Straining at the Leash: Part Three

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Back to Straining at the Leash: Contents
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It took Corda ages to track him down. That in itself struck her as strange, because Jowan was a creature of habit. If he wasn’t in class, he was either in the refectory, the library, or his dormitory, huddled up behind a book and not talking to anyone.

She eventually found him outside the stock room in the upper corridor. He was standing by the open doorway as the Tranquil assistants glided serenely past him, his brow furrowed in thought as he stared into the room. Caught in profile as he was when Corda approached—his lower lip drawn in and his dark brows pinched over his sharp-featured face—he reminded her of nothing so much as a nervous whippet.

Jowan flinched wildly and let out a yelp when she stalked up behind him and prodded him between the shoulder blades.

“Maker’s breath, Corda! Don’t do that….”

She shrugged and folded her arms across her chest. “Where have you been? I’ve been trying to find you.”

Jowan blinked and looked guiltily at her. Well, he always looked guilty… he breathed like he was stealing the air. Still, something complex lingered in his deep blue eyes; clouds with a storm chasing behind them.

“I was just… I wasn’t doing anything,” he said dismissively.

Corda didn’t believe him, but she didn’t really want to waste time arguing.

“Listen,” she said instead, leaning a little closer so she wouldn’t be overheard, and pausing to sniff when she caught a whiff of something unusual. Something… different. “I overheard— Are you wearing scent?”

“What?” Jowan blanched. “No! No, I just… it’s a different soap. That’s all.”

Corda wrinkled her noise. He smelled like elfroot, lavender, and king’s blossom. It wasn’t unpleasant, actually. Not the blend of nervous sweat and ink that she was used to picking up from him, but… nice, all the same.

“It doesn’t matter. Can we go somewhere and talk? This isn’t exactly for public consumption.”

“Well, I—”

Corda didn’t wait for him to finish. Grabbing his sleeve, she dragged him down the hallway and into one of the chambers that stood off the laboratory corridor. A lone templar stood on guard while, inside, an elven mage fiddled with a bench full of retorts and glass piping. Corda glanced at the experiment in progress, fleetingly curious. It looked like some of the trials she’d read about, concerning the process of imbuing items with magical energy at the material level, instead of merely enchanting them. So far, few mages professed to have attained reliable results but, she had to admit, the possibility of being able to instil, say, a resistance to fire or cold into the actual thread of a bolt of cloth, instead of merely slapping an enchantment on the cloak made from it… that was knowledge worth chasing.

Naturally, apprentices weren’t let anywhere near experiments that interesting, and rumour had it the Chantry—and the more conservative Fraternities—didn’t approve of that particular branch of arcane studies anyway, in case it threatened the monopoly of the lucrative, and above all biddable, Tranquil enchanters. Corda curled her lip. Oh, everyone knew about that. The goods the Tranquil enchanted and sold in countless little curio shops across the nations ranged from genuine treasures to tacky pieces of useless rubbish… but it brought money to the Circle’s coffers (or the Chantry’s, depending on one’s point of view), and offered the public a nice, safe view of magic.

It made Corda want to spit.

In any case, not everyone who practised the arts of enchantment needed to be Tranquil. They said Tranquillity gave the enchanters better concentration, made the whole process—and the use of lyrium it involved—much safer, but then that was usually the Chantry’s excuse for anything. Safety. Hah.

Corda furrowed her brow. The Formari were renowned enchanters, and very wealthy by it, and they weren’t usually made Tranquil.

A small puff of smoke belched from the mage’s retort, and he swore. The templar glanced over his shoulder, then frowned at Corda and Jowan.

“What do you two want?”

Corda flashed him a cheerful smile. “Just fetching some supplies,” she said brightly and, clutching Jowan’s sleeve ever tighter, dragged him into the side-chamber at the end of the lab.

Once they were alone among the wooden racks and the warm green glint of the rows of flasks and empty bottle, Corda kicked the door shut behind them and turned to Jowan, surprised by the nervous, bright-eyed keenness of his expression. The waft of lavender and king’s blossom caught at her nose again, and she frowned. There was something distinctly different about him today… the same something she’d been noticing on and off for months. Anyone else, and she’d have thought he’d found a girl.

