Back to Straining at the Leash: Contents
Corda had not slept well. She disliked the oppressive closeness of the apprentice quarters; always someone else’s voice, or breath, or body, impinging on the space she would have liked to call her own.
Even the square, plain wooden frames of the bunk beds felt like bars… especially when she woke in the heavy, stifling hours of the night, her shift sticking to her wet skin, and her gasps rasping in the darkness.
The dreams didn’t come so often now, of course. Her mentor said, with time, she would probably leave them behind completely.
Not that there won’t always be reminders.
She reached up absently, as if to smooth her hair, pushing the thick, coarse, dusty black weight of it from her shoulder. Some of the other girls in the dormitory had gone through phases of trying to convince her to braid or style it, but they’d given up eventually, thank goodness.
In Corda’s opinion, they were silly, frivolous creatures, too given to sitting up into the night, perched on each other’s beds and chattering like crows over pointless, vapid things. Tittering about the boys, fiddling with each other’s hair, and reading each other their secret love notes… no surprise that she wasn’t invited to join in. Not anymore, anyway.
The backs of her knuckles brushed against her throat, and she traced the line of the scar up to her jaw, letting her fingertips travel the familiar landscape of puckers and ridges; patches of tight, glossy skin riven by raised, white lines.
No. Corda much preferred to wear her hair down. From behind it, she could watch them, watching her.
The scar had drawn a great deal of interest when she’d first arrived at the Circle Tower. It had been fresh then, and she still bandaged. Great swathes of bloody cotton, from her waist to her forehead. At first, they hadn’t been sure they could save her hands. For three weeks after the… accident, she’d lain in a darkened room, unable even to tolerate the touch of daylight.
She swung her feet to the floor, wriggling her toes into the soft, shallow pile of the rug beside her bed. It was brightly coloured, like most of the furnishings in the Tower; a mishmash of opulence, full of the echoes of a thousand-year history.
The Circle liked history. It was something that could be taught, learned, dissected… discussed and pulled apart, then stitched back together again, whichever way the person holding the needle pleased.
The rug was cheap, of course, but the pattern was after the bold, geometric Avvar designs one saw on ancient artefacts and manuscripts. Corda rather liked its simplicity. She scratched her head, yawned, and reached for the embroidered leather slippers she’d had the presence of mind to kick off before she fell onto the bed.
One of the advantages of having Enchanter Nevis as her mentor this year had been the man’s rather idiosyncratic schedule. He was a tall, thin, nervous sort—really far more interested in his experiments in the laboratory than his apprentices—and therefore quite happy to have his lessons over with by lunchtime, so he could get back to his crucibles and retorts.
That suited Corda very well. The lessons were easy, anyway; Nevis could teach her little she didn’t already know about the principles covered in the Treatises of Josephus, and most of the material he assigned for extra reading she’d already read.
Corda was used to spending time in the library. Unlike many of the apprentices, who seemed to struggle marrying practical magic with its theoretical counterpoint, she liked the academic challenge. Books and scrolls had never fazed or threatened her, and she found the study absorbing. There was always something new to learn, some piece of knowledge to be uncovered, as if the secrets were just there, waiting for her until she needed them.
Besides, it left her afternoons free, and it was much easier to catch up on her sleep when the dormitory was empty.
Only… no. Not empty. She wasn’t alone, Corda realised.
She rose from the bed, hastily smoothing out her robe and glancing towards the tall, arched windows on the north wall. A small rank of desks stood beneath them, supposedly encouraging good study habits in the apprentices.
Corda tutted under her breath. Awake now, and alert, she could trace the presence she’d been vaguely aware of to the far desk. The sound of a pen scratching danced on the air, and Corda recognised the slim, fair-haired, seated figure as Gwynlian, an apprentice some eighteen months younger than her in age… and several years younger in outlook.
Obviously hearing movement, Gwynlian turned and smiled at her. Like Corda—and like most of the apprentices, none of whom ventured further outside than the Tower’s grounds, and even then not for terribly long—she was pale-skinned, but her heart-shaped face held soft, small features, wide cheekbones, and big, gentle, brown eyes. Her lips seemed permanently parted, as if she had to move them in time to every thought, or risk not being able to keep up.
