Ephemera: Chapter 10

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He felt unfocused for days after that. Not that he minded. Not that, immediately afterwards, when he was preoccupied with the necessary stuff (like sneaking back to the dorm and pretending there was a totally valid reason for taking a bath at that time of the afternoon), Anders even noticed he was unfocused. He couldn’t stop smiling, though. And everything felt… different. It was really rather wonderful.

He lay in his bunk that night, staring into the darkness. He was sore in places he hadn’t even known he had places, let alone muscles, and they weren’t even the places that he’d expected to be sore. They were… well, really quite sore, but it had been worth it. Utterly, completely worth it, and so much more worth it, frankly, than he’d expected.

He had to admit, the whole thing had seriously rearranged some preconceptions. And that was good. It really was. Anders struggled to remember the last time life had contained new experiences, or feelings and things that challenged him. That was good. It was… exciting, and the Tower could always use more excitement.

The trouble was, now he missed Karl with a violent, terrible ache that was quite apart from the lingering throb of overused flesh. All the places he’d touched seemed cold, and the air smelled stale without the scent of his skin on it.

Anders sighed and rolled over, turning to face the wall instead of the underside of the upper bunk. The dormitory was subdued tonight; five junior apprentices were apparently sick with a bad fever, and there was a great deal of talk about it being contagious, or possibly deadly. Maybe both. Anders snaked a hand out from beneath the blankets, and traced the worn stones of the wall, relishing the chill of their touch. There were initials carved in here and there, the half-hidden marks of long-gone apprentices, and he tried not to think about it too much, because it led on to wondering how many of them were still around. Some must be full-fledged mages by now, maybe growing grey of hair and saggy of belly… and probably some had transferred away to other towers, because everybody knew that happened. The templars could do that. If you pissed the wrong people off, you might find yourself spirited to some distant corner of Thedas, or so people said. There was truth to it, Anders was certain, because people did disappear, and nobody ever treated it like it was worth noticing. They were just content to accept that it happened… as if it was all right that they weren’t told, that they didn’t expect to be informed.

That was wrong. And it was wrong to transfer people for the reasons rumour said that people got transferred, too. People said it happened if you did poorly with your studies, annoyed the templars too much, or maybe got too close to someone. They didn’t like that. They liked breaking people up, Anders reckoned, just in case that little sniff of happiness might be catching. It might make mages start believing they deserved to be treated like people.

His fingers skimmed the worn graffiti, tracing out the lost edges of letters and the occasional vulgar rune. Maybe some of them were dead, or Tranquil. Same thing, really. He blinked, his eyes used enough to the dimness to pick out all the shades of blue and grey that sheathed the long chamber.

Full moon tonight, probably. It was hard to sneak out of the junior dorms, but Anders wished he could. He wanted very much to sit outside, or at least by a window, and feel the coldness of the night air on his face, and stare up into the stippled wonder of a thousand spinning stars.

Karl said he’d like the senior dorms better. They moved you into partitioned rooms, so apprentices shared six or eight bunks to a berth, and that made it a lot easier to have a little privacy… and to sneak out, with or without your dorm-mates’ complicity.

Above him, Anders was aware of Elric shifting in his sleep. The thin mattress thunked and rustled, and the other boy’s quiet mumbles drifted down to him, sounding stifled and slightly pained.

Anders rolled his eyes. Elric was prone to bad dreams. He didn’t know whether they came from some concrete experience or not but, because of the associations with dreams and the dangers of demons, Elric was very reticent when it came to discussing them. He’d just shrug and pretend not to remember, and that mildly annoyed Anders.

He reached up and jabbed a finger between the sagging bed-ropes and into the mattress, feeling the solidity of flesh through the inadequate cloth padding.

Psst.”

Elric rolled over and mumbled something that sounded like ‘no more shoes’. Two bunks along, one of the other apprentices was snoring like a sawmill—loud enough to stand out amid the dorm’s general nightly orchestra of snorting, shuffling, snoring and farting, and that was saying something—and, about halfway down the chamber, someone else had an illicit glowstone hidden under his bedclothes, and seemed to be reading. Anders poked his bunkmate again.

Psst. You’re dreaming,” he whispered, but it didn’t seem to do much good.

Elric wriggled and whimpered and, after a moment, it sounded like he’d started to cry. Anders cursed inwardly. If the nightmare got too loud, someone might come in to check… and nobody wanted that. He slipped stealthily from under his blanket and, with his feet still in the bed because, Maker damn it, it was cold out there, pulled himself up as quietly as possible to the level of the upper bunk.

Elric was balled up in the covers, face screwed into a pinched expression and eyes tightly shut, with one arm flung above his head. He flinched when Anders took hold of it—and his skin seemed very cool, more like clammy marble than flesh—but he didn’t wake.

Will you wake up, you idiot? You’re dreaming,” Anders murmured, pinching the boy’s wrist. “It’s just a dream.”

Elric whimpered. His strawberry blond hair was damp with sweat, and the smell of fear seemed to stick to him. Anders shook him again, harder this time, and his eyes started to flicker open. A look of surprise and incomprehension suffused his face, and Elric started to speak, but Anders let go of his wrist and shook his head, bringing a finger to his lips.

Shh.”

There wasn’t any need to say anything. Anyway, everybody had bad things to dream about, didn’t they? He smiled awkwardly at the other boy, and lowered himself back down to his bunk, glad to slip once more beneath the blankets, even if sleep itself didn’t seem forthcoming.

Elric’s mattress rustled and thunked a bit more, and the nightly orchestra played on.

Anders lay still, relaxing into the boring, repetitive rhythms of the night, and letting his mind wander freely, through the manifold imaginary landscapes and improbable adventures he conjured for himself, simply because he could.

No one could control where he went in his mind.

He didn’t notice sleep starting to sneak up on him and, more worryingly, he didn’t notice it at first when Elric slid soundlessly down from the upper bunk and crawled in beside him.

Anders stiffened, suddenly wide awake again. Had he dreamed that? He turned his head a fraction, and found the smaller boy definitely, irrefutably there, beneath his blanket, just… well, just lying there, pressed up beside him like a puppy. He didn’t dare to breathe for a moment, unsure whether Elric thought he was asleep, or was maybe sleepwalking himself—

Can you do that? Sleep-climb-into-bed-with-people?

or was just cold, and frightened, and in need of a little warmth. Panic started to coil in him, but it faded as he looked at the mop of hair spilling against his shoulder, and felt the tense, apprehensive weight of the other mage beside him. Neither of them spoke. They didn’t so much as make eye contact, hard as that would have been in the darkness, and Anders supposed that was why he didn’t leap up, or push the boy to the floor, or… well, any of the other things he briefly considered doing. Either way, Elric’s soft, quavering breaths slowed gradually, but still held the remnants of terror and loneliness in their thin, ragged texture. The hand that rested, half-curled, against Anders’ chest gradually began to lose some of its tension, and the fingers softened before finally splaying out, lolling into looseness.

Anders frowned into the darkness, then wriggled, and tentatively put his arm around Elric’s shoulders. The other boy let out a small, comforted sigh, his feet pressing up against Anders’ ankles like needy little blocks of ice.

It was all extremely strange, Anders decided, but—as Elric calmed, and then drifted into deep, apparently dreamless sleep—he found he liked the way it made him feel. There was this wonderful, new, special warmth to two bodies laying close beside each other… real warmth, with life at its centre. He liked being the comforter, too; feeling someone curled into him because he was powerful, because he could protect them, and because he could make the bad things go away.

Anders lay still, and smiled sleepily at the underside of the empty upper bunk. He might not have been entirely sure what had just happened, but he liked it. He liked feeling strong, he realised, and human… and alive.

Elric was gone before the first light of dawn started to lance the dorm. Anders hadn’t been awake when he went, but he woke stiff and sore from being curled up on less than half of his mattress, and the other boy was apparently slumbering peacefully on the upper bunk. He might have wondered if it had all been a dream, but for the faint tang of unfamiliar sweat on his pillow.

They didn’t talk about it. Elric looked at him once, just before Enchanter Wilhemina did the morning head count and escorted them off to breakfast, and Anders returned the boy’s tentative little smile, but that was it.

It might as well never have happened.

~o~O~o~

Time passed as it always did in the Tower: slow as treacle and broken into a hundred shards. The place was like a prism, Karl thought, because the very fact it was such a closed-off little world made every tiny thing so important. Every shred of gossip, every sniff of scandal or little piece of minutiae was accorded far more importance than it should have been.

Speaking of which, Maya naturally wanted all the gossip about Anders. She practically pinioned Karl in the corridor when they met for Enchanter Uldred’s weekly seminar, and he relented, filling up the cold minutes of waiting with the sketchiest possible details of their time together. She squeaked breathlessly, hand to her mouth and eyes shining.

You didn’t!”

He smiled lazily. “You’re not really surprised, are you?”

She wasn’t, but she giggled like a schoolgirl all the same. “Dirty beast,” she muttered enviously, swatting Karl on the arm. “Was it?”

Amazing,” Karl assured her, a wash of quiet pride and pleasant memories warming his ears.

And it was really his first? Y’know?”

The blush deepened a bit. He hadn’t meant to tell her that. “Mm.”

Maya giggled again, turning surprisingly coy, and Karl didn’t share anything more. Barely a few minutes later, Enchanter Uldred swept down the hallway with a gaggle of other students at his heels, his robes flying out behind him like dark wings. They filed into the chamber after him, ready for the morning to be rapidly taken over by his brisk, snappish questions, and a host of complex new pieces of theory.

Karl didn’t get much chance to breathe, let alone think for the rest of the day.

He saw Anders briefly at evening chapel, but there were too many people around for more than a quick wave and a smile. Anders flushed a delicious shade of pink when he met Karl’s eye, though, and the look on his face made up for a lot. Karl hated watching him choke it down, pushing all the gleeful wolfishness and shy longing aside, and sliding into that carefully maintained expression of neutrality that so many mages learned to wear.

There wasn’t anything he could do about it, of course, so he sat quietly in the pew, amid the smell of beeswax polish and other people, and snatched small, wistful glances in Anders’ direction while the revered mother droned on.

It was more than a day until they managed to be alone together.

Karl had begun to fear Anders might be contriving not to be left on his own with him when he showed up outside the library after dinner, looking suspiciously pleased with himself.

Evening.” Anders grinned, and the slight inclination of his head towards the large statue that stood in a niche in the far wall was fairly subtle, in deference to the templar standing at the library’s doors. “Heading back, are you?”

Karl followed his gaze. The statue was large, bulky, and—judging by the armour—depicted an old templar Knight-Commander. He smiled, and hefted the armful of books he carried. They were all rather dry tomes on the matter of summoning rituals, but Enchanter Uldred had given him a signed permission slip allowing him to borrow one of the more esoteric volumes, and that had a certain cachet to it that had buoyed his mood considerably.

Mm,” he said, glancing at the oblivious templar. “Could be.”

Anders rocked lightly on the balls of his feet. He was practically humming with cheerfulness, and his skin had an odd freshness to it, like he’d been for a brisk run or something. Karl arched an eyebrow warily, but followed him into the hallway. They made a left by the statue, as if they were heading to the common room, but then Anders grabbed his elbow and dragged him into the niche, and Karl found his back pressed into the rough stonework, with a bit of pedestal in his ribs, and three volumes of The Manner and Magick of Casting Circles crushed to his chest.

Mmph!” he managed, as the full force of Anders’ dishonourable intentions hit him in a flurry of hungry affection.

It really wasn’t very discreet. Karl was practically certain he heard a couple of young female apprentices giggling as they passed by, but it was difficult to give much of a damn. He juggled the books, trying not to drop anything as he disentangled one hand and cupped the back of Anders’ neck. The tail of blond hair tickled Karl’s knuckles, and a happy little purr broke against his mouth.

Missed you,” Anders murmured reproachfully as they parted.

I know. Me too,” admitted Karl, not quite ready to let go of him.

His thumb nudged softly at Anders’ earlobe, and he leaned into the contact, his eyes growing dark and hazy. Karl knew he ought to glance along the corridor and make sure the templar hadn’t moved from outside the library, or that no one else was likely to come by, but that would have involved looking away.

Come with me?” Anders tugged hopefully at his wrist. “Just for a while?”

Where? The—?”

Karl broke off without naming their special place, as if doing so might have been unlucky. You never knew when walls had ears, after all. Besides, the old supply room was practically the other side of the tower, and—highly appealing though the thought was—he wasn’t sure they had time… or that he wanted to lug all these heavy textbooks up that many stairs. Anders shook his head.

Anywhere.”

Anywhere?” Karl echoed, mildly surprised.

It was to be the first of several surprises, as became apparent when he found himself being dragged into a janitorial closet opposite the service staircase that led down to the inventory stores.

What—?”

The question went unanswered, and Karl’s books were the first casualties of Anders’ enthusiasm. The closet was dark and cramped, and as they collided in a tangle of elbows and bodies, the unseen shapes of buckets, mops, and brooms fought back with a vengeance, and the tomes clattered to the floor, unheeded.

Anders kissed him breathlessly, pressed close and ever-shifting, his body cleaving to Karl’s, and rubbing frustratingly at him through the slippery layers of their robes. Karl staggered backwards in the confined space, and a collection of cleaning equipment tumbled off a shelf, knocking various other things flying. The handle of a mop, or perhaps broom, thudded painfully across his shoulders, but he was conscious only of Anders fumbling desperately at him… pulling his robes up?

I— oh!”

When Anders put his mind to the task, Karl decided, he really was an amazingly fast learner. He shivered at the hot breaths grazing his cheek as Anders’ lips mauled a path along his jaw. If there’d been any light to see by, he supposed they’d have looked ridiculous: two pairs of skinny legs poking out from the voluminous folds of hoisted up robes, and two pairs of hands suddenly, desperately reaching for each other. Anders was already hard, nudging impatiently against Karl’s palm like steel in silk, so soft and yet so unyielding. He sighed roughly as Karl’s fingers curled around him, the tail end of the gasp buried in another eager kiss.

It was clumsy but exuberant, this ungainly handling of each other, and it didn’t last long. Karl wasn’t sure whether it was the possibility of being caught, the novelty of Anders taking the lead this way—and the act itself was still novel, after so long restraining himself for fear of coming on too strong, and didn’t that seem ironic now?—or the simple fact of a hard, hot tug that brought him off so fast, but they appeared to be almost perfectly synchronised.

Well,” he murmured weakly, the word brushing Anders’ lips in the crowded darkness, every shadow turned sharp by their mingled scent and ragged breathing.

He didn’t know what else to say. It wasn’t what he’d expected from their first encounter since the supply room… and he’d always thought Anders wanted something different, something more than this hasty, desperate kind of contact. Trouble was, there was no denying how good it was; how good it still was, standing here weak-kneed and clutching each other, panting and giggling in the gloom.

I couldn’t stop thinking about you,” Anders murmured, relinquishing his hold on Karl and allowing their robes to start falling back into place. “Plus, I was really bored… so I thought of something I wanted to do.”

Oh?” Karl wasn’t entirely sure he liked the sound of that, though his pleasure-soaked flesh and hazy brain didn’t let him dwell on the discomfort. “We used to just talk when you were bored.”

Anders laughed softly as he adjusted his robes, the movement seeming strange and bulky in the gloom. “Mm-hm. We can still do that, though, can’t we? Talk and… you know.”

S’pose,” Karl agreed, wiping the last traces of stickiness from his palm before he bent to scrabble his books together. “So, where are you—?”

Anders cracked the closet door open and peered into the hallway. The comparative and sudden brightness of the light made Karl wince.

Dunno,” Anders said, glancing back at him with a shrug. “Can I come with you?”

I’ll only be in the common room. I have to read these,” Karl added, hefting the armful of books as he followed Anders furtively out into the corridor.

They both looked dishevelled, he surmised. Evident what they’d been up to, for anyone with half a brain or the smallest knowledge of how the tower worked. He didn’t care, he realised. Part of him wanted everyone to know, however stupid an idea that was.

Anders shrugged again, surprisingly diffident now, given how forceful he’d been before. “I don’t mind.”

All right.”

He fell into step easily beside Karl and, once they got back to the senior common room, he deposited himself demurely in a chair and just sat there, pleasingly close to Karl as he read and made notes. They talked, as they’d so often done, and smiled and laughed and, every so often, Anders would touch him casually—a knee brushing against his, or a hand on a shoulder or arm—and Karl would catch himself holding his breath.

Maker’s arse, what have I done? I’ve created a monster, and its curse is all mine….

It marked the start of a change between them, in some ways. A small change, perhaps, in the great scheme of life, but the Tower’s confines intensified everything, and provided a thick, heavy lens through which it was so damnably easy to over-analyse things.

Of course, they’d known there would be next to no opportunities to spend as long alone together as they had that day in the supply room. Karl had been prepared for that, and prepared for the fact that they’d have to take what crumbs of intimacy they could snatch. He just hadn’t expected Anders to take so readily to… well… all of it. He couldn’t help feeling it was his fault, somehow, as if he’d pulled a lever that had unlocked something in the other mage’s mind. Or maybe something slightly further south.

Anders definitely was… unlocked, however. And, once he’d discovered sex, it proved extremely difficult to get his mind off it.

People talked, naturally, but they’d already been doing that, and Karl didn’t care, anyway. He didn’t think Anders did, because Anders never seemed to care much about what anyone thought, although the sneaking suspicion that this was a front did occasionally tug at Karl’s mind.

He tried to talk to him about a few times, though with limited success. A side effect of the sensual liberation Anders was enjoying was the fact that more conversations than Karl would really have liked seemed to end up muffled in flesh and panting laughter. He couldn’t manage to stay annoyed, naturally… and they did still talk.

Anders still talked about escaping, for example, which worried him.

Karl had thought that idea of his was nothing more than a pipe dream: the two of them running off to be hermits somewhere, like in some ridiculous fairytale. Anders actually believed in it, though. He actually wanted to do it.

~o~O~o~

Where would you go, then?” Karl demanded, raising his eyebrows in an incredulous challenge. “Say you did get out of the tower. Where would you go?”

Anders shrugged. It was getting late, and they were holed up in the old supply room, watching the last rosy streaks of the sunset bleed into the coming night. The moon was already up—a day moon, flushed pink and gold like a lover’s sigh—and they were perched precariously on a crate, hands lazily intertwined and legs nudging close together, staring up at the snatch of freedom their little window afforded.

I don’t know,” he admitted. “East, probably. If they didn’t know I was gone, I could get a good few hours’ head start on the Imperial Highway, then bear off north. Head for Denerim, I guess. It’s a big city; people get lost in cities. Maybe I’d get a boat, and go far away. Nevarra, or Rivain, or—”

You wouldn’t last five minutes,” Karl retorted. “Rivain’s a land of savages. The qunari have conquered most of it, haven’t they?”

Anders frowned. He didn’t understand why Karl was so determined to attack every inch of any possible idea he mooted. That was all they were… ideas. He’d need far more information to actually plan anything, and he’d have thought Karl knew that. Sometimes, he seemed to. Sometimes, he’d play along, and they’d plot out wild and fanciful escape ideas, right down to the details of the meals they’d eat in wayside taverns, and the cities they’d visit as they wandered their way around the big, wide world.

Increasingly, though, that was a game Karl didn’t seem to want to play.

Not ‘most’, I don’t think,” Anders said mildly. “But I do like the idea of a warmer climate.”

Karl appeared to ignore him. “Nevarra’s full of heathens. And assassins.”

Hm.” Anders tapped his heels thoughtfully against the crate, thudding out a quiet, rhythmic tattoo. “Everywhere has assassins, and I didn’t think you were terribly religious.”

Karl scowled, which rather took him aback. He wasn’t used to seeing such a dark look on his face, and he didn’t much like it. Anders’ frown deepened, and he glanced down at their hands, resting together on the edge of the worn wood. Karl—his hand broader, thicker, marked by strong fingers with firm, square tips, in contrast to Anders’ narrower palm and large, plain joints—tightened his grip, squeezing his hand almost convulsively.

It wouldn’t work,” he insisted. “Anyway, they’d catch you before you even got to Denerim. Especially if you used the Highway. Where d’you think they’d look first?”

Anders shrugged. “So? All right, maybe not the Highway. There’s bound to be roads. Villages, little towns. I mean, it’d be easy enough to—”

They’d find you,” Karl snapped, his hand tightening on Anders’ knuckles. “What d’you think your phylactery’s for, hm? You could get as big a head start as you wanted, and they’d still track you down.”

Anders looked up, his frown slackening as he took in the pained expression on Karl’s face, and the real fear in his eyes.

And they’d kill you,” he murmured, colouring slightly as he met Anders’ gaze, and then looking away abruptly.

Outside, the sky was darkening, and the smells of the lake drifted up on the cool air: silt, mud, fish, and sewage. It was hardly an intoxicating ballet of fragrance, but at least it was outdoors air, not the stale breath of stone chambers.

They wouldn’t,” Anders said quietly, beginning to extract his hand from Karl’s grasp. “Not if they couldn’t catch me.”

Which they would,” Karl repeated, sounding bored and frustrated, “because they would have your phylactery.”

Anders withdrew his hand, and smoothed out a wrinkle on the knee of his robes. He supposed it was stupid, really, to start picking an argument over something that was only an idea… but Karl was being such an idiot about it.

He shrugged. “So? I just wouldn’t stop running.”

Huh. You could live like that, could you? Until it drove you mad?”

Anders snorted. “No madder than I’ll go in here,” he muttered, and that seemed to infuriate Karl.

You’re being ridiculous.”

And that was when the mist descended, and Anders found his big, fat mouth running away without him.

Am I?” He glared at Karl. “So, it’s ‘ridiculous’ to want a normal life, is it?”

When you’re not normal, yes!”

Anders stared incredulously, even as a look of mild disbelief at what he’d just said started to crease Karl’s brow. “Andraste’s flaming tits, they’ve finally got you, haven’t they?”

You know what I mean,” Karl said irritably, crossing his arms. “Anyway, just pissing off into the wilderness isn’t normal, either.”

Anders chewed the inside of his cheek, and wondered how they’d gone from a perfectly pleasant time together to this spiky kind of unease. He shouldn’t have said anything, he supposed. He’d ruined everything again. He should just have stayed quiet. Now, they’d have to go back to their dorms soon, and Karl probably wouldn’t even kiss him goodnight. He sighed, and looked for a way to leaven the dark, leaden cloud of tension between them.

Not really ‘wilderness’,” he said, nudging Karl’s knee with his own. “Denerim’s pretty big.”

Karl sighed too; long and low, in a great rush of breath that sounded full of frustration and fear.

Whatever,” he said, though he didn’t sound quite as angry. “But it’s still a terrible idea. I mean, you don’t even have a plan for getting across the bloody lake, and— well, there’s just too many ways it could go wrong. I say forget the whole thing.”

Anders stared moodily at the dusty floorboards, and grunted.

A clutch of awkward moments passed, and Karl slipped down from the crate, clearing his throat and brushing off the seat of his robes.

Well, I have to head back. Maybe see you tomorrow?”

Anders nodded and, with one last look at the dimming sky, the blush-coloured moon fading to silver-white, hopped down after him.

Karl…?” He caught at the slippery fabric of a bunched-up sleeve, not quite sure where the plaintive note in his voice came from.

What?”

I….” Anders faltered, his gaze dropping to the floorboards as the words skittered away, hiding in the darkest corners of his mind. His fingers flexed on Karl’s sleeve. “I just….”

Karl exhaled slowly. “I know.”

He leaned forwards, and pressed a kiss to Anders’ forehead, which made him look up in surprise.

“’Night, love.”

“’Night,” Anders echoed, faintly perplexed.

Karl gave him an odd, tucked-up kind of smile, and left the chamber. Anders counted to twenty, to minimise the risk of them being seen descending the staircase together—there had already been one near miss earlier in the week—and then followed. He looked back as he left the supply room, frowning slightly at the moonlight skimming the crates and sacks.

There has to be something worth using in there. Somewhere.

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Chapter 11
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Ephemera: Chapter 9

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It was a good idea, Karl’s plan. It was such a good idea… and yet Anders struggled to get a hold on his nerves, even as he floated back to his dorm on the euphoria of knowing it was going to happen.

He didn’t know why he should be nervous. He wanted it. Wanted Karl, and wanted to— well, do that. He was, he thought, extremely well-versed in the lead-up to it, and he knew pretty much all there was to know about the act itself… in theory. It just so happened that theory was all he had to go on, and it wasn’t as if that was a crime.

Well, all right. Maybe theory and some very intense study of the more lurid books the library had to offer. All the students knew where to find those, whether it was the naked witch woodcuts in the history of Chasind tribal wars, or the shadier titles that masqueraded as tales of Orlesian courtly romances, and had probably been left behind years ago, when First Enchanter Remille was still top dog in the Tower.

Anders quite liked the Orlesian smut. There was usually at least one good battle scene, and a lot of poetic language that made for very vivid pictures, though he wasn’t terribly sure most of that imagery would translate to him and Karl. Maybe they’d have to make their own.

That thought warmed him, even as it reminded him of his own inexperience. Oh, there had been plenty of times he could have fooled around before—well, maybe a few—and he almost wished he had. It would have made this less scary, less momentous… but it wouldn’t have been the same, he knew.

Anders was aware that he wanted something different to a quick grope and a fumble in a storage closet, or a hasty wank in some dark corridor. He wanted to lose that heavy, aching chain around his neck—that burden of virginity—and yet know that the one he was giving it to wouldn’t turn the gift aside, or laugh at him. He wanted it, Anders realised, to be right… and that was an even more terrifying thought

That was what Karl had meant by all the waiting, he figured. He wanted to make the first time they did anything something real, something permanent, after which they’d never be the same. Well… Anders wouldn’t, anyway. He knew Karl had more experience than him, but he had no idea how far that extended to actual sex, in terms of insertion of things in… bits.

Anders had a very detailed idea of how that was meant to happen, but he’d never had anyone to try it out with before. His past experiences, all too often, had involved trying very hard not to attract the attention of older boys—who tended to be a little too given to cruelty—and, when he’d attempted to press his luck with girls around his own age, they usually either pulled bored faces or ran away.

He knew what he wanted, though. What he wanted to try. It was possible—there was a great deal of description of it in some of the racier Orlesian stuff—and he trusted Karl. Because it was all different here, wasn’t it?

This was different. This was Ferelden, and Karl wasn’t like anyone else. He was warm, and safe, and comforting… and being with him felt right.

They’d worked out when it would be: two days’ time, when Karl could get out of his class, with Maya’s help, and said class would coincide with one of Anders’ free periods, his schedule not yet quite as full as the seniors’ tended to be. It was all very technical, like planning some kind of military operation, but it made him realise how much Karl actually did—all those lessons, all those preparations—and that scared Anders.

He can’t be that far off his Harrowing, can he?

He didn’t want to think about it, much in the same way as he didn’t want to think about his own Harrowing… or any of those dark, jagged things that loomed up in the future.

So, instead, he cadged, borrowed, traded and, in one case, stole, in order to have a suitably tempting bundle of cakes and little marchpane delicacies with which to bribe Elric into swearing blind that—for the entirety of the afternoon in question—they would be studying together in the library. Combined with a similar payment to another of the boys to swear that Anders had also been with him in the lower fourth potions laboratory, he felt it should be enough to cover any eventuality.

