Justice in Surrender: Chapter 19

———————————
Back to Justice in Surrender: Contents
———————————-

There were only a few gaggles of people in the clinic when Tobias arrived. A woman sat on one of the pallets, jogging a baby in her arms, though the child seemed too weak to be doing much more than keening softly. Anders was with her, peeling back the shawl that wrapped the child, his face lined with concern.

He didn’t notice Tobias’ arrival; just carried on examining the infant. He lifted it from its mother’s arms gently, its scrawny body dangling limply between his hands, and it began to cry more loudly. He tried to hush it, tried to soothe it with the gentle pulse of healing magic, blooming forth from his palm in a glow of soft blue light, but the tiny lungs heaved out a great wail, and Anders frowned, looking worried as he passed the babe back to its mother.

He went to the back of the clinic, where the coppers were boiling, and fetched one of the girls. She came quickly, carrying what looked like a jug of caudle, and an extra blanket, which she wrapped around mother and child, speaking quietly to the woman as she led her away.

Anders stood there, alone in the pale chaos of the clinic, one hand on the back of his waist, the other swiping over his hair as he watched them go. He rolled his neck, his back evidently stiff and sore, and he looked so disquieted that Tobias wanted to call out to him. He didn’t, because there were two dockhands close by who were soon clamouring for the healer’s attention, and an old woman complaining in shrill tones about pain in her hands.

But, as Anders turned to address the next of his patients, he caught sight of Tobias waiting by the door, and shot him a small, weak smile.

It wasn’t exactly a burst of sunshine and roses, but it was better than nothing. It showed, maybe, that he was all right—or at least as all right as he ever was—and that started to calm a few of Tobias’ nerves.

He’d worried that the Fade had been a mistake. He shouldn’t have let Anders do it, and he was afraid of what it might have caused… as if Justice had caught the scent of freedom, and now couldn’t rest.

Oh, there was more to it than that, of course—a great deal more—but Tobias wasn’t prepared to dwell on it, just as he refused to examine all the reasons that drew him down here, into the Undercity’s dankly beating heart.

Anders was dealing with the old woman and her crabbed, twisted, arthritic hands. Tobias nodded to him across the tangle of patients and linens and ailments, and then went to the back of the clinic, where he smiled at the boy manning the coppers—the most recent runaway, apparently, and still new to the work—and lent what little skill he had.

Watching boiling pans and stirring the scummy green roil of herb parts, or rolling bandages and pegging up wet sheets and squares of washed dressings never really felt like doing much. Tobias nursed the fond hope that he might actually learn enough to be useful, in time, but the names of the different herbs never seemed to stay in his head, and he struggled to tell the difference between many of them when they were fresh, much less anonymous dried green powders, or boiled wet sludge. None of the things Anders tried to teach him seemed to stick, either, and Tobias was afraid of trying even the simplest healing spell again, in case he did worse damage than scorching a few floorboards.

So, he contented himself with the messy, menial things. He stirred coppers, dealt with wet linens, strained herbs, and sluiced out pisspots and bowls filled with all manner of unpleasant fluids… and, at the centre of it, Anders worked on.

There was something off about it today, though, Tobias noticed. He was doing less actual hands-on healing, as if he wanted to keep a distance from the patients themselves, and yet he looked even more tired than usual.

The afternoon wore away at him and, by the time the clinic was growing quiet, emptied but all of the sickest—and, with the year turning cold and hard, there were more than there had been of those—Anders looked paper-thin and exhausted.

That’ll do, Neryn,” he said with a small smile, dismissing the young, wide-eyed runaway from the rank of coppers, the fires banked down now and the herbs all emptied out and duly worked into plaisters or salves. “Just pop some more wood in the braziers, would you? We need to keep everyone warm. I’ll finish up here.”

The lad bobbed an obeisant bow and scampered off. Tobias smirked at the retreating figure, and shot Anders an enquiring glance.

