some disparaging glares, but Maya appeared not to notice, or at least pretended she didn’t. She seemed to get a kick out of baiting some of the snootier seniors… reminded him of someone, really. She nodded at Karl’s book.

Are you done?”

He blinked. He must have been taking notes, because his writing set was spread out in front of him, and there were several lines of his neat, concise handwriting marching across the paper. On closer inspection, most of the words didn’t actually make sense, and Karl’s brows knitted as he attempted to work out what he’d actually been trying to say.

Places of power – location attendant to rite. Magic has roots like trees?

Well, obviously.

He shrugged and glanced at Maya as he scrabbled his things together. “Might as well be. Let’s go.”

She swept her papers together, tapping them into a neat pile with delicate fingers, and waited for him to catch up. He supposed there could have been worse study partners in the world.

They had both just been accepted onto Enchanter Uldred’s Summoning Sciences class—a privilege, and an opportunity highly prized and competed for among the students, despite the dorm rumours. Word had it that Uldred was known for being a hard taskmaster, coldly indifferent and unsupportive to all but the most academically able of his pupils, and prone to being obsessively pushy with those who showed any modicum of talent. It was also said he wasn’t adverse to a little rule breaking, and had once assisted a student with a practical experiment to summon a Fade spirit in a rite that they had reconstructed from an ancient Tevinter text. Of course, any such action would have been strictly illegal and the rumour was—as Circle rumours always were—totally baseless, but it remained tantalising nonetheless.

The thing was, everyone secretly wanted to be one of Enchanter Uldred’s pet students, even if several of Karl’s peers had warned him against signing up for the class, calling it anything from a waste of time to ‘too bleedin’ dangerous by half’.

For his part, he thought Enchanter Uldred was an extremely interesting teacher; there were no two ways about that. He cut a very imposing figure, with that great bald dome of a head, the aquiline profile and the sharp, jet-black eyes, like some restless kind of falcon always eager to seize on some small and helpless piece of knowledge and swallow it whole, still live and struggling. There was something vaguely compelling about that.

Anyway, Karl sincerely doubted the more colourful rumours. Summoning Sciences would be tough, sure, but worth it. He fancied a good academic stretching, and maybe a term or three’s specialisation in the Spirit School, with a view to enhancing his healing arts and, maybe, actually earning a living by them one day… whatever Anders said about that kind of thing.

Maya glanced at him as they walked softly past the library’s central shelves and down towards the doorway, and raised her delicately arched brows, her study papers clutched to her chest.

So?” she enquired, as they approached the templar on door duty.

Karl blinked. “Huh?”

You know!” She wrinkled her nose, the torchlight from the sconces by the door gilding her brown skin to the colour of warm sand. “Have you been down to find him yet?”

Karl glanced at the silent, unmoving templar by the door jamb. He was a tall, broad man of middling years, his face set into deep lines that seemed to mark a semi-permanent scowl, with a scruff of greying stubble at his jaw. Only his narrow, hooded eyes moved, flicking towards the two apprentices as they passed.

Um….” Karl met the man’s gaze for the briefest of moments, and the hardness in it made him flinch. “I, er… I don’t know what—”

He cleared his throat and scuttled after Maya, out into the long, cold hallway.

It curved ahead of them, a snaking band of grey stretching to endless repetitions of stairways and hard flagstones, painted with pools of torchlight and the narrow shafts of dusky light filtering in from the high windows.

Maya’s exaggerated sigh of exasperation echoed back across the stones.

Your bit of fluff,” she said, turning to mug furiously at Karl. “Yes? The one you’re moping over, hopelessly distracted and—”

Oh, bog off!”

“—utterly infatuated.”

I am not,” Karl protested, but it sounded weak even to him, so he scowled and pulled a face.

Maya just laughed. The clink of armour heralded another templar proceeding around the corner and, as he emerged and then passed them by, she smothered her giggles and gave the man a respectful nod. He didn’t acknowledge it. Karl glanced over his shoulder as the clanking form receded down the corridor, back towards the library, and he was sorely tempted to toss a small charm after the arrogant arse. Tronwheel’s Invisible Tripwire, maybe, or Eskill’s Sudden Surprising Odour, but it probably wouldn’t have been worth it.