Corda smiled a little at the image. Well, the girl wasn’t that stupid. Probably.
“Hello, Corda! I didn’t know you were in here.”
It was a voice like a warm summer breeze, perfumed with some pretty, inoffensive little flower. Corda wrinkled her nose dismissively.
“Just taking a nap before I go down to the library.”
Gwynlian nodded. “I know you don’t sleep well, poor thing.”
She pressed her soft, pink lips together, and a tiny frown dented her smooth forehead.
“Dreams,” she whispered knowingly, nodding again, as if the diagnosis might actually be helpful to Corda.
As if I don’t know, you stupid….
Her palm itched with the temptation to let her frustration swell and warm, coursing through her body until it blossomed into a ball of perfect, bright energy, that she could just—
Only that wasn’t allowed. The Enchanters tolerated the occasional magical prank among the younger apprentices—which was just as well, as no one got through their first year at the Tower without being subjected to at least one Levitating Bed or Flatulence Curse—but there were limits. The desire Corda had to wipe that insipid, moonish look off Gwynlian’s face was, in the long run, as good as a death sentence if she ever gave in to it.
She wouldn’t, of course. Just like everyone else, she’d had the Cardinal Rules drummed into her enough times to be able to quote them backwards. And, of course, she knew the dangers of magic better than most.
“No! Leave me alone, Blake! I don’t want to….”
The voice—her voice—struck out sharply from the shadowed recesses of memory, and Corda blinked, unwilling to let it have space in her head. She was too close to sleep still, that was it. She should wash her face, comb her hair… and maybe get out of this room.
Instead, she pushed her shoulders back and glared at Gwynlian.
“And what are you doing here? I thought you and Trina both had study with Enchanter Ariana this afternoon.”
The blonde apprentice smiled, barely concealed pride simmering beneath those daintily curved lips.
“We did, but she let me go early. You know I’ve already perfected my ice spells?”
Corda nodded. Gwynlian hadn’t shut up about it for most of last week. As if simple primal magic was something to get excited about.
“Well, we weren’t even nearly halfway through the lesson, and Ariana told me she’s recommended me for personal tuition with Enchanter Uldred! Can you believe it?”
The girl preened, and Corda squeezed out a thin, sickly smile.
“Oh. Really? You must be… thrilled.”
“I know! It’s so exciting. Everybody says he’s quite brilliant.”
Corda gritted her teeth. “Yes.”
It wasn’t fair. Uldred was one of the finest minds in the Circle; a first-rate mage, and with more passion and determination in him than all the stuffy old men of the Council put together. She admired him, and everything he argued for—the long-overdue changes in policy that could bring greater independence for the Circle, and a reduction, if not an end, to the interfering they had to tolerate from the Chantry.
Gwynlian was still smiling happily, which made Corda want to smack her all the more. She resisted. It probably wouldn’t be long now, Enchanter Nevis said, until she’d be called for her Harrowing. She was nearly ready and, providing she passed—which, frankly, if someone like Nevis could manage, Corda doubted would present any completely impossible challenge—she would soon be a fully-fledged mage, able at last to pursue everything she’d been waiting for.
Corda knew exactly what she was going to do.
First things first, she’d get the hell out of this place. Lake Calenhad could swallow the Tower in one for all she cared—she was going to Nevarra.
At Nevis’ suggestion, Corda had already spoken to First Enchanter Irving about an application to study in Cumberland, at the College of Magi. He’d hemmed and hawed about it, because of course she was still an apprentice, but he’d given her some sample forms to look at, and the submission process didn’t look all that daunting.
She was an excellent candidate, she knew. Even if—for whatever reason—she didn’t seem to get all the opportunities the other apprentices did.
Corda narrowed her eyes.
“When d’you start with Uldred, then?”
Gwynlian had picked up her pen again. She tapped the quill against her lips before she answered, coy and utterly infuriating.
“I don’t know. I suppose he’ll tell me. It’s one-to-one, so I imagine I’ll have to be ready whenever he needs me. You know Enchanter Uldred’s only taken on six students this year?”
Corda’s jaw clenched as she ground her teeth rhythmically together.
Do. Not. Slap.
“I’m so excited for you,” she said.
Gwynlian didn’t appear to notice the lack of emphasis in her voice, the way that clouds don’t notice the fields they’re skimming over.