Not particularly talkative, is he?”

The healer shook his head, and the faint smile still clinging to his face turned solemn and melancholy. “No. But then you wouldn’t be, if you’d been through what he has.”

Circle?”

Mm.” Anders nodded absently, and gave Tobias a thoughtful look. “I didn’t think we’d see you down here today. You look tired. Thought you’d rest after the business with the Dalish.”

Tobias shrugged. “I got some sleep. More than you, by the looks of it. Is everything…? You know, with Feynriel?”

Some focus seemed to seep back into those dark eyes, and Anders nodded again, more firmly this time.

Yes. Thank you for following through. I knew you would.”

Tobias basked in the warmth of pride. “Well, you knew the coin was there if you needed it. I said that much.”

Saying and doing are different things… for a lot of people, anyway. Gethyn made the handover this morning. It’s arranged, and the fact we could put the money down is thanks to you.”

Anders’ voice was low, in deference to the other people around, but each word seemed to buzz its way straight into Tobias’ head, as soft and insidious as a whisper in his ear. He swallowed heavily, and wet his lower lip.

A merchant caravan, right? Then a safe house somewhere in the Imperium? How—”

Anders chuckled, lines of tired amusement creasing his eyes. “Gethyn said you were curious. Yes… we have a contact in Minrathous who arranges things. A few in other places, but no one tends to stay anywhere for long. It’s not safe. Tevinter isn’t safe, generally speaking, but I think it’s Feynriel’s best chance. And you helped that happen.”

Tobias squirmed a little under the sudden warmth in the healer’s face—the swell of pride and gratitude and respect that, all at once, was both wonderful and frightening. It made him feel vulnerable to be the focus of so much.

Still,” Anders said, tipping his head to the side, that familiar tone of light, dry sarcasm perfuming the word, “I don’t know Gethyn was that struck on you ignoring all the rules.”

Tobias sniggered. “No. Mind you, why should he trust me? As far as the Underground knows, it’s only you vouching for me, and apparently they already think that’s because I mean.”

He winced as he pulled back on the words. Damn. It was hard to remember, when it was so easy to talk to the man, that there were things he shouldn’t say.

Anders’ expression grew a little more distant, though the hint of a smile still touched the edge of his lips. He seemed to be thinking of something that either amused or saddened himor possibly bothand then he shrugged, tossing Tobias a rueful glance.

People talk,” he said simply.

Tobias watched his face, watched the guarded light in his eyes, searching for some suggestion of what he was really thinking, but Anders had himself locked up far too tightly. That frustrated him. It stung, too, coming so hard on the heels of the Fade. Tobias took a slow, deep breath, and tried not to remember the sweet spring air wafting through the window of a cottage that wasn’t real, or the warm, soft laughter of a man who probably couldn’t even be that happy.

He cleared his throat, pushing them both back into calmer waters before the stilted, choking waves of things that were too difficult to address pulled him down.

Could be worse,” he said lightly. “You could have taken Merrill along to a meeting or three. I bet they’d just love her.”

Anders snorted, and a brief but beautifully sunny grin split his face. “Maker… no. Although, if it would sway her from some of those ideas of hers, it might be worth considering.” The smile faded, replaced with a melancholy frown, and a certain tightness around his eyes. “Blood magic’s never right. I mean, power corrupts, but in that case it’s not even the power… it’s what it opens the door to.”

Tobias watched a strange, speculative look settle over his face, and wondered at how mercurial his moods seemed to be when he was tired. He wondered, too, just how far he could push Anders when it came to conversations of Merrill and demons… and exactly how far Justice himself differed from their kind.

The spirit’s hatred of demons in the Fade had surprised Tobias, and made him curious. After all, it seemed too simple to say that his kind and Torpor’s were different from each other the way that vices and virtues were. Wasn’t a virtue running unchecked just as dangerous as a vice? What was unmetered justice, except the warped face of Vengeance that Anders feared so much?