Elric, of course, had inconvenient questions.

“But why?” the boy asked, his thin little hands already stuffing the goodies protectively into the folds of his robes. “I mean, if it’s important, I’ll do it, but why would—”

Anders sighed. His bunkmate wasn’t exactly the sharpest knife in the kitchen… which was just as well, really, in the current circumstances.

“Because I’m going to be somewhere else,” he said quietly, glancing across the mostly empty dormitory.

Virtually everyone was still at breakfast, or morning chapel, but Elric had slept late, and Anders hadn’t much stomach for oatmeal. Even so, you never knew how whispers carried in the wide, stone halls, and it was always possible someone would overhear.

He hated that. Hated all the secrets and the sneaking around, like it was something to be ashamed of. It wasn’t. It… well, it did make it a little bit fun, perhaps, Anders had to admit. Bartering and stealing time, and this great, criminal plan of theirs—moving mountains and grafting favours, just for a few hours alone. An element of it appealed to some sense of romance, or possibly melodrama, that he’d never really allowed himself to admit he possessed.

Elric stared blankly at him, big blue eyes wide and that small, freckled face screwed into a look of total incomprehension. The tarnished strawberry gold of his hair fell in one uncombed hank over his forehead, and he twitched it away absently.

“Why? Where are you—”

Anders shook his head. “I’m not going to tell you. That way, if anyone does find out, you won’t know, so you can’t grass. Not that I think you would,” he added hurriedly, as the huge blue eyes widened even further, and Elric looked in danger of protesting, or possibly crying. “It’s just… safer. I’m not doing anything wrong, if that’s what you’re thinking.”

Elric gave him a studied, suspicious look, and lowered his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “You’re going to be with a girl, aren’t you?”

Anders chuckled, the laughter breaking from him before he had a chance to stop it. “No,” he said, shaking his head solemnly. “I’m not. Honest.”

“Oh.”

Elric looked up at him thoughtfully, one hand still resting on the bundle concealed beneath his robe. After a moment, a smile spread across his face, at first tentative and then bolder, opening like the wings of some great white bird.

“All right. I won’t say anything, anyway. I know I haven’t been here long… but you’ve always been nice to me, Anders. That means a lot.”

Anders stared as colour washed over the boy’s cheeks and, with an awkward little scrabble that was a sort of cross between a half-bobbed bow and a nervous, one-footed hop, Elric tore his gaze away and dashed off to secrete the bribery deep in his footlocker.

Huh. That was weird.

The time drifted by in claggy, stultifying moments, sticking to everything like wet sand. Anders didn’t see Karl all the next day, and he was meant to be catching up on the papers he hadn’t written, in addition to the new work the enchanters were setting. He struggled to concentrate, of course, and one particular class about the principles of magical creation was totally lost on him.

The lesson was being taught by Enchanter Aenira, a young, slightly built blonde elf who would, if she hadn’t vaguely resembled some kind of nervously trembling whippet, have been very pretty.

She talked a lot about healing magic, and the necessary balance and steady psychic centre that was required to facilitate the flow of mana into the form of creation, and it seemed odd to Anders that anyone that apparently jumpy could possibly say those things. At one point, she started asking the class questions and—when she pointed the chalk at him and asked, in that delicately querulous tone—what he thought the three main strengths of a healer should be, Anders could feel the puzzled grimace settling over his face.

“A-all right, then,” the enchanter said, changing tack. “What is the single most important thing you think one w-would have to know? Just the one?”

Anders shifted uncomfortably in his seat, horribly aware of the other apprentices’ gazes coming to rest on him.

“Uh…. I, um—” He started to speak, squeaked a bit, then coughed and tried again. “I suppose you’d have to know how to put all the bits back together, wouldn’t you? Like… how a broken bone’s meant to look, if it’s not… um… b-broken….”

He knew he’d said the wrong thing by the way her expression stiffened, and then her mouth turned slack, and she was shuffling papers around again, her hand fluttering like bedazzled moths at a candle.

“No, n-no, not at all, not at all. Healing… everybody, quieten down, please… healing magic is not— it is not a forceful thing. There are limits, you know. Limits to what can be achieved with magic. Let’s turn again to Felester’s Principles, Chapter Four: ‘On the Diverse Subtleties of Magic’.”

The susurration of muffled laughter at his expense did not escape Anders’ notice, and he slumped gracelessly in front of his book, idly digging his thumbnail into the wood of the desk.

Stupid healing. Stupid magic. Stupid everything.

But it’s what they do, isn’t it? Lock us up and tell us it’s for our own good, because we’re too dangerous to be free… and then make us deny the true extent of our own power.

It was true, he thought. Hard to tell whether it was the templars’ doing—making them believe they weren’t strong enough to fight back, just in case they were ever tempted—or the mages themselves, because the easiest way to deal with being caged is to pretend it doesn’t matter.

They were supposed to be taking notes. Anders picked up his pen and diligently inscribed a small drawing of a thunderstorm in the margin of his copybook, complete with lightning splitting a barn in two, and a little stick figure mage dancing in the midst of the chaos.

Knickers to everything.

~o~O~o~

The anticipation was agonising. Well… it had been agonising for some time, but now it was condensed, honed down into a blade of waiting that seemed impossible not to cut himself against.

Karl knew he was milling around the place in a daze, smiling at nothing and looking like a complete idiot. Largely, he knew because Maya had taken the time to tell him—smirking all the while, naturally—but he could feel it, too. He wondered if Anders felt the same way, all that tension and hope bundled up into blocks of expectation and desire. He hoped so.

“Have fun,” Maya whispered to him, her eyes glittering with mirth as they met in the corridor for the templars’ headcount prior to second classes.

Karl tried to restrain his grin, failed miserably, and didn’t care.

It wasn’t too hard to slip away from the group he should have been in as they headed off for Enchanter Grade’s class, only accompanied part of the way, and he cut back to the dorm. The chamber was almost empty, so Karl took the opportunity of grabbing a pair of spare blankets from his footlocker, and wadding them up under his arm before making his way as nonchalantly as possible up towards the supply room.

His heart felt like it hit his slippers as he saw Ser Rylock coming down the corridor ahead of him. There was nowhere to turn off, no alcove to dive into… Karl had no choice but to square his shoulders and keep going. He wasn’t sure if she’d noticed him or not. Anders said the woman was a sour cow, but she certainly seemed dedicated to her duty. In the times Karl had seen her about the Tower, he sometimes wondered whether she really noticed the mages—and what it was that occupied her thoughts so, or that kept her here, instead of in Denerim. He’d thought her detachment was only meant to be at the Circle temporarily, but they’d shown no signs of leaving.

She was closer now, the pair of them drawing up on each other from opposite ends of the curved hallway, her armour clinking gently as she strode over the stones, his robes swishing softly. Karl’s palm seemed to grow damp against the blankets he clutched to his hip, and he was assailed by sudden doubt. Should he nod to her and wish her good day? It was polite, and a lack of manners might earn him her notice but, if he didn’t say anything, would she still notice him anyway?

He watched her nervously from the corner of his eye, torn between trying to pretend that, somehow, he’d not seen her there, and trying to look as innocent as he could.

The cool, precise sound of metal moving made him wince as the templar slowed her steps. Karl squinted at her, and found himself looking directly into that taut, angular face.

“Er… good day, ser?”

“What are you doing with those?” she asked, nodding at the blankets.

“Just off to the laundry, ser.” Karl swallowed heavily, amazed at the words that tumbled from his mouth. “One of the younger boys had an accident, and he was too ashamed to say. I said I’d take care of it before I go to class. ‘He who has compassion for the weak, shall turn his sight to them, as we would wish the Maker forgive our follies.’”

Rylock’s lips thinned, but she nodded curtly. “Hmm. Someone’s been studying his Chant. All right. But don’t make a habit of it. Even the weak have to learn… even if it’s only how to use soap.”

Karl was about to mumble a ‘yes, ser, thank you, ser’ when he could have sworn he saw the woman smile.

It was over quickly, but it was like a shaft of light in a dusty room. He gulped, bleated out an assurance that he would be quick, and heaved an inward sigh of relief as she dismissed him.

Maker’s balls! I just hope he appreciates this….

Karl slipped up to their little eyrie and spent a few minutes sweeping the boards clear of as much dust as he could, and spreading out the blankets. It wasn’t much, but it made the supply room look more comfortable… made it look like theirs, even if it was just for a little while.

Bright, clean light poured through the window, touching every part of the chamber and making it look so very different, as if even the cobwebs high in the ceiling were threads of golden silk. Karl smiled, thinking it strange how much something as mundane as the time of day could change so much.

He took a deep breath, catching his own fresh-washed scent, and the faintly astringent smell of the soap with which he had so laboriously scrubbed that morning. His smile widened and, surveying his handiwork, he decided that this was probably as good as it was going to get.

All that was left was to wait.

Karl slipped from the chamber to do that, just in case he needed to run. He was sure that, if these corridors went unused in the late afternoons and evenings, nobody would come snooping about up here at this time of day, but he didn’t want to risk the possibility of being surprised. He waited in the shadowy, blurred greyness of the small landing, listening intently for Anders’ arrival, tapping the heel of his leather slipper softly and impatiently against the stones.

The waiting seemed to take forever, but then it had been that way for a while. Karl entertained himself by allowing his fantasies to run unchecked behind his eyes, and he took to quietly building a chrysanthemum in the palm of his hand, petal by petal. Magic crackled in its growing outline, a gentle shimmer of sparks and waves that nestled warmly against his skin.

Somewhere, a door creaked. Karl’s chest tightened and, finger poised over the mana flower, he held his breath. Then, uncertain footsteps scuffled in the corridor below, and he grinned to himself.

Karl waved his hand over the flower, murmuring a soft incantation that brought it to full life, blooming from his palm and shimmering. Carefully, he lowered his hand and held it behind his back, then leaned casually against the wall as he waited for Anders to make it up the stairs.

He looked wonderful, of course. Freshly laundered robes, pink-scrubbed skin, hair slicked back and his face twisted around a breathless little wrinkle of nervous anticipation. He was slightly out of breath and, as he reached the top of the stairs and smiled awkwardly at Karl, he scrubbed his palm against his robes.

“Hello.”

A ribbon of desire and affection wound itself around Karl’s heart and squeezed, and he found his mouth dry as he tried to frame a reply. He just grinned and brought the mana flower out from behind his back, holding it out to Anders on his outstretched palm.

“For me?”

He looked so surprised. Karl laughed softly and, flicking his wrist as if he was tossing a ball, sent the flower up into the air, spiralling and spinning into a million tiny stars that misted around Anders, clinging to his face, neck, and chest and glimmering brightly for a moment before they vanished.

“Yes, for you,” he said, as Anders gasped at the feel of those warm, intimate breaths of magic—a charm made for someone special, like numberless kisses bursting at once against the skin, and against the mana in a mage’s blood.

Anders beamed happily, and followed him into the supply room.

Once they were inside, the door shut and a crate pushed across it—mainly for the sake of paranoia—that bright smile started to falter. Karl slid close behind him, arms slipping around his waist, and bent his head, pressing his mouth to the back of one tense shoulder. Anders’ robes smelled of laundry soap, and the rough warmth of the fabric’s threads seemed to score a pattern into Karl’s lips. He breathed deeply, taking in every trace of his scent, his nearness… and he felt Anders’ chest swell in response, expanding in his grasp as he took his own long, heavy breath. His hair, bound back in its customary ponytail with the odd few strands escaping, tickled Karl’s cheek and, as Anders finally exhaled, the sound of his breathing seemed shaky and tremulous.

Karl raised his head a little, face near enough to skim the soft, unblemished curve of that long, pale neck. He kissed it gently—that small, hollowed plane, about an inch below Anders’ left ear—and felt the tension first bunch, then begin to seep from the lanky frame in his arms. His hair smelled of thyme and balsam, and the very ends of the ponytail were damp, presumably from a late morning bath. Karl smiled at the thought of it… at both of them, in their own ways, working so hard at being ready for the other.

“You sure about this?” he murmured.

Anders nodded fervently and wriggled, turning in Karl’s embrace to plant a warm, eager kiss on his mouth… one that almost disguised all that incipient nervousness.

“I want to,” he whispered, in a tense little breath that tasted of cardamom and peppermint—most likely whipped from the potions laboratory, Karl thought with amusement—and felt like a thread of fire.

Karl raised his hand and, very gently, trailed his fingertips down Anders’ cheek. “Me too,” he murmured. “But it’s your pace, all right? Slow as you like. We don’t have to rush anyth—”

“Don’t want slow,” Anders protested, lips butting against his once more, this time in a soft, insistent, open-mouthed bite of desire. “I wanna… y’know….”

Karl suppressed a small groan as that long, lean body pressed even closer to him, full of searing warmth that felt as if it should have burned away the inconveniences of their clothes.

Anders kissed him again, and with more strength and intensity than he’d expected. It didn’t stop, either. There was a yielding, supple rhythm of lips and wandering, curious hands that was extremely difficult to resist, and then those soft little breaths that broke against Karl’s mouth… and broke him in the process, somehow, snapping him to pieces with every sweet little whimper that Anders made. He knew he was lost when he cupped his hands to Anders’ face, fingers skimming the hardness of cheekbones and jaw, and just touching him made it all so much more complicated.

“Don’t stop,” Anders murmured plaintively, as Karl tried to pull away. “C’mere… come on….”

Maker, he didn’t know what he did with those words, or with that look on his face…! Karl swallowed heavily, desire and heat balled on the back of his tongue. Anders squirmed against him, begging without words, and he knew that it would only take one more kiss. One more touch, and Karl wouldn’t be able to stop.

Breathing heavily, he grabbed Anders’ hand and dragged him across to the blankets. They were spread out beneath the window and, with the sun toiling steadily across the sky, a patch of gold had shifted to warm the centre of the drab brown wool. Anders smiled appreciatively at the artful arrangement, and squeezed Karl’s fingers.

“S’nice,” he said, glancing from the blankets to the crates piled around them like the walls of some wooden fort… and then to the window, and the slice of blue sky beyond it, where his gaze seemed to grow fixed and distant.

Karl tugged on his hand, and started to draw him down onto the blanket. Anders blinked at him for a moment before he complied, but then he grinned… and pounced. In one colossal collapse of knees and elbows, they were tangled up in each other, snorting with laughter, and it was a good few minutes before the rumpled kisses and exploratory touching turned serious.

Karl bit his lip, willing himself not to thrust against the welcome pressure as Anders’ hand rubbed tentatively at the front of his robes.

“Maker, that feels big….”

They were sprawled across the blanket, Anders’ right leg between his, and Karl’s left arm trapped under that lean body. The sun was in Karl’s eyes and he squinted as, voice burred a bit by the eagerness of lust, he nipped another kiss at those temptingly reddened lips.

“D’you want to see?”

Flush-cheeked and smiling breathlessly, Anders gave a damp little cough of laughter, even as his body flexed against Karl’s.

“Do you want to see mine?”

Karl ran a hand up Anders’ arm, tracing the subtle swirls on the smooth fabric of his robes. Those dark eyes met his like wide pools of excitement, flecked with splinters of golden brown.

“I want to see all of you,” he said softly.

Anders swallowed heavily, throat bobbing, and then nodded. “A-all right.”

His hands immediately went to the neck of his robes, but Karl reached up and stopped him with a light shake of his head.

“Uh-uh. Slowly.”

He pushed himself up on his free arm and, pressing another kiss to that delectable pout, started to unfasten the laces of Anders’ collar himself. Every brush of his fingers against that pale throat dredged up a small moan or a lustful shiver, and Karl relished each one… although he quickly realised that this hadn’t been a brilliant idea.

There were altogether too many laces, he decided. Too many fastenings, too much fabric, too much fuss. He took it slowly, nonetheless, or as slowly as they could afford to, when every second was stolen to start with.

Positions shifted, bodies wriggled impatiently, and mouths still gnawed at each other in constant, ceaseless hunger. His hands shook a little as he guided Anders through the delicate ballet of it all, and Karl supposed he should be grateful that apprentices’ robes were simpler than the various belted houppelandes, sashes, capelets, and other esoteric garb frequently worn by the enchanters.

After a little subtle prompting, Anders started to return the favour, and his fingers tugged impatiently at Karl’s robes, fumbling with the thick laces and small round buttons.

It was clumsy, and frustrating, and punctuated with a great deal of gasping and kissing… and it was wonderful. It felt like something special, something almost holy. Undressing each other, exposing each new glimpse of skin—each new promise and gift of trust—carried a certain weight when they spent so much of their lives swaddled up from chin to toe. The Chantry never went quite as far as to say flesh was sin, but life in the Circle tended to shun anything too corporeal. Their bodies were vessels, the way the enchanters taught it, and of less importance than their minds and spirits.

That, of course, neglected some pretty basic truths about bodies. Anders appeared to encounter one when, laces loosened and his upper chest bared, Karl dipped his head and ran his tongue along the scoop of one collarbone, ending at the base of Anders’ throat, where he bit a slow and methodical hickey.

It dragged a rough, surprised, delightful little gasp from Anders, and his fingers left off Karl’s robes and knotted themselves in his hair.

“Ooh, Andraste’s flaming… knicker-weasels,” Anders muttered, the words buzzing low in his throat.

Karl spluttered and broke away from the salty, soapy sweetness of his skin with a disbelieving snort of laughter.

“Wh…? What did you say? Andraste’s flaming… what?”

Anders looked embarrassed. Pink, ruffled, and utterly gorgeous.

“’cker-weasels,” he mumbled. “I… just picked it up, I s’pose. My mother used to say it when she was trying not to swear. Sorry. I didn’t mean to—”

“It’s fine.”

It was more than fine. Karl leaned in and kissed him softly, kissed away the discomfort, and hoped it wasn’t obvious that his heart had just melted a little bit more.

Eventually, the robes were gone, pooled together in a slippery pile at the edge of the blanket, and the smallclothes soon followed. Anders was pale all over: lean, rangy and now only half-hard, hunched around his nakedness as if he wasn’t sure what to do. He probably wasn’t, Karl reminded himself, and he resisted the urge to play as rough as he wanted, taking refuge instead in the delicacies of romance.

He leaned back, his weight on his elbows, and let Anders look at him… and he did look. He stared ravenously, taking in everything from the comparative breadth of Karl’s shoulders to the dark curls that scattered his limbs, and the hard length draped rakishly against his stomach.

“You’re bigger than me,” he observed, still staring.

Karl grinned. “Doesn’t matter. You’re gorgeous. Did you know that?”

Anders shifted uncomfortably, cheeks flushed again with that terribly endearing blend of lust and embarrassment.

“You are. Come here. I’ll show you.”

There was only a very small pause—the briefest breath of uncertainty—before Anders scooted gleefully across the blanket and barrelled into his arms.

Karl laughed as they tumbled together, hands and mouths and bodies all finding fresh purchase, and new places to touch. Maker, but there was so much touching…! Anders positively purred under his hands, a lithe coil made of youth’s smooth white-and-pink and the giddy enthusiasm of novel pleasures. Karl traced the golden down on his arms, fingers tenderly skimming the places it started to grow rougher before trailing back up to his armpits, and then allowing his touch to explore the smooth expanse of that pale back.

In turn, Anders was making a very passable attempt at learning him entirely by feel. Karl wasn’t about to complain, and he moved with Anders, the two of them wound up in each other like tangled thread, the blanket rucking up beneath them.

“Ooh….”

Anders’ small coo of surprise broke against Karl’s cheek, his body tensing as their cocks rubbed together. Karl rocked his hips, trying to show him how good that could be, but he willed himself to stillness when Anders pulled back a little, peering down in consternation between them.

Karl followed his gaze. He was achingly hard—so much so that his cock seemed to be pouting towards the object of its affections, pointing with increasing desperation at what it wanted. Anders was in a similar state, though there was admittedly a little less of him. It made Karl want to smile… their differences, and their sameness, boiled right down to those two pieces of flesh. He was longer, and maybe a bit thicker, but Anders looked nicer.

Flaccid, he was darkly blushed and softly vulnerable, just like the gentle core he pretended not to have. Hard, he had a beautiful shape—perfectly proportionate, and very slightly curved to the left—so well defined it should probably have been sculpted in marble or woven as a tapestry. Karl did grin at that thought, and then sunk his teeth into his bottom lip. They were both breathing heavily, arms entwined and legs sprawled all over the place, and yet Anders had pulled back enough for what felt like acres of cold, empty air to whistle between them.

Karl glanced apprehensively at his face, and found him apparently very deep in thought, gazing at their companionably wavering shafts. He opened his mouth to ask what the problem was, but Anders frowned, pressed his lips tight together and, reaching down, took himself between his thumb and two fingers.

He brought the head of his cock to Karl’s, and tapped them gently together, one kissing the other in a soft slick of warmth and incredible intimacy that must surely have had magic at its centre.

Karl caught his breath, his fingers tensing on the back of Anders’ neck, and glanced up into those endless, beautiful eyes.

“Boop,” Anders said solemnly.

The laughter bubbled up between them like a hot spring, all-enveloping and as soothing as it was cathartic. Karl hugged him tight, shifting them around again until Anders was sitting between his thighs, the two of them flush together in all that heat and silk-smooth tenderness.

“I told you so,” he murmured, as Anders’ fingers moved in wondrous curiosity from one shaft to the other, stroking them both—well, not quite together, but close enough. “Gorgeous. Crazy… but wonderful.”

Anders just smirked, then wrapped his legs around Karl’s waist and his arms around his neck, and pulled him close for another long, breathless kiss. His tongue duelled effortlessly alongside Karl’s, every breath of rhythm a promise that spoke of more experience than he really had.

Of course that, Karl thought affectionately, was Anders for you. All mouth and—at this point, anyway—no trousers. He reached down between them, and did a somewhat more expert job of what Anders had been attempting, showing him how that gentle slip-slide of flesh could become the biggest feeling in the world.

Well, one of the biggest feelings, maybe… and he already knew which of the others were on Anders’ shortlist to try.

As Anders wriggled anxiously in his lap, Karl held back on the increasingly irresistible urge to throw him to the blanket and fuck his brains out. Not today… not like that, anyway. Greedy, impatient boys got their comeuppance, but only once they were ready for it. He might know what Anders wanted, but he also knew how carefully he had to give it to him.

“Are you sure you want this?” he asked, stroking his hand over Anders’ hair, and hearing the throatiness in his own voice make the question sound as if it only had one possible answer. “What we talked about?”

Anders nodded fervently. “Mm-hm. I want you to. I want you to… y’know,” he said shyly, his voice dropping to a whisper, as if saying the word itself carried more taboos of naughtiness than the action. “Fuck me.”

Karl had to bite down hard on a whimper. Anders must know he was doing it, he decided. No one could be that maddening inadvertently. It was probably a highly calculated combination of the way he rolled the word around his mouth, debauching every letter of it, and the look in his eyes when he let it slip out, all full of wanton desperation.

“L… uh… lay down. Front down.”

Karl cleared his throat hurriedly, keen to claw back that comforting sense of leadership he’d been clinging to, especially if that meant controlling the urges rampaging through his flesh, and the impatient twitching of his straining cock. Anders complied, propped up on his elbows and peering over his shoulder in a manner that was more like keen, earnest interest than coquettish flirtation.

They had talked about this before, albeit in frequently stammering or veiled terms. Anders wanted to know what it was like; how the act between two men was different to being with a girl—not that he’d done that either—and how it felt to surrender himself. He hadn’t worded it that way although, when they’d spoken of it, Karl had tried his best to indicate some of the more overwhelming feelings that could go along with it. His first time had been painful and distinctly prosaic and, as he recalled, he’d had little enjoyment from it until the fifth or sixth attempt, when a boy in his dorm by the name of Yuric had actually taken the time to do things properly.

Karl had tried to explain that that was what he wanted for Anders, but he hadn’t got terribly far. And now, here he was, laying there in all his glory, with that tail of blond hair hanging over one shoulder, the fluid curve of his spine and the lean lines of his thighs framing that beautiful little backside as if it was the ultimate destination of the universe.

I want to. I want it to be with you.

Such beautiful words. Almost as beautiful as him, Karl decided, tracing those pale globes reverently, and revelling in the way Anders clenched and sighed for him.

He just touched for a little while, hands roaming from thighs to waist, until he felt the apprehensive tension flow out from under his fingers, giving way to the corded anxiety of want.

“Karl…?”

“All right,” he soothed, as Anders threw another plaintive look over his shoulder. “Just let me get… hang on.”

Karl lifted his hand, took a deep and calming breath, then murmured a well-remembered incantation, and smiled as warm grease slicked his fingers. Anders’ eyes widened.

“What’s that? I don’t know that one.”

“Fanthorpe’s Personal Unctuousity,” Karl said smugly. “It’s just a version of a basic grease spell, but with some… useful differences. I’ll teach you. Later.”

“Oh.” Anders nodded and then, as Karl’s hand dipped lower again: “Oh!”

Maker bless and keep you, Estevius Villiers Fanthorpe (7:29 – 7:98 Storm), for you have been the saviour of generations of apprentices, and we shall never forget you.

Anders had admitted—in the safe, silent, gold-toned space of this little eyrie of theirs—to touching himself, but he’d never taken more than a finger before. Karl started with that and worked up in slow and careful increments, until he had Anders fidgeting impatiently on the blanket, muttering strings of imprecations and half-hearted blasphemies.

Karl helped him turn over, legs splayed and shoulders wriggling against the wrinkled wool. Another pass of Fanthorpe’s Unctuosity, and he took himself in hand, making his first and oh-so-tentative push for entrance.

Anders gasped raggedly. His lips bowed into an imperfect circle as Karl pressed deeper, eyes closing and brow creasing with a discomfort he was too proud to admit feeling.

Karl stopped, waited, and traced his thumb down the line of Anders’ cheek, a small gesture of tenderness that didn’t distract either of them from the Rubicon being breached further south.

“Take your time,” he murmured, every shred of control focused on not thinking about how good it felt to have the tip of his cock buried in that tight, hot clasp. The urge to thrust was almost unbearable, but he waited… waited until Anders started to adjust beneath him, his body relaxing enough to welcome the invader, or at least not outright fight him. “Push out, remember?”

Anders wrinkled his nose, and seemed to be on the verge of making a comment about the size of what normally passed through that particular orifice, but it was lost in a quiet gasp.

Karl gave him a little more, encouraged by the soft moan that followed, that whisper of nervous discomfort gradually fading to pleasure. He rubbed slow, comforting circles on the taut, shivering plane of Anders’ belly, coaxing and soothing, fingers trailing down to tenderly graze his slack shaft.

Anders raised his head a little, frowning in confusion at his own groin.

“I… I’m not hard a-anymore….”

“Shh.” Karl squeezed the flaccid member gently, running his thumb under the head’s proud ridge. “Doesn’t matter. I’m not always when I get fucked.”

That word—their word—did something to Anders, he noted. It brought flames to his eyes, and made him lick his lips in the most distractingly attractive manner.

He relaxed, anyway, and lolled back again as Karl stroked him, edging in just a little more… just a little further. Anders groaned and fidgeted, a spate of sharp, panting gasps breaking from him as Karl finally slid home.

“How’s that?” he murmured.