“Thanks, Corda,” she said, turning back to the paper on her desk. “I’m writing to my sister, Heather. I’m going to tell her all about it!”
Corda gave a non-committal grunt and left the dormitory, the sound of Gwynlian’s nib scratching across the paper hanging behind her.
Over the next few weeks, Corda spent most of her afternoons in the library, engaged with a particularly interesting volume on mana cleansing.
Most apprentices chose their specialisations with a view to the opportunities for employment outside the Tower. Creationists were always in demand, of course, because knowledge of magical healing was lucrative… and useful, she had to admit.
I wouldn’t be here without it.
Then, there were the show-offs who—like most of the doltish mundane population—associated magic only with the Primal School, and thought there was no worth to anything they couldn’t freeze solid or blow up with a fireball.
The pallid, brooding ones tended to develop an interest in entropic magic, and though most grew out of it after their teenage years, the possibilities of that school exerted a powerful influence over those who understood it.
Jowan—one of the few apprentices Corda really thought of as a friend—had described it as the principle of management, rather than destruction, the way a river that breaks its banks may destroy what lies in its way… yet fertilises the floodplain so that new growth would follow. She’d laughed at that. Him, quoting Josephus back to her.
He’d blushed and stammered, and protested that not everyone could be as clever as her. Corda took it as a compliment.
Of course, her own interests lay with the Spirit School. Something rather more complex and sophisticated than just shooting sparks out of one’s fingertips, and a frequently misunderstood branch of study, in Corda’s opinion.
What people failed to grasp, she thought, was the subtlety of it. All mages drew on the same things, the same forces of being and will—the shapeless mysteries of the Fade—and those forces did not simply absent themselves in everyday life.
They were there all the time; a sacred and secret heart to every breath, every moment of life.
Corda understood that, and understood how easy it could be to slip through the crack of perception that separated, however barely, one element of existence from another.
Once, right at the back of one the library shelves, in a dusty and half-forgotten corner frequented only by spiders, she’d found a brittle copy of Mareno’s Dissertation on the Fade, dating from 6:55 Steel Age.
Many of the Enchanters were reticent about recommending their apprentices read Tevinter theses, but Corda had found it very interesting. Mareno talked of the Fade not as a separate state of being, removed from the corporeal world by a penetrable wall, but as simply another aspect of being. The Veil was not a physical barrier, but a mental attitude. All it required was opening one’s eyes.
She hadn’t talked to Enchanter Nevis about it. He was far too preoccupied with some new theory about the ignitable properties of some rare ore discovered up in the Free Marches, which didn’t interest Corda in the slightest.
Even now, she felt uncomfortable sitting too close to the fire on cold evenings.
One thing surprised her as the days slipped by, though: Gwynlian stopped crowing about her lessons with Enchanter Uldred.
When Corda caught up with her again in the apprentice quarters, she was sitting at the same desk as before, writing another letter. Corda assumed it was to the blasted sister she was always dripping on about.
Worst possible form of bragging, that, Corda thought. Very few of the apprentices had any contact with their families after they were brought to the Tower. Many had been disowned—like poor old Jowan, whose mother wouldn’t even look at him after she found out he had magic—and plenty more had all contact with their former lives voided ‘for their own good’, as if any lingering reminders of what it meant to be normal might be too painful to bear.
Not Gwynlian. It was Heather this, Heather that… inflicting every second-hand detail of a second-hand life on anyone who didn’t run away fast enough.
She looked up at the sound of Corda’s footfalls on the stone floor, and the expression on her face was furtive, almost guilty, that soft mouth drawn into a bow, as if she was already fumbling for an excuse.
“Oh! Corda… I didn’t, um… hear you come in.”
Corda pricked up her ears. Well, this had the potential to be interesting.
She walked nonchalantly over to the rank of desks, turned one of the hard, wooden chairs around so it faced Gwynlian—taking especial care to scrape the legs on the flagstones as loudly as she could—and settled herself beside the other apprentice.
Gwynlian winced at the noise, and her smile looked stiff and uncomfortable.
“So,” Corda said, crossing her legs and propping her hands on her knee. “How are you? I’ve barely seen anything of you since you started with Enchanter Uldred. Is he as brilliant as they say?”