Part of Tobias suspected that that itself was nothing more than rage, but he didn’t want to linger on the thoughts, because they led to dark and frightening places and, besides, Anders was a lot of things… but abomination wasn’t one of them. Tobias believed that more strongly than he believed anything and, as he looked at Anders in the clinic’s subdued quiet—with just the odd handful of sick and scared people huddled up on the pallets, and the Circle runaways ladling out soup and small comforts—the healer never seemed more human.

Anders blinked then, as if forcibly dragging himself away from some distracting chain of thoughts, and gave Tobias a weak smile, like a thin shred of sunlight on a winter morning.

Anyway,” he said, a teasing note lingering in his voice, “they will be suspicious of you, won’t they? It’s just… well, you. Hob-nobbing with the nobility. Personal meetings with the viscount, old friend of the Captain of the Guard….”

Aveline?” Tobias wrinkled his nose, and the texture of the air between them thinned a bit. “We’re not exactly friends. She tolerates me for Mother’s sake, I think, and the fact we left Ferelden together, but that’s all. Anyway, after last night—”

Anders nodded sympathetically. “I know. I know, but you can see how it looks.”

“‘How it looks’?” Tobias frowned. “Can’t say that I can, no. Why?”

The healer looked uncomfortable, like he wished he’d never said anything. Across the clinic, on one of the pallets, an old man coughed; a great, chest-deep wheeze, hauling phlegmy gasps on weak lungs and rattling in the breaths he struggled to take. Anders glanced up, and there was a flicker of worried resignation in his face, like he knew exactly how little he could do for the man.

A muscle clenched briefly in his jaw, and he returned his attention to Tobias with a minute shrug that made the feathered shoulders of his shabby coat rustle.

You know what I mean,” he muttered, looking vaguely apologetic. “You’ve seen who we are. It’s not just people like me, or Gethyn, or even Selby. Many of the Underground are merchants, guildhall members… a few are even minor gentry. They risk a great deal doing what they do. But, for someone to have too much involvement with the guard and the nobles? That’s asking for trouble.”

A cold ache scythed through Tobias’ gut. “What, you think I’d—?”

No!” Those dark eyes locked quickly onto his, and Anders shook his head emphatically. “No, I don’t. I don’t think that for a minute. I’ve trusted you with my life before… I would again.”

His gaze seemed to melt its way right to Tobias’ core, and he felt his cheeks begin to warm. A frown pinched Anders’ brow, and he looked sheepishly at the dusty floorboards between them.

But they won’t see it that way. Even with all the coin you’ve dropped… or maybe because of it. I don’t know. Just… just be careful, is all I’m saying. It takes time to win people around.”

Mm.” Tobias folded his arms, and tried to resist the urge to say something snide. “I want to, though.”

Anders glanced up enquiringly. “Oh?”

It was true. His zeal hadn’t lessened in the weeks since the meeting, however full up they’d been with other crises vying for his attention. It seemed a little silly to say it—especially standing here, with the dregs of Kirkwall’s population wrapped in blankets and wheezing into a dark, cold night lit by smoky braziers and greasy tallow candles—but everything since that evening had just convinced Tobias further. The demon at the Harimann place, the Dalish ritual… it all meant the same thing. Mages would never be free from the hatred and fear inculcated by those whom the Circle failed, and Kirkwall was a perfect example of why Circles never would work. There would always be those who sought power, and those who couldn’t control what they already had, and trying to herd them all together like identical cattle only exacerbated the problems.

Not all mages were created equal, and magic was a curse and blessing in different measures… and of different strengths. To pretend otherwise—and to pretend that it could be locked up—was ridiculous.

Someone needed to show the world that.

However, those were big, shiny, glamorous words, and they were all wrong in this quiet, poky, decidedly unglamorous place… even with the enquiring look on Anders’ face, and the almost irresistible urge Tobias had to pledge everything to him all over again.