A breathless groan was Anders’ only response, and he lifted one hand from the blanket, flexing it loosely against the air. Karl smiled and snatched the hand in his, lacing their fingers together. Anders squeezed hard enough to turn his knuckles white, and clenched convulsively around him. The air seemed to turn heavy, time hanging in the spaces between seconds as they both waited.

Eventually, Anders relaxed. He let out a long breath, then caught his lower lip between his teeth, eyes turning dark and hazy as he tugged on Karl’s hand.

“Do it.”

Karl’s smile widened. That was more like it. Anders just wasn’t Anders unless he was demanding something.

It didn’t take long. All that heat and silk-fine closeness, and the hoarse, surprised gasps that broke from Anders’ throat, wrapped up in damp, breathless murmurs… it was more than anyone could have withstood. Karl made him turn over again, showing him how a change of position made everything feel different, and eased the pressure on his back. He smiled at the way Anders—on his side now, knees drawn up and body half-twisted, those long, loosely jointed arms splayed out in abandon—let his head drop, his cheek crushed against the rumpled blanet. He was flushed, lips parted as if in the perpetual first framings of a cuss, and his eyes drooped closed, a small frown pinching his brow. As the flush deepened, a vivid red wash that spilled down to the centre of his chest, in such striking contrast to the pallor of his skin, it was easy to identify the exact point at which it stopped hurting, and his last traces of resistance gave way, opening him up to those floods of ineffable pleasure that Karl remembered so well.

He’d turned quite red, with his eyes screwed tight shut, nose wrinkled and mouth hanging open, small noises like breathless whinnies leaving him as he clenched the blanket in his fists. Karl lost himself in it—lost them both—and broke on the sharp edges of the feeling, coming hard and fast as his fingers dug into the pale ridges of Anders’ hips, leaving red marks that might even fade to bruises.

Anders whimpered when he withdrew, his eyes still tightly closed, body trembling just a little. He was beautiful; a stained, imperfect idol, supple and still bent for the taking, and Karl almost wanted to leave him there just for the pleasure of looking at him… but not as much as he wanted to end things right. He trailed his fingers down the length of Anders’ spine, enjoying the way he flexed against the touch, and skated past that tender, slick cleft, pausing to cup his balls briefly before drawing him up and into a warm, secure embrace. Anders’ arms snaked around him, his mouth hot and questing, and a garbled murmur echoed against Karl’s lips as he took hold of that handsome shaft. Anders twitched against his palm, softness and warmth turning to stiffness as he stroked.

He didn’t last long. He hit his peak, moaning into Karl’s shoulder, arms around his neck and his body all at once tight and shaking, and yet bonelessly limp. Karl held him, marvelling at how beautiful he was like that… how unashamed, how vital, like some kind of hidden voluptuary blossoming into full, hungry growth.

Anders’ hand found its way to his cheek, positively clawing at him in order to bring their mouths close for one last sloppy, off-centre kiss. Karl kept stroking, relishing the tiny quivers and whimpers as the sensations grew too intense, pleasure becoming sharp at the edges.

“Andraste’s arse,” Anders slurred against the side of his neck, reaching down with one slightly trembly hand and pushing ineffectively at Karl’s wrist. “Ooh….”

“Too much?” Karl enquired innocently, tightening his grip just a little as he brought the circle of his fingers up Anders’ length, and rubbed his palm across the slick head.

“Mmmfhgh!”

He grinned, and allowed himself a few moments more of indulgent torture, until Anders’ panting whimpers started to sound pained. Karl stilled his hand, and they just lay back on the blanket, no sound in the room but their mingled breaths, and maybe just the slightest suggestion of the lake lapping at the rocks, far beneath the window. It seemed odd that a building so full of people could be so quiet, and Karl supposed maybe they could pretend there were no other people; it was just them, all alone and, more importantly, together.

Gradually, they had parted, and his hand—though still somewhat sticky—lay across his own stomach. There were traces of Anders everywhere, he thought, aware of just how much he needed another bath… and yet he didn’t really ever want to wash again.

The supply room smelled of sweat and sex and, beside him, Anders gave a long sigh. It sounded content, but Karl turned his head anyway, eager to check.

“All right?”

He tried to keep his tone light, conversational… ignoring the reality of what they’d done, and the starry, glazed look on Anders’ face.

“Huh? Oh… yes. Yeah, I’m… yeah.”

He smiled, and then rolled over, draping one arm across Karl’s stomach, propping his chin on his chest and looking up at him with those puppy-dog eyes.

“Thank you.”

“Huh.” Karl scoffed. “I wasn’t exactly doing you a favour. I’m selfish, you know.”

Anders chuckled. “Are you?”

“Mm. And I got what I wanted,” Karl added, lifting a hand and tapping his forefinger against the end of Anders’ nose. “Boop.”

That lovely, pliant grin widened, and Anders pushed himself up further, coming to claim Karl’s mouth in a soft kiss.

Breaths of laughter whispered between them, turning to more kisses and slow, lazy touches. It would have been wonderful to stay there forever, Karl thought, or at least until morning. Wonderful to sleep wrapped up in each other, safe and set apart from all the demands and strictures of this narrow, regimented world.

“We should get back,” Anders said reluctantly, with a small, sad sigh. “Someone will notice.”

Karl groaned, and rested his forehead on his lover’s cheek. “No, they won’t. We’re not important. We’re invisible. No one’ll mind.”

Anders’ fingers trailed gently through his hair. “I don’t want you to get in trouble. Actually, I don’t want to get into trouble, either.”

“No?” Karl raised his head. “Doesn’t sound like you.”

He snorted. “Mm. If they put me on lockdown, I can’t sneak off to be with you, can I?”

“Ah.” Karl smiled, a rush of giddy affection tumbling through him. “I see your logic.”

“I’m a very logical person.”

“Indeed. And very sexy.”

Anders went faintly pink and gave him a big, stupid grin, which eroded Karl’s last shred of resistance. He pushed himself up on his arms, caught that lovely mouth against his, and kissed Anders deeply, losing himself to the sensation of their bodies pressed against each other, full-length, a leisurely and rather wonderful dance.

Anders was half-hard again when they parted, his reproachful whimper almost enough to entreat Karl to stay, never mind the risks. He was right, though… they needed to get back to their respective dormitories. All too soon, there’d be dinner, chapel… more head counts.

“Come on.” He sat up regretfully, reaching for their robes, and tossed Anders’ across the blanket. “Kit on.”

Anders groaned theatrically and made a performance of trying the right hole to put his head through, grumbling all the while. Karl dressed quickly, efficiently, pulling laces tight and brushing the dust from the patterned fabric.

It was hard to resist one more embrace, especially when Anders kissed him so very thoroughly, and looked at him with those big, dark, doe-eyes, a soft smile curling his lips.

“We can do that again, right? I mean—”

“Mm.” Karl grinned. “If you want to.”

“Oh, I think I could be persuaded.”

“Good.”

Anders’ smile faded a little, turning faintly melancholy as his eyes clouded.

“I want to do a lot of things,” he murmured, his fingers trailing loosely down Karl’s arm.

“Oh?” Karl raised an eyebrow, clinging to the hope that Anders meant it as his usual light-hearted smutty innuendo, and that the note of sadness in his voice wasn’t real. “Well, knowing you—”

“I want to sleep next to you,” Anders said softly, picking at the cuff of Karl’s sleeve. “All night. And wake up and go somewhere and buy breakfast. I want to wear trousers, and walk through a market, and live in a house that doesn’t have any stairs. And I want to have cats—big, fat, grumpy cats who never chase rats or mice, and sit on books when I’m trying to read them—and… and I want us to….”

He faltered, and Karl didn’t know whether tears would have eventually come. He didn’t wait to find out, and instead pulled Anders close, hugging him in a fierce, protective grip that took them both a little by surprise.

He pressed his lips to that dirty blond hair, and felt hot breaths burst against the hollow of his throat as Anders slowly calmed. Karl pulled back, caught Anders’ face tight between his palms, and stared into those dark, raw-edged eyes.

There were words for this. He knew that. Words that it would be so easy to say—that it should be so easy to say—and yet his lips trembled rather than let them pass. He ended up saying nothing, and just pulling Anders back towards him, cradling him with quiet, defensive affection.

After all, who knew? Maybe, one day, a life like that would be possible… even for mages.

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Chapter 10
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Ephemera: Chapter 8

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At first, Anders couldn’t quite believe it was over. He felt a little as if he was coming up from under the ground, choked with soot and dirt and blind to the world above him, until the first cold fingers of its light lanced his eyes… although, of course, there was no sunlight, and no feel of wind in his hair or warmth on his cheeks.

Instead, he simply exchanged the dim gloom of the inventory offices for the slightly less morbid gloom of the rest of the Tower, and it worried him to realise just how much of a relief that was. He’d never imagined being so glad to see things as humdrum as the threadbare rug on the third floor landing, or even to taste the horrific sponge pudding that got served up in the refectory, and which could probably have doubled as mortar if the Tower’s masonry ever needed repointing.

That said, a week’s worth of stocktaking and inventory left everything tasting like dust and, when Anders actually was allowed to leave, his first thoughts weren’t really about food.

He bumbled through going back to his dorm, freshening up, then calling in to the office of each enchanter whose classes he’d missed and handing over the relevant notes, having them signed and having yet more admonishments piled upon the stern frowns and chiding looks—tsk, tsk, you see how poor behaviour is its own punishment, young man, see how long it’ll take you to catch up on this work, spending your breaks at the books blah blah blah—and finally, finally, being released.

It was late afternoon, but the rest of the day was his. He was supposed to use it for study, but they could shove that.

Anders spent a little while mooching around the corridors, doing pointless things like watching dust motes spiral in the shafts of thin daylight that came through the high windows, or counting the number of cracks in the flagstones as he stepped on them, hopping from foot to foot as he idled his way past the endless, silent, stone walls.

He was up by one of the potions laboratories when the students started to spill out. Everything smelled of elfroot, vilneas gum, and the occasional tang of copper and boiled knitbone. Herbs were interesting, he supposed. Useful, if you ever needed healing… and there were meant to be some that could yield really interesting effects when chewed or cut in a pipe. There had been a dog-eared book about it in the library, but one of the senior enchanters had found it and locked it away. Shame, really… although Anders reckoned he could probably get hold of some cloutweed if he tried hard enough. That was meant to be good stuff, from what he’d heard.

The various apprentices leaving their classes and lecture halls flowed around him like a robed, murmuring stream, all absorbed in their own lives, their own discussions. They just parted around him, and he didn’t see anyone he knew well enough to nod or smile to. Anders wasn’t sure, but he suspected they might have ignored him, even if he had.

He found Karl outside the lecture hall on the northerly side of the upper floor.

His class had obviously recently finished, but it could have been any subject, any day. He was just standing there, smiling and talking to a redheaded boy in senior apprentice robes, and he looked like nothing could shake him, and everything was right with the world. The redhead had an Aequitarian pin on his shoulder, and a bridge of freckles marching across his cheeks and nose. Anders had no idea who he was, but he wanted him to curl up and die on the spot, like a scorched rose. Karl looked happy. Relaxed but alert, like they’d just had a really interesting lecture and he’d understood every single bloody word of it.

He glanced up as Anders drew to a halt on the fringes of the scattered apprentices, an awkward outsider in the midst of all these busy, chattering people.

Suddenly, time slowed down, and all the things Anders had been running over saying in his head bundled up uselessly on his tongue and refused to come out.

“Er… hello,” he said instead, and even that managed to sound all wrong, all sullen and difficult and stupid.

Karl smiled at him. “Hello yourself.”

He didn’t seem too put out. He looked like he meant the smile, anyway, and that was a good start. Anders cleared his throat. The redhead touched Karl’s elbow and muttered something about seeing him later, at which Karl nodded and waved him off with a farewell. Anders tossed a suspicious scowl after the boy, then shifted uncomfortably, and rubbed his left foot against the back of his right calf. He winced as Karl looked expectantly at him.

“I-I… I’m… um, y’know.”

Karl raised an enquiring brow. “Sorry for being a complete prat?”

Well, I deserved that one.

Anders shrugged. “Yeah. Prob’ly.”

Karl grinned and glanced over his shoulder. Most of the other apprentices had already dissipated, or were heading off to their next classes or study periods now, leaving just a few talking quietly in the lee of the great, changeless stone walls.

“Heard about your week with the Tranquil,” he said quietly, stepping closer, the laughter dropping from his eyes. “Was it awful?”

Anders set his jaw, meaning to brazen it out and say something non-committal, maybe just grunt a bit and try and look as if he hadn’t cared, but his chin dimpled and, before he could stop himself, he was nodding fervently. “Yes. I-I don’t ever want to be like that. It’s horrible. The worst thing is that they almost seem content with it. I mean, they’re not—they can’t be, that’s the whole point—but, they say it themselves, they just are… and….”

He shuddered and pulled a face, and he knew from Karl’s expression that he understood. Karl understood a lot of things. He was good at it, and Anders very much wanted to be comfortably, deeply embedded in his arms, and leave all the understanding completely, one hundred percent, to him.

“Can I see you?” he murmured, lowering his voice and hating doing it, hating everything being a whisper and a secret.

That familiar mischief touched Karl’s face. “Hmmm. You can see me now.”

Anders groaned in frustration. “Karl…!”

“All right, all right.”

His eyes softened, blue steel turning to deep velvet and, despite the rumpled, wavy hair that framed his clear, square face, he seemed less boyish somehow. There was an air of confidence, of calm assurance, that brought him far closer to being a man than Anders had ever felt, and he was reminded suddenly—with a swift, aching pain—of the years between them. Karl wasn’t all that much older than him, but it was enough to matter… enough to make a difference.

It was enough to make him feel small, and stupid, and worthless.

“I just wanted to see you,” Anders mumbled, frowning at his feet. “To say—”

“It doesn’t matter,” Karl said gently. “Already forgotten.”

Anders glanced up sharply. Was it? Is it really that easy?

He didn’t believe it could be—or should be, even. He’d been intentionally cruel to Karl, albeit in the cloudy, abrupt way of his ridiculous tantrums, where his blind anger made everything seem impossible. That shouldn’t be so simple to forgive.

“But—”

Karl cleared his throat. “Look… I have a meeting with Enchanter Belling in a minute, then I’m sitting in on one of Petroc’s seminars. Spirit healing. I’ll be out late, but I could meet you at chapel tonight. We could… talk afterwards, maybe?”

The words were innocuous enough, but there was blatant deviousness in his face, and Anders smiled, saturated with relief. He knew what that meant. Just one dull sermon to sit through, and they could sneak away, sneak off up to the old supply room, perhaps. He’d missed that so badly… missed Karl, though he didn’t know how to say it.

“Yeah. I s’pose. That’d be good.”

“Good,” Karl echoed, grinning. “I had something I wanted to talk to you about, anyway.”

“Oh?”

He didn’t offer any more details; just shook his head and let that smug, undeniably appealing smile cement his mystery.

Anders bit his lower lip, pulling the soft flesh tight and wishing the single, small lance of discomfort it caused was enough to cut through all his confusion. Karl’s face softened, his eyes turning warm and gentle as he held Anders’ gaze. For a moment, it felt like there was a kiss hanging between them, a weight of possibility that tugged so hard that Anders swore he could already feel Karl’s mouth on his.

It didn’t happen, though, and then Karl had to go, and he was just left standing there feeling stupid and embarrassed.

Chapel was ages away.

Anders ended up trying to catch up on the work he’d missed during his punishment week, despite all his determination not to do it. The templars were out in force. Ser Rylock had been seen striding the corridors, talking with great seriousness to one of the Marchers that had come with the visiting enchanter from Starkhaven, and Anders hated the alacrity with which he scampered out of their way. He didn’t want to be afraid of them. He wasn’t afraid of them… not much. But they were inconvenient, what with all their tendencies to want to know what you were doing, where you were going, and why you had a quarter of a pound of cheese in your pocket.

So, he ended up slouched at a desk in his dorm, looking up only when Mr. Wiggums stalked past the open door, tail held high and crooked. There were a handful of other apprentices sitting around, playing chess or Fox and Geese, or sitting on their bunks reading. One of them hurled a piece of crumpled paper towards Wiggums, and laughed when the cat hissed and ran away.

Anders scowled at the boy, but said nothing, and went back to doodling on the margins of the essay he was supposed to be writing. It was dull, and he hated the study of entropy, and he hated everything. He missed Karl, and touching, and kissing, and staring out of their window at the gold-toned sky, and the gently rippling planes of the lake.

It was the nearest thing there was to freedom.

~o~O~o~

Anders was waiting for him when he got to the chapel, and the simple fact of the way he stood warmed Karl’s heart. He was loitering by one of the statues of Andraste that flanked the doors, looking despondent and tired and vaguely at a loose end, as if he’d finally run out of things to be annoyed about.

He looked up at Karl’s approach and smiled timidly, all doe-eyes and sweetly curled lips, and Karl rather wished he could ignore the things it did to him.

“Hey,” he murmured as he drew closer, and they both segued into the knots of people moving towards the chapel’s gilded doors.

Karl moved closer, close enough to brush against Anders’ shoulder, and to smell the scent of soap and ink that clung to him. It was a good smell. A clean one, and familiar, and yet underscored with his own scent… a quiet wildness that made Karl’s blood quicken, and made him eager to do so much more than just walk close beside him, wishing that all these people would just go away.

Anders beamed at him, but any further shared moments were disrupted by a templar at the back of the crowd, stamping his sabaton on the flagstones, and demanding they all got a move on.

Obediently, they filed into the chapel and slipped into the pews. The eternal flame burned brightly, its glow echoed by the torches on the walls, and the evening shadows drew long against the flawless marble cheeks of Andraste as she gazed impassively down at the congregation.

The gentle mutterings of people settling abated, and Karl glanced around the pews. He was next to one of the pillars, about five rows from the front, and in clear view of at least three templars, and Enchanter Wynne, who was standing near the west door. To make matters more inconvenient, the pew behind him was full as well, so there was no chance of anything illicit. Karl exhaled tightly, and shot Anders a sidelong look of disappointment. His hand was resting on the edge of the pew, half-curled around the age-smoothed lip of the dark wood. Karl let his settle beside it, allowing his fingers to nudge against Anders’, and was quietly thrilled when one long digit hooked itself over the tip of his little finger.

They sat there like that, not quite touching and yet not quite apart, and Karl supposed there was almost a kind of serenity in it: a kind of frustration that pushed the mind beyond the simple bounds of wanting. They were both there, weren’t they? Anders was back, and unharmed, and that was enough. It was enough, and yet not enough… and yet there was as much comfort as there was dissatisfaction in this small, awkward, empty way of sitting, where he could not even touch the one he cared for without risking censure.

It was a strange way of thinking, a strange way of being, and Karl wondered at the things the Circle did to them. Sometimes, he thought Anders was right about everything… not that it would have done to actually tell him that.

The Revered Mother was caning the Canticle of Transfigurations again. Karl wasn’t entirely sure she knew anything else. He’d read the Chant in its entirety—the official version anyway, without any of the Dissonant Verses, although copies of those could be found in the Tower’s library, and made for exceptionally interesting study—and he suspected that the portions of it quoted at apprentices reflected a distinctly conservative view on Her Reverence’s part.

“The one who repents, who has faith,” she intoned, bony hand clenched on the air as if clinging to an invisible rock-face, “and is unshaken by the darkness of the world, / She shall know true peace. / For many are those who wander in sin, / Despairing that they are lost forever….”

Karl caught his breath as Anders’ little finger slipped stealthily between his own and his ring finger, sliding with distinct suggestiveness over the ridge of his knuckles, and rubbing at the valley between the two digits.

It was a curious, highly charged sensation. His skin tingled with each tiny motion, and the hair rose on the back of his wrist as Anders touched him slowly, gently… delicately.

He didn’t dare look. He just knew that Anders would be sitting there, completely impassive, his face a picture of blank innocence.

Karl flexed his hand, allowing Anders deeper into his grip, fighting the urge to seize hold of him, or to slide his own hand over, lay hold of a wrist of thigh. The tiny movements—the ballet of implication between their hands—were enough to distract him completely, and his mind filled with the possibilities of what Maya had offered.

He’d ask Anders tonight. After chapel. Maker only knew, all this suggestiveness aside, whether he was ready. Karl suspected so, but it was hard to tell. Anders was too damn good at putting on a front. As far as the rest of the world could see, he was brash and blasé, and he didn’t bat an eye at bullshitting his way through anything… but the veneer was thin, and Karl couldn’t stand the thought of being the one to crack it and lay all the vulnerability beneath open to hurt.

“But the one who repents, who has faith,” the revered mother continued to quote, “Unshaken by the darkness of the world, / And boasts not, nor gloats / Over the misfortunes of the weak, but takes delight / In the Maker’s law and creations, she shall know / The peace of the Maker’s benediction….”

Karl held his breath. Beneath the blessedly baggy swathes of his robes, arousal heated his flesh. He shifted, leaning forward a little bit to try and disguise his burgeoning stiffness, and hoped no one thought he was really that interested in the priest’s sermon.

Beside him, he thought he heard Anders chuckle softly. His touch tightened a little on Karl’s hand but, as he turned his head, Anders was already looking away, staring up at the great marble Andraste, and the flickering light of the holy flame in her outstretched palm. He moved his hand slightly, sliding it away from their clandestine touch, and Karl felt the loss keenly, though he fought the urge to chase after Anders’ fingers with his own, and clenched them instead on the edge of the bench.

“The Light shall lead her safely / Through the paths of this world, and into the next,” the Revered Mother continued. “For she who trusts in the Maker, fire is her water. / As the moth sees light and goes toward flame, / She should see fire and go towards Light.”

I already am, Karl thought ruefully, taking a deep, slow breath. The whole chapel smelled of furniture polish and candle wax, with a suffusion of warm fabric and end-of-the-day students, some of them readier than others for a bath. It struck him how unnatural it was; this room, this strange, quiet corral full of celibate men in metal suits, and celibate women in silken robes, and dozen upon dozen of young people who should be out there in the world, blossoming forth like green, ripe vines, and forging their own ways into the future.

He risked another glance at Anders, from the corner of his eye. He was pretending to listen—Maker, perhaps he even was, although it seemed unlikely—and the look on his face was almost genial. That made Karl think he wasn’t listening at all, and had retreated into some kind of inner fantasy world. Memories, maybe.

Karl wished he knew more about Anders’ life before he came to Ferelden. He’d talked of it a bit, spoken of a village like a lot of other villages… intimated that his family had either come from somewhere else, or perhaps moved around, possibly trying to evade the templars. He seemed to remember parents: a mother he’d clearly loved very much, and a father who appeared to have been more peripheral. Maybe there had been brothers and sisters, maybe not. Karl had no idea, but he wanted to know. He wanted to see inside that enigmatic, fervid little brain of Anders’, and probe the memories that he wouldn’t talk about. The things that had happened, the things he’d seen… were they so terrible, or was he just an ornery bastard from the start? What was there, inside that remarkably dense little skull, that meant he couldn’t keep from making life harder for himself?

And why can’t I keep away?

Karl let his gaze fall to the back of the pew in front of him, forcing himself to study the grain of the wood and the decades of polish ground into the softly waving lines. There was a girl sitting almost directly in front of him, with two pigtails of blonde hair hanging down her back. She shifted delicately in that ‘numb backside’ kind of way, and he watched her hair brush against the dark wood, and smelled some kind of floral water—lavender, maybe—rising up off her as the warmth of so many bodies pressed in together lent the chapel a sort of condensed odour that had very little to do with sanctity.

As the moth sees light and goes toward the flame….

Karl smiled to himself as Anders stretched subtly, flexing first one shoulder and then the other, and tilting his long neck to the side. The old bag couldn’t possibly bang on much longer.

“The Veil holds no uncertainty for her, / And she will know no fear of death, for the Maker / Shall be her beacon and her shield, her foundation and her sword….”

Funny, he thought, how the Chant seemed to want everyone to be a warrior, and demanded sacrifices as hungrily as a dragon.

Still, it wasn’t his place to question.

~o~O~o~

Anders almost held his breath as he followed Karl out after the service. He’d been convinced the priest was never going to shut up, and they were all going to be there forever, gradually turning to dust and bones as the cobwebs wrapped around their necks like shrouds.

But, it was over, and it didn’t take all that much just to quietly, subtly, slip from the throng and turn aside, into the shadows. Karl glanced over his shoulder to check Anders was with him, and they walked calmly, slowly and nonchalantly towards the end of the hallway, and the narrow stairs. There were knots and gaggles of apprentices, and mages and templars alike milling around. The trick was to walk as if you had a sense of purpose, and were meant to be going somewhere important. It helped if you had a piece of paper to carry, and then everyone seemed to think you were running an errand for one of the enchanters.

Anders wasn’t sure if that worked as well for the older apprentices, but it certainly did the job for him… and nobody could possibly doubt that Karl knew where he was going.

He was striding ahead, calm and unruffled, and he didn’t even flinch when one of the Marcher templars clanked past, scowling.

They waited for the templar to pass, then dived off to the side, crossed the corridor, got to the disused stairway—and exploded in a breathless burst of movement, running, and stifling gulps of laughter as their slippers slapped against the steps. It was dark, and chilly, and Anders didn’t care. Their breath echoed on the stones, panting giggles and gasps, and he cannoned into Karl from behind as, halfway up the staircase, the last of the light from the corridor below gave out, and they entered the shadow realm of the Tower’s forgotten byways.

“Steady,” Karl protested, grabbing at the pitted stonework of the wall. “You’ll have me over and all!”

Anders slipped both arms around his waist and buried his nose in the back of Karl’s shoulder. Everything seemed more intense in the dark; sight, sound, and smell. Karl’s robes smelled of candle-wax, ink—that whole atmosphere of dark wood and chalkboards that the upper lecture rooms had—and, beneath all that, him. Anders was standing two steps below him, which made their minimal difference in height seem a little greater, and as Karl twisted his body, lifting one arm to peer back at him in the gloom, Anders found he rather liked that.

“I was thinking about this all week,” he murmured, mounting the shallow steps so he could press even closer, flattening his hands to the embroidered panels of Karl’s robes. “I… I missed you.”

Karl snapped his fingers, and the soft glow of magical light flared, hovering above his cupped palm. It splashed back across his face, making his eyes look dark and shadowed, and painting valleys into his cheeks.

He reached up and, very gently, traced his fingertips along the line of Anders’ jaw. “I missed you, too.”

Anders grinned stupidly as his stomach performed a particularly athletic somersault, and the part of his brain apparently hard-wired to his little head suddenly seemed to take over control of his mouth.

“Are we going to do it? I really want to. You know I want to. And you did promise,” he added, aware of the way the words were rushing out without him, spooling into the staircase’s dark, shadowed quiet.

Karl’s evident surprise faded fast, lost in an embarrassed sort of half-smile, and he tugged ineffectually at Anders’ wrist, dropping his gaze to the steps.

“Come on. Let’s get… well, we’ll talk about this in a minute, yeah?”

Anders shivered, the warmth of Karl’s fingers on his skin doing little to dispel the chill. So, he wanted the security of their little eyrie? Fair enough. It was safer than groping on a dark staircase, where they were just as liable to break their necks as find themselves discovered.

He didn’t move at first, though: just stayed there stubbornly as Karl tried to pull away.