Corda blinked, pushing the thought from her mind, along with the reasons for the uncomfortable heat that began to crest at her throat. She reached out and punched Jowan on the arm.

“Anyway, listen.”

“Ow! I am,” he protested, rubbing his forearm. “You didn’t have to do that.”

Corda sneered and, leaning closer, recounted all she’d heard pass between Gwynlian and Cullen.

Jowan’s eyes widened. “She’s—? With a templar?”

Corda winced. “Did you even hear what I said? That’s not the point. I mean, it’s disgusting, but it’s not the point. What matters is—”

“It’s not that bad,” Jowan said defensively, his brow crumpling into a frown. “I mean, just because something’s forbidden doesn’t make it revolting. Love happens wherever it chooses, and if—”

“Love?” Corda scoffed. “I doubt it has much to do with that. Anyway, will you shut up and pay attention? The sappy crap is beside the point. What matters is what Uldred’s doing. He’s planning something that’s going to shake the whole Circle, I’m sure of it… and I want to know what it is.”

Jowan’s eyes grew dark and shrouded. “Corda, I don’t—”

“Aren’t you in the least bit curious?” she snapped. She hadn’t even mentioned the hint of demons yet… not that she was eager to do so, when it might send him into another spiral of panic about the Harrowing. “Anyway, with Uldred and the others at Ostagar, this is the perfect time to dig.”

Corda glanced towards the thick oak door separating them from the almost deserted laboratory. Privacy was never guaranteed anywhere in the Tower, but hopefully this would be enough. The rows of flasks and retorts snatched at her reflection, taking glancing shards of her face, her scars, and throwing them back to her. She looked away.

“I’d noticed something funny was going on ever since Gwynlian started under Uldred, I just didn’t know what. Been thinking it goes back to the last deputation that attended the College, in Cumberland. It must be that… and you know what that means, right?”

Jowan looked blankly at her, and she growled in frustration.

“The Libertarians!” she snapped, scything her hand across his arm again.

“Ow! Stop hitting me….”

“The fraternity has been talking about a legal challenge for years,” Corda said sharply, glaring at him as he rubbed his arm again. “The right to secede. Don’t you ever listen?”

Jowan glowered reproachfully at her. “Not when people keep hitting me, no. Anyway, I thought all that was just hearsay. The Chantry would never allow mages independence.”

Corda shook her head impatiently. He could be so painfully dense sometimes. She wanted to slap it out of him, unable to understand how someone with his agile mind could be so singularly uninterested in things that could have such far-reaching consequences for their lives, and for the Circle itself.

A self-governing, autonomous order of mages, operating under their own rules and guidances, without the interference of the Chantry and their bloody watchdogs… it was a beautiful dream. All right, even the most radical idealist had to acknowledge that they needed recourse to protection, if something went wrong, but how often did that happen?

Although not much news from the outside world filtered into the Tower, they heard of more demons and abominations being unleashed by apostates who were being chased by templars than ever occurred within the walls of Kinloch Hold. To Corda’s mind, the logic was simple: remove the threat of incarceration or death, and mages would not need to dabble in forbidden knowledge. After all, when was the last time something bad had happened in the Tower itself? Aside from the odd scorched ceiling or larger-than-average spider, nothing terrible was ever wrought by magic.

Not here, anyway.

Corda shivered briefly, unwelcome memories pooling in her mind. Yes, mages deserved freedom… but freedom with the safety of knowledge, not the rod of fear. It was fear of having their child taken to the Tower that had urged her parents to keep her gifts hidden, to ignore those first warnings signs. If it hadn’t been for that threat hanging over her—if being a mage hadn’t carried such a dangerous stigma—then none of it would ever have happened.

Blake would still be alive.

She frowned. “It could happen. It might, one day… and if the fraternity words it carefully—if the delegation plays its cards right—it could be sooner than we all think.” Her fingers closed on the slippery fabric of Jowan’s sleeve. He flinched, presumably anticipating another wallop, but she just shook his arm for emphasis. “Don’t you think that’s what everyone wants?”