He shrugged as nonchalantly as he could manage. “Well, there are plenty more Feynriels out there, aren’t there? Maybe not all with those kinds of powers, but… people the Circle are failing. People who don’t want to live their lives shut in like cattle. And, if the way Meredith’s been running things is any indication, it’s only going to get worse.”

Something dark sluiced behind Anders’ eyes, and he nodded fervently. “You’re right there. Do you know how many mages they turned Tranquil last month? The Rite shouldn’t even be used on a Harrowed mage. The templars are invoking it over and over, just to silence anyone who steps out of line. If someone doesn’t—”

He stopped abruptly and took a deep breath and, just for a moment, the air itself seemed to flex against Tobias’ skin. He frowned.

You all right?”

Anders smiled weakly. “Too tired to talk politics, that’s all.” He took another long breath, centring himself, and ran a hand over his hair, smoothing down the errantly frizzy bits that always seemed to stick out, whatever he did. “Don’t know why you hang around here… I can’t be much company.”

Tobias shook his head. You know perfectly well, you bastard. “I like watching you work,” he said airily. “Is that so bad?”

Anders grimaced incredulously, which made him smile, and Tobias followed his glance around the clinic. The apprentice, Neryn, was sweeping the day’s rushes out of the side door, which might possibly do something about the pervading smell of piss and old vomit that always mouldered away in the clinic, even beneath the regular cleanings and the astringent-smelling little dishes of copal incense.

The healer shook his head, and moved to finish off hanging the coppers upside down over the benches, evidently deciding the two of them had dallied enough.

Tobias followed, helping him lift and turn the heavy pans, and check the stoppers on some of the big stoneware jugs in which herbs were quietly macerating. The fire still glowed softly beneath a mantel of ash, and the smells of the newly made plaisters, the tinctures and powders all twisted together in one woody, green, sharp scent that made Tobias’ nose itch. Three thick stubs of candle guttered in saucers on the workbench, and they threw a dozen different shadows around Anders as he worked, pale hands like ghosts in the darkness.

Watching you,” Tobias said, lowering his voice a little as they overturned the biggest copper, sluicing out the last of the dregs it had held, “makes me think everything’s all right, even when I know it isn’t. You always look so confident, so… focused. Dedicated.”

Incredible, beautiful, powerful… I could go on.

Anders winced. The last of whatever noxious weed had been boiled in the copper spattered to the ground in dark green droplets, and Tobias sighed tersely, realising that was yet another thing to add to the list of stuff he shouldn’t have said.

I wanted to talk to you, anyway,” he said, as they set the pan on the slatted bench. “To apologise for forcing you into the Fade like that. I should have known how uncomfortable it would be, and—”

Anders shook his head emphatically. “No. I couldn’t have just stood by and done nothing. I couldn’t have let you… well… you know.”

Die like an idiot? Face demons alone? Kill Feynriel?

He could have meant any of them, Tobias supposed, though he decided to hope for the second option.

Do you, uh…? D’you remember it?” he asked, as casually as he could. “I mean, what was it like? With— well, with him in charge like that?

Anders pulled a sour face, and it was hard to tell whether it was really such a deeply unpleasant memory, or if he just didn’t want to talk about it.

It’s hard to explain. I told you before that there’s no way to tell where Justice ends and I begin. His thoughts are mine, his… reactions….” Anders trailed off and shook his head, frowning vaguely. “It’s difficult to… you know. I’d stayed out of the Fade since we merged. I don’t much like being a passenger in my own skin. Still,” he added thoughtfully, worrying at the cuff of his coat with one hand, “I suppose Justice feels like that every day. Shackled to my body and every decision I make. No wonder it’s become a prison for him.”