“Karl? You promised. Remember?”

Karl sighed, and the little ball of magical energy rose above his palm, crackling around his head and making that halo of rumpled curls glisten. “Anders—”

“Please? I want to. I want it to be with you.”

“We will. Honest. But—”

He strained against Anders’ arms, trying harder to pull away, and it felt like rejection, no matter how soft and troubled the look on his face. Anders folded his lips into a tight line, drawing back as Karl moved up another step, the staircase a space of awkward negotiation, a place of arguments shrouded in shadows.

“I told you I didn’t want to rush it,” Karl murmured, moving slowly up the last few stairs… slowly away from him. “Not with you.”

Anders gave him a sulky, pouty glower. “Are you sure you even like me?”

The look Karl shot him was withering, even in the half-light of the pale globe fizzing about his head. “Don’t be stupid.”

“Well? You won’t touch me. You don’t want to—”

“Shh!” Karl glanced nervously at the dark walls, and winced at the sound of their voices humming tinnily against the stone. “Come on,” he said again, holding out his hand, the little orb of light nestling once more in his other palm. “Anders. Please?”

Well, there wasn’t much refusing that.

Anders acquiesced gracelessly, thrusting his hand into Karl’s and allowing himself to be pulled up the last two steps, into the shadowy emptiness of the narrow landing.

Karl looked at him wordlessly for a moment, the dim and unnatural glow of his light picking out thin highlights across his face and leaving his eyes dark as wells.

“Silly sod,” he muttered, and squeezed Anders’ fingers lightly before turning to lead him into the old supply room.

Anders pouted again, but sloped obediently after him.

There really wasn’t anything else he could possibly do.

~o~O~o~

It would have been nice to make it up there in time for the sunset, but they’d missed it, and Karl regretted not seeing the symphony of reds and golds… or, at least, not watching Anders see them. The world beyond their little window was dim, painted in blacks and greys against a dark sky and the dark lake, each band of darkness touched by the pallid streaks of clouds and reflections, stippling the soft night.

Anders grinned like an idiot when Karl relayed Maya’s plan to him, his whole face suffused with a hopeful, grubby kind of joy.

“So…? Really? We’d be completely… undisturbed?”

Karl nodded. “Mm-hm.”

“Ooh.” The smile grew wider—if that was even physically possible—until it was disrupted by a small frown. “Why does she— I mean, what does she want in return?”

“Dunno.” Karl shrugged dismissively. “I’ll probably have to pay it back somehow, but… does that matter?”

“Nope.”

He laughed softly, warmed by Anders’ huge, ridiculous grin, and by the anticipation in his eyes. “Well, then. That’s good.”

They seemed closer then than they had a moment or so ago, and Anders’ breath had deepened out into a long, slow, uneven rhythm that fanned gently against Karl’s face.

“We could always get some practice in, before—”

“Don’t tempt me,” Karl chided, leaning in to kiss him. “Wicked creature.”

Anders tensed briefly, just before their lips met, and Karl wondered if he’d accidentally hit on some old, cruel slight, some insult that had been bandied around in the past… or if it was just the tension aching between them.

It didn’t seem to matter much, though, because then every ounce of his awareness was full of Anders—his taste, his smell, the feel of his mouth—and the happy little noises breaking against Karl’s tongue made him shiver with pleasure. It would have been easy to let it happen, he supposed… and Anders probably wouldn’t have regretted it. Not too much, anyway.

All the same, he broke the kiss and stepped back, away from the luring heat of the long, lithe body beneath those warm, slippery robes. Karl swallowed heavily, and tried not to stare too hungrily at that flushed, breathless face, those eyes glistening like two hunks of dark, polished amber.

Anders gazed hazily at him, then smiled uncertainly, fingers picking at the sleeve of his robes. “What?”

Karl shook his head. “Just you.”

The smile went loose and bit wobbly at the edges, and Anders stuck out his hand. “C’mere.”

Karl hesitated, not sure he wanted to be drawn into another kiss, but then he obediently slipped his hand into that warm, firm grasp and, as Anders’ fingers laced through his, he found himself being pulled up onto the crate that stood next to the window… pulled close as they both scrambled up to the aperture, leaning on the stone sill as the cold air painting ghosts on their skin.

Karl stared down in vague wonderment at their hands. So firmly joined as they rested on the rough stonework, and yet it seemed such a casual gesture. He tried to choke the idiotic smile from his lips, and didn’t quite manage it—not that Anders had even noticed.

“Look out there,” Anders said, nodding at the hazy bounds of the lake. “Do you know what’s out there?”

Karl squinted. Well, they were facing southwest, so….

“The docks, I suppose. That way a bit. And, eventually, Recliffe, and the castle, where the arl’s seat is. I think there’s a village or two. The Imperial Highway runs parallel to—”

“Not what it says on the map,” Anders said witheringly. “I mean, like… trees. Birds. Grass. Taverns and villages and farms, and… life. Proper life. Real people, real places.”

Maker, he’s got that tone in his voice again….

Karl frowned. He would have thought a week’s punishment down in the bowels of the Tower would have subdued Anders a little bit, but apparently not. His frown deepened as he wondered whether—for all the enchanters’ thinly veiled threats and displays of power—it hadn’t just made it worse.

“Are we not real people, then?” he asked dryly.

The grip on his hand tightened, and Anders shook his head emphatically. “No, you know what I mean! Places that are free. Not like this. Wouldn’t it be wonderful, hmm? Being out there, free like that?”

Karl turned his head—frightened by that open, hungry look that Anders got at moments like this—and squinted out into the dimming, lilting light. The lake’s surface twisted and glimmered in pale, shifting shards, turning to shadows as the light winked away, and the hazy, distant faces of cliffs seemed to bound everything like the very edges of the world.

He tried not to think of things like mud, disease, poverty, and all the other manifold dangers of the mundane world that the Tower protected them from. Or… that the Tower told mages it protected them from, perhaps.

Damn. He’s got a bloody point, hasn’t he?

“A—” Karl cleared his throat. “Are… are you talking about escaping?”

“That’s part of it. Being free. We will, you know,” Anders said confidently, squeezing his hand again as he looked out over the lake. “You and me. We’ll go somewhere they’ll never find us.”

Karl blinked, then turned his head and stared at him for a moment.

“What?”

Anders wasn’t looking at him. He was staring out into the dusk, the angles of his face breaking to taut planes, and that impatient, ravenous look in his eyes seemed to erode away the last remaining softnesses of his youth.

“Have you ever been to Nevarra?” he asked, and he might as well have been addressing the air itself, his tone airy and speculative. “I haven’t. Did you know, they don’t burn their dead there?”

“I….” Karl began, but Anders apparently didn’t need a response.

You don’t learn, do you? You never learn, you mad sod. You can’t get away, you know. We’re in the middle of a lake. They’ll catch you, and they will do so much worse than send you down to file card catalogues….

He didn’t say it. Didn’t bother saying anything.

“They build great big tombs for them instead,” Anders said conversationally, “and they actually start their own while they’re alive. Yuck! Morbid, isn’t it? Mind you, I suppose it’s a bit like us, y’know? Walled up in here, like a living tomb. We’d probably fit right in. I don’t think I’d ever want to be buried in a tomb like that, though. No more walls. Don’t want to be walled up. I think I want to be burned and scattered on the wind.”

Oh, Andraste, give me strength….

“You’re babbling,” Karl said softly, tugging on his hand.

Anders looked at him then, eyes wide and his face painted with shadows. He seemed so pale, so vulnerable, and Karl ached to kiss him, to soothe him until that veneer of calm was back in place.

“Am I?”

“You do it sometimes,” Karl admitted, raising his free hand and stroking his fingertips softly along the outline of Anders’ cheek. “I wouldn’t worry. I quite like it, actually. Kiss me?”

“Come with me,” Anders whispered tensely, no trace of mockery in his face. “Just say you’ll come with me.”

“Yes.” Karl smiled. “Of course. I’ll always be with you.”

He hadn’t quite meant to say that, but somehow it popped out. He might have felt embarrassed, or perhaps regretted the words, only Anders gave him a look of such starry-eyed, shy sweetness that the whole world turned a bit softer, and absolutely nothing mattered except drawing him close and tasting the chill of the night air on his lips.

Karl closed his eyes as he felt Anders melt a little against him. He was so lovely… and he knew it was just talk, didn’t he? All these dreams, these make-believe plans, they wouldn’t come to anything. They couldn’t… not that knowing that would stop the idiot from dreaming. And it shouldn’t, Karl supposed.

He wouldn’t be Anders anymore if that happened.

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Chapter 9
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Ephemera: Chapter 7

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maker knew he deserved it.

~o~O~o~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, you are. And it’s pathetic.”

“—thinking about Anders, and—”

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

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

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

Are you done?”

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

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

Well, obviously.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Karl blinked. “Huh?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, bog off!”

“—utterly infatuated.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He will be, though. Won’t he?

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

Karl said nothing. He could hardly disagree.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He frowned. “Why?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, Karl….”

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

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

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

Well, it was true, wasn’t it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, shut up, you daft tart!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Special?” she suggested, smirking.

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

Not happy?”

You know what I mean.”

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

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

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

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

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

No! I mean, no… I don’t think so.”

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

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

Damn.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, he hadn’t been expecting that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Chapter 8
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Ephemera: Chapter 6

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Back to Ephemera: Contents

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A/N:  There is a nod to Miri1984’s ‘The True Place for a Just Man’ here; a great Anders/Karl fic, with a wonderful landscape of biffs, bunks, and the hot-house atmosphere of boarding schools in its earlier chapters. Go check it out. 😉

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It was all a great deal more boring than Anders had hoped for. Everyone knew there was good stuff in the Tower’s inventory, like rods of flame and lightning, and chalices of fire and ice, and those rare stones and minerals that could be ground up and made into potions with really interesting effects. He’d seen recipes in some of the older grimoires in the library, though it had meant having to sneak around a bit in some of the advanced and semi-restricted shelves.

Lena didn’t seem to be in charge of any of that sort of thing, though. In fact, she seemed little better than a glorified librarian. As Anders followed her into the darkened chamber—these rooms, part alcove and part tunnel, seemed to stretch right back into the Tower’s furthest reaches, and he couldn’t help wondering if, somehow, they were all interconnected—the dim glow of her lantern was barely enough to see by. Huge racks of shelving rose up around them, with only a narrow space in the centre to walk through, and the smell of musty scrolls and old books overlaid with thick, greasy dust was overpowering. Something rustled, high overhead, and Anders looked up at the great skeins of cobwebs that festooned the upper reaches of the shelves.

If there are giant spiders, I’m going. Running, just like that. Not kidding.

Oh, Maker… please let it not be spiders….

There were shelves, and more shelves, and boxes and crates. About halfway down the next rack, a small table had been placed. Boxes of yet more books and scrolls sat on it, and a few sacks had been left at its foot. Lena stopped, set the lantern down, and gestured to the books.

“These are all to be checked. Any with mould or mites are to be put in this box, and will be sent to be treated. The others be replaced on the shelves. You will make the notations, please.”

“Right,” Anders said, with very little enthusiasm.

He was aware that the ‘please’ had really been for his benefit, and that maybe it was the woman’s way of trying to be nice, but he wasn’t sure. Did they do that? Or, for the Tranquil, was ‘nice’ just a way of making a task percolate more efficiently?

Thinking about it gave him shivers, so he tried not to dwell on it, and just focused on marking the books on the slate the way Lena showed him, and passing the old, brittle tomes to her as she resumed stacking the shelves. She explained the system to him briefly, and he found he wasn’t remotely surprised by it.

Each book or scroll had its own code, part of an expansive system of numbers, letters, and symbols, all neatly written on the flyleaves or outer sleeves, and each one corresponded to full written records on the long rolls of parchment that were kept in the main inventory chamber… and those were matched to the card catalogues and inventory ledgers.

So many bloody forms! How do they get chance to do any cleaning or enchanting, or whatever else the templars have them do? They’re always bent over a parchment, scribbling!

“How come there are so many books here, anyway?” Anders asked, peering curiously at the faded gilt lettering on the spine of one slim volume sitting at the top of the box. “Shouldn’t they be stored in the library?”

“Not all of them.”

Lena took the book from him before he could make out what the title actually said. The unevenly worn off shapes of letters were unfamiliar, like runes or glyphs, but they were not of any type that Anders had seen before.

He frowned. “Is that dwarven writing?”

“No.”

The woman’s long, slim, ink-stained fingers moved quickly and smoothly over the shelf, and the book disappeared into a rank of other texts, the lantern’s dim light barely leaving any of those intriguing details discernible.

Occulta de umbris,” she said, gesturing to the slate he held. “One, in inventory, clean and complete.”

Anders’ eyes widened as his chalk skittered over the slate. “So, that’s…?”

Lena was already examining another book, this one in poorer shape than the first, its pages brittle and its binding riddled with tiny wormholes. She didn’t look up, and Anders thought she was either going to ignore him or refuse to answer.

“It is an ancient Tevene script,” she said eventually, glancing at him as she put the book carefully on the pile of things for repair. “Many such volumes are stored here. They are of historical significance, but of interest only to the few scholars who can read them.”

Anders said nothing at first. He suspected it was much more to do with the sorts of things books like that were rumoured to contain than any kind of scholastic obscurity. Forbidden knowledge, dark secrets of ancient magister lords… all that stuff. There were rumours among the apprentices about it, but no one had actually ever seen anything. Anyway, most books that came out of the Imperium were censored by the Chantry. The occasional scroll or treatise by a Tevinter enchanter slipped through—there were a few in the restricted stacks in the library—but actual books on actual magic? That was pretty unheard of. He wondered how old some of these tomes were. Centuries, probably… all bursting with ancient power.

Anders eyed the box of books carefully. No wonder they locked them away in here, where the Tranquil couldn’t do anything with them, and any curious mages had to sign half a dozen forms just to look at them.

Or get themselves on a punishment duty. Am I meant to be seeing these?

Lena’s fingers tapped the ragged book she’d just set down.

Per oculus daemonibus,” she said. “Damaged and to be sent for repair.”

Anders nodded glumly and made a note of the code. They worked quietly for a bit, nothing breaking the silence except the litany of odd, foreboding titles. De principiis exitium, Vetito Arcanum… it seemed the Tevinter Imperium’s mages had no use for normal creationist or primal magic.

The atmosphere in the dark, closed in little space started to get to him after a while, too. It really was like a tunnel. Everything was so thick, so stifling. It felt warm, and Anders found—despite the fact robes were usually a bit on the draughty side, especially in a stone tower—that he was sweating rather heavily. The urge to cough tickled at the back of his throat, but he suppressed it, a little afraid he might not stop if he started.

Lena didn’t notice anything, of course. She just kept going, blank and silent. She didn’t hum to keep herself occupied, or chew her lip, and she didn’t even have any of those weird facial expressions people normally have when they’re concentrating, even if they don’t know they’re wearing them.

Anders thought ruefully of Karl, and that little rucked-up frown he got, right in between his eyebrows, when he was reading.

“C-can I ask you a question?” he blurted suddenly.

Well, he had to speak, had to say something. Just some kind of sound to cut through the dry rustle of paper, and this awful, oppressive quiet that felt as if it could choke the breath from a person.

Lena didn’t turn from her shelf-stacking.

“You are quite able to do so,” she said, with that terrible, flat, calmness. “I will answer, if it is within my ability.”

“Um….” Anders swallowed. His throat itched like mad. “How did you, er, become Tranquil?”

He thought he saw her hand pause slightly on its way to the shelf, but she might just have been locating the right slot for that particular book. Of course, when she spoke, her tone hadn’t changed. He found himself wondering if it could: if, had she wanted to, she could have lifted her voice in a shriek or a shout, or if that merely seemed an irrelevance. Just how much were a person’s emotions a part of them, anyway?

Lena looked at him over her shoulder, and the lantern’s glow made her face seem soft, yet shadowed her eyes like two black pebbles, hard and expressionless.

“I elected to receive the Rite when it was offered,” she said, making no effort to soften her voice, as if she was speaking of nothing more than yet another book to note down on the slate. “The First Enchanter said I might choose before my Harrowing. I chose Tranquillity.”

A cold knot of horror closed in Anders’ stomach. So, it was true. Whatever the Harrowing was, it was bad enough that people chose… this.

He tried not to shudder, but didn’t succeed. He could feel the mask of revulsion his face had twisted into, and he felt bad for looking at her like that—like she disgusted him, or like he thought her choice was some marker of cowardice or something—but, he supposed, at least she had no ability to be offended by his grimace.

“You think it is a poor decision,” she observed.

She held a slim, leather-bound book in her hands, its cover embossed with tiny floral details. For a moment, Anders thought he saw her fingers trace the design, and anyone else might have frowned, looked down at the object… drawn some kind of comfort from the physical feeling of something beautiful when speaking of awkward things.

He knew how important that was. Touching. Seeing, smelling… just knowing something was real, and you could reach out and hold onto it. The Tower was full of small opulences; thick rugs, heavy tapestries, bold embroidery, and ornate curlicues on even the most serviceable bookcase, and he’d always thought that was why.

It was, Anders supposed, the little things that mattered.

Lena didn’t look down at the book, though. Her fingertips skimmed the embossing, but she just kept staring at him with that blank objectivity, completely devoid of judgement or opinion. Her gaze was too blank to be challenging or aggressive, but it was every bit as unsettling as being glared at.

He couldn’t stand it. Couldn’t stand her eyes, or her shaven head, or the soft, relaxed bow of her mouth, like she wasn’t even waiting to say anything. He found himself staring at the brand on her forehead, though he didn’t want to. He didn’t want to look at it, didn’t want to think how the templars did it, but there it was, a neat, round little scar in a dull shade of red, turned to a smear of shadow by the lantern’s light.

They probably chained people, he decided. In case you had second thoughts just at the last minute. Either that, or drugged you. Or maybe they wanted you to suffer, wanted to hear you scream….

“D-did it hurt?” he asked, his voice a little hoarse.

He didn’t know why he’d asked. It was very bad manners, probably. Did manners matter to the Tranquil? They were about as polite as people could possibly be, short of actually being dead. They never shouted, or ran, or made snarky comments or rude noises when the templars walked past… and Anders had never known, never admitted even to himself, just how much they sodding well scared him.

“I… do not recall it clearly,” Lena said, that eerily fixed gaze growing momentarily distant. “When you are Tranquil, you rarely contemplate your life before. The Rite itself is not pleasant, but then one’s mind is very clouded at that time. It is only once things are… clear… that it becomes peaceful.”

Peace? That didn’t sound like peace. He didn’t know what to say.

She blinked slowly, and her gaze returned to him without any kind of hint of what she’d been thinking, or remembering. Anders couldn’t stop himself trying to picture what it had been like; whether the woman he thought she might have been had taken to the Rite willingly, or changed her mind at the last moment—the last moment she had a mind, perhaps—and fought the templars all the way.

“I am content,” she said, in that flat, measured, modulated monotone. “In truth, I prefer my life this way.”

Anders nodded slowly. He felt vaguely sick. “You’re… happy?”

“No.”

He winced. Her expression didn’t alter; she was merely correcting his error.

“I do not think there is an adequate word to express it without conveying some form of emotional involvement,” Lena said, and the infuriating, stifling calmness of the words made him want to scream.

There should have been the trace of inflection there, the feeling of someone wondering at something, trying to grasp the flapping tail of a thought, and there wasn’t even that. There were none of the conventional markers for navigating the way through a conversation—no ups, no downs, no smiles or shared expressions—and it made it all so bloody hard. She just kept looking at him, blank and impassive, and it felt as if his backbone wanted to slide out from under his skin and crawl away.

“It is… sufficient,” she said finally, and inclined her head, presumably indicating she had spoken of it enough, and he should get back to jotting down codes on his slate, which was now more than two-thirds full. “We will soon have to copy these codes to the roll.”

Anders nodded glumly. “Right.”

~o~O~o~

The day seemed to go on forever. After a while, he was fairly sure it had been forever, and that any existence he’d known outside of the dim little tunnel-cum-store had merely been a dream. Time didn’t seem to pass normally in among the shelves. In fact, it barely seemed to pass at all, and just lingered sluggishly in the shadows.

They took one small break for a meal, which Anders ate with the Tranquil instead of in the refectory, and it made him more grateful than he’d ever been for the slop apprentices usually got served. Over-boiled cabbage and dry meat—or even soggy fish in lumpy sauce—was better than the simple, bland meals they took. Bread, cheese, water, and some kind of meat that might originally have been mutton, before it was squashed flat and stored under somebody’s mattress for a month. It was grey and tasteless, and that was what they all were, gathered around a long bench in a chamber off the inventory room, just staring mindlessly into space and delicately, neatly forking the food into their mouths.

He jigged his leg restlessly under the table, the heel of his leather slipper slapping softly against the stones as he fought to contain the urge to shout, or kick something over, or leap up on the table and try to fart a tune. Fucking anything but this….

At last, it was over, and back he went to helping Lena. Over the course of what must have been the afternoon, though frankly it was hard to tell, Anders became convinced that this had all been part of Enchanter Wynne’s master plan. He was to be put here, doing these stupid jobs, and staring at all these ancient, forbidden books, and the minute he got tempted to stuff one down his robes and squirrel it away somewhere—irresistible lure of blood magic, terrible and potent power, and all that crap—the templars would be on him like a rockfall. That must be the idea behind it. And it would, he decided, be theoretically simple to steal a book. It would just be a matter of switching the codes and marking something as in need of repair when it wasn’t, then whipping it out of the box on the way down to the scriptorium.

It was possible, yes. Difficult to pull off, because of the way the Tranquil worked. They were like the paddles on a water wheel, Anders thought, briefly clutching at the half-held shape of a memory, of a mill at the edge of a village, and a river he’d once bathed and swum in.

The point was, every Tranquil had their tasks, and they stuck to them. Knowledge, like water, poured from cup to cup, and around the wheel creaked… but there were too many points along the way that the records might get double-checked, and the same person probably wouldn’t take the books from the inventory chamber to the scriptorium.

Apart from that, the plan wasn’t bad. Not that he could read ancient Tevinter spell books, or had the slightest inkling towards fiddling around with blood magic. Anders was rather fervent about the whole concept of his blood staying where it ought to be: on the inside of him. The thought of all that messy, unpleasant stuff—whether the blood was his or somebody else’s—left him feeling mildly nauseous. Anyway, he’d looked into the faces of demons before, and he had absolutely no intention of doing it again.

He was exhausted by the time evening rolled around. In fact, he was, for once, looking forward to the opportunity to slope off to chapel. There was never anything that really approached privacy in the Tower, but even slouching in a pew and ignoring Mother Donata would have given Anders some quiet time. He might see Karl, too—not that he was sure he wanted to yet. Well, he did. He badly wanted to apologise… he just wasn’t sure how.

It didn’t turn out to matter much. Ser Maurais arrived to collect him from the central inventory office and marched him directly to chapel, where he was parked in an empty pew at the back and expected to sit and listen attentively while the revered mother droned on for what felt like hours.

He didn’t even see Karl, much less get a chance to talk to anyone. After the service, Ser Maurais glared meaningfully at Anders and, reluctantly, he sloped to his feet and accepted the templar’s escort back to his dormitory.

He was busy doing his best foot-scuffing, arms-folded scowl when the Maurais spoke, and the sudden break in the silence surprised him.

“Did you learn anything from the Tranquil?”

Anders glanced up suspiciously at the man. His silly moustache glinted in the gold-toned evening light that filtered through the small, high corridor window, but his question didn’t seem overly supercilious.

“Huh.” He pulled a face. “Was I meant to?”

Ser Maurais tutted mildly. “You know, we don’t have to be on opposite sides all the time.”

Anders allowed a small sneer to creep into his expression, and looked away, treating the flagstones to an exceptionally sullen glare. The effect was ruined a bit by his stomach rumbling audibly, and the bastard templar had the nerve to actually bloody smile.

“I did wonder if you would be hungry. The Tranquil do not have much in the way of appetites, but perhaps missing dinner teaches you more than anything, hm?”

Anders gritted his teeth. In the small, private world behind his eyes, he flung his arms wide open, the sleeves of his robes falling back with a melodramatic flourish as lightning arced from his palms and—with all the power of one of those ancient Tevinter magisters, and yet none of the messy fluids—he sent a pulsing wave of energy down the hallway, knocking everyone out of his way as he rode the crest of power all the way to freedom.

Instead, he gave a condescending little sniff. “I’m not hungry.”

Ser Maurais shrugged. “Suit yourself.”

They were almost at the dormitory. Other apprentices were filing towards the large, heavy doors, or loitering in the hallway talking, and Anders was aware of the looks he was beginning to receive.

Maurais smiled, though it was a curt and fleeting thing. “Go on, now. On with you, and we’ll have no more misbehaviour tonight! I will speak to Ser Godric there, and ensure he knows you are not to leave the dormitory until you are escorted to your duties tomorrow morning.”

The scowl deepened, and Anders slouched irritably into the chamber, past the gaggles of other boys, and to his bed in the far corner, where he ducked behind the perforated screen that divided the rows of bunks to pull off his robe.

It wasn’t quite lights out yet. Candles still burned on the walls, and at some of the desks that fringed the chamber, where a handful of apprentices sat reading. A couple were playing chess, or Nine Men’s Morris, and the quiet buzz of conversation lapped at the edges of the room. Anders didn’t want any part of it. He just wanted to pull the blanket over his head and wait to fall asleep.

He could have tried sneaking out, he supposed, but Maurais’ message to the templars on the dormitory door would be passed on to the next shift… and it would be like this for the rest of the week.

Ugh.

Anders scratched irritably at his smallclothes as he dropped his robes to a crumpled pile on top of the footlocker that stood at the end of the bed. Elric, the boy he shared with—and who was already occupying the upper bunk—was fastidiously neat, so it was a sort of double rebellion, both against the sheer existence of robes, and templars, and everything, and also against the ridiculously clean and tidy set of clothes already hanging on the back of the screen.

He pulled a face at Elric’s robes and lunged for his bed. Diving under the covers, Anders rolled over onto his side in one fluid motion, not stopping until he was scrunched up and facing the wall. Corner bunks were the best thing. They gave you the nearest you ever had to privacy, and sometimes—when the templars checked in during the night—you didn’t even get woken up by the light of their lanterns.

“Psst.”

Anders frowned at the wall and decided to pretend he was asleep. The thin mattress above him creaked and, after a moment, he was aware of Elric’s strawberry blond, freckle-splashed head dangling down from the upper bunk.

Pssst! You all right?”

He didn’t have to look to know the other boy would have a wide-eyed, curious expression on him, even upside down. Elric was about the same age as Anders, but had been in the Tower his whole life, more or less. He’d come from some chantry charity originally; an orphaned ward of the parish who’d sprouted inconvenient magical ability and been shoved off to the Circle at the earliest possible opportunity.

Karl’s words came back to sting him at that memory. Children get given to the Chantry, just the way we get given to the Circle. Anders screwed up his nose. He didn’t want to remember Karl’s even-handed, logical thinking. He wanted to stay angry, because things made sense like that. You knew where you were when it was us and them, and who you were… and that mattered.

“I said,” Elric hissed, “psssst!

Anders squeezed his eyes tight shut. I bloody heard you, you little snotwipe, now bugger off!