Jowan looked uncomfortable. “Probably not the Chantry. A-and, from what you said, Gwynlian wasn’t talking about a speech to the College of Magi and a well-researched treatise on the benefits of an autonomous Circle.”

Corda bit her lip and let go of his sleeve, all those sudden flurried of beautiful hope fading into stillness.

“No. You’re right… it’s more than secession. We should sneak out tonight, listen in on Princess Tippy-Toes and Ser Grope-a-lot, and find out what’s going on.”

Jowan’s face fell. “Corda….”

“Oh, come on! You’re with me, aren’t you?”

He positively squirmed, shifting his weight from foot to foot. “Well, I agree something strange is going on, but I can’t—”

“Of course you can,” she snapped. “I’m helping you study for your Harrowing, remember? You’re going to be the best-prepared apprentice in the history of the Circle, so that’s no excuse.”

An odd look crossed his face, like fear and ingratitude tied up with irritation. “All right, but not tonight. I can’t—”

“Jowan!” Corda’s mouth dropped open in exasperation. “Of course it has to be tonight! Why would you even—? I mean, what can you possibly have to—”

“I’m meeting someone,” he said wretchedly, his eyes narrowed to a wince.

“Meeting someone?” Corda echoed, unsure whether she was more surprised or appalled. “What?”

Jowan looked at his feet. “I… I’ve met someone. A girl. She—”

“Oh,” Corda said stiffly.

It was a strange thing, she realised, but the poky little storage room suddenly felt bigger, as if the protections of all those shelves and cabinets had been stripped away, and there was nothing around her but cold air and open space. She’d been wrong, hadn’t she? Assuming he wouldn’t find anyone to look twice at him, or that, even if there had been someone, it might just possibly have been— well, that was nonsense.  Silly, pointless nonsense, apparently.

Corda tilted her chin and pushed her shoulders back. “Well, can’t you play ‘hide the staff’ some other time? This might be the only chance we get to—”

Jowan shook his head sadly. “I’m sorry, Corda. Anyway, it’s not like that. We don’t… I mean, we haven’t—”

“I don’t want to know,” she said crisply.

His face sagged into a hurt look, the way it used to when he was younger, all gawky and convinced he was a failure just because he couldn’t manage a simple healing spell.

“Oh. All right. I just… I thought you might be happy for me. I mean, we are friends, aren’t we?”

“Yes,” Corda said, throwing another guarded glance at the doorway. They wouldn’t be alone in here forever, and she thought she’d heard footsteps. Impatience and frustration bloomed under her skin, together with a set of other, darker emotions that she couldn’t altogether identify. “Yes. Of course we are. You know that.”

The words sounded hollow and, when she returned her attention to him, Jowan was looking at her with a speculative curiosity in his eyes, tinged with apology.

“Good, because—”

“I’m just surprised you didn’t tell me,” Corda snapped, not even sure why it suddenly mattered so much.

Jowan frowned. “You just said you didn’t want to know! Anyway, we’re had to keep things very quiet. Lily is—”

“That’s her name? Lily? Is she in my dorm?”

He scowled. “You know, you’re being aggressive, even for you. No, she’s not. She… she isn’t a mage. She’s an initiate. We met in the chapel. I—”

Corda stared, aghast. “An initiate? Oh, Jowan, you idiot….”

“I know it’s forbidden,” he hissed, lowering his voice even further, as if he was convinced the walls had ears, “but we’re going to find a way to make it work. I love her.”

Corda baulked, but recovered quickly. She was aware this was the sort of situation in which one was meant to smile, and say helpful, supportive things to one’s friends… but somehow the words didn’t quite make it out, and she felt her lips contorting into a sneer.

“Well, good for you.”

Jowan frowned. “Don’t be like that—”

“Like what? How long has this been going on, anyway? You weren’t even going to tell me?”

His frown grew deeper: angrier, even. “I thought you said you didn’t want to know? You’re going to have to make up your mind, Corda.”

A tiny flare of pride for him burst in her chest. Stupid, she supposed, but it seemed to show something; some snatch of how he’d grown, how he’d learned to stand up to her over all those years they’d shared… years that suddenly seemed to feel slightly different in her memory, like a shifting bar on which she struggled to hold her balance.