Tobias bit the inside of his lip, eager to find something to say, but not sure what possible response there was to that. Were things really that bad inside the healer’s head? He wondered if Anders talked about it to anyone else. He probably did. Maybe. Selby, and those elusive friends of his in the Underground that Tobias wasn’t quite prepared to admit being so jealous of… but did it help? How did you talk about something that half your own mind was the subject of? It wasn’t exactly like he could get any privacy, or mutter about Justice behind the spirit’s back.

Like always, Tobias found himself shying away from the practicalities of the thoughts. He was afraid that, when it came down to it, he didn’t want to know, if wanting to know was too much like staring into a hopeless darkness. He didn’t want to believe there was no way out.

Silence had fallen between them again, and that was never a good thing, however comfortable and natural it felt. It was a deceitful sensation, he supposed, because there was no clear, familiar honesty here to base that kind of comfort on, and pretending that there was—pretending they understood each other, or that anything about this was fine—was a foolish, naïve thing to do.

Tobias cleared his throat, one hand rising to scratch awkwardly at the back of his head. “Look… about all that, though…. Did I…? In the Fade? When the demon—” He broke off, an exasperated sigh drowning the words. “I just mean, if I said anything, or if—”

I don’t remember,” Anders said softly.

He turned his head, looking at the copper pots and their round, shiny bellies, buffed to a dull shine by dint of so much scrubbing and elbow grease… just like the lies that lay between the two of them, Tobias thought, and all the effort they depended upon.

Oh, Maker. I did, didn’t I? Oh, shit.

Well, um—” He cleared his throat awkwardly. “I suppose that’s all right, then, isn’t it? I mean, they get into your head and— and….”

Yes. It’s all right. Please,” Anders added, his tone purposefully mild, “don’t worry. Let’s just—”

Forget about it? Pretend it didn’t happen? Maker’s breath, you’re a piece of work….

“—let’s just leave the Fade where it is, shall we?”

He turned abruptly, and set to straightening up the disorder of the most recently used pallets. Tobias followed meekly, searching out whatever scraps of something useful he could be doing. Further down the rows, the old man was coughing again, and Neryn was still sweeping, working up the room with his broom; scrubbing now, and dislodging Maker knew what from between the boards.

All the same,” he said thoughtfully, glancing at Anders, “you were the only one who didn’t turn.”

A small, lop-sided smile tugged at the healer’s mouth. “Well, nothing like being possessed to keep you on the straight and narrow, right?”

Tobias smiled mirthlessly. He didn’t like hearing Anders talk that way, but he knew better than to complain. Still, it wasn’t just that, he felt sure… or maybe it was. Maybe he was a fool, trying to read meaning into every tiny crease and wrinkle in the things between them.

He flinched then, surprised by the sudden warmth of Anders’ hand on his bare arm as he reached across the narrow breadth of the pallet. It was just a brief touch—a gentle, comforting squeeze—but it made goosebumps rise on Tobias’ flesh, and sent the pulse thudding in his throat.

You should go and talk to them both,” Anders said, meeting his eyes steadily. “Especially Aveline. I mean, Merrill was hardly a surprise, although I do hope it taught her something about demons, but… Aveline won’t understand how it happened. I expect she could do with you telling her it’s all right.”

Tobias gazed blankly at him, just drinking in the tiny details of his face: the dark smudges of fatigue beneath his eyes, the thin crows’ feet forming at their corners… the little gold-and-brown filaments of beard growth on his cheeks. He found himself noticing the strangest things. There was, for example, an infinitesimal dent right at the very tip of Anders’ nose. It only appeared visible close up and, from a distance, apparently served to make the nose itself look more defined… an element of that haughty, chiselled angularity of his, Tobias supposed. He noticed it, though, and noticed the squareness of his chin, and the uncommon width of his mouth, and virtually anything else that didn’t involve the guarded, complex warmth in his eyes.

There was affection there—plain as day, bright as starlight—but it was chained up, choked back, and Tobias wanted, all at once, to bury himself in the healer’s arms, and to run so far away from him they’d never see each other again. He could still feel Anders’ touch on his skin, as if his fingers had burned into the flesh.