The worst thing about Elric, he thought, was the way the daft sod was always so bloody cheerful about everything. He’d only been moved into the dormitory recently, and they didn’t talk much, but Anders couldn’t help feeling—given his back-story—he should have been just a tiny bit more resentful of something. Anything, really.

“I said, are you all right, Anders?”

Oh, bugger off, won’t you….

“Hnn,” he grunted, and flexed one shoulder from beneath the blanket.

Elric didn’t seem to want to take the hint. There was more creaking, and rustling, and something that sounded like the crackle of paper, which Anders had heard quite enough of that day to last him a lifetime.

“I’ve got something for you,” Elric whispered. “I was s’posed to give it to you when you came back. Was it really horrible? I heard you were doing jobs for the Tranquil… talk about creepy…. Are you going to take this?”

Anders sighed and rolled over, glaring at the cherubic upside-down face, with the ruffled blond hair and the big blue eyes. Elric smiled at him and held out a folded piece of paper, which he took warily.

“It was all right,” he lied. “They’re not that bad.”

The upturned nose—or down-turned, Anders supposed, from this angle—wrinkled, and Elric grimaced. “Yuck. You’re braver than me. Don’t think I could cope with being around them all day.” He glanced towards the doorway. “Oops, lights out. Don’t let anyone catch you with that. I didn’t read it,” he added, a softly whispered protest as he hauled himself back up to his own bunk.

The templar on the door—one of the young ones, Anders noticed, with a scrubby little beard and eyes that seemed altogether too honest and open for his line of work—made a desultory pass down the aisles and declared lights out. He waited at the door until the last of the apprentices had scrambled into bed, then nodded to the enchanter who’d come to join him. Anders recognised her as Enchanter Wilhemina, one of the matronly types with a well-padded bosom, a kindly face, and a double chin that wobbled when she talked. She raised a hand, made a brief motion in the air and—with a soft swish of static that he felt that as a cold breeze on his skin—every candle in the dorm went out.

Anders counted to five, heard the heavy oak door close, and felt the whole room breathe out, like a collective sigh of relief.

He didn’t dare conjure an entire light to read the note by; there were too many snitches, grasses and otherwise pains in the arse in the dorm, so he burrowed under the blankets and let just enough light to make out the words swell around his fingertip. He smiled at the familiar handwriting, hastily scrawled in broad pencil strokes.

I heard about your punishment. Please try to behave – a week’s long enough. See you soon as you’re back on regulars. Miss you until then.

It wasn’t signed, but it didn’t need to be. Anders let the light wink out and shoved the note into his pillowcase. Briefly, his fingers brushed against the other treasure he kept hidden there—the pillow his mother had sewn, the only thing of hers that he possessed. He allowed himself a moment to touch it, and recall long winter evenings in front of a smoky fire, and the look he was sure he remembered his mother having when she worked on her neat, precise embroidery.

He supposed, really, to call the thing a pillow was stretching the imagination a bit. It was like one, but smaller; the kind of thing girls did to test some new skill, or display the neatness of their stitches. Just a small, soft square of carefully sewn fabric with a cotton pad inside it, and delicate traceries of chain stitches picking out an intricate pattern of interwoven lines on its domed top. He suspected it was older than he was. She’d used it as a pincushion for as long as he remembered—or thought he remembered. He wasn’t even sure how it had come to be in the bundle of things she’d tried to send with him when the templars came. Perhaps it had fallen out of her pocket, or off her wrist… there had been a ribbon on it then, Anders recalled, to keep it tied on so she could reach it with ease when she was sewing their clothes. Pins in her mouth, stuck in the cushion on the back of her wrist… lean, clever fingers, red-knuckled and weathered, working through endless patches and seams.

All that was long gone, just like the other things in the bundle she’d pushed into his hands as the templar lieutenant loaded him, shackled, into the cart. He remembered that; remembered her crying, and the smell of burning thatch, and the village breaking out in chaos around them. How she begged and pleaded with the men in metal suits to let her give him warm clothes for the journey, and something to eat… and how his father had held her shoulders as she sagged, weeping, into the mud.

The rolling creak of wagon wheels filled Anders’ head, and he wished he knew whether they’d got away before the village turned on them. He wanted to think so, but it seemed a slim hope, especially given someone must have ratted them out to the chantry in the first place.

In his mind’s eye, he sat on the hard wooden bench in the back of the cart, and watched sullenly as one of the templars rooted through the cloth bundle. They ate the food, and he never saw the clothes again, or anything else… anything except that little embroidered pillow, which fell out, unnoticed, and rolled across the wooden planks until he stopped it with his foot. It was just a matter of hiding it then, snatching it up and tucking it into his vest and, later, into his robes.

He’d relaxed a bit more since coming to Ferelden. The Circle here seemed softer, in some ways. A few boys in the dorm even had things parents had sent to them, or sent with them when they were parcelled off to the Tower. Horribly knitted winter caps, perhaps, or thick socks or scratchy underwear, things like that… things that held little whispers of home, and the promise of remembrances and affection. You could hide things in your bunk or your footlocker and know, most of the time, they’d still be where you left them when you came back—as long as they didn’t contain chocolate, or anything else worth eating or nicking.

Sentimental value was fine, though. Sentiment was… respected, almost, among a lot of the apprentices. Anders hadn’t expected that.

He curled his hand inside the pillowcase as he closed his eyes, and began to drift into sleep with his fingers around the cushion, and his thumb lightly brushing against Karl’s words.

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Chapter 7

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Home

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Ephemera: Chapter 5

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Karl lay back on his bunk, allowing the book he’d intended to be reading to drop to his chest, and scowled at the shadowed recesses of the rafters. The high, vaulted ceilings of the dorms got a couple of good goings over a year, during the spring and before the winter, but it never stopped the dust and the spiders gathering up there in the shadows.

One of the girls said she’d seen a spider the size of a cat up there once. It was only a rumour, but people said that it happened every so often; magical energy leaking from the relics and whatnot in the basement stores, and affecting things in odd ways. It might be possible, he supposed. Of course, rumours and tall tales were the Circle’s lifeblood, so there wasn’t much point in taking it all too seriously.

The dormitory was largely empty. Karl assumed most people were in the library, or possibly that one of the lectures was overrunning again. He didn’t really care… although, today, he found he missed the low buzz of conversation, and the comfortably numbing sense of other people, standing between him and his thoughts.

He didn’t know where Anders was, or what punishment he’d been given for that idiotic outburst. Stupid bastard deserved it, anyway. If it made him see sense—made him just think for once—then he bloody well did deserve it, no matter what the templars chose to do, unless… no.

Karl didn’t want to think about it, and yet he couldn’t wrench his mind away from the possibilities. Usually, it wasn’t that bad. The normal round of punishments and detentions involved stacking shelves in the library—a thankless task, given how many of the enchanters were perpetually removing books they needed without signing for them, or putting them back in entirely the wrong sections—or mopping endless miles of stone floors, or polishing pews in the chapel, under one of the sisters’ watchful eyes. Sometimes, if you’d really pushed it, punishment meant reporting to the dark and terrible bowels of the Tower’s kitchens and being given three buckets of potatoes to peel or, worse, barrels of fresh fish to behead and pack in salt.

He shuddered at the memory of the smell, and the way the coarse granules ground their way into everything, making skin dry and sore, and leaving the beds of fingernails rough and bloody.

Of course, there was the other stuff, too. A caning, or a strapping… one of those swift, sharp lessons that instilled the basic principles of discipline: ‘do what I say or I’ll hit you’. There’d been a fair bit of that when Karl was younger. It was something the children learned early, contrasting the firm hand of authority with the warmth and security that obedience within the Circle offered.

Oh, yes… he could see it for what it was now. As a child of six or seven, cuddled into the arms of one of the more matronly enchanters as she cooed and wiped his tears, he hadn’t thought about it that way. He’d simply equated good behaviour with acceptance and affection, and learned quickly that being naughty not only brought punishment, but also closed off the only option he had for that kind of comfort.

It was simple logic, and they didn’t apply it so much with the older apprentices. They didn’t need to, Karl supposed.

Anders had never had that. He said it was just another example of the Circle getting into people’s heads, screwing them up as young as possible so they were so well-trained that they never even thought about challenging the way things were.

Sometimes, Karl thought he was right. Other times, he listened to the scorn and derision in Anders’ voice, and thought how much it sounded like jealousy, and how very hard it must have been to never belong anywhere.

He ran his fingers thoughtfully down the spine of the book resting on his chest. It was a slim volume about imbuing herbal preparations with healing magic, and would really have been quite interesting… if he’d just been able to concentrate.

You heard stories, of course. Rumours. And rumours were the Circle Tower’s lifeblood… but it didn’t mean some of them weren’t at least partly true.

Of course, some of the templars were worse than others, just the way the enchanters were. They were people, never solely a homogenous group. Some of them were kinder than others, and some pitied mages, while others even understood them.

Karl had always thought it was the ones who really, desperately believed that were the worst. Oh, in theory they were all meant to be evangelical believers, weren’t they? That was the whole point of the order. It didn’t necessarily work out like that in practice, but some of them were fairly rabid. It was obvious in their faces; that distant, shining look they got, like they truly knew they were doing the Maker’s work. They were the ones who often treated mages like lepers, pariahs and freaks in the eyes of the Chantry.

They weren’t the worst, though.

There’d been some kind of scandal a few years ago. Karl had been too young, really, to hear most of the details, and the First Enchanter and Knight-Commander had, between them, managed to keep a very effective lid on it. The templar concerned had been transferred back to Denerim, and the girl had been sent to another Circle. Some people said she’d been made Tranquil so she wouldn’t remember it or talk about it, but Karl wasn’t sure about that. As far as he was aware, the branding only took away a mage’s emotions and connection to the Fade… it didn’t make them a slave. He believed the other thing, though: that they confined her until the baby was born and old enough to go to a wet nurse, and then it was given to the Chantry.

Ironic, really, he supposed. It was only once she fell pregnant that it had all been discovered. It hadn’t been the first time it had happened, and nor had she been the only one. Some people said that was why the smarter bastards went for the boys: no possibility of spawning brats, and yet all the satisfaction of a warm body to bend over and violate.

Karl exhaled slowly, the burn of bile rising on the back of his tongue. He swallowed heavily, and told himself it was just a rumour, and an old one at that. Knight-Commander Greagoir was tough, but he was a fair man, for a templar. He didn’t tolerate indiscipline on his command, and if he and First Enchanter Irving had covered something like that up, it was only because the Tower would have imploded with the degree of outrage and chaos that would have broken out.

That didn’t make it right, obviously, or fair, or…. He took a deep breath, held it, and watched the motes of dust dance in the high, thin shafts of evening light.

It would be suppertime soon. Anders was probably scrubbing his way through a hundredweight of potatoes at that very moment.

Karl hoped so, anyway, although he supposed that was a perverse thing to think.

Up under the Tower’s eaves, their forgotten little eyrie would be flooded with the thick, golden light of a flaring sunset. It would be beautiful, and Karl didn’t think he’d ever wanted anything more than, just then, he wanted to be up there, sitting on the grubby floorboards with Anders resting his head on his shoulder.

“Oi, you gone deaf, you lazy sod?”

Karl started. He hadn’t heard his bunkmate’s arrival, and frowned as he realised that the dorm was filling up with apprentices filtering back in before supper and chapel.

He peered down at Behim—the dark-skinned, sharp-chinned elf with eyes the colour of burnished copper—who had the lower bunk, and found him grinning broadly.

“G’ahhrn!” Behim said, in his customary broad Denerim drawl. “What’s the matter with you, then?”

Karl stuck a finger in his book to mark his place, and rolled over, propping himself up on one elbow.

“Nothing,” he lied, squeezing out a thin smile.

He and Behim didn’t have much in common, but they’d shared a bunk for the best part of two years, and that gave anyone a certain amount of kinship. Karl knew, for example, that the elf’s family were dockers, and that twice a year—at Wintersend and for his naming day—they paid a scribe to write him a long letter full of gossip from the alienage. Sometimes, the letters even got passed along, though they’d always been opened and carefully examined first, and Behim stored them in a box under his mattress, where he also kept a stack of mucky drawings he’d done, and some cloutweed and rolling papers he thought nobody knew about.

Very occasionally, he was allowed to write a letter back to his parents… as long as it was read, redacted if necessary, and signed by the Knight-Commander before being sent.

Behim smirked. “Yeah, nothing. Right. I heard about your friend, the nutcase. Did he really kick a templar in the balls?”

Karl winced. Amazing things, rumours. By the morning, they’d all probably be saying Anders had been in a fistfight with the Knight-Commander himself, and set fire to the entire fourth floor just with the power of his mind.

“Anders has got a big mouth,” he said. “That’s all. He needs to learn when to keep it shut.”

Behim sniggered. Karl frowned again, and licked his lips nervously.

“Did you, er, hear what he copped for it? I haven’t.”

The other boy leaned against the bunk, one shoulder propped on the scarred wood marked with generations of apprentices’ initials and graffiti, and shrugged nonchalantly. “Jammy little sod, by all accounts. Maya says he got a week’s demerit off Enchanter Wynne… got him scrubbing pots or something. Dunno. If it had been left to Greagoir, you can bet he’d have had worse! Stupid sod.”

Karl agreed with him, but it didn’t mean he could deny the twist of protective irritation that prodded at his chest.

“He’s not stupid,” he said mildly. “Very not stupid. He’s just—”

Behim snorted, and those coppery eyes danced with amusement. “All right, all right… I forgot you were fucking him.”

“I—” Karl took a breath to argue, but let the words hang, unfinished. He sighed. “Yeah. Whatever.”

Behim’s smirk broadened, and one small, brown hand rose to pick at the loose wool of the blanket at the foot of Karl’s bunk. He never could stay still for long. “No point denying it, sunshine. Everyone’s noticed. You don’t even look at anyone else anymore. Still, I s’pose he keeps you occupied. Eager young thing like that. I bet he’s never—”

“Shut it, will you?”

“All right, calm down…. Don’t worry, anyway. He’ll be back before you know it, and you’ll have access to all borders again, know what I mean?” The elf grinned wickedly, and gave a filthy chuckle. “Hur… unless he kicks another templar in the chestnuts and gets himself sent to Aeonar, of course. Or—”

“Did you actually want something?” Karl snapped, caught partway between irritation he could no longer control and a burst of sudden, genuine fear.

Behim wrinkled his nose. “Not really. Just being polite. Oh, and Maya was looking for you. Something about you and her going to see Enchanter Uldred after supper and registering your applications for his summonings class next month. You going to do that? I heard summoning sciences can be well dangerous.”

“Only if you don’t do it right,” Karl said, swinging his legs off the bed and preparing to jump down. “Where is Maya, anyway?”

“Library. You’d better hurry up if you’re going. Er… tell her I said good luck with it, will you?”

Karl grinned as his slippers touched the stones, and reached out a hand to ruffle Behim’s knotty hair.

“Gerroff!”

“I’ll tell her, loverboy. Don’t you worry.”

The elf pulled a face. “Oh, go fall in the Void!”

Karl cackled as he headed off towards the library. It was possible Maya could have a few more details about Anders’ punishment assignment. He could hope, anyway. Then supper, then chapel… and Anders might be there, because they normally had to let you off a detention for prayers, otherwise the sisters complained, and pretty much everything about life in the Tower was to do with striking a balance between the Magi and the Chantry.

Somehow, thinking that—thinking that Anders was down there now, in the kitchens, robes pushed up to the elbows and scrubbing saucepans while he muttered a litany of curse words under his breath—cheered Karl immeasurably.

Maybe the silly bugger might even learn something from it.

~o~O~o~

All things considered, the punishment could have been worse.

Anders kept telling himself that because honestly, really, it could have been. There wasn’t anything that bad about fetching and carrying a few scrolls, or shelving books. It was just… them.

None of the apprentices liked dealing with the Tranquil. None of the mages seemed to, either, though mostly they were pleasant enough about it, and always made a point of telling students the Tranquil were to be treated with respect.

Well, respecting them was fine. Spending all week taking blank, emotionless orders from those blank, emotionless faces, delivered in soft monotones and with all that execrable calmness… that was something completely different.

Anders reported glumly to Owain, who managed the stockroom at the centre of the Tower—‘room’ being a misnomer, as the vast, sprawling network of chambers actually stretched over much of the third floor—and stood before the man, nervously rubbing the toe of his left slipper against his right calf.

The central inventory office was a large, dim chamber lit only by enchanted lanterns. Like the library, there was no fireplace, due to the rows upon rows of shelves and pigeonholes, which held carefully enumerated scrolls, detailing regular stock checks of every piece of magical equipment the Tower had. Then there were the card catalogues, and the forms. Anders had never realised there were so many bloody forms.

It seemed as if, any time a mage wanted to sneeze, he had to fill out a request form in triplicate, then wait for a Tranquil clerk to file it and approve the correct form in response for a handkerchief. The system was there—as Anders well knew—to prevent any of the Circle mages from conducting illicit experiments without the templars’ knowledge, and to stop headstrong apprentices like him getting their hands on anything potentially explosive, messy, or otherwise hilarious.

Owain finished reading Wynne’s note, and peered at him over the parchment.

“Ah,” he said, in that calm, flat way that put Anders’ teeth on edge. “I remember you. A year ago, you told me you were a visiting enchanter from Nevarra, and requested a burning crucible, a rod of lightning, and six pouches of lyrium powder for unspecified experimental purposes. You did not file the correct paperwork… and had no corresponding identification.”

Anders clenched his jaw. As plans went, it had not been one of his better ones.

“Um. Yes. But I did do a very good accent,” he said helpfully, and grinned.

Owain continued to look blankly at him. The Tranquil didn’t smile, which was probably a good thing, because it would be like watching someone trying to do something they’d learned out of a book. It made holding a conversation with them difficult, however, and extremely unsettling. Anders cleared his throat.

“What, uh, what did you want me to do?”

Owain appeared to give this a moment’s logical consideration. He was probably about forty, Anders decided, and most likely didn’t remember not being Tranquil. There was a hangdog quality to his face; its intensely pale flesh had settled into folds around his nose and his thin-lipped mouth, and while he didn’t exactly look melancholy, there was a sort of introspection to him that sent shivers down Anders’ back… almost as much as the brand on his forehead.

It was a small thing, maybe the size of a thumbnail, and it looked a little like a Chantry symbol, a circle with a flame inside it, but the outside edge of the brand was marked with what resembled either runes or some kind of warding glyph. They had been burned into the flesh, Anders thought, although a very long time ago. What would once have been shiny, tight skin, riven with thick ridges and raw places, had turned a dull red, worn by the years to a scar no less visible, but perhaps less violent.

He blinked, and looked away, because it seemed like it was probably bad manners to stare at it, even if Owain gave no indication of being offended. He couldn’t, obviously… all of those responses, all of those feelings and reactions had long since been burned away.

People said the Tranquil were so good at enchantments because the Rite made them immune to the dangers working with lyrium posed to most people—and particularly mages—and because it also gave them strongly intensified powers of concentration and logic. It was as if you could take a person’s mind, and just sieve out all the inefficiencies, and all the bits that got in the way of leading a productive working life.

Stood to reason, Anders supposed, that the Chantry would like that. Stood to reason that they turned people Tranquil and let them get on with all the important things, like managing stock and crafting enchantments to sell all across Thedas. Pack mules and money farmers, every bloody one of them… and they probably didn’t even know it.

“You may assist Lena. She is taking stock in the end chamber.” Owain pointed, and Anders followed the gesture. “She will have the surplus parchment and pens you require. Please refrain from disrupting the stock check, or indulging in any impulse to be humorous. I am afraid it would be quite lost on us.”

Anders stared. If one of the enchanters had said that, it would have been a snide dressing-down, but Owain seemed concerned for nothing more than the balance and well-being of his bloody stockroom.

Owain signed the note Wynne had given him and handed it back. “Here. You will require this if you are stopped in the hallways. All questions may be directed to me.”

Anders took the parchment. Even the man’s signature looked calm and even.

“’nk you,” he mumbled grudgingly, and trudged off to find this Lena woman.

There were more lanterns, their pale glow slightly eerie against the stones, and a couple of small candles in wall sconces lighting the chambers. Everything smelled of the musty stagnancy of old—and possibly slightly mouldy—paper and parchment, with that hint of greasiness that came from very old vellum.

Karl said the Circle’s archives went back nearly eight centuries, in part, and maybe longer. He said some of the restricted texts in the library—and in what people called the hidden library; the First Enchanter’s private collection of books, rumoured to be somewhere on one of the upper floors—held dangerous and forbidden knowledge. Of course, there were a lot of rumours like that: ancient evils imprisoned in the cellars; secret ritual sites and places of power, hidden all around the tower and just waiting to be awoken; horrific demons summoned by long-dead apprentices, chained to the very stones themselves in an effort to stop them wreaking chaos in the mortal realm… Anders suspected most of them were rubbish.

Trouble was, as he walked down to the end chamber, glancing at all the Tranquil working away in their little niches, filing cards and neatly scribing down numbers, he could believe some of the stories. Everything seemed so cold and dark, and joyl— no, not joyless, though… because that would imply the capacity for joy, and they didn’t have that. They were empty, soulless… although the enchanters were always at pains to forbid people from saying that, weren’t they? Not politic, not polite. Just because the Tranquil did not have the emotional range of normal people—

Not any longer. Not since the templars lopped their feelings off.

—didn’t mean they weren’t people, and deserved to be treated with respect. Especially given the amount of money they brought the Circle, Anders suspected.

He suppressed a shudder as one of them glided past him: an elf, with milky-pale skin and coppery red hair, his eyes a bright, keen leaf-green, which made the unblinking focus in them all the more obvious, and unsettling. He had an armful of scrolls, and didn’t acknowledge Anders as he passed; he just headed straight for the centre of the chamber. They didn’t even walk normally. There was no expression in their bodies, just a calm precision and… well, tranquillity. Whatever you thought about it, the word was appropriate, and Anders hunched his shoulders, feet scuffing on the flagstones.

He couldn’t help a kind of ghoulish curiosity about how the templars actually performed the rite, either. Oh, for all they had drilled into them—being made Tranquil was not a punishment, not a terrible thing, and there was no shame or stigma in it—there was still an impenetrable shroud of secrecy.

Anders had visions of mages being strapped down, screaming as some steaming, red-hot enchanted iron was plunged onto their foreheads, then turning limp and passive as the brand burned into their flesh. It didn’t feel very magical. Maybe there was a complicated ritual, and the templars all dressed up in embroidered robes for it, their faces covered as they prayed and chanted over the terrified victim… because they basically used magic, didn’t they? All those horrid nullification and cleansing abilities they had, fuelled by lyrium and unpleasant levels of piety, they were effectively spells, the hypocritical bastards. Anders wrinkled his nose. The stockroom was extremely quiet, and the sound of his own footsteps—damn it, his own breathing—seemed louder every second. He wanted to run the length of the chamber, yelling and whooping, to climb up the walls and shout ‘knickers!’ at the top of his voice… and also to be somewhere very, very far away.

Maybe it was the Fade itself that did it, he thought, as he neared the area Owain had pointed out. Maybe they poured raw, molten lyrium down your throat—not the carefully brewed potions that the templars, and even the mages themselves sometimes used, and which were kept under strict lock and key, but the hard stuff, the stuff that killed people with just a breath—and flung you into the Fade, then cut the connection back to your body while you were dreaming.

He shivered, but dismissed that notion. No, because the mage would never know anything about it, and that seemed too kind. Anyway, trapping someone entirely in the Fade like that wouldn’t mean just removing their magical ability and emotional responses, but probably their capacity to walk around, breathing and talking and everything… which wouldn’t be profitable.

Anders stifled a snort, arms hugged around his middle as he entered Lena’s niche. Under the wide, stone archway from which it opened out, there was a small table, upon which stood a lantern, the little ball of white light inside it humming softly, and a large scroll, held open with two metal weights, padded on the bottom with fabric so they didn’t damage the parchment.

The chamber itself stretched back much further than he’d first imagined, like some labyrinthine cavern running right into the Circle’s bowels. Anders glanced over his shoulder. All the niches did. From the middle of the chamber, it looked like they were just shallow bits of rooms housing card catalogues or shelves, but from here he could see the racks went back much farther, scything off into the shadows. A small shudder snaked between his shoulder blades.

Why does it all have to be so bloody dark?

He frowned. Was the stockroom enchanted? It would certainly deal with the danger of ever running out of space, he supposed. When he first came to the Tower, and kept getting hopelessly lost, he’d been fairly convinced that the library operated on a different physical plane, on account of how some of the shelves never seemed to be in the same place twice.

The woman Anders assumed was Lena came towards him then, holding a large wooden box, which she set down carefully on the table. She was slender, of average height, and clad in the muted blue robes many Tranquil wore. They didn’t seem to share the mages’ intense sartorial one-upmanship, Anders had noticed. Owain had a heavily embroidered belt with his various keys on it, and presumably there were different robes for different degrees of clerks or stock-keepers, but nothing like the level of detail the rest of the Circle indulged in. The apprentices, near enough, all wore the same robes—despite the subtle difference between juniors and seniors, and the myriad customisations enterprising sorts could make to their own clothes—but fully-fledged Circle robes were an entirely different matter. There were enchanters’ robes, senior enchanters’ robes, faculty robes, and robes for every single degree within each of the Fraternities of Enchanters. Anders had always assumed, given the rivalry between them, that this was how mages knew to start snubbing each other at a distance, without having to actually communicate in order to find out a colleague’s allegiances. Of course, that didn’t even touch on things like sashes, belts, brocades and embroidery….

Anders supposed, if he was honest, the sharp threads were one plus point of a mage’s life, even if robes could get a little draughty in the winter.

Lena looked enquiringly at him, her eyes wide and dark in a round, open face. She had her head shaved. Several of them did that, he’d noticed. He guessed it cut down on the time taken mucking about with combs and washing it, and it wasn’t as if they cared what they looked like anymore, was it?

“Er… Owain sent me to help you,” he said, thrusting the note out in front of him.

She took it in slim, ink-blotched fingers, and moved back to the table to read it, holding the parchment near the candle’s light. After a moment, she looked up, and regarded him coolly.

“This must be an irritation for you,” she said, in that flat tone they all had, clear and precise, and devoid of almost any expression.

“Oh, no,” Anders said hurriedly, more out of habit than anything. “No, I—”

Lena tilted her head to the side slightly, in an action that was almost birdlike… if birds had been given to analysing situations from purely logical perspectives.

I remember birds. Swooping all through the sky, free and wonderful.

He still saw them sometimes, from the window of the supply room, when he was up there with Karl. That, Anders reflected, was where he really, really wanted to be right now. There… or maybe somewhere incredibly far away, like one of those places he’d read about in books, like Seheron, where the tea came from, or Nevarra, with its magnificent tombs for the dead. Somewhere else, anyway; drinking perfumed wine on a balcony, with a tray of pastries and nibbly things at his elbow, watching birds swoop in the sunrise over a rank of terracotta rooftops.

“Few receive a punishment willingly,” Lena said, handing back the note, and it was a statement, not merely an observation. “To do so must imply acceptance that one was at fault.”

Anders frowned. Fair enough, technically he had been… not that he was about to admit it. He shrugged, and ground the toe of his slipper against the flagstones.