“Well, you evidently have,” she snapped, revelling in the way he flinched.

Jowan sighed. “You don’t understand. We’ve been planning this for more than a week. If I’m not there, she’ll think—”

His eyes were open pools, his face washed free of all those usual traces of guilty, nervous anxiety… and Corda had never wanted to hit him more.

“Fine,” she growled. “I’ll go by myself. You have fun, won’t you?”

“Corda….”

She turned to go, but Jowan grabbed her arm. Unused to the contact, she recoiled, and he jumped back, hands raised apologetically.

“Sorry. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt you.”

Corda looked down at her arm. Beneath the fabric, scars crawled over the flesh, a network of thick, white ridges transecting mottled red and purple skin. Her lips tightened.

“You didn’t hurt me, Jowan.”

He looked as if he was about to speak, but no words came, and then the sound of footsteps echoing from the laboratory sent them both scampering.

~o~O~o~

“Did you hear the news, by the way?” Jowan asked, as they slipped back out into the corridor, both pretending to look unruffled.

Corda reached up and smoothed a hand over her hair. “No. What?”

“The Grey Wardens,” he said, his voice dropping to an awed whisper. “Word was sent from Redcliffe. They’ll be here by this time tomorrow. I think the kitchens have already started preparing some sort of feast. They say the Grey haven’t come here since First Enchanter Remille’s time… and you know how that worked out. I think the Circle’s probably very keen to make a good impression.”

Jowan gave her a small, runny, nervous smile, and Corda winced.

“Hmph.” She pushed her hair back off her shoulders, meaning to look regal and past concern… and then wished she hadn’t, because it left her face feeling exposed. “I’d forgotten about them. All a bit of a pointless to-do, isn’t it? Just more bending the knee for some bunch of foreign soldiers.”

Jowan pouted reproachfully. “They’re heroes.”

She snorted. “Heroes are just dead men waiting for graves. Anyway, what good are Grey Wardens without a Blight? You know, I read a book about the Anderfels. It said the Grey Wardens bankrupt everywhere they go, just plundering for recruits and gold, and now they rule up there; kings of some grubby, Maker-forsaken little mountain, with nothing to do but wait for fairytales to crawl out of the ground.”

Their slipper-shod feet scudded in mismatched steps against the stones, like every apprentice before and after them. Jowan hugged his arms around his middle and frowned at her. He always had hated having his favourite bits of make-believe pissed on, Corda thought bitterly.

“You’re being spiteful,” he said, but without much emphasis.

She raised an eyebrow. “Am I? I just don’t see why the world needs more orders of self-proclaimed great men, armed with swords and a sense of burning justice.”

As if to punctuate her point, they came to the turn in the corridor, and a statue of one of the old Knight-Commanders from the Blessed Age, set back into a great stone niche. Shafts of dusty light from the small, high windows in the facing wall shone down upon Ser Whatever-His-Name-Had-Been, and caught at the gilded marble of his faceless templar helm. The sword of mercy engraved upon his chest—also picked out in tones of brass, but dulled by the years and the repeated polishings of Tranquil servants—glimmered with the sinister silence of a snake.

Corda stopped, looked at the statue, then folded her arms and glared at Jowan. He sighed and shook his head.

Booted feet echoed on the flagstones, signalling a pair of templars on patrol, and Jowan scurried to catch up with her as she began to walk again.

“Still,” he said, “if we get a good feed out it….”

Corda scoffed. “Hm. If we do. What’s the betting it all just goes to the top tables, eh?”

She kept her tone low and neutral, in deference to the templars as they hove into view along the corridor, with their shiny armour and the quiet buzz of their own conversation. One laughed at something the other had said, and it felt as if it was probably a joke about mages, whether that was true or not.

A glance at Jowan told her he was back to his nervy old self, pale and wide-eyed… though at least now she supposed he had a reason for so much anxiety.

An initiate. Some simpering Chantry tart with her head full of lies and mistruths. Just perfect.