You’re right,” he said dully. “Thanks.”

Anders shrugged. “Hey. You did a good thing. And you’re a good man, Hawke. A brave man.”

Tobias shook his head. “No. I’m just frightened of failure. Thank you, though. I mean that. For… all of it.”

They looked at each other for a moment longer, and his fingers flexed against the air, as if he might have reached for Anders’ hand or arm—until he thought better of it, smiled weakly, and turned to go.

Anders didn’t stop him, though, however slowly he walked on the way to the door.

He wouldn’t have done anyway, Tobias supposed. Maybe he never would. Maybe all they would ever do was keep skirting around each other, avoiding every intimacy like it was some kind of weakness; eternally coming to the brink of something, and always pulling back.

He hated it… hated Anders, almost.

Almost, but not quite.

The walk to the alienage was enough to let the mental recriminations and spite work themselves out, and the repetitive thud of boots on dirt-packed streets brought Tobias as much solace as it ever had.

Lowtown smelled of salt and tar, like usual, but there was a coldness in the air. The year was definitely turning, and it would be harder to find work, harder to buy food… harder to do everything. That weary restlessness rolled again within him. Tobias hated Kirkwall winters. He supposed they would have been worse if the weather got as bitterly cold as it used to in Ferelden, but there was something unremittingly bleak about the cool, damp drizzle and the grim way the city just seemed to squat there, waiting for the spring.

Too much waiting. Everything is always waiting, like we’ve been holding our breath for the past three years. Are we ever going to breathe again?

Merrill wasn’t hard to find. She was shut up in the little hovel she was so damnably proud of, and Tobias tried to avoid the looks he got from the alienage elves as he slipped through the dirty, foul-smelling streets of the district, making his way to her front door.

Oh, a few of them mistook him for a client—Maker knew there were more than enough whores here to put the Rose out of business—but several recognised his face. There were plenty of thieves, pickpockets, petty thugs and smugglers, too. Not that it mattered. Nothing mattered within the alienage walls, where he was just another human to be scowled at and avoided. They scattered from his path like ants, all huge eyes and pinched, dirty faces, with the same hard, blank look on them as people wore in the Old Town slums.

He could see the light of a candle seeping through the ill-fitting shutters, and he rapped quietly on the peeling wood of her door. It opened after barely a few moments… as if she’d already known he was coming.

Hawke.”

Merrill stepped back meekly from the threshold, dropping her gaze as she motioned him inside. She looked awful: red-eyed and lank-haired, her skin pale and papery. Tobias ducked his head and followed her into the shack, wincing a little at the smell of mould and damp. It was worse than Gamlen’s place, though Merrill had a lot more books. They spilled out of the few wooden shelves she had, and covered every available surface. Some were even drying in front of the pitiful little grate she had—evidently she’d been treating them for mould or paper mites or something, for a little pot of liquid and a brush sat on the table, while four volumes had their pages spread out in the meagre warmth the fire afforded.

Tobias tried not to think about what might be in them. Knowing Merrill, they could just as easily have been fairytales, or distinctly nasty texts on Tevinter blood rites.

She stood in front of him, her hands clasped and her head bowed, and she didn’t meet his eye when she gestured vaguely around the room and told him to make himself comfortable.

Tobias sighed. He’d been hoping he’d stay angry enough to yell at her. He’d been angry, in the Fade. Damn it, he’d been angry when he woke, and angry with her all the day after, and… and then he’d been distracted by the things that had to be done if Feynriel was actually to be saved, instead of just being given a reprieve from his powers and somehow, on reflection, Merrill’s wanting to save her whole clan—her people—hadn’t seemed like the worst thing in the world to be tempted by.

And now, she looked so bloody miserable and so utterly, completely crushed that it hurt him just to see it. He shook his head.