“I called a templar a nug-fucker,” he mumbled.

Lena didn’t react. He’d known she wouldn’t, but it still left him feeling a bit empty. Misbehaving—and being punished for it—had a very valid moral principle, but it wasn’t necessarily worth it unless it shocked people, or made someone snigger. You didn’t change anything if you didn’t raise a reaction.

“It would appear that must be inaccurate,” she said, after a moment, “given the order’s vows. And, such an activity is most definitely taboo. This would make it an effective insult, however.”

Her face remained unchanging, her eyes devoid of any glimmer of mischief… and yet Anders imagined her grinning and snorting with laughter. She was probably about twenty-five, he reckoned—less than ten years older than him, though at that moment it seemed like much more—and he wondered how long she’d been Tranquil, and what she’d been like before they turned her that way. The corner of his mouth crumpled into an awkward smile.

“Yeah. I think it was.”

He could have said he was sorry, he supposed… only he wasn’t. He didn’t regret any of it, except saying those stupid things to Karl, and he’d do it again. He didn’t care if the Tranquil passed that message back to Enchanter Wynne, or Lennox, or Irving himself, or even Knight-Commander Greagoir. Sod them all, because he was right. Life here wasn’t fair… none of what the templars did to mages was, and neither was the way the rest of the world saw them.

Lena turned to the table, picked up a slate and a piece of chalk, and passed them to him. They were already a number of tally lines on the slate, and his brow furrowed afresh.

“Um, what did you want me to—?”

“You will come with me,” she said, another statement instead of even an order, “and we will resume taking inventory of the supply store.”

“Oh.”

She picked up the lantern, and Anders traipsed grimly after her, into the shadowy recesses of the chamber, glancing anxiously at the things that skittered under the racks.

He really, really  wasn’t keen on the dark thing.

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Chapter 6

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Ephemera: Chapter 4

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Despite what Karl said, Anders couldn’t adjust to it. He couldn’t just accept the fact that there was no choice, no freedom… no option.

The way Karl seemed able to believe in it bewildered him. He wouldn’t have thought anyone who was willing to question so many of the templars’ stupid rules would so blindly take the things they were taught about the Circle at face value, but Karl did. He defended it, parroted back the same benign platitudes the priests and the enchanters fed them, and that enraged Anders.

They argued over it. First time they’d really fallen out over anything, and it wasn’t exactly private.

“It’s not fair!” Anders protested, flinging out a hand to encompass the entirety of the junior common room, and the pinched, high little windows in the far wall. “It’s a sop to the rest of them, that’s all it is! Ignorant, stupid bastards who’ll never be anything other than ignorant, stupid bastards, because they’re never given the chance to learn, because we all get shut up places like this to protect their delicate little sensibilities!”

A couple of the apprentices sitting at the various desks and tables that dotted the room shot him wary or censorious looks. One haughty, horse-faced girl scowled, so he stuck his tongue out at her and, ostensibly offended, she pursed her lips and swept off to do whatever it was haughty, horse-faced girls did. Probably in the library, he reckoned. He didn’t care… he just cared that all these bloody people were there, in his way while he was trying to be annoyed.

Ordinarily, Karl would either have laughed or affectionately told him to behave and stop teasing the locals. He didn’t do either; he just looked very solemnly at Anders, his brow wrinkled in consternation.

Anders sighed and let his hand drop to the edge of the table he was sitting on. His feet were propped on a wooden chair with a square back, very much like the one Karl was currently occupying, and Anders rocked it irritably, flexing his ankles so the chair wobbled on two legs… the way they always got nagged at for doing in class.

“I don’t know if it’s ‘sensibilities’,” Karl said doubtfully, his voice rather lower than Anders’. “I mean, all right, you’ve got a point. People are nervous of mages because they’re not familiar with us, but—”

“They’re not nervous,” Anders snapped, glaring down at him. “They’re bloody terrified! They believe we’re dangerous, that we need to be locked up… and the Chantry does nothing to change that.”

Karl had his arms folded on the table, leaning forwards with the warm glow of fire and lamplight behind him, catching at the patterning on his robes and outlining his broad shoulders. A muscle twitched in his square, firm jaw, and a small curl of reprove touched his lips.

“Well, most people can’t set other people on fire, you have to admit,” he said, with a dry and infuriating calmness. “At least, not without the aid of some lamp oil, a tinderbox, and maybe a bit of dry kindling. We do have an advantage.”

Anders wanted to kick him in the head. And kiss him. And yell at him, and argue, and touch him… possibly all at the same time.

“You really think that, then?” he demanded. “You think we’re all automatically dangerous enough to warrant locking up?”

Karl sighed. “That’s an overstatement. The Circle is here to provide instruction and security and, yes, I agree with that. Mages need to learn how to control their powers, and that takes years of study. You can’t argue with that. I mean, the enchantments on this building alone—the doors, the stones themselves—not to mention the presence of the templars—”

“Oh, yes!” Anders sneered. “Oh, goody, let’s not forget them!”

“—provide more safety,” Karl continued, determinedly talking over him, “than any apprentice could hope to find if he stayed with his family. Not to mention all the access we have to world-class scholarship, the opportunities to study magic in all its forms….”

A note of awe had entered his voice, the way it always did when he talked about the big conferences in Cumberland, or the treatises that occasionally trickled out of Tevinter and made it past the Imperial Chantry’s censors.

Anders wanted to be bitter about it, but he understood that interest in academia. He shared it, really; another of Karl’s passions that had somehow leached into his identity. He’d shown Anders how to study, how to turn problems around in his mind until he didn’t just see how to weasel out of them in the quickest and easiest way, but how to deconstruct them and find out how they worked. Karl wanted to study some esoteric branch of spirit magic after his Harrowing. He already had it planned… and part of Anders resented him for it.

“Is it worth it, though?” he asked hollowly.

Karl looked faintly confused. “What?”

Anders scoffed. Knots of students hung around the common room, chatting and milling about between the great stone arches of doorways—forever open, each guarded by a pair of templars—and the fireplace, and all he could think was that they were like cattle, wandering aimlessly around a field and mooing at each other.

“Being taken from your family,” he said, and though the words were quiet, they dripped with venom. “Having it all done by force. No one explains, no one says why… they just take you, and you can’t refuse, and they won’t even let you say goodbye. Is it worth that?”

He stared at the scattering of apprentices, all in their nice, neat, clean robes; all smiling, talking, learning. No mud, no running, no draughty hut that wasn’t home, and no very, very tired smile on his mother’s face when she said it was all right, and that none of it was his fault, although he knew she was lying.

“Anders….”

Karl’s voice was tinged with concern, and his hand moved to Anders’ knee, a conciliatory touch through the slippery fabric of his robes. The warmth of it reached down to his bones, and the sound of that one word made his gut tighten… even though it wasn’t truly his name. Not his real name.

He’d been so scared, when they took him from the village. Too scared to talk to anyone, and the farmer who’d finally sold them out hadn’t even known the family’s names anyway. They’d been running for months. ‘Anders’ had echoed first from the metal mouth of some faceless templar. Leave the last two—the little elf and the Anders—on the wagon for the night. Just a stop along the road, just one of many, but it had been his first night away from the people who loved him. They’d pulled up by a coaching inn that didn’t have enough room for everyone, and left him alone in the dark in a closed wagon with bars on the back, and an elf-child who cried himself sick because he didn’t know where he was, and only spoke broken Common Tongue.

There wasn’t much point in explaining it all to Karl, he realised. Mostly everybody in the Tower had a sob story—loving fathers and doting mothers who’d wept when they said farewell—but it was amazing how similar the descriptions sounded. Almost everyone’s mother was beautiful, for a start, and most of the fathers were firm yet kind, probably with twinkly blue eyes. They were memories, yes… but they were honed down, polished by years of forgetting.

Some people remembered. A lot of the elves did, he’d found, but they weren’t worth talking to about it because, to them, they’d died and gone to the Golden City itself the moment they stepped into the Tower.

Anders supposed he’d think the same, if his earliest memories were of alienage slums. The Circle fed and clothed and cared for its children, and made no distinction between races. Being a mage was probably the best thing that could happen to an elf, at least in a certain light. It was the only way people like them would ever know any kind of equality, anyway… and that made him just as angry as the fact any of them were taken at all.

“You know,” Karl said softly, squeezing his knee again in order to attract his attention, “I went through exactly the same thing.”

Anders pulled away from his touch, properly irritable now. “Oh? Really?”

Karl nodded, apparently pretending to miss the sarcasm that dripped from the words. “Yes. Really. A lot of us do miss our families, even if we did have rough times before we left them. The Revered Mother said something that—”

“Oh, Maker’s cock….” Anders rolled his eyes theatrically. “Please, spare me.”

“—I found helpful,” Karl continued, frowning at him. “You know, priests don’t get a choice either, a lot of the time. Children get given to the Chantry, just the way we get given to the Circle.”

“Hmph.” Anders rocked the chair again, enjoying the way its legs bucked against the stones, and made a noise that echoed around the chamber. It was a small rebellion, but it was disturbing a couple of people from their reading, and he felt a childish sense of triumph for that. “My heart positively bleeds for them.”

“She said we find our family in the people around us,” Karl said meaningfully. “And she said we all have a purpose. It’s not what it is that matters, but how we choose to fulfil it; to fight what we’re meant for, or to embrace it and make the most of it.”

Somewhere behind Anders’ eyes, a small thatched hut burned, and his mother’s voice screamed the name that he had sworn he was never going to tell anyone, because it was the only thing he had left that truly belonged to him.

It wasn’t him anymore, anyway. He might have lost the accent a long while ago, but the nickname had stuck, and what was he now except Anders the mage apprentice? There was nothing else to be. Nothing else except that great glaring brand of it—robes, soft shoes, pale skin—and sometimes he thought the templars might as well really brand them, just make every last one of them Tranquil. It might even be kinder to be dead inside than to look at all this hypocrisy and unfairness and know that this would be it, for the rest of his life.

He scowled, and swallowed heavily against the tightness in his throat. Over by the fireplace, a gaggle of girls were braiding each other’s hair. One of them blushed deeply as a dark-haired elven boy walked past—evidently just back from the library with an armful of books clutched to his chest—and the whole lot of them dissolved into giggles. The elf looked panicky and made a dive for the nearest unoccupied desk, and Anders stared at the entire scene and felt like he could explode… just, all of him, bursting into a great column of flame that would rip his skin to pieces and leave nothing behind but a few flakes of ash and a scorch mark on the table.

“Oh, right,” he said dully, “that makes it all fine, does it? We mustn’t fight it, because it’s for our own good. So, we just shut up and agree, because clearly the Chantry has our best interests at heart, and we’re too busy being dangers to the entirety of Thedas to be able to understand.”

“Fine.” Karl sighed and held up his hands before letting them thump impatiently to the scarred tabletop. “I can’t talk to you when you’re like this. I’ll go back to my dorm, catch up on some reading.”

He started to stand up, and that struck at Anders with brutal viciousness. He kicked out, sending the chair under his feet clattering to the stone floor.

“Nothing excuses the lying!” he snapped, halting Karl in mid-rise. “It’s not about safety, it’s about control! It’s all the bloody secrecy… that’s what poisons everything! Do you know what it’s like to be spat on? To run from place to place in case they find you? To have your whole village curse your name because of what you are?”

He could hear the note of whining hysteria in his voice, and he hated it, but he couldn’t stop it. People were really staring now. One of the templars would be in any minute to see who was flinging chairs, Anders suspected. Karl’s face stiffened, but he just carried on getting up and walking calmly from the common room.

Anders saw red. He jumped off the table and stalked after Karl, trying to goad him back into a fight, oblivious to all the wide-eyed faces and the sniggering, behind-the-hand gossip.

“People aren’t nervous of mages, Karl!” he repeated. “They’re terrified! They hate us, because they don’t understand us, and they don’t understand us because we’re dragged off as soon as anyone finds out what we are, and they lock us up and we never get out!”

Karl’s shoulders tensed, and he half-turned. “That’s not tr—”

“It is! It bloody well is! Oh, no… don’t you tell me you really think two conferences a year, or maybe some cushy gig playing private physician to a hypochondriac nobleman with no chin is actually having a real life? Because that’s complete—”

Karl whirled around as they got to the common room’s south door, and an anger Anders had never seen on him before marked his features. His blue eyes, so often bright with cheerful mischief, had clouded to a dark, foreboding grey, and his mouth was a hard, furled line.

“It’s a way to make things better, isn’t it?” He jabbed an accusatory finger at Anders. “What are you going to do, huh? I mean, I’m not pretending the Circle’s perfect—you know what I think—but just ranting and railing about it doesn’t help change anything!”

The clank of armour filtered into Anders’ peripheral hearing, and just made him angrier. The beauty of the Circle: where you weren’t even allowed to have an argument without templar intervention.

“I don’t want to change anything,” he complained. “I just want to get out!”

And he did. More than he ever had before. He didn’t know why—why now, why this particular moment should be so unbearable, or what had set it all off except the throttling, awful pressure of people all around him. It never stopped, just went on and on, and nothing ever changed; it just slid away into this empty, endless pool of time, and they were nothing but vapid, mute cattle, corralled and raised like meat.

Karl’s frown deepened, and he curled his lip in distaste. “Well, that’s pretty bloody selfish, isn’t it?”

“Fuck selfish!” Anders yelled, shortly before a gauntleted hand landed on his shoulder. “Fuck the Circle, fuck you, and fuck everything!”

“That is quite enough,” said a rounded male voice, with just a hint of an Orlesian accent. “Come along, now. Time to cool off, I think.”

The hand closed firmly on the back of Anders’ robe, and he knew he should just have taken it. He shouldn’t fight back, because that was stupid and futile and they were in charge anyway. If they said jump, you did it, and you didn’t stop to ask how high until you were already in the air.

It felt almost like a dream, like he was watching himself through other eyes. Karl’s eyes, maybe… which widened in disbelief and horror as Anders wrenched away from the gauntleted hand, twisting and kicking and spitting some of the most creative swearwords he knew.

He raised his hand, fingers curled into a fist—he wanted to smack the bugger in the face, nothing more than that, no magic, no fireball-flinging—but Ser Maurais was surprisingly quick for a man wearing a large metal suit. He grabbed Anders’ wrist, hard, and twisted, applying just enough pressure to just the right point to hold him completely and effectively by that one agonising grip.

Anders’ knees started to buckle as white-hot pain flared through his arm. He gritted his teeth, wincing beneath the templar’s unflinching hold, and staring into an impassive, unblemished face, marked by an expression of arch serenity… and a silly, pencil-thin moustache.

Ser Maurais tightened his grasp just a little further, and Anders let out a whimper.

“Nug-fucker!” he yelped.

On reflection, there might have been better things to say.

The templar turned him around, jerked the trapped arm up between his shoulder blades and, with tears blistering behind his eyes, Anders found himself marched unceremoniously from the chamber. He was aware of every apprentice there staring at him. Some were wide-eyed, some sniggering, some looking shocked or appalled… and then there was Karl, wearing a tight-lipped mask of furious disapproval.

Anders glared savagely at him as he passed, daring some kind of response from him, but Karl just glowered, and then looked away.

~o~O~o~

It was disappointing, really. Ser Maurais was one of the nicer templars, as far as that went. He wasn’t unkind, or really all that rough, and he actually used apprentices’ names most of the time, instead of relying on ‘oi, you’, ‘magey’, or ‘shift it, robe’.

Anders couldn’t help feeling his exit from the common room would have had more dramatic flair if it had been one of the less diplomatic templars who’d dragged him away. If they’d cuffed him alongside the head, he could have gone kicking and screaming about brutality.

As it was, Ser Maurais and his silly, pencil-thin moustache let go of him once they were out of earshot down the corridor. Anders made a performance of rubbing his sore wrist, at which the templar tutted a bit and gave him a briskly sorrowful look, before marching him along to the closest enchanter’s office, where he was told sit and wait in the antechamber.

The low murmur of voices came from beyond the archway, just a curtain separating the two spaces. Anders didn’t listen to what they were saying. When you were this used to an almost complete lack of privacy, it got easy to just tune out the background noise… especially if it wasn’t very interesting.

The enchanters had nice offices. Plushly upholstered furniture, all dark wood and bold colours with luxurious embroidery. Anders sat on a heavily carved chair padded in red and orange. He wasn’t sure what it was that was carved into the back of it, but it was digging in just under his shoulder blade, and felt a bit like a dog’s head or something. Well, this was Ferelden.

On the wall opposite, a small tapestry depicted a hunting scene in which a white hind was in the process of turning into a beautiful naked woman, apparently surprising the hunters. Anders recalled the myth it was from—one of those slightly dodgy ones that might have been a metaphor for something, or just the trickle-down of half-forgotten stories about the ancient Chasind witches who could shift their shapes—and remembered how the hunters had ended up being chased from the forest by their own hounds. There was a book of myths and stories like that in the library, and the spine was cracked to all the pages of woodcuts with naked girls on.

Anders frowned. The Chantry didn’t have a lot to say on the matter of ancient barbarian witchcraft and the like. Oh, it was very vocal when it came to all the things that were wrong with magic, and mages in general, and how Tevinter was the seat of all evil and why too much power was A Very Bad Thing… but actually talking openly about magic as a force of nature, and its manifestations through different cultures in Thedas? Not so much. And there must be differences—different ways of seeing, of doing—because the Imperial Chantry didn’t reach everywhere.

He bit his lip thoughtfully as he contemplated that, and stared at the woven images of the running hounds, and the hunters, and the woman who was trying to escape them, caught forever midway between human and animal form. Why that moment of the story? He wondered. Why not a few moments later, when she turned back and unleashed her power completely?

As Anders stared at the tapestry, his fingers began to itch. He didn’t think much about it at first, too busy stewing in the residual fugue of temper and irritation. His wrist ached. Then the idea began to sneak up slowly… just how easy it would be, how quick to simply let a little bit of the anger out.

He allowed his right hand to unclench from the edge of the chair’s plush seat, and allowed that familiar feeling of warmth to begin to unfold under his skin. It didn’t take much concentration. Just… control. Focusing it. Letting the warmth grow from his centre, swelling with his breath, then coursing down his arm, blooming and prickling as it did so. It was easier than it used to be, he had to admit; easier to make it all do what he wanted, and with fewer accidents along the way. The Circle was good for something, however much it pained him to admit it.

The bottom edge of the tapestry—the silk-embroidered lines of all those trees and ferns, through which the woven hunters leapt—began to smoke ever so slightly, and a smile curved Anders’ lips.

It would be easy. All of it: really, really easy.

And yet… it was wrong.

It just lived down to their expectations, and confirmed all that trash about mages being dangerous, and destructive, and so—with a degree of regret and consternation—he snapped his hand shut again, and let out a breath that washed coolness through him. The smoke curled away into nothingness, and the tapestry was barely singed at all.

Anders sighed, and absently shook the pins-and-needles sensation out of his hand. The clank of metal alerted him to the fact he was no longer alone, and he glanced up as Ser Maurais came out of the inner chamber and gave him a stern look.

“The Enchanter will see you now.”

Anders hopped off the chair and dragged his feet as he sloped through after the templar. There was a big mahogany desk in the office, a small, high window, and the pervading smell of paper dust and self-righteous sanctimony.

Enchanter Wynne stood behind the desk, bathed in the warm glow of the two oil lamps that sat upon it. Anders felt his stomach drop like lead. He’d sat through two of her foundation lectures on spirit healing in the past term, and got the worst marks on his papers he’d had all year. Plus, she was a smug, condescending cow.

“Well, young man,” she said, in a well-modulated, precise voice that made the back of his neck prickle, “you’d better sit down, hadn’t you?”

Anders clenched his teeth, and tried to make his face a mask of polite impassiveness… which wasn’t something he was awfully good at.

He folded onto the hard wooden chair beside the desk, very aware of Ser Maurais’ presence behind him, and folded his hands in his lap. Wynne nodded at the templar.

“Thank you, ser. Perhaps you might wait by the door?”

Even she knew better than to ask him to leave completely. Ser Maurais looked dubiously between Wynne and Anders, then grunted and clanked out to the antechamber. It wasn’t much privacy, but it was better than nothing.

Wynne folded her arms and tipped her head to the side, fixing Anders with a pursed-lip, narrow-eyed stare.

She was old, to him: a woman of middle years with a face of clean, hard lines that divided up solid, angular planes. Sharp nose, sharp chin, and very sharp eyes; that bright, pale kind of blue that could be as hard as steel, or glitter like cut glass. She wore her hair jaw-length, tucked behind her ears, and he got the feeling that—as a younger woman—she’d probably been proud of its dark, glossy weight. It was streaked heavily with grey now, turning coarse and white in a contrast against the deep red of her enchanter’s robes.

A thick, embroidered girdle ran around her waist, bristling with keys and pouches and bags of things, and the long, lean fingers that drummed impatiently against her arm were smudged with ink.

“Now,” she said, her voice low and even, as crisply enunciated as a priest, “what do you have to say for yourself, hmm?”

Anders fixed his gaze at a point exactly six inches to the left of her shoulder. He stared mournfully at the grey stonework with a slight pout that should have indicated chastened contrition, and tried to summon up a little bit of dampness in the eye department.

“I’m sorry. I won’t do it aga—”

Wynne sighed. “Oh, do credit me with a little more intelligence than that.”

His mouth hung open. Oh, balls. He shut it with a barely audible snap, and looked at the woman with a new circumspection.

Wynne shook her head and, with a small ‘tsk, tsk’ of mild disapproval, sat down behind her desk. Besides the oil lamps, it was laden with a lot of paperwork, Anders noticed; that, and a number of small curiosities… including two inkwells engraved with what looked like dwarven runes, and a small onyx sphere on a silver stand. He’d seen painted skyballs before, once or twice, but this was different. The sphere appeared to have an enchantment on it that caused tiny stars to swirl over its surface, like a shifting image of the night sky, complete with clouds, and moving in almost real time.

He realised he was staring, and cleared his throat awkwardly. She wasn’t yelling at him, or being all stern and disappointed, or telling him he’d let himself down, or… or anything that any of the enchanters or the sisters or even the templars usually did.

“Now… Anders, is it? Yes. You’re officially under Enchanter Lennox’s tutelage this year, aren’t you?”

He nodded dumbly. Lennox—who had still not quite forgiven him for the exploding pie incident—was a fully subscribed member of the bony-finger-waving brigade.

Wynne reached out one slim hand and straightened a sheaf of papers, her thumb nudging the stack until they were exactly parallel to the edge of the desk. Anders had a quick squint, but couldn’t read what they were upside down.

“Well,” she said gently, “I don’t see he needs to hear anything about this.”

Anders frowned. The Tower took a firm line on discipline. Yelling and cussing and kicking furniture around usually resulted in a good talking to and a lecture about self-control being a mage’s greatest asset, and necessary for his survival… if you were lucky. As for swearing at a templar and suggesting he enjoyed the intimate company of large, hairless rodents; well, it was probably a safe bet that this wasn’t going to be his best week ever. It was bad enough if one of the sisters caught you cussing. That usually meant copping an hour kneeling in the chapel and reciting the first six verses of Transfigurations until you thought your brain was going to turn to cheese and melt out of your ears… not that it happened to him all that often.

Not really.

Anders peered suspiciously at the enchanter. “A-am I in trouble?”

Wynne steepled her fingers and looked back at him with those clear, bright, unflinching eyes.

“Do you think you should be?”

He blinked, confused. “Um….”

Somehow, it was very hard to keep feeling angry and choked up and frustrated. All that bubbling rage had congealed, and now the cold tendrils of embarrassment and regret were taking the opportunity to coil around him and— oh, Maker, what had he said to Karl?

Anders blinked again, more rapidly. He couldn’t shake the vision of his friend’s angry, hurt look from his mind. They’d never disagreed about anything like that before, and… he’d been an idiot, hadn’t he?

It was awfully quiet in the enchanters’ offices. This whole corridor—this whole side of the building, to the west of the common rooms and the stairs up from the great hall—had very thick walls. It probably went right back to the original construction of the tower. Foot upon foot of ancient stone muffled everything except the odd murmur of distant voices travelling through the tower’s odd acoustics, and the occasional swish-slip or clank of someone passing by in the hallway. That… and the sound of Ser Maurais, just beyond the curtain: waiting and listening.

Standing guard, Anders thought bitterly, just in case.

He swallowed, hard, and genuine pressure began to build at the bridge of his nose, instead of the sting of put-on damp eyes, which so often worked on the middle-aged female enchanters… and some of the men. Didn’t work on Enchanter Wynne, though.

Bugger.

“Don’t know,” he mumbled sulkily.

“How long have you been here now?” Wynne asked rhetorically. “Heading on for two and a half, three years, isn’t it? It must have been very hard to settle.”

Anders shrugged, and looked steadily at the edge of the desk.

“I do know what it’s like,” she said, tilting her head to try and catch his eye. “It may not seem like it to you, but there was a time I was just as young and rebellious as you. Didn’t want to be here, didn’t want to listen to anyone….”

He cringed inwardly. Maker’s arse, now she was going to try and understand him to death. Could it get worse?

“But you must understand something.” Wynne fixed him on the lance of that severe, sharp gaze. “We do not do the things we do lightly. We ask a lot of the apprentices, I know—especially young people your age, when you are so hungry for all that life has to offer—but it is for your own good.”

Anders felt his face tighten, even as he tried to school his features into blankness. Somehow, he’d known those words were coming. They tolled over and over again at the back of his head, echoing like a bad headache, and he just knew that this daft old bag had never been anything like him. She didn’t know him, didn’t know who he was or where he’d come from, and she didn’t understand, whatever she said.

Wynne folded her hands on the desk and looked at him kindly.

“You’re not the first mage to feel this way. You won’t be the last.”

Anders crunched the toes of his leather slippers into the hard floor, stared down at the edge of the desk, and mumbled under his breath.

“I beg your pardon, young man?”

He winced. “I said, ‘No, ma’am’.”

“No, you didn’t,” Wynne said patiently. “But I quite understand.”

Anders glanced up in surprise, but she’d already moved on, tugging a blank piece of parchment towards her and dipping a quill into one of the silver inkwells. He watched the tiny blanket of stars shift on the surface of her enchanted skyball. It must be valuable, he supposed, a trinket like that. He caught the thought, mid-sneak, and wondered why he’d had it, then blinked hurriedly and tried to read Wynne’s upside-down scrawl.

“You will have to be given a detention punishment, of course,” she said, as she signed the note. “I’m sorry about that, but if I don’t do it, the templars will… and I doubt you’d care much for whatever Greagoir thinks a suitable reprimand. Here you are. Next time, remember why you are instructed to keep a tight leash on your temper… and, who knows, perhaps this will give you a valuable opportunity to think things over.”

Anders hadn’t got a clue what she was talking about, but the look on her face as she pushed the paper across the desk towards him was unsettling. If, just moments before, she’d been trying to be kind and patient, now she was hard and unyielding, and there was something almost anxious in her expression. Her thin lips had drawn into a tight line and, as he took the paper, Anders had to bite down hard on a whimper.

To whom it may concern,

The bearer of this note has incurred one week’s detention punishment for poor conduct and is required to assist in whatever workings of the stockroom and inventory schedule Regulator Owain deems necessary. Bearer may be excused to attend classes and chapel only, and shall be subject to normative regulations as required.

It was signed with the enchanter’s neat, concise moniker, and labelled with the day’s date. Anders felt his stomach gnaw against a knot pure, cold dread, and the breath ran thick and low in his throat.

“Th-the Tranquil? You mean I have to…?”

“You might as well make yourself useful,” Wynne said coolly, giving him an oddly hard-eyed look. “Better than peeling potatoes or scrubbing pots in the kitchens, isn’t it?”

He said nothing. The slight tone of flint in her voice—and the particular light in that sharp blue gaze—suggested an entirely different truth lay behind her reasoning. After all, what better way to convince a misbehaving brat to toe the line than to show him exactly what it was like to have all those emotions he had failed to keep in check permanently disabled?

Maybe, Anders thought, that was what they did to you if you didn’t pass the Harrowing… or if you annoyed one templar too many. Maybe they came in the night, like they did for the apprentices who were due to be Harrowed, and spirited you away. Maybe you never knew anything about it.

Maybe you did, but—after they were through with you—you just didn’t care.

“You can report immediately,” Wynne said, with the slightest twitch of a smile. “After all, the sooner you begin, the sooner it’s finished.”

Anders glanced up at her. She thought she was being kind, he realised. She thought this was the best thing for him—because they always think they know best, don’t they? Self-righteous bastards!—and she thought she was doing him a bloody favour. He could barely believe it, barely swallow it… that she thought she could palm this simple, slick blade of cruelty off as anything other than a cold-blooded threat.

He nodded stiffly.

“Yes. Thank you, Enchanter.”

Wynne inclined her head. “All right. Ask Ser Maurais to see you to the stockroom, then. You may go.”

Anders nodded again and, her note firmly clasped in his hand, rose from the desk and headed out to the antechamber, determinedly not thinking of the sweet, irresistible pull of power that burned beneath his skin.

He rubbed his palm against the smooth fabric of his robe, and tried to ignore the heat building in his fingers. His forehead stung, and it would all have been so very easy….

Ser Maurais put a gauntleted hand on his shoulder, and Anders blinked, pulling himself back to practicality, and calmness, and control.

They left the enchanter’s office and began to walk down the corridor towards the stockroom, and every footstep echoed with the swish-slip of robes, and the dull, biting clank of metal, whispering away against the empty stones.

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Chapter 5

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Ephemera: Chapter 3

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The old supply room was a wonderful find; there was no denying it. Anders lost count of the number of times he slipped up there, just to think, and to look out across the lake. It was amazing, the way the view was never the same. Even the slightest change of wind or light altered everything: the clouds, the water, the distant shapes of the cliffs and the docks on the far shore.

He took paper up there with him when he could spare it, and sketched the ever-changing vista, or the phantasms he saw in the sky.

Sometimes, they even managed to sneak all-too-precious time together. Anders had rather assumed that was why Karl had taken him up there in the first place, but he hadn’t pushed the issue. Even that first night, they’d done nothing except stare out over the water, and then clatter belatedly back down the narrow staircase, just before lights out and the nightly head-count.

Mostly, it was somewhere they went to talk, to relax… to just be. And that, to Anders, was priceless.

“I don’t know,” Karl said thoughtfully, leaning back on his elbows.

They sat sprawled on the floor, beneath that small, sacred window, enjoying the last rays of evening sun that poured through it, drenching the newly swept floorboards with gold.

In the time since discovering this place, they had made a few small changes, cleaning the worst of the grime and cobwebs, and pilfering a couple of cushions from the senior common room to make the floor just a little less hard.

Anders tilted his head to the side, watching Karl close his eyes and bask like a cat in the warmth. He really was rather handsome, all things considered. The collar of his apprentice robes was partially unlaced, loose against his pale throat, and that lazy half-smile of his was actually very tempting.

“Perhaps,” Karl said, cracking one eye open, “the rumours are all true.”

Anders frowned. “What, that they butcher the unsuccessful ones and serve them up as fat pork? I don’t think so.”

He grinned. “Why not? Could be.”

“No.” Anders shook his head emphatically. “I heard as many as a third of apprentices don’t pass. We don’t have pork that often.”

Karl’s grin faded as he sat up, cranking open the other eye. “I don’t think it’s that many.”

“It’s still a lot. Not to mention the ones who don’t even take the Harrowing. I reckon it’s some kind of trial by fire thing. You have to fight off a templar, and you die if you lose. They probably just dump the bodies into the lake… weight them down and leave them for the fish.”

Anders heard his voice growing darker as he spoke, and he could see from Karl’s frown that he didn’t like it, but he couldn’t stop himself.

They’d talked about the Harrowing more and more recently. It seemed to be on everyone’s minds, probably because dormitory rumour had it that another four of the oldest apprentices had been called. Neither he nor Karl knew them personally, and there was yet to be any word on whether they’d all passed, or… well, that was just it.

Too much bloody mystery, to Anders’ mind.

Karl cocked an eyebrow. “You’re morbid today.”

He shrugged. “I just… I hate it. The way they corral us, and control us, and there’s no sodding choice in anything. I mean, they don’t tell you, do they? None of us know what it’s about, or whether they actually let you choose between the Harrowing and the Rite of Tranquillity, or if that’s something else that gets forced on you. It just feels as if, from the minute you’re born, someone else is making all the decisions… you know?”

Anders hugged his knees to his chest. The blank look of honest sympathy on Karl’s face—like he wanted to agree, and to nod in all the right places, but wasn’t quite sure how to go about it—told Anders that he had no idea what he was talking about.

He exhaled bitterly, and stared at the motes of dust bobbing in the thick, syrupy sunlight.

“How old were you when you came here?”

Karl pursed his lips. “I told you that before. Six. I was very young. And you were—”

“Fourteen,” Anders said distantly, “when the templars came.”

Karl’s brow furrowed. He scooted across the floor, drawing nearer in all his clean, warm deliciousness, like soap, fresh bread, and new paper. It was a nicer, more comforting familiarity to cling to than the memories that suddenly reared up in the back of Anders’ mind.

Metal men, blazing swords in their fists and voices echoing within their helms, tearing up the whole village in search of one scrawny brat… he’d never seen the point of it. Sometimes, he woke in the night and smelled smoke, and laid there panting and sweating until he was certain it wasn’t real.

“And this isn’t your first Circle.”

Anders shook his head. Karl knew that. He’d already told Karl more than he’d ever told anyone… already shared more with him than he’d ever wanted to, or dared to. He supposed that was part of the reason why thoughts of escape still called so loudly to him, and yet left him feeling so stupidly guilty.

“Well,” Karl said brightly, nudging him with a friendly elbow, “I’m glad you’re here, anyway.”

Anders smiled thinly, unable to deny the way his chest squeezed itself around a small flare of excitement.

“Karl…?”

He stopped, feeling foolish, and not sure how to say what he wanted. He didn’t want to talk any more about the Harrowing, or phylacteries and rules and unfairness. He wanted to believe those things didn’t exist up here, where there was sunlight and the smell of soap and paper dust, and they were quite alone among the old crates and sacks.

Karl didn’t say anything. He just looped his arm around Anders’ shoulders and drew him close, letting him feel the warm solidity of another body, the beat of another heart.

Anders gave in, for once. He turned in to Karl’s embrace, resting his head on one broad shoulder, and listened to the rhythm of his breathing.

“You’ve got a while before they call you, I expect,” Karl said gently. “Me too. It won’t be yet. And, when it does happen, you’ll be ready. I know you will.”

It was a sweet thing to say, and he sounded like he really believed it. Anders smiled and nestled closer, his hand snaking across Karl’s chest, fingers tracing the patterns on the slippery fabric of his robe. Right at that moment, he didn’t particularly want sweetness. He wanted something else, something more immediate, and Karl didn’t pull away when he reached for it.

~o~O~o~

The striking thing about Anders, Karl thought, was his contradictions: all that bravado, papering over a beautiful innocence, and all that wily, dry humour concealing such a sense of loss and insecurity. He kissed as if it was the most terribly serious thing—as if every touch really, deeply mattered—and yet, when they broke for breath, he’d be all hazy-eyed and grinning smugly, like he’d just got away with some incredible prank.

He wasn’t like the other boys. None of this, in fact, felt like it had before. That worried Karl, used as he was to the kind of conveniences mages made for themselves. Oh, the whole business of ‘forming attachments’, as it was generally described, was of course discouraged, though naturally it happened. It just tended to happen with a little more fluidity and practicality than social custom dictated. In the close quarters of apprentice living, that usually meant intense crushes and clumsy encounters, perfumed with desperation and often followed by embarrassment. It was rumoured that, once you were a fully Harrowed mage, there was a little more freedom to seek the company of colleagues, but Karl was aware that one of the Tower’s key purposes was to remind mages of all that was closed off to them. All those trappings of so-called ‘normal’ life; family, freedom, marriage… love.

He let out a small, happy groan as, without breaking the kiss, Anders pushed forwards and climbed into his lap, those long fingers cupping Karl’s face, hot against his jaw. Karl was getting light-headed, but it didn’t really seem to matter. His hands worked circles over Anders’ back, his robe warm and smooth to the touch. Maker, but he was lovely… so full of enthusiasm and brimming with honest joy and desire.

As they parted, Karl winced at the bursts of light fracturing his vision. He was panting—they both were—and, just as he’d predicted, Anders grinned blearily and chuckled. He caught his lower lip, pinkened and lightly swollen with kisses, between his teeth, and raised his eyebrows.

“So… no one’s expecting me anywhere for a while. How about you?”

Karl wriggled, uncomfortably aware of the effect Anders’ weight was having on him. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to—far from it, as a matter of fact—but he held back, nervous of something that felt more like an irrevocable step than it ever had before.

“I… I’m meant to be helping Petra with her paper on spirit healing. I shouldn’t be too long before I—”

“Oh. Right.”

That hurt look, the downcast eyes and disappointed pout, gouged at Karl’s chest. He linked his arms around Anders’ waist and squeezed.

“Hey. Just… not now. Soon.”

Anders raised his gaze, those dark eyes spearing him on the hope of a promise, need blazoning out from that sharply chiselled face. He might no longer be the skinny creature he’d been when he first arrived at the Tower, but Anders still managed to retain a slight air of tight-wound tautness, as if it wouldn’t take much to slip him over the edge from rebellious to downright feral.

Karl gritted his teeth and tried to will his arousal into submission. He smiled weakly, and Anders wrinkled his nose.

“You think I’m too young.”

“No. If I thought that, I wouldn’t come up here with you.”

There’s only so much temptation a man can take, after all.

He didn’t say it; didn’t really want to admit it. Anders’ brow furrowed, and Karl suppressed the urge to snatch those deliciously pursed lips against his, to wrestle him to the floorboards and push up his robes. It would only take a few seconds… just the briefest burst of time to cross that final boundary and change everything and that, Karl reminded himself sternly, was why it was important it was done right.

He gazed into those dark, questioning eyes, and sighed. “Look, Anders… you said you’ve never—”

“I haven’t. So I want to. I really want to,” he added helpfully, with what Karl decided was an utterly malicious wriggle.

“Andraste’s tits! Don’t do that. Just… look, we will. I promise. But not right now. All right?”

Anders looked suddenly insecure, worry pinching his brow and a stab of cold anxiety in his face, despite the way his fingers tugged at the lacing of Karl’s robe. It was an absent-minded kind of seduction, Karl thought, catching those long, pale hands in his, and gently removing them from his chest.

“I do want to,” he murmured, squeezing Anders’ fingers gently. “But I want everything to be right for you. I… I think that’s important.”

Anders didn’t look convinced. He looked like he was preparing himself for a rejection, and that stung Karl immeasurably. He pressed a soft kiss to those delicious lips, and was heartened when Anders seemed to relax into it.

He smiled thinly when they parted, and clambered off Karl’s lap, brushing his robes down as he got reluctantly to his feet. Their window—their eyrie, their little slice of the outside world—was flooded with the last rays of evening sun, the sky blushing crimson and yellowish-rose above the glittering planes of the lake.

Despite all the sweeping and thumping the dust out of the room, a small, silver-grey spider had already begun spinning a web in the corner, between the crates and the wall. As the deft fingers of a breeze seeped through the window, the creature twitched a leg and then scuttled the length of its web.

“I think,” Anders announced, looking down at Karl consideringly, “that you might well be a plant.”

Karl raised his eyebrows, and took the warm, firm hand that Anders offered to pull him to his feet.

“I didn’t think I was particularly vegetative just now.”

Anders snorted. “The other kind. Sometimes I think you’re here just so I won’t run.”

Karl blinked. Anders’ words settled heavily on the air between them, and Karl searched his face for a sign that he hadn’t meant that seriously… because Anders never was serious about much.

He shrugged, feeling small and awkward, as if there weren’t any words to really say what he wanted.

“I thought you were going to swim for it,” he said eventually.

Anders wrinkled his nose. “It’s not a good plan. But it is a plan.”

“You meant it, then?”

“What?”

Karl swallowed heavily as the sun’s embers lanced the air, dust motes spinning in the light that gilded Anders’ hair. Those dark eyes, polished by the sunset, flared with secrets and possibilities. Karl looked away, unable to hold his gaze.

“Well? Do you want to be a prisoner your whole life?” Anders asked softly. “Doing what they tell you: eating, sleeping and washing when you’re told to, walking on eggshells and jumping through hoops?”

His voice was low and soothing, but the words had an edge. Karl shook his head.

“Magic—uncontained magic, without any way of controlling it—is dangerous,” he admitted.

“And the solution is to cage us all, is it?” Anders retorted.

Karl sighed. “I know it feels like a prison. But it’s not. It isn’t… not forever. After your Harrowing, you get more freedom. You can travel, go to other Circles… to Denerim, maybe. There’s a lot of research going on there. The Chantry—”

Anders let out a long, weary breath, and leaned his head back. “Sometimes I think the bloody Chantry is half the problem. These are their rules, aren’t they? And, anyway, what if you fail your Harrowing? What then?”

A different note had crept into his voice… not frustration, not anger, but fear. Karl bit his lip thoughtfully. So, it was still about that, after all.

Anders had paced away from him, to one of the stacks of crates that lined the walls. He was running those long, pale fingers along the dusty wood, probably playing the familiar game of guessing what was in them. They had thought of cracking a couple open, just to find out, but it seemed like asking for trouble, or possibly discovery.

Despite the swept floorboards and the cushions, Karl knew they needed to leave this space as untouched as possible, in case they needed to brush away all traces of having been here in a hurry.

He supposed that meant Anders had a point. For all its values of safety and collaboration, the Circle was more a prison than a home.

He stepped across the boards, the joists creaking slightly beneath his feet, and put one hand on Anders’ shoulder, folding the other around those long, white fingers.

“Hey. Didn’t I tell you? That won’t—”

“It could do,” Anders said quietly, and there was real fear in his eyes. “And what then?”

Karl pulled him into a hug. Hot, uneven breaths grazed his neck, but gradually the tension seemed to seep from Anders’ spine.

“You’re a talented mage,” he murmured against the blond hair that smelled of soap and candle soot. “You’re smart, and sharp, and you can be anything. And I— I know you’ll be fine.”

Anders raised his head. “Really?”

“Really,” Karl promised, choking down the tremulous temptation to give voice to what he’d almost said… the things he’d never been afraid of saying before.

Anders burrowed closer, squeezing both the breath and resistance from him.

“I’m scared.”

“I know,” Karl soothed. “Me too. We all get like this when people get called.”

“I just don’t like the secrecy. I don’t like—”

“I know.”

Anders sighed, and after a while, when they parted, he looked strangely chastened. Karl smiled weakly.

“We should go.”

“Yes.”

“I don’t want to,” he added, glancing from Anders to the gold-drenched window, a bare cut into the encroaching evening. “But we should.”

“S’pose,” Anders admitted.

His fingers twitched, like he meant to reach for Karl’s hand again, and Karl had to fight not to pull it away. He couldn’t bear to let Anders think he was being rejected and yet, Maker help him, if he touched him again now it would be too damn hard to let go.

“Come on,” he said, his voice a little dry and husky in that sudden, thick quiet. “I’ll walk you to your dorm.”

~o~O~o~

Alyson Emmal, Ricard Oswest, Asha Kirklund, and Della Woodgard.

Those names—the four apprentices who had been called for their Harrowing rituals—sped around both the senior and junior dormitories in ice-dark whispers. Two templars and one of the bedders, who kept a vague responsibility for dormitory laundry and general tidiness, came down in the night to arrange the collection of their effects, or so Karl said.

Anders wondered what it was about the whole thing that meant it all had to be done in the dark.

They took all four students’ trunks, books, pens and other detritus, and apparently said they were being moved upstairs to the mages’ quarters. One of Alyson’s friends was inconsolable, Karl said. They wouldn’t tell anyone anything; just that it would all be over and done with soon.

Well, it was. In a way. The next day, at dinner, with them all in their long, ranked rows on the refectory benches, First Enchanter Irving gave one of his periodic addresses from the dais. He congratulated Ricard, Asha, and Della, officially welcomed them as new members of the Circle, full-fledged brothers and sister… and it was as if Alyson had never existed.

People tried to find out what had happened, of course. Anders asked a few questions himself, despite the fact he hadn’t known her, but all any of the enchanters would say was that it wasn’t any of his business and that all of life was flux. What did that even mean, anyway?

“People come and go from the Tower all the time,” one of the older mages told him, speaking in hushed tones in the quiet of the library. “There are constant changes. Why, you’ve seen Ser Rylock and her detachment of recruits, newly arrived from Denerim, and just this morning Enchanter Uldred and Enchanter Wynne left with the others for the conference in Cumberland. You see? Tos and fros, all the time.”

It was no answer, but the old sod wouldn’t say any more, and when Anders tried to ask someone else, the templar on the door started giving him shifty looks.

He sighed, scowled, and settled himself at one of the desks with a book he was meant to be reading on studies of the Fade. It was a new edition of a work dating from the middle of the Blessed Age, and written by some preachy Chantry scholar who couched the entire thing in terms of sin and morals.

Huh… might as well just put a big sticker on the front saying ‘Why Mages are Bad’ and have done with it.

Anders slumped in the seat and stared at the thick vellum pages, watching the little black slugs of words crawl and twitch before him. He couldn’t concentrate. He didn’t want to concentrate. He didn’t want to be here, in this place where you couldn’t go anywhere without hearing someone else; without seeing or smelling them, or just having the whole oppressive sense of their breathing and their power skimming the back of your neck the whole bloody time.

Mages sensed magic, of course. Power. It was like the world was a second skin over it, sometimes, and nothing was real but the crackle of energy beneath, like all life and all solid, physical things could just melt away and be part of the same blinding force of light.

When he’d been free—before the templars and the towers, and all this regimented security—Anders had never really felt that. He supposed it was because there were no other mages around, or at least none that he’d known about. Here, where they were all piled in on top of each other, tasting everyone else’s power was pretty much unavoidable. You couldn’t help feeling it, or feeling the templars’ abilities, and sometimes he wondered if it didn’t defeat the whole object of keeping them locked up. What if something went wrong in the Tower itself? What if the mages revolted, or if a whole mass of demons broke through at once? Was it really sensible to keep so many potentially dangerous people—as they were so often told they were—caged up together?

Anders had never really bothered to ask questions about it. He wasn’t sure how to talk to people about the way things felt. He wasn’t even sure if other mages felt things like that the way he did, and he had no desire to get himself labelled as insane or… well, whatever it was. He could talk to Karl, he supposed. Karl would probably understand. Karl understood pretty much everything, and didn’t look at him like he was an idiot, or a foreigner. Which he was, obviously. Easy to forget that, sometimes.

Anders shivered, wishing he’d picked a desk closer to the fireplace. The library was always so bloody cold, and the fizzing little orb of blue in the lantern bolted to the centre of the desk didn’t give out enough light to see properly by.

He sighed, closed the book, and decided to go back to his dorm. He thought about sneaking up to the supply room, but it didn’t seem sensible to risk it when the templars were so edgy. Oh, they knew what happened to apprentices who never came down from the Harrowing Chamber. Anders was fairly sure of that… and that probably meant it wasn’t anything good.

So, he had no wish to get caught. Anyway, Karl was busy tonight, and for all the snatched privacy and solitude the storeroom afforded, Anders really only wanted to be up there with him. For that. He’d promised it, hadn’t he? Unless that was a lie, too… only Karl wasn’t a liar.

Well, not yet.

Anders blinked the thoughts away. In his experience, almost everyone he’d ever known had been divided into two groups of people: those who lied to him, sooner or later, and those who never even spoke to him. Oh, the lies varied. Sometimes they were kind ones, like ‘don’t worry, we’ll be safe here’, or ‘no, of course I’m not afraid of you’, and sometimes they were less well-intentioned.

Karl said the Circle’s platitudes—‘this is your home’, ‘we care for all our young apprentices as if they were our own children’, and ‘of course the Chantry doesn’t hate mages’, for example—weren’t all lies. Karl was, quite possibly, wrong, although Anders supposed he might not know it. People whose lives had been easy, or at least not marked by any violent difficulty, frequently were.

He folded his arms across his middle as he slumped back to his dorm, his shoes slapping on the flagstones and his robes swishing softly in the quiet.

He didn’t really mean to take the other corridor, to head in the opposite direction to the way he intended to go, and—still scowling at the floor and stomping along as if the stones themselves had offended him—to end up at the chapel. The doors were open and, inside, they were lighting candles. The smell of beeswax polish and copal incense wafted out to greet him. One of the initiates was singing a verse of the Chant that Anders didn’t immediately recognise—no great surprises there—and he furrowed his brow as he picked out parts of the words.

As there is but one world, / One life, one death, there is / But one god, and He is our Maker.

Ah, yes. Transfigurations. That whole deal about magic serving man, never ruling over him… blah blah blah. Anders wrinkled his nose. He’d read a book in the library about the history of the first Circles, and how they’d grown from the times the Chantry used magic for menial things, like keeping the braziers that contained the eternal flames lit… until the mages decided they were a bit fed up with being servants.

A noise cut across his thoughts, and he glanced down at its source.

The fat ginger cat that was supposed to be the Tower’s mouser—an old, boot-faced tom with a torn ear and malevolent-looking green eyes—glared at Anders as it padded out from behind one of the statues that flanked the doors. He presumed it had just taken a steaming great crap behind Andraste’s marble draperies, and he grinned widely.

“Hello, Mr. Wiggums.”

Well, it seemed as good a name as any. The cat arched its back into a stretch, and stalked idly up to him, the look on its face one of extreme disinterest. Anders hunkered down and offered a half-curled hand, which the cat head-butted, and he obediently scratched behind its ragged ears.

Mr. Wiggums’ thick rope of a tail lashed once, then plumed straight upright as he worked his spine beneath the petting hand. Anders smiled. After a moment, the cat started up a growling, greasy sort of purr, rather like a set of rusty hinges.

“You like that, do you? Yes, you do…. No, I’m sorry, kitty. I haven’t got anything for you.” Anders patted down his pockets with his free hand and shrugged regretfully at the cat’s expectant stare. “Sorry.”

The tom yowled, low in his throat, and the green eyes narrowed to slits. Anders withdrew his hand, but not quite quickly enough. Mr. Wiggums lashed out in a half-hearted sort of way, and landed a deep scratch across his knuckles.

“Ow! Well, that wasn’t necessary.”

The cat stared at him, tail thrashing for no real apparent reason, then sat down and started washing his paw, apparently unconcerned. Anders put his sore hand to his mouth, and sucked away the welling beads of blood. He didn’t hold it against Mr. Wiggums. Everyone should have the right to strike out when they felt vulnerable.

The familiar clink of armoured footfalls coming down the corridor behind him hauled Anders to his feet even before he was really aware of it, and he glanced guiltily over his shoulder. No reason to, he thought resentfully. Not as if he was doing anything wrong.

Mr. Wiggums yowled again, and wound himself around the backs of Anders’ legs, possibly in the hope that he’d been lying about not having any food. The templar bearing down on them—Ser Rylock, Anders realised, the woman who’d come from Denerim with the new detachment of recruits—glared at him as if she expected a salute.

“You shouldn’t fiddle around with that thing,” she said, nodding at Mr. Wiggums.

Her voice was blunt and hard, with an accent that sounded as if it might be Marcher, and she wore her glossy chestnut hair pulled back into a severe bun. She was fairly young, for a templar, though something about her face—all pale skin and tough, dark eyes, keen like a bird’s—seemed tight-drawn, as if she was just waiting for a command, so she could snap to attention.

Anders had thought that the other night at dinner, when the First Enchanter acknowledged her in his little speech. A welcome for new colleagues, and all that rubbish. She’d stood up with the trace of a heel click, and glared at the roomful of mages and apprentices as if she expected someone to fling a fireball.

He shrugged diffidently. “I’m not doing anything wrong.”

Rylock narrowed her eyes. “Filthy, and most likely disease-ridden,” she snapped.

Mr. Wiggums pressed up against the back of Anders’ calf, and loosed a quiet, rumbling noise best described as mraawoo. Anders gazed steadily at the sword of mercy emblazoned on the front of the templar’s armour. They didn’t make them a different shape for women, he noticed. He’d been curious about that, given that there weren’t any female templars serving under Knight-Commander Greagoir, at least as long as he’d been here. Vaguely, he’d somehow expected there to be… well… bumps. Or something. Not that Ser Rylock looked like the type of woman who had— no, all right, she probably had… just, maybe, not… a lot.

Oh, sod.  

Anders cleared his throat, aware of a slight heat rising to his face. Her armour was awfully shiny. She probably spent a lot of time buffing it. Templars did that, as he understood. Shining armour and praying. Kept the mind off carnal temptations, probably. Not that she looked like she had many of those, either.

He shrugged defensively. “I wouldn’t say that. I mean, I bathe every single week, and at the slightest cough, I’m straight down to the sanatorium. Can’t be too careful, can you?”

Ser Rylock’s glare intensified as Anders raised his head and met her gaze. Her lips drew into a tight crease.

“I meant the cat,” she said crisply.

Ignoring the slight quickening of his pulse, Anders squeezed out an enormous smile and widened his eyes in melodramatic surprise.

“You did? Oh… silly me! We-ell, not to worry. Mr. Wiggums doesn’t have a thing wrong with him. Probably outlive us all, won’t you?” he added, glancing down at the tomcat, who was now sitting by his foot, and radiating an aura of feline smugness.

“Mister…? Oh, for the Maker’s sake….”

Rylock crossed her arms over her chest, obscuring the sword of mercy with her heavy gauntlets, and sighed irritably.

Anders’ grin grew faintly manic, and he garbled out some excuse about how he ought to be getting along. She didn’t even bother to dismiss him. The hallway was beginning to fill up; evening service would be starting soon, and all good apprentices were supposed to show their faces in chapel.

Mr. Wiggums had stalked off in search of something to fight, or possibly eat, and somewhere warm to lay, so Anders slipped in on the tail end of a group of elven students, and slid into one of the back pews.

Rylock didn’t come in. She clanked off down the corridor, and Anders relaxed against the well-polished wood. He didn’t listen much to the sermon, though the shapes of the words were familiar and yielded a little bit of comfort, like being enveloped in the blurred folds of a childhood song.

He thought about that, as the priest droned on in her usual stultifying manner. The heavy air grew warm, perfumed with wax and incense, and the shadowy, half-forgotten sound of his mother singing him to sleep seemed to thread its way through the canticles.

Anders bowed his head, closed his eyes, and held onto that. It was the most peace the Chantry ever gave him.

———————————

Chapter 4

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Ephemera: Chapter 2

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It was another grey day on Lake Calenhad, the dull sky low enough to skim the water, and clouds obscuring the thin, weak face of the sun.

“I could, you know,” Anders said sulkily.

The stone glimmered wetly in his palm. It was black and oval, flattish, and lightly crazed with white veins. He thumbed it thoughtfully as he stared out at the wide, calm expanse of the lake. Moisture thronged the dismal air, though the mist had not yet given way to proper rain.

“Yeah, right.” Karl narrowed his eyes. “Do you even know how to swim?”

Anders shrugged. “It can’t be that hard.”

The templar supervising them—and the other fifty or so apprentices perambulating around the Tower’s grounds in neat lines, two by two—cast a suspicious look in their direction. Karl wasn’t sure whether Anders noticed. He didn’t seem to be paying much attention to the templars recently. He treated them as if they were a minor inconvenience to whatever magnificent fantasy life he had going on inside his head… and that, in Karl’s opinion, was foolish.

Knight-Commander Greagoir wasn’t an unkind man. He was fair, all things considered. Tough, but fair. Most of the men under his command fell into the same bracket, although there were one or two who enjoyed the power they could wield over mages a little too much, and the power over apprentices even more so. They were the ones it was stupid to piss off and, naturally, the ones Anders seemed to take delight in tormenting.

The templar frowned, and seemed to be about to say something. ‘Pick those feet up’ or ‘come on, you lollygagger’ or something, Karl assumed. Before long, their freedom to wander comparatively untrammelled in the grounds would be over, and there would be star-jumps and jogging on the spot before they all got trooped back indoors. He shuddered at the prospect. Anders looked up, smiled dreamily, then scythed his arm through the air and flung the stone out towards the water.

It was a good throw. It flew over the small stone wall that bounded this part of the grounds, across the muddy bank that led down to the jetty, and even skipped once or twice before it sank beneath the dark water.

“Oi!”

They were like birds, Karl thought, the way they reacted. Only, instead of feathers, those wings of bright armour and, instead of songs of alarm, they threw out those walls of nullification… those spells that were not spells, and dispersed magic the way a sharp blade disperses flesh.

He, like several of the other students, winced as the templar’s dispelling aura washed over them, setting his teeth on edge and a pulsing pain beating in his sinuses. Anders just grinned and shrugged.

“What? I wasn’t doing any magic. Look, nothing up my sleeves!”

He waved his hands with a flourish, and one of the other templars stepped up behind them to give him a swift clip across the shoulders.

“All right, pack it in, you.”

“Yes, ser. Sorry, ser,” Anders parroted, affecting a look of innocence that didn’t fool anyone.

The templar glared, but the small disruption to the exercise period was soon forgotten, and they resumed their walk.

“You shouldn’t keep winding them up,” Karl murmured.

Anders grunted and gazed out at the lake.

“Got to do something,” he said darkly.

Karl frowned. “You wouldn’t really try to…? Would you?”

Anders glanced at him with one of those slick, wicked grins; the kind that went straight to Karl’s crotch without the slightest detour to his brain, no matter how serious he’d been trying to be.

“What?”

You know,” he muttered, keenly aware of the templars flocking around them, and the presence of so many other apprentices. It wasn’t safe to talk about escape out here, and he shook his head. “Oh, forget it.”

“Forget what?” Anders asked, all wide-eyed innocence.

He was evidently enjoying inhabiting the frustrating persona he used to annoy templars, and Karl didn’t much care to be on the receiving end of it. He pursed his lips.

“I’ve got doubles with Enchanter Belling all afternoon. Primal theory. You’ve got Entropy with Calthorpe, haven’t you?”

“Mm-hm.” Anders wrinkled his nose, clearly not that enthralled by the prospect. “Why?”

A light breeze blew across the lake, ruffling the water and stirring their robes. Karl shivered, though it wasn’t really cold. Just another grey, changeless day. He peered out at the ripples scything across that dark surface, and the occasional flick of something below the water that might have been a fin. Rumour had it that there were fish in there the size of a horse… probably to do with all the potions and effluvia that got dumped in the lake.

In all honesty, he rather enjoyed these little snatches of time outside. He didn’t even mind the mud or the odd spatter of rain. When Karl was a boy—a very little boy, before his magic showed itself and there were the tears and agony of parting—he used to run and play with his brothers, whatever the weather. There had been four of them, and he the youngest. He’d always wanted to grow up big and broad and strong, like Rufus, his eldest brother, and play football, and come home with skinned knees and a bloody chin, and mud in his hair.

There weren’t that many opportunities for athleticism here.

Past the low stone wall, one of the gardeners was pushing a wheelbarrow up from the small jetty. It seemed to be full of fish guts: cast-off from the docks, Karl assumed, and probably good for the roses or something in the formal gardens at the side of the tower. The jaunty tune the man whistled danced on the air, just another ripple in this wide, islanded place.

“Well… meet me in the senior common room, then? After dinner?”

Anders shrugged. “All right.”

He was staring out at the lake again, and Karl couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something very wrong, just waiting to happen.

~o~O~o~

Karl’s backside went to sleep halfway through Enchanter Belling’s interminable ramble about primal magic. The class had done term after term of theory on the subject, and they were all restless. They wanted something practical to sink their teeth into, something that actually felt like learning.

Unfortunately, Belling was one of those mages who appeared to believe in knowing everything there was to know about magic, so that one never had to use it.

Karl swallowed down an exasperated sigh and cast a glance down the length of the row he was seated in. One of the girls—an elven blonde with delicate features and small hands—was conjuring a mana flower in her palm. The petals glittered, the whole thing a translucent little gem of blue light that she was taking care to conceal from curious eyes… not that Belling would have noticed. He had his back turned, and was scribing a formula across the chalkboard, droning on in that peculiarly high, nasal voice, about the exact precision with which it was imperative one calculated the duration and strength of a spell.

“…being defined by the mass of the object, at which point, ladies and gentlemen, you will see that different aspects of matter require different approaches. The most common of these….”

The elven girl smiled as her flower took perfect form, shimmering in her cupped hand. She leaned forwards, and prodded a boy in the row ahead of her in the back. Karl recognised him as Theo, half-Rivaini and one-quarter curious, although the curiosity hadn’t lasted long; just a spurt of it in their junior year. He didn’t talk much to Karl anymore, though they still shared the same dormitory.

Theo turned in his seat and smiled at her. She lifted her hand to her mouth and blew on the mana flower, sending it fragmenting and spiralling like dust into his face. Judging by Theo’s grin, and a little bit of personal experience, Karl knew what it would feel like… a hundred tiny kisses, and the warmth of a lover’s sigh coasting against his skin.

It was a useful little charm to know, he supposed, if a bit theatrical. Still, theatrics had a place in romance sometimes. He wondered why he’d immediately thought of Anders, and whether that great big, filthy grin of his would cleave his face if Karl made him a mana flower… a kiss composed of light and whispers.

He cursed inwardly. It was quite possible that his thoughts strayed to Anders too often, but Karl wasn’t sure what he ought to do about it, or even if he wanted to do anything. Well, all right, that wasn’t entirely accurate. He did want to—very much so, in fact—but not at the cost of ruining the way things were between them. It was nice to be with someone who knew how to laugh, and how to be light and sharp and to remember that there was a world out there, a world so much bigger than this damn tower.

Karl frowned as he recalled Anders’ words at the lake during the exercise period. It was stupid, of course. Even if he did try another escape attempt, he’d have to be stark staring mad to think he could just swim across the bloody lake. Anyway, he couldn’t even swim in the first place, could he? No. Well, there it was settled then. He wouldn’t do it.

Even Anders wasn’t that crazy.

Those thoughts echoed in Karl’s mind for a while, nonetheless, as he stared numbly at Enchanter Belling’s equations, and wondered why in the name of Andraste’s frilly drawers they would ever need to calculate the approximate mass of an object by eye.

His pen scratched over the parchment in front of him, diligently taking down the notes. It would have been much more productive, surely, to be preparing them for their Harrowing. Some of the older apprentices were already talking about it. Karl didn’t know whether there was a set age at which they took you, or if it was the enchanters themselves who tipped the wink, once a student was deemed ready.

No one ever talked about it. He didn’t know why. Same reason not all the apprentices who went up to the Harrowing Chamber came down again, he supposed… or why it was said that some actually volunteered for the Rite of Tranquillity.

Whatever the Harrowing was, it must be horrific. Karl was sure of that, but also just as sure that, no matter what, he would never voluntarily submit to being made Tranquil. All your hopes, your dreams, your feelings and fears, burned away until there was nothing left, none of the fire and music in life that made it worthwhile.

Enchanter Belling reached behind the chalkboard and drew out something wrapped in a white sheet, which he placed with a heavy thud on the desk at the front of the classroom.

“Now,” he announced, whipping the sheet off what Karl now saw was a large wheel of cheese, “who can estimate the weight of this? Hmm? Anyone?”

Karl stifled a groan. Someone raised their hand and suggested a number, then someone else upped it by five pounds. He didn’t care. How in the Maker’s name was it even supposed to be remotely relevant?

Belling pointed the chalk directly at him, fixing him with those pale, faintly runny blue eyes.

“Mr. Thekla? Perhaps you would favour us with a guess?”

Karl winced. “Er… don’t know. Forty… three?”

The mage nodded briskly. “All right. Very good! Forty-four and a half, to be exact. And, knowing this, you would approximate how much primal energy as required to transmogrify the density of said object, at that mass?”

Karl blinked owlishly, feeling the gazes of the other apprentices rest heavily on him. Heat started to crawl up his neck.

“Um….”

“That is,” Enchanter Belling added brightly, his voice ringing with a clear, sharp tone of triumph, “how much mana would it take for you to petrify this cheese? Hmm? Come along, come along. Stand up. That’s it. Now, come down here, and let’s have a practical demonstration….”

Oh, bloody wonderful.

Rising awkwardly to his feet, Karl made his way to the front of the class, aware of the titters in the last couple of rows. Belling was off again, banging on about density and energy, and the cheese wheel sat on the desk, looking at Karl with as much malevolence as the average dairy product could muster.

He swallowed heavily and pushed back the sleeves of his robe.

~o~O~o~

Anders sat on one of the tables in the senior common room, swinging his feet idly. Like most of the rooms in the Tower, this was a large, grey stone affair, with a high, vaulted ceiling and impressive carvings. The rugs and wall hangings that kept out the worst of the winter chill—and it could get cold here, even by his standards—were strikingly vibrant next to all that masonry.

Sometimes, he wondered if mages liked their opulence as a kind of defiance. They might be cooped up here like chickens, but chickens with really, really good décor. Also, three meals a day, beds with barely any wildlife in… and brilliant medical care. He recited the good points to himself like a mantra, as if that might one day make him stop thinking of this place as a cage.

He doubted it. That was exactly what it was, after all.

A couple of the older apprentices stared daggers as they passed by, and he smiled cheerfully at them. Juniors weren’t meant to be up here, strictly speaking. Not that it really mattered; there wasn’t that much privacy. There wasn’t any bloody privacy anywhere.

His gaze wandered to the two templars standing at the door of the room. Big doors, like there were all over the building. Not quite as big as the ones that led to the Great Hall or the templar quarters, or as ornate as the ones that opened onto the public rooms at the front of the Tower, for receiving guests and other people it was deemed necessary to impress. No… these still had the same purpose—the same capability to be shut and barred and lock demons in, if required—but they were altogether more business-like.

Anders supposed he should admire that, really. Presence of mind, whoever built this place, or rebuilt it, or… whatever. He didn’t really care. It seemed pointless for a prisoner to care about the architectural niceties of his prison.

The templars both looked young. Anders recognised one of them by name: Ser Maurais. Orlesian by birth. He was fleetingly reminded of the time he’d tried to sneak away with the foreign Circle’s deputation, exposed by his woeful ignorance of the language. That, and the fact he’d had no idea where he was going. They’d got almost as far as the Bannorn—bound for one of the big highways, and eventually Denerim, he thought—before he’d been busted.

Next time, he had determined, he was going to be better prepared. The Tower’s library was good for that. Plenty of maps, plenty to read about Ferelden’s towns and cities, and the lands that lay beyond her borders.

For a while, Anders had entertained the notion of going to Orlais. It sounded nice; all that fancy food and cultural sophistication, and what he’d heard native-born Fereldans refer to disparagingly as ‘dirty foreign ways’. That definitely sounded promising. Too many templars, though. Too much Chantry.

So, no. Orlais was out. He’d read intriguing things about Antiva, though. Hot, sunny climes, with great seafood, tempestuous, raven-haired women, and bronzed, swash-buckling men… also definitely promising. Anders tapped his heels together thoughtfully, and stared down at the toes of his soft leather shoes.

He would run again. It was only a matter of time. There was a principle involved, damn it.

He sniffed, and looked up, aware of a familiar presence bearing down on him.

Karl’s halo of dark curls was somewhat rumpled, and he looked tired. His robes seemed a little awry, too, and Anders sniffed again.

“You smell like cheese,” he said, by way of greeting.

Karl pulled a face. “Do you know how hard it is to petrify a forty-four-and-a-half pound wheel of aged cheddar?”

“Oddly enough, no.”

“It’s difficult,” he retorted, drawing to a halt beside the table.

Anders could see the fatigue of a long day wearing creases into the corners of his eyes. He rather wanted to crane up and press his mouth to Karl’s, to pull him close and kiss away the tiredness, but that probably wouldn’t be too welcome right here, right now. Besides, Anders rather liked kissing Karl to be done quietly, when they were alone and safe, with just the delicate frisson of possibility that someone could walk in.

“Poor love,” he said, extending one foot and rubbing his toes against the side of Karl’s knee.

Karl smiled. “You been waiting long?”

Anders shook his head. It didn’t matter, anyway.

The common room was full of apprentices, but no one was really looking at them. Most of the students split off into their own little cliques at the first possible opportunity. Pallid, serious-looking types with their hair combed forwards huddled in corners and muttering about the dark, complex nature of entropic magic, and how it was the only true principle in a dark and complex world. Several studious sorts sat at desks or in the chairs by the large twin fireplaces, heads buried in books, while the more outgoing of the student population gathered to chatter about anything and everything that wasn’t related to magic.

There was never much natural light in any of the Tower’s rooms, the windows being too small and high to let in more than the odd glancing shaft, and one grew used to the warm blurriness of candles and firelight. Still, if Anders had been able to see the sky, he would have seen the dusk pressing in, and the darkness folding softly around the grey walls. It wouldn’t be long before night fell properly and he, like the other apprentices, would find himself chased back to his dormitory, and bed.

“I wanted to show you something,” Karl said, glancing over his shoulder, like he didn’t want to be overheard. “Come on.”

Anders hopped off the table and followed him through the common room, out through the far door and past the Orlesian-born templar with the thin, pencil-like moustache. He fought the urge to quicken his pace—they always thought you were up to something if you sped up, although in his case they were usually right—and sloped after Karl, just as if they were on their way to the chapel, or one of the enchanter’s open office hours.

They didn’t turn off at the corridor leading to the chapel, though. Instead, Karl slowed right down, as if he was checking the coast was clear, and then he reached back and grabbed the sleeve of Anders’ robe, dragging him across the shadowy stone hall, and towards another, lesser-used corridor, beyond which lay a narrow stone staircase.

Their leather slippers flapped and scuffled against the flags, and Anders nearly stumbled.

“Where are we going?” he whispered, not sure why he was whispering.

This corridor seemed utterly deserted, as did the staircase that Karl was now motioning him to climb.

“Shh. This way. Don’t worry… no one ever comes up here this time of night.”

Anders frowned, but followed the older boy. It was generally safe to assume Karl knew what he was doing and, if anything did go wrong… well, it’d be interesting, at least.

All the same, there was something faintly eerie about it. The stairs had no handrail, and not even a rope. The stones were bare, neatly faced but devoid of decoration, and they seemed old, much older than the dorms and common rooms, which were comparatively recent renovations to the tower’s structure. Anders was aware that, at its heart, Kinloch Hold dated back more than a thousand years, and he felt briefly alarmed at wandering over its more ancient places.

He glanced down at his feet, at the worn steps with their dented centres, and wondered how many other mages had trodden here before him… and why it all seemed so deserted now. There weren’t even any torches lit up here, or lanterns, or anything. Karl conjured a sphere of light in his palm, and held it out in front of them, its bluish glow hardly doing much to dispel the sense of mild creepiness.

If he strained his ears, Anders could just make out the murmurs of voices running along the stones, the odd acoustics of the curved walls allowing them to hear what might have been something drifting up from the laboratories, or the common rooms… maybe even the kitchens. The sounds were too quiet and too fuzzy to make out any distinct shapes of words and, as they climbed, it grew quieter anyway.

“This is killing my knees,” Anders complained.

Karl shook his head, striding on in front. “Just wait… it’ll be worth it. Promise.”

Anders grumbled under his breath, but didn’t argue.

Eventually, they got to the top of the staircase. It was dark, and chilly, and the little landing they found themselves on boasted nothing but another narrow corridor and a squat oak door. Anders noticed how unlike the great, wide doors on the lower floors it was, but that alone hardly seemed worth the climb.

“Well?” he demanded, looking expectantly at Karl.

The soft blue glow of light in his palm, held up between them, lit his face with strange, thin highlights, and clean, deep shadows. He grinned, the tiredness of earlier seeming to leach away, and Anders suddenly felt rather exposed. His pulse beat in the base of his throat, and he shrugged, hiding behind that comfortable veneer of flippancy that, over the years, he’d beaten into a tough, protective shell.

“I can’t say I’m dramatically impressed. There are spiders, aren’t there? I just know there’s going to be spiders. As long as they’re not giant ones, I’ll be all right. If they’re giant ones, I’m running screaming all the way back to the common room… I don’t care what you say. I’ll just—”

“Anders.”

Karl said his name gently, softly, and it stopped him mid-sentence, his lips failing around the words.

“Hm?”

“Shut up.”

He blinked, casting around for some sort of suitably rude response, and was rather surprised to find Karl taking his hand. His grasp was dry, warm… firm, and he led Anders to the small door, pausing only to shake the orb of light from his palm, plunging them into darkness.

Anders wasn’t all that crazy about the dark thing.

“Um. It’s a bit—”

“Hold on.”

Karl squeezed his fingers gently, and he heard the door handle clank, then the loud, grating creak of hinges in sore need of oiling, and then….

“Oh.”

It was beautiful. It shouldn’t have been, but it was.

The room was evidently an old supply store, long disused and possibly forgotten, or at least deemed unimportant by the Tranquil stockkeepers and their endless inventory lists. Crates lined the heavy stone walls, and the room smelled of musty sacking and old wood. It was tiny—little bigger than a cupboard, really—with a low ceiling, and there definitely were cobwebs, and probably spiders, but none of that mattered.

Set high into the centre of the far wall, there was a small, pointed window, about thirty inches high and eighteen or so wide. Because the room was so small, probably packed under an eave somewhere, an afterthought in the use of space, it sat lower than most of the Tower’s windows did, putting it at a little above head height.

Through that single, narrow gap, moonlight flooded in, and a swatch of dark velvet sky winked at Anders, pierced by stars.

He moved forwards, impelled by some irresistible pull, his hand peeling from Karl’s grasp as he went to the window. It had a thick, cool stone ledge and, if he pulled himself up on his toes, Anders could lean upon it, and feel the night air on his face.

He breathed it in, hauled it in with huge, gasping lungfuls, tasting the moisture and the chill, and the scent of tarred rope from the jetty, and the mud-and-silage odour of the lake itself. There might even have been the smell of roses, drifting up from the gardens. He wasn’t sure; everything melded together in a brilliant, beautiful mess, and it tasted of freedom and wonder.

It was bittersweet, of course, that taste. He wanted it… wanted it more than he’d ever wanted anything, though it wasn’t his to take. No touching, just looking, and yet he was so tired of chafing his heart against things he couldn’t have. Anders exhaled, long and low, and watched his breath curl, misting on the air.

He could see so far across the water. Oh, there was nothing out there but water—its black weight split into hundreds of softly glimmering planes, pebbled beneath the silver sickle of the moon—but it was wide, and free, and wonderful. If he held his breath, he could hear the lake lapping against the Tower’s little island, gnawing away at the rock as it had been doing for centuries.

Once, the Imperial Highway had come right out to the Tower. Kinloch Hold had marked the edge of the lake, and the bridge of earth had been so slowly eroded… like the passing of the years themselves, slipping by while the Circle stayed mired in their unchanging ways, their traditions and their hypocrisies.

Anders’ fingers tightened on the ledge, and he was aware of Karl moving behind him, the warmth and the security of his presence as he moved closer.

“Do you like it? I thought you might like it.”

Anders fought to tear his gaze from the window, and turned to his friend. Karl’s face was wreathed with uncertainty, which seemed very wrong. There shouldn’t be an ounce of doubt about this gift, he decided.

“It’s perfect,” he breathed. “How did you…?”

Karl shrugged. The moonlight smoothed out his skin, making his nose and cheekbones seem sharper and cleaner, his brows like dark lines of ink above eyes that looked as deep as the lake beyond the window.

“I found it by accident. Was looking for a shortcut to the third floor lecture hall when I was running late, last week. I saw the window… thought of you.”

“It’s certainly very quiet up here,” Anders said, allowing a suggestive smile to curl his lips. “Bet hardly anyone comes by.”

As expressions of gratitude went, it was a bit cheesy, but Karl didn’t seem to mind. He grinned.

“Don’t think so. I don’t think most of this stuff’s been touched in ages.”

“Hmm.”

Anders meant to say something ribald about what else had been going without, but he couldn’t quite stop his gaze sliding to the window again. His smile widened as he looked up at the moon and the water, and felt the light pull of the breeze reaching out to kiss his skin. He blinked, returning his attention to Karl.

“Thank you.”

Karl shrugged. “I figured just seeing it isn’t enough—I know that—but I thought maybe it might keep you here a little longer.”

Anders wasn’t sure what to say to that. No matter how well they’d come to know each other, he hadn’t expected Karl to sum him up quite so succinctly.

It was, to be honest, slightly unnerving.

———————————
Chapter 3
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Ephemera: Chapter 1

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Back to Ephemera: Contents
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The library was as good as empty. One templar stood by the large double doors, his helmet doffed and his back slumped against the stonework. He could have been asleep on his feet. A few apprentices milled around the card catalogues, and one or two hardy souls were still buried behind piles of books, despite the late hour.

It didn’t take Karl long to spot the familiar, fair head behind the large, open volume on the desk, and he smiled to himself as he crossed the stone floor, leather shoes almost soundless against the flags. Anders didn’t even look up, busily doodling on a scrap of paper, tongue protruding slightly from the corner of his mouth as he shielded himself from the world with the pages of—Karl squinted at the front of the book—Arcane Zoology. Hmm.

“Psst,” he hissed, enjoying the other boy’s guilty start and owlish blinking.

Anders’ hands clamped reflexively over the paper, but he grinned as he recognised his friend.

“Karl!” His grin widened, but he lowered his voice a little in deference to the glances from the other students. “What are you doing here?”

Karl shrugged and leaned against the corner of the wooden desk. It was—like most of the Circle Tower’s furnishings—wooden, ancient, and heavily scarred with decades of pitting and graffiti. The study desks were arranged in blocks of four, with glass-walled lanterns that held magical orbs of energy bolted to the centre of each island. No fires in the library, which explained how bloody cold it always felt in here. A few slim candles burned in wrought iron wall sconces, and their warm light collected in pools upon the ground, lending the high-vaulted room an eerie pattern of shadows, folded softly around the smell of musty books and mouldy scrolls.

Karl reached out and tapped a finger on the side of the lantern. The little bluish-white orb within trembled and buzzed from side to side, and the light it gave flickered.

“Just thought I’d see if you were here,” he said nonchalantly. “I heard what happened in Enchanter Lennox’s class.”

“Oh.” Anders frowned. “It could have happened to anyone, you know.”

Karl tried nominally to stifle his grin. “Mm. Most things could. They just always end up happening to you. Strange, isn’t it?”

Anders glowered at the other apprentice from beneath those dark brows, at odds with the grubby blond of his hair.

There were, Karl reflected, a lot of incongruities where Anders was concerned.

He’d come to the Circle late, and no one knew exactly what his story was. Just that, one day, a gangly, fair-haired lad with a pinched scowl and the kind of spiky distrust usually seen in stray cats had been deposited into their midst.

He seemed to have been struggling to catch up ever since.

It wasn’t that he lacked talent… quite the opposite, in fact. Karl had first come to know of him because one of the Senior Enchanters had insisted that Anders sit in on a seminar about elemental theory for the third-year apprentices, despite the fact he was a few years younger—and a great deal less experienced—than the other students. Many of Karl’s peers had taken the intrusion as either an insult or a challenge. He’d just smiled and nodded at the new boy, whereupon Anders had given him a scowl very similar to the one he was receiving now, and slumped at the back of the class.

He’d held himself aloof from the other apprentices for weeks. Barely talked to anyone, never cracked a smile… and then they heard he’d tried to escape.

It was common enough in newcomers. Karl had done it once, when he was ten, the summer after he was brought to the Tower. It hadn’t been a good plan—hide in the kitchens and try to run out the back way when the butcher’s boy came—but the punishment hadn’t been severe. A week of reduced privileges and a few thorough talking-tos from the most matronly of the Enchanters… he should think of the Tower as his home, she’d said, a haven and a place to feel safe. There was nothing to run from here.

No. Nothing but the ever-present pressure of other people, the rules and regulations and strangleholds… the politics and the in-fighting, the gossip-mongers and the waspish bitchiness, and the endless routines that repeated day after day after day without change. Nothing but that.

Anders’ scowl slid into sullenness.

“I didn’t,” he said quietly, “do it on purpose.”

Karl grinned. “No, of course not. The fact Lennox is a pompous old windbag had nothing to do with it, I’m sure.”

True, Anders’ first escape attempt had been more audacious, and more successful than most. A deputation of mages from the Orlesian Circle had paid a visit to the First Enchanter. There had been all the usual pomp and ceremony—celebratory dinner, interminable speeches, much talk about academic brotherhood and the hand of friendship across nations—and, when they left, no one had noticed the extra servant slip into the boat. Two whole days, he’d been gone. He only got caught, allegedly, because the deputation realised he couldn’t speak Orlesian.

Karl had been impressed. He’d made a point of waiting around outside the detention hall to congratulate Anders, when he was finally allowed out, and a grudging sort of friendship had begun to form.

Now, Anders looked up at him with an expression of wounded pride.

“I didn’t know it would explode,” he protested. “Really, I—”

Karl nodded sagely. “Uh-huh?”

“—thought it might just… fizzle a bit.”

Anders looked crestfallen but, as he held eye contact, the corner of his mouth curled into a smile, and irresistible laughter began to bubble between them, hushed in deference to the library’s oppressive quiet.

Karl shook his head incredulously. “You blew up a pie, Anders