“I, er… well, it’s been very, um, intense,” Gwynlian said lamely.
Her smooth-skinned, pale, pretty little hand was curving into a shield over the paper, Corda noticed. How very interesting.
“Enchanter Uldred has some fascinating theories, I’d heard,” she offered.
Gwynlian nodded uncertainly. “Oh, yes. And he’s so passionate about the cause— Um. I mean, the Libertarian cause,” she added, glancing towards the door.
Corda didn’t bother to follow her gaze. There weren’t any templars prowling the corridor—at least, not right now. She’d have noticed them when she came in; well-trained Andrastian watchdogs clinking up and down the halls, staring into the middle distance and trying not to make eye contact with any of the abominations-in-waiting.
Was that unfair? She supposed so. They weren’t all that bad, and it was the fact of their presence she objected to more than the individuals themselves. Inasmuch as they actually were individuals, of course….
She pulled herself from the thoughts and smiled at Gwynlian in what she hoped was a reassuring way, not that she had that much experience to base it on.
“Well, I think that’s refreshing. Don’t you think the Circle deserves more freedom? It’s like the Chantry thinks every single mage is just waiting for the opportunity to run off and consort with demons.”
Gwynlian smiled nervously. “It’s true, isn’t it? They just really want to think the worst of us. It’s as if the truth doesn’t even matter. Uldred says—”
“Well, Uldred says the Circle has to change its attitude, if we ever hope to have any autonomy. He says hiding from our problems won’t solve them, and we must be ready to… to stand up for what we believe in,” she finished shyly, looking at Corda from beneath those long, thick eyelashes.
Corda nodded slowly. Potent stuff, by the sound of it. She wondered if First Enchanter Irving knew how polemical Enchanter Uldred’s politics were, and how readily he seemed to discuss them with apprentices.
Not that she disagreed… not really. But something didn’t feel quite right.
Corda glanced at the letter Gwynlian had been writing.
“And you’re keeping your sister up to date with all of this, are you?”
Gwynlian blinked. “W-Well, I always tell Heather everything. And—”
You stupid girl!
Could she really be that thick-headed? Surely anyone that idiotic wouldn’t be able to breathe unaided…! Corda wouldn’t have thought it possible, but there appeared to be no other explanation.
She moved quickly. Gwynlian didn’t expect it, but nobody ever did. They saw the scar that took up half of her face, and the ridges of disfigured skin on the backs of her hands, and they assumed she was crippled like an old woman… and occasionally deaf, and devoid of feelings, as well.
Corda lunged, snatched the letter out from under Gwynlian’s hand and, springing from her chair, bounded with it to the far side of the dorm, holding the paper up to the light.
“Corda! Give that back! It’s private!”
Gwynlian’s writing, naturally, was flowing and delicate, though a little crabbed by haste.
How are you? How are Father and Mother? I don’t know why I ask this; it was made clear so many years ago that I am no child of theirs. You are my only family now and I thank the Maker that you had love and courage enough to keep calling me sister.
Corda wrinkled her nose and twisted away from the dive Gwynlian made at her, outstretched hands grabbing at the letter and voice shrill with indignation and panic.
“Give it back, Corda!”
I am happy for you and overjoyed to hear of your upcoming nuptials. Count your blessings; I believe you have snagged yourself a fine lad. So young, and already the owner of his own freehold! Soon you will start a family of your own. Oh, Heather, I do envy you.
Corda snorted. Oh, blah, blah, blah…. It wasn’t even as if mages had to lead dry, celibate lives. Being outside the usual remit of society and its rather boring conventions did have some advantages, after all.
But perhaps I shall envy you for not much longer. We have hoped and prayed for something, anything, and now I see the prison bars begin to bend and sag.
“I mean it!” Gwynlian yelped, as Corda sidestepped and swayed easily out of her reach once more. “That’s not for you to—”
So much injustice has been done to my kind, and they cannot have dreamed that the Maker would allow it to continue. There is a change coming to the tower; I can feel it, and it both excites and terrifies me.
Corda shook her head and glanced up from the flowery script.
“You’re a fool, you know.”
Gwynlian glared at her, cheeks flaming and her eyes damp with angry indignation, that pretty mouth pressed into a tight, furious line.