Look, Merrill—”

You have my apologies,” she murmured, staring steadfastly at the floor with those great, leaf-green eyes. “It’s… easy to forget that one cannot bind demons with words.”

Merrill, it really—”

She looked up at him, her face filled with grief and regret and disbelief, and the words started to spill out, the apologies piling on apology in a tumultuous babble.

It’s just I… I can’t believe I turned on you. Ma serennas. I mean, I-I’ll understand if you can’t forgive me, but…. It was a shock, you know? I didn’t think it could possibly happen like that. I’ve been so careful in all my dealings with spirits until now. To make such an obvious mistake…. I’m so sorry!”

He couldn’t help it. A grin slid slowly across his face, and she looked affronted and confused.

You’re… why are you smiling?”

Tobias shook his head. It was just so much better to hear her prattling than it was to see still, serious, reserved Merrill, with her stiff gestures of apology and serious, heartfelt words.

It’s all right,” he assured her. “Honestly. I forgive you.”

You do?” She looked genuinely perplexed. “But—”

Tobias shrugged. “I know the power demons have… what it’s like to w— to want something that much. For what it’s worth, it got you with the promise of saving your people. There are worse things to give into, aren’t there?”

Merrill’s wide, clear face crumpled into a frown, and she hugged her thin arms around her middle, digging her fingers into the thick tunic she wore.

Maybe, but… well, it was pride, wasn’t it? Wanting to be their saviour because I— because of everything that happened before I left. That’s not exactly selfless.”

It’s redemption,” Tobias said carefully, thinking of Aveline and the handsome face of Wesley, offering her an impossible, better life, far off in some perfect version of fate. “Everyone wants that.”

Merrill exhaled deeply, and seemed to visibly deflate, her shoulders growing hunched and rounded. She bit her lip thoughtfully and frowned.

Would you like some tea?”

Tobias didn’t really want to say yes—especially given the fact that what passed for tea in the alienage was usually the leaf of some peculiar straggly herb, and tasted like blackberries washed in mud—but she clearly needed it, so he agreed.

They ended up drinking small, scalding cups of the stuff while sitting together on the blanket-strewn divan that served as Merrill’s bed and, apparently, impromptu study area. There were more books, more papers… and some of them were indeed written in what looked like Tevene. Tobias didn’t try to decipher it, and steadfastly ignored the temptation to ask her, or to say anything about Feynriel’s new life.

It frightens me, though,” she said, her voice a small, shallow whisper. “It takes so little for a mage to fall, doesn’t it?”

Tobias leaned back against the rough plaster, with its musty, homely smell, and swigged the vile tea.

What made you give in?”

Merrill sighed deeply and shook her head. She had her knees tucked under her chin, her arms linked around them, and her half-empty cup dangled from one thin hand, the dregs of the liquid sloshing as she shrugged.

It felt like… like every word the demon spoke reached out and pulled at my heart,” she said, frowning. The fingers of her free hand touched her chest, resting lightly against the deep russets and green of her Dalish clothes—because she still looked like one of them, even if the clan had all but cast her out. That troubled Tobias, though he didn’t want to admit it. “Do you know what I mean?”

He nodded stiffly. “Mm-hm.”

That’s it,” she agreed, taking a speculative sip of her tea. “It reaches right inside you. Makes you think things. Makes you see them. I didn’t want to believe it, but I just… had to.”

Tobias suppressed a shiver, and tried to stop the memories of that night crowding back in his head. The further away he got from the Fade, the more the dreams grew blurred at the edges, and the harder it was to separate the fantasy of that little cottage from the image of Justice wearing Anders’ body like an old coat.

Merrill leaned across him to put her now empty cup on the small table beside the bed, its uneven leg wedged up with a small chock of wood that looked like it had fallen off one of the shutters. As she did so, he smelled the delicate, green, woody fragrance that she had about her—like soap and some hint of the forest that even Kirkwall’s grime couldn’t fully erase—and the sleeve of her tunic pulled back just enough for him to see the thin, pale brown lines of scars on her arm.