Still, it was his choice. His mistakes to make, and his life to ruin.

“People say they’re looking for recruits,” Jowan muttered as the templars passed by, barely glancing at them. “Mages to go to Ostagar.”

He practically whispered the word, and Corda was sure she caught a whiff of panic in his voice, like he didn’t know whether he wanted to be called up, or was fit to wet himself at just the mere thought.

All the same, Jowan had been quick enough to change the subject, she noticed. He puffed a breath between his lips as he glanced up at the high, shadowed walls, the shafts of light from the windows falling far behind them now.

Corda frowned. “More? But the Tower’s already sent mages to the king’s army. Dozens. How many more people are we expected to send?”

He shrugged as they neared the stairwell down to the dormitories.

“I don’t know. I presume they want recruits for the Wardens instead of the regular army.”

She shuddered. “Ugh. I can’t see why. If you ask me, there’s no reason the whole country should have to pay for King Maric’s infatuation with them. It’s not as if the darkspawn are even a threat anymore.”

Jowan looked doubtful. “As far as we know.”

“Oh?” Corda raised an eyebrow. “An expert in Blight lore now, are we?”

He wrinkled his nose and shrugged, but gave her a small, tucked smile.

“No… I suppose you’re right.”

And he relented. Just as he always did, Corda thought ruefully. He always let her have the last word, agreed with her, or backed down on the rare occasions their opinions actually differed.

He always did… except when it really mattered.

~o~O~o~

She turned in as early as she could without arousing suspicion, intending to sneak out of the dorm under cover of darkness, and down to the gardens. Jowan could waste all the time he wanted with his Chantry tart, but Corda was actually going to do something useful.

She didn’t see much harm in allowing herself an hour or so’s doze before she had to slip out, however, and she bundled herself up in the heavy blankets that swathed her bunk, growing warm and comfortable as sleep slowly slid over her.

It didn’t seem like more than ten minutes until Corda was awoken by someone shaking her elbow.

Psst!”

She shifted, bleary and unfocused as the world swam before her, all dimness and shadows except for the single vivid golden oval of a candle flame. The grip on her arm tightened, and she realised it was not the warmth of skin, but the cool, unyielding feel of metal closing around her flesh.

Awake immediately, Corda stifled a gasp and went rigid. What reason did a templar have to be rousing her from her bed?

As her eyes grew accustomed to the dimness, she made out the face behind the candle, and almost yelped aloud.

Cullen. Shit. They know….

“You need to get up,” the young templar whispered. “Quickly and quietly, now. Don’t wake the others.”

Corda glanced furtively around the room. Her bunk was on the end of the row, with more space around it than many. Even so, she suspected at least a few of the slumbering forms around them were merely feigning sleep.

“I haven’t done anything,” she whispered back, resisting his grip without actually struggling. “Why are you—?”

“Sshh! Please, be quiet.”

Cullen let go of her arm and held up his hand, two gauntleted fingers extended. Odd, she thought, that he seemed to be somewhere between commanding her and pleading with her. With that in mind, Corda straightened her back and narrowed her eyes.

“Where are you taking me?” she demanded, her voice ever so slightly louder than before.

Cullen winced and held the candle closer to her. Perhaps he only meant to shed more light into the bunk, but the heat of the flame swelled against Corda’s face, and she shrank back, struggling not to whimper.

She hated him for that. Hated him more than she’d hated anyone in a long time. It rose in her, thick and bitter as gall, and she clenched her teeth together, the candle spotting her vision with flares of bright blue.

Fear was the enemy. Fear had always been the enemy.

Corda heard other bodies stir in the beds nearby. Other apprentices… other people she shared this space, this life with. She had never wished more fervently that she could have considered them friends.

She swallowed hard and forced herself to sit up straight, pulling her wrist from Cullen’s grip. He blinked and wet his lower lip, looking—oddly, she thought—nervous.

“It’s time,” he whispered, moving the candle back. “I have to bring you to the First Enchanter. Come on… quickly. And quietly. Please.”

Corda drew breath to argue, but his next words took her breath away.

Please. And bring a cloak; the Harrowing Chamber gets chilly.”

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