Straining at the Leash: Part Six

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Back to Straining at the Leash: Contents
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Corda sighed as she surveyed her new quarters. A small room, but pleasant enough. Narrow bed, washstand, desk… a little bookcase, and a mirror standing atop a chest of drawers in which she could keep the vast array of her wealth and finery, she supposed.

She snorted as she thrust five pairs of clean smallclothes into the drawer, and hung one clean shift over the mirror, so she didn’t have to look at it.

Dinner had been predictably trying, for the most part. Corda, along with two other apprentices she didn’t know, had been called up onto the dais and officially welcomed as new members of the Circle. It was a speech she’d heard many times before, and yet it seemed so disorientating to be the subject of it—and to see the sea of faces spread out below her, and know what they were all thinking. Who was she, why had it been her, and what had happened to the ones who’d been called and weren’t standing there beside her?

Worst of all, when they applauded her, Corda had to stand there, knowing what had become of those who’d failed the Harrowing. They were dead, or Tranquil, and if they’d crossed into the Fade, they’d met their ends on templar swords, their minds riven with terrible things, their last thoughts the feasts of demons.

She had stared down into the rows of faces, and felt as if they could all see it on her, as if they were staring at her because she’d survived, because she was there, and how dare she be? She’d wanted to turn and run from the hall. Even when she found Jowan in the crowd, he looked tight-lipped and resentful, like he wasn’t pleased for her at all.

That had stung, but she was trying to shelve the thoughts. Her apprenticeship was over now, anyway, and she probably wouldn’t see as much of him, or… well, she would have said ‘all her other friends’, if she’d actually had any.

Corda tried to tell herself that it wasn’t a bad trade. Anyway, Jowan would be up for his own ritual before long—he’d have to be, at some point—and she would do everything in her power to make sure he passed. She could coach him, tell him what to expect, and then he’d be all right. Not even he could mess it up, not if she gave him a clear enough plan.

No, that would be fine. And she had a better position now, anyway. She was far better fixed to find out what had been going in Uldred’s little student meetings, and to poke around for answers… for evidence that she could present to the First Enchanter, should it become necessary. She had no desire to turn traitor but, if Gwynlian or any of the others were truly planning a rebellion, the Circle needed to be informed.

If that was what it was, Corda reminded herself sharply. She wasn’t sure whether she should have tried to speak to Irving already she could have done, couldn’t she? When she was in his chambers, perhaps she should have tried to snatch a few moments to speak of her concerns—but it would have seemed nosy and churlish, in front of Greagoir and the Grey Warden, when the First Enchanter had his mind on other, more pressing matters. Besides, she had no wish to sell anyone out when the templars were looking. If anything was going on, it was Irving and Irving alone who needed to know… who probably already did, Corda supposed. He was perfectly well aware of the rumblings within each of the fraternities, and what did she truly believe Gwynlian had been talking about, anyway?

She sighed as she shut the drawer and took a glance around her rather sparse chamber.

Everything will change, Gwynlian had said. And her stupid letter to her stupid sister… prison bars bending and sagging, a change coming to the Tower… If all goes well, perhaps you shall find me on your doorstep.

Maker, the girl was a fool. She was either planning to run away—quite possibly with her appalling templar puppy—or she really did think that something was going to happen. But what? With Uldred at Ostagar, it was hard to believe he could lead any kind of rebellion… unless the mages intended to defect, and escape to the south or something.

Corda snorted mirthlessly at that thought. She hadn’t read much about the wastelands of the Korcari Wilds, but—whether they were filled with darkspawn or not—she wasn’t entirely sure that plunging off into frozen bogs and marshes was a viable plan for escaping anything.

All the same, she wished she’d had a chance to talk to First Enchanter Irving about it, without Greagoir noticing, or the Grey Warden being there to complicate matters… and complicate them he had. Even as Corda looked around her new quarters—and they were pleasant enough: much quieter and more private than the cramped apprentice dorms—she couldn’t help her lingering curiosity over Duncan’s words. And the thought that, just maybe, he was here to accept applicants for the order…. Did she want that? Was it something she could ever have imagined?