He held his breath, and tried not to think about it.

Did you have the same trouble?” she asked as she settled back down. “Aveline didn’t say much, but I got the impression—”

Mm.” Tobias nodded curtly, not really willing to discuss it. “Yes, there were… well, there were plenty more of the bastards.”

You got through it, though,” Merrill observed, with a trace of something that sounded a lot like envy. “You didn’t—”

There are some things that can’t be real. Aren’t there?” Tobias drained the last of his tea, and stared fixedly at the flaking plaster and cracked wooden supports of the far wall. “That’s how you know, right? How you protect yourself from demons. We all learn that.”

There was a beat of silence. He knew Merrill was looking at him in quiet consideration; he could feel her gaze on him, her chin propped on her knees, her wide eyes slowly picking him apart and evaluating every piece of him. She never had been half as naïve as people thought she was, had she? He’d known that since the first time he saw her use blood magic… and he remembered it still: the dark, bitter swirls of power, coursing and whipping around him.

He owed his life to it.

The Keeper taught me that, in the Fade, you must believe nothing but yourself,” Merrill said slowly, balancing every word. “Everything there is a lie, or a trick, or a trap. You are the only real thing.”

Tobias snorted softly. “Everything’s an illusion. Even what you think you want.”

She shrugged. “You can’t trust the things they show you. I knew that. I knew not to trust… I don’t know why I did.”

Because there are some things you’d give up anything for, even when you know it’s a terrible idea. It could mean burning the whole world to ashes, but you still wouldn’t say no… couldn’t say no. Not in that single moment, if it was offered, because it’s like it’s not a choice at all.

He swallowed heavily, the muddy taste of the tea thick on his tongue, and said nothing. There was nothing to say… nothing he wanted to say to her, anyway.

In the corner of the room, beneath its sheet of oiled canvas, the elven mirror Merrill was working on repairing glimmered faintly in the dim dustiness. The thing had made Tobias uneasy from the first moment he saw it, and Merrill wasn’t keen on talking about it, except to say it was an artefact that Marethari had given her. It was about five feet high, like one of those ornate cheval glasses they sometimes had in the market in Hightown. Orlesian imports, with curlicues and brasswork all over them… only the glimpses he’d caught of this looked much older, and much less shiny.

Tobias turned his attention away from it, and wished he could shake the feeling that the thing was watching him.

Well,” he said, in a vague attempt at dry levity, “as long as you’re worried about it. I mean, that proves you’re still sane, right?”

Merrill frowned. “What?”

The demon thing. You know it’s crazy to trust them, and you shouldn’t, and yet you do it anyway. As long as you know how daft that sounds—”

Merrill elbowed him in the ribs reproachfully. “Hawke! It’s not the same. Well… not quite. Anyway, all magic is dangerous. It always attracts… attention. You said it yourself: all mages know that, and we all have to learn to defend ourselves.”

Yes, but… oh, never mind.”

We don’t all have to end up slicing our wrists every time we want to cast a spell. There’s a difference between power and possession.

He didn’t say it, didn’t go off into the tirade that he knew Anders would have done. There was no need. The elf was a stubborn bitch at the best of times, and if she wouldn’t listen to Anders, Tobias strongly doubted she’d listen to him. Besides, he’d never been comfortable dishing out edicts on how other people should life their lives, or taking up the mantel of determining what was right and wrong… however uncomfortable her magic made him feel.

Merrill sighed deeply. “I disappointed you, didn’t I? I disappointed myself. I should have known better, and I’m sorry. It won’t happen again. I’ll make sure of that.”

Tobias marshalled a small smile, and patted her arm.

Maybe she was right. Maybe it wouldn’t.

Maybe believing in yourself was enough for some people.

———————————
Chapter 20
———————————
Back to Justice in Surrender: Contents
———————————
Home
———————————

Leave a Reply