I don’t know when I shall write again, dear sister, but do not worry. If all goes well, perhaps no letters will be necessary, and you shall find me on your very doorstep!
–With much love, Gwynlian.
Corda crumpled the paper in her fist, which elicited a squeak of protest from the other girl. She curled her lip.
“So, what’s it all about? You think Enchanter Uldred is going to lead us all to freedom, and you’ll be able to skip off back to Highever?”
“You wouldn’t understand!” Gwynlian sneered, soft lips peeling back over small, even, white teeth. “Master Uldred says most mages don’t.”
Oh… ‘Master’ now, is it?
“It’s all going to change, Corda! Everything! You’ll see. Uldred and the others are leaving for Ostagar any day, but when they come back… oh, it’s all going to change! He’s got such plans.”
“And what if the templars intercepted a letter like this?” Corda demanded.
Gwynlian scoffed. “They don’t read our mail, silly. We’re not prisoners.”
Corda couldn’t hold back the cruel laugh that bubbled from her.
“Maker’s balls, you are thick! You don’t think they aren’t watching us, all the time? Of course they read our letters. We don’t really have any privacy, you know.”
“That isn’t true!” Gwynlian protested, but the way her eyes widened and the colour faded from her cheeks suggested she didn’t believe her own words. She frowned, striking back with an unexpected viciousness. “You’re just jealous because I was picked by Master Uldred and you weren’t!”
“Ha! You think I care about that?”
I do, but it isn’t the point.
“You— You’re just bitter!” Gwynlian spat. “You’re full up of nothing but rage and bitterness and guilt, and that’s why you’ve got no room in you for any true potential. We all know what you did!”
Corda caught her breath, genuinely shocked. Gwynlian wouldn’t, surely….
“You killed your own brother, you evil bitch! You’re poison!”
The words hurt. Of course they did. And they unleashed a torrent of mangled memories behind her eyes; the chewed-up, half-suppressed echoes of voices and images, sensations and thoughts that Corda tried so hard not to admit that she still had.
“Blake, I mean it! I won’t be part of this… leave them alone!”
He’d laughed, like he always did. A big, brawny, toothy grin. He’d been a big, brawny boy, with not much in his head but the clear, uncluttered cruelty of a cat.
Their mother used to say he hurt the younger children because he didn’t know his own strength, but that wasn’t true. He did it to see what they’d do when he held their hands over the fire… to see how close he could get them to the flames before their palms turned red and shiny, and their faces creased up into squalling globs of tears.
She hadn’t meant to do it. She just didn’t want to burn.
Gwynlian ran at her then, trying to snatch the letter back. Corda pushed her away and seized a paperweight from the desk. Wrapping the letter around it, she lurched to the window and, fumbling with the catch, flung it open.
“No!” Gwynlian shrieked.
Corda threw the weighted paper as hard as she could. It arced through the air, out past the Tower’s wide buttresses and down towards the ground. She lost sight of it as Gwynlian cannoned into her from behind, slapping and kicking, and the faint sound of a splash suggested the lake had claimed it.
“What did you do that for?” Gwynlian demanded.
“To stop you making an idiot of yourself!” Corda fumed, shoving the other girl away, hard. “Don’t you see? Even people like Uldred can’t change things overnight. Whatever it is he’s planning, it won’t change the Circle right away, and you don’t do anyone any favours by leaping around like an overexcited lapdog.”
“Bitch,” Gwynlian muttered sullenly.
Corda’s palm itched with a vengeance.
“Blake, if you don’t stop it, I swear—”
Oh, how easy it would be to do it. Mareno’s paper was quite right. Crossing the Veil was only like opening one’s eyes. All the power, all the potential… it was already there, just begging to be used.
And she could do it, couldn’t she?
Corda narrowed her eyes. She flexed her fingers, feeling the warmth flow through her body, and raised her right arm.
The sound of flesh connecting to flesh seemed loud against the quietness of the empty dormitory, and the sudden absence of all the yelling. Gwynlian looked astounded. Wide-eyed, she raised a hand to her reddened cheek, her bottom lip trembling.
Corda smiled nastily and, turning a crisp circle on her heel, strode from the room, letting the heavy oak door slam shut behind her.
Serves you right.
On to Part Two