Maya elbowed him in the ribs, causing him to almost drop his papers. “Have you, though?”

Ow!” Karl fumbled his armful of work. “Have I what?”

She rolled her eyes. “Maker’s balls, it’s like talking to my old granny…. I said, have you been down to see him yet? Your lad?”

Realisation finally dawned, and it hit him with a blunt, uncomfortable weight.

What, Anders? Down into the inventory?” Karl shook his head vehemently. “No!”

It was a horrible thought. He didn’t want to go down there. Nobody in their right mind did, unless they really needed something, and even then it was a fleeting visit to grab the requisite bit of equipment you’d been sent for, or file some enchanter’s form for them.

He frowned. “Well, they wouldn’t let me in, anyway, would they? Besides, I don’t want to make it worse. Doesn’t matter, does it? I mean, he’ll be all right,” he added, probably more for his own benefit than anything.

The awkward, uneasy ache of missing him tugged at Karl’s chest again, laced through with the residual taint of anger and guilt and fear, and the vaguely resentful yearning with which he so often thought of Anders.

He will be, though. Won’t he?

Maya grimaced. “Ugh, I wouldn’t fancy it. Stuck for a week with them. Creepy, isn’t it?”

Karl said nothing. He could hardly disagree.

Mind you,” she said, lowering her voice and leaning closer as they walked, filling his nostrils with the smell of her hair oil and her freshly laundered robes, “I reckon it’s just posturing, isn’t it? You know… ‘behave or you’ll end up like this’. Yuck! Dunno about you, but I’d rather scrub pans for a week.”

But,” Karl began, his brow furrowing, and the threads of doubt thinning out the words even as he started to speak, “becoming Tranquil isn’t supposed to be a punishment. It’s—”

Oh, they say that, right!” Maya’s narrow elbow clubbed into his ribs, and her green eyes glittered with some odd combination of anger and prurient fear. “But do you believe it? Roll on the Harrowing, that’s what I say. I don’t care if I don’t come out of it alive, just so long as it’s all over. They can’t touch you then, can then?”

Karl shrugged. It was a theory. Not a good one, maybe, but a theory all the same.

They turned the next corner, heading towards the staircase that led to the dorms, and passed a gaggle of very small apprentices being ushered along the corridor by a harassed looking mage with a tight bun of dark brown hair. None of the children could have been more than nine, and several of them were probably much younger, still at that wide-eyed, snotty-nosed stage of new apprenticeship that Karl remembered so well… back when the Tower was the biggest place in the world, full of scary things and rooms that seemed to go on forever, and all he wanted was someone to hug him and tell him everything was all right. And—as long as you behaved yourself and did what the mages told you—someone usually did. He’d hardly noticed the point at which the rooms stopped seeming endless, and the rules became second nature.

The apprentices filed past, with one of the littlest ones complaining about needing a wee.

Maya smirked as they went by, and then narrowed her eyes as she looked at Karl.

Anyway,” she said briskly, apparently eager to change the subject from Tranquillity and the unknown horrors of the Harrowing, “why don’t you tell me about this mate of yours, hmm?”

He frowned. “Why?”

She shrugged, her braid switching over her shoulder as she started to walk again. “You haven’t yet, that’s all. Not properly. Makes me curious,” she added, glancing back at him with mischief in those green eyes.

Karl sighed. He should have seen this one coming, he supposed. “There really isn’t anything to tell, but—”

Balls! I’ve seen him around, haven’t I?

He winced at Maya’s expectant grin. “You’re not going to let up, are you?”

She shook her head and beamed at him smugly. “No chance. Come on—I want to know. He’s the blond one, isn’t he? Lanky, with the ponytail and the big, dark eyes?”

Karl tried to suppress a smile, and failed. He gave a reluctant shrug, and nodded. “Mm-hm.”

I knew it!” Maya crowed triumphantly, hugging her books tightly to her chest. “I have seen him around. And he’s cute.”

Karl felt his cheeks warm a bit, and decided it was probably pointless to keep dissembling. He let the smile spill out over his face, full of undisguised and tender affection. “Yeah. Well, I think so.”