She wasn’t at all sure. She doubted it. A week ago, she’d have been certain not—a life of fighting, of blood and terror and violence; who in their right mind would want that?—but then there had been her Harrowing, and she couldn’t quite forget the power filling her like the cold breath of a winter morning, and making her every movement reverberate with strength and sylphlike quickness.

Corda didn’t call it bloodlust… she hadn’t seen the demons bleed.

~o~O~o~

She was walking down to the refectory for lunch when Jowan’s familiar footsteps scuffled after her, pattering uncertainly against the stones.

Corda?”

She turned, scowling at the figure scurrying its way along in the lee of the wall. He looked sweaty and nervous—even more so than usual—and there was something very furtive in the way he was hurrying after her.

Jowan? Were you following me?”

He baulked as he caught up to her. “Does it matter?”

Defensive as ever.

She pursed her lips. “Well, what do you want?”

He came closer, his hands out as if he wanted to shush her, and his voice was a cracked, hushed rasp. “No, I…. Look, I need to talk to you. It’s important.”

Corda frowned. “Why are you whispering?” she asked, squinting the length of the corridor. A mage in pale blue robes was visible at the end of it, crossing the stairwell with her arms full of books. “It looks very suspicious.”

Her voice echoed lightly against the stones as she spoke, and Jowan positively quivered.

Sshhh… please! I… I just want to make sure we’re not overhead. We should go somewhere else. I-I don’t feel safe talking here.”

Her frown deepened. “You’re starting to worry me, Jowan.”

He winced at her, those deep blue eyes glassy with something that looked very like genuine fear. Corda was about to tell him to stop being so silly, but then he reached out and tugged at her sleeve in wordless urgency, almost hopping from foot to foot like a child desperate for the privy, and she felt her resilience melt away.

Please,” he whispered. “Please I think I’m in trouble.”

Oh, all right,” she said, injecting brusque impatience into the words, in the hope it might hide her worry.

A look of pained relief washed over his face, and he turned quickly, beckoning her to follow as he darted off down the corridor. Their footsteps slapped against the flagstones, and Corda suppressed a sigh as she lengthened her stride in order to keep up. She’d have said this wasn’t like him, except that it was. That was the trouble, really: it was more like Jowan than Jowan, this weaselly, strange paranoia… and she didn’t like it one bit.

~o~O~o~

He led her to the chapel, which she found ironic. Probably the single place with the greatest concentration of third-party eyes and ears in the entire tower. She said as much, but he shushed her… and introduced her to Lily.

Corda hated the girl on sight, naturally. She was a little shorter than Jowana good half a head shorter than Corda herselfand generously curvy, with a smooth-cheeked, soft face, full lips, and large grey eyes. She wore her hair in a coiled braid, like many of the other initiates, and even though it was pulled tightly back, the rich coppery brown of it still managed to shine under the candlelight. She smelled of the beeswax polish and incense of the chapel, with undertones of some sweet floral water. She probably, Corda thought sourly, bled honey and had flesh made from sugared violets. Jowan certainly looked at her as if she did.

I’m glad to meet you,” Lily said, extending her hand. “Jowan’s talked a lot about you.”

Corda stared at the delicate palm before her for a few moments before tentatively shaking it. She disliked the custom, and she disliked being touched, even more so when Lily’s soft skin made the ridged scars on her own hand so painfully apparent.

Can’t say likewise,” she said flatly. “Are you sure it’s safe to talk here?”

She cast a look around the chapel. At the chamber’s centre, the huge statue of Andraste, complete with eternal flame cupped in her outstretched hands, stood guard over the Tower’s souls or so the Revered Mother would have everyone believe. Two bays flanked the central aisle and beyond that, secreted in smaller wings out of sight of the main doors, were small rooms used by the priests and sisters for storage, or the preparation of dreary sermons.

At the moment, everything seemed quiet. One lone sister with a broom was sweeping the dark red carpet on the other side of the chapel, and she didn’t even appear to notice their presence. No one else was around; neither priests, templars, nor initiates appeared to be in evidence. Corda didn’t frequent the chapel much, but she was aware that, like much of the rest of the tower, the activity it saw went in fits and bursts throughout the day. If you were clever about itor sometimes just luckyyou could slip into any nook and cranny without being noticed, and time your privacy to slide in between disturbances, or templar patrols. Rumour had it that a lot of mages were quite expert at that they were like rats, she supposed: innately bred to find the smallest holes to hide themselves away in.

Lily nodded, and beckoned them over to one of the side wings, in the shadow of an alcove that held a statue of some ancient Divine.

We’ll be all right if we’re quiet,” she said earnestly. “I can see the door from here, and if anyone comes in, we’ll just change the subject. Please this is really important.”

Corda sighed, turning her gaze to Jowan. “What have you got yourself into, idiot?”

He puffed his chest out a bit, looking ruffled and petulant, but he set his jaw firm. “You remember how worried I was about my Harrowing?”

Corda groaned. Not this again.

Well, I was right to be!” Jowan protested, lowering his voice to a sibilant, urgent whisper. “They’re not even going to give me a chance, Corda! They mean to make me Tranquil. Lily saw the paperwork on Knight-Commander Greagoir’s desk

And how, pray tell, did she manage that?” Corda asked coldly, eyeing the initiate with suspicion.

Lily’s pretty moon of a face began to harden, and she reached for Jowan’s hand, pulling it towards her and clasping it in both of hers. “I clean in his office sometimes,” she said. “We’re often given jobs like that to do; to keep us humble. Sometimes I think it’s just so they have to pay fewer servants.”

There was a quiet, pale bitterness in her voicea shadow of something not quite choked downand Jowan put his other hand over hers, giving her a look of big-eyed sympathy that made Corda marginally nauseous.

Oh, yes. Scrub a few floors and you’re a martyr. Try living like we do, you fat tart.

Lily was given to the Chantry when she was a child,” he supplemented, looking pleadingly at Corda. “I know you won’t think it’s the same, but the initiates are subject to just as many rules as we are. And if anyone finds out about us, Lily’ll be in such trouble! She’s not allowed to have relations with men,” he added, turning pink-cheeked and bashful under Corda’s withering glare.

I don’t want to know about your ‘relations’, Jowan and as for the Rite of Tranquillity, they can’t just

They can,” Lily cut in urgently. “I saw it. First Enchanter Irving had signed the writ, and so had Greagoir, and it had the Revered Mother’s seal and everything. The Rite can be offered before an apprentice undertakes their Harrowing or, in certain cases, it is approved as a merciful alternative.”

Merciful? Of all the

Corda pressed her lips tightly together, denying herself even the freedom to think what she wanted to, lest she lose control of her tongue.

They don’t think I can pass,” Jowan said mournfully, clinging tighter to Lily’s hands as he turned his baleful gaze on Corda, his brow pinched. “So they’re going to make me Tranquil. I don’t even get a choice. They’re going to take away everything I am—my hopes, my dreams, my fears… my love for Lily,” he added, looking shyly at the girl. “I don’t want to be like that, a husk of a thing… breathing, but not truly living. Would you want to?”

Corda folded her arms stiffly across her chest. He was appealing basely, shamelessly, to every shared fear they’d ever discussed, to every shudder and grimace when dealing with the Tranquil… every conversation they’d ever had about what it meant to a mage, and to cling to the humanity you were allowed to possess.

She definitely didn’t care for his transparent attempts at manipulation, but she couldn’t deny how effective they were, and she sighed deeply.

All right. Fine. So… what are you going to do?”

A thin look of gratitude washed over Jowan’s face, and he glanced between Corda and Lily, evidently working up the courage to voice something. Lily looked nervously across the chapel, and at the sound of boots on flagstones the three of them stilled, stiffened, and held their breath. The templars passed by the open door, and the industrious sister with her broom kept on sweeping.

Jowan leaned forwards conspiratorially, swallowing hard.

I need to escape,” he said, meeting Corda’s eye with a strength and determination she wasn’t used to seeing in him. “We need to… Lily and I both need to get away.”

Corda said nothing. There didn’t seem to be anything to say. Escape plans were common enough among apprentices; they were a way of dreaming, a way of living inside your own head, where the templars couldn’t touch you. Still, very few people acted on them. The potential dangers—and the punishments—outweighed the temptation, especially when apprentices were conditioned to believe in the impregnable security of the Tower.

Of course, that wasn’t to say no one tried. From time to time, apprentices and even fully-fledged mages made efforts to get away. The ones who succeeded scored themselves a kind of fame among those who remained… but so often they were brought back, chained and cowed, and it seemed like freedom never lasted long. Punishments were severe, too, particularly for repeat offenders. It tarnished the appeal of the whole endeavour, making real contemplation of escape—not just dreaming about it—the refuge solely of the desperate, or the insane.

Corda?” Jowan prompted anxiously, looking more like his usual worrity self.

What?” She raised her eyebrows, aware of the silence hanging awkwardly between the three of them. “What, you want to do an Anders? It won’t work, Jowan! It never works! How would you even—”

I’m going after my phylactery,” he said solemnly, clutching Lily’s hand so tightly his knuckles were turning white. “It’s the only way… the only way I can be sure they won’t track me down. After that, we have a plan—we can get away clean, I know it—but we need help.”

They were both looking at her then, imploring and full of terrible faith… like they actually thought she could do something. Corda blanched. Lily was the first to speak, her voice hushed but the words steely, and her face lit with the absolute conviction that the faithful so often had.

We need a mage,” she said. “A full member of the Circle. Jowan says you’re his best friend—he says if anyone will help us, you will—but you have to give your word. No going back, and no telling anyone.”

Across the chapel, the sister with the broom had finished her sweeping and retired to one of the small storerooms. She hadn’t glanced their way once, and, even if she had, the alcove shielded them from prying eyes, and kept their whispers from echoing. Even so, Corda felt exposed and vulnerable… and nothing could hide her from the cold blade of Lily’s words.

She looked at Jowan, wondering if he really had said that; if he really thought of her that way. A light sheen of nervous sweat had begun to prick his forehead, making his hair hang lank and face look greasy.

If they did indeed have a plan, and it worked—which was highly unlikely, she had to admit—then she would probably never see him again. That thought needled her intrusively. Of course, it probably wouldn’t work. Apprentice slang did not call the folly of audacious escape attempts ‘doing an Anders’ for nothing: the mage who’d spawned the phrase had racked up six attempts, so people said, and every time he’d been brought back. He was quite well known for it… and well known for being as mad as a box of frogs. Tower gossip said that was the only reason he hadn’t been shipped off to Aeonar—and even the mere flicker of that word across Corda’s mind made her want to shudder.

Still… if this was all true, and Lily had really seen the authorisation in the Knight-Commander’s own hand… well, Jowan didn’t have much alternative, did he?

Corda took a deep breath. “All right. I’m in.”

Jowan looked like he was about to melt into a puddle of relief, but Lily frowned at her. “You have to give your word,” she said sharply. “Promise you won’t tell, and—”

Lily,” Jowan chided, tugging at her hand. “It’s all right. Corda won’t give us away. If she says she’s in, she’ll help. I told you we could trust her.”

He smiled weakly, and Corda felt a sinking pit of dread open up in her stomach.

She was going to regret this in a dozen different ways; she just knew it.

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