Huh. Too bloody right!” She giggled, hugging her books closer to her breast. “Don’t suppose he likes girls as well, does he?”

Karl blinked, rather more sharply needled by the fleeting flash of possessive jealousy than he expected. “I don’t know. I’ve never asked.”

Oh, don’t worry, I don’t plan on sneaking a move on him.” Maya’s smile faded a little, and she cocked her head to the side, peering inquisitively at him with a rather odd look on her face. “Is it like that, then? You and he are…? I mean, you’re not just doing it?”

He winced. Life in the Tower stripped away social conventions, and living so closely together and under such strict rules did make for some pretty pragmatic approaches to things, but Karl still baulked from putting so much that was personal into words. Besides, he didn’t really want to admit just how things were with Anders. It was… embarrassing. That was the word. It was all mixed up: just as much embarrassment as hope and tenderness and newness and excitement and, well… everything.

He cleared his throat. “Uh, matter of fact,” he murmured, bowing his head to her level, “we’re not even doing it.”

What?” Maya’s eyes widened, her lips twitching into a moue of disbelief.

Karl felt the stain of guilty, glorious admission on his cheeks, blooming with awkward warmth. “Well, it… it’s… you know how—”

She bit her lip. “Aww-www! How sweet!”

Karl’s blush deepened. He shouldn’t have said anything. He knew it. She’d clasped her books under her chin, and now she was just staring at him, her lips pressed into a thin line.

Oh, Karl….”

What?” He frowned, nervous of the light dancing in her eyes. “No, you know what? Don’t say anything. Don’t—”

You’re soft on him, aren’t you? Proper soft!”

He stared at her, a queue of denials and protests lined up on his tongue, and yet none of them quite made it out of his mouth.

Well, it was true, wasn’t it?

Things like this were meant to be simple in the Circle… simple for mages, because mages didn’t get the choice of anything except simplicity.

People got by like that. You took your pleasures where you found them, kept your ties light and easily broken, and you knew the attachments you formed would always be policed, forever running the risks of discovery and censure, or perhaps of some keen-eyed templar’s petty spite.

All too often, there were rumours of young mages sent to other Circles, not for training or academic study, but simply because they had dared to care for someone, to believe they could have that small semblance of a normal life—to nurture even the tiniest spark of some gentle feeling—and forget, just for a while, that prisoners were not supposed to see the glint of daylight.

Oh, yes… it was meant to be simple. It just didn’t always work out that way.

I—” The torches crackled on the walls, their light painting swoops of shifting colour against the stones. Karl swiped his tongue over his lower lip. “I… All right, yes. I like him. A lot. And maybe I do… care about him. A bit. I suppose.”

Maya grinned suddenly, her face lighting up like a candle. “Ooo-ooh! Karl’s in loo-oove… isn’t it adorable?”

She danced backwards along the corridor a few paces, her soft leather slippers whispering on the flags, and he darted after her, full of that inexplicable elation, bursting with guilt and embarrassment. It washed up over his cheeks, burned behind his eyes and in his throat, and he couldn’t wipe the smile from his face as he laughed hoarsely and shook his head.

Oh, shut up, you daft tart!”

Maya cackled and, hugging his study papers under one arm, Karl lunged after her, ready to pinch her backside and tug her braid and otherwise generally admit that—even though it wasn’t really a good idea—she had a point, and maybe things were a little bit… like that.

All right, all right! Truce!” she yelped, as he relinquished his handful of her hair.

They were nearing the dorms, and although the corridors were quiet, Karl supposed it wouldn’t do to show up both looking breathless and giggly. People might get entirely the wrong idea… and that was a rumour he didn’t want getting around.

He shot Maya a victorious smile, and then shrugged as she stared curiously at him.

Really, though?” Those delicate brows arched again, and uncertainty touched her eyes. “Are you sure you know what—”

No,” Karl admitted. “I know it’s stupid. I know I shouldn’t… well, you know. But he’s different. He’s….”

Special?” she suggested, smirking.

He pulled a face. “Mm-hm. I know how it sounds. But it’s true. He is. And I… I do care, but I’m worried about him, too. I mean, he’s not happy, but there’s not happy and not happy, and he’s… well….”

Not happy?”

You know what I mean.”

Maya wrinkled her nose. “Not really, no.”

No,” Karl echoed with a sigh. Of course she didn’t. “It doesn’t matter.”

At the far end of the corridor, beyond one of the countless statues of Andraste that seemed to pop up on every floor—well, there were never statues of old members of the Circle or Fraternities, not when that might have incited fraternal antagonism, or perhaps reminded people of what it was like to have an identity beyond just ‘mage’—a group of apprentices was coming up to the dorm. There were about six of them, all clutching papers, very much like Karl and Maya, and all talking quietly as their robes swished and their slippers scudded against the stones.

Maya drew close to him, all traces of teasing and mischief gone from her face, and those delicately arched brows drew into a frown.

Karl? What? You think he’s going to do something daft?”

No! I mean, no… I don’t think so.”

He glanced at the approaching group. They looked so serene and calm. One of them was a boy about his age: blond, and not bad looking. For a moment, he made Karl blink, but the resemblance was fleeting and, when he looked again, it had gone completely. Silly, he supposed, to ever imagine he could see Anders in the middle of anywhere peaceful.

Oh.” Maya nodded slowly, and as he turned his attention back to her, Karl could see she didn’t believe him.

Damn.

Not that it mattered. She probably wasn’t enough of a gossip to spread it around but, even if she did, everyone already thought Anders was a nutcase. Well, he was, Karl reminded himself. Crazy as a hare, but that didn’t mean he was about to top himself. Of course, Karl knew he couldn’t mention all the talk of escape and that left only one assumption.

It did happen, from time to time. Mages were subject to the same loneliness and despair as anyone else, and were probably much more vulnerable to it. The hothouse atmosphere of the Tower, the constant oppressive closeness of other people, of being watched and doubted, guarded like livestock…. Plenty of apprentices came to believe they were indeed cursed by the Maker; that magic was a sin and a vile thing, and the world held no greater joy than the sword of the mercy the templars bore.

In Karl’s time, he’d heard of three apprentices hanging themselves with bed sheets, one bungling an attempt to drown himself while another—several years ago, admittedly—had succeeded… and then there was the girl people said had opened her wrists with a broken flask stolen from one of the laboratory repositories, and the one who’d used part of a smashed-up mirror. There had quite possibly been others, too, but they were generally hushed up or not spoken about, relegated to the dim murmurs of gossip. Well, the Circle did love its rumours. And, if even less than half of them were to be believed, there were more ghosts wailing in these halls than there were in the Fade itself.

He squeezed up a dry smile for Maya, and nodded towards the door of his dorm. “Well, this is me. See you tomorrow?”

She gave him a dubious look. “All right. Hey… not long now, though, eh?”

Hmm?” Karl pretended he didn’t understand, but she just narrowed those dancing, knowing green eyes.

You heard. Your friend… he’ll be back up, what, day after tomorrow? Maybe tomorrow evening, if he’s lucky. You can see him then. Maybe,” she added, tilting her head to the side, “if someone was to cover for you during Elemental Studies—maybe tell Enchanter Grade you’d gone to the san—there might be a couple of hours where you and he could… oh, I don’t know… spend some time getting reacquainted? Or—” Mischief flashed across Maya’s face, curling her lips into a wicked smile. “—should I say, acquainted?”

Well, he hadn’t been expecting that.

The warmth of affection—and of a deeper, hungrier kind of gratitude—surged up right from the tips of Karl’s toes, and he grinned lazily at her.

You’re a peach, Maya. What do you want for—”

She shook her head, suddenly mysterious and aloof. “Nothing. Not yet. But you can say hello to Behim for me. Night-night.”

And with that, she turned and left him standing by the doors, beaming like an idiot and watching her slim, silk-robed figure recede into the torchlit gaggles of students, black braid hanging down her back.

Karl knew he was probably being played like a pawn. He knew he probably didn’t even know the rules of the game.

He didn’t care, though. Not in the slightest.

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Chapter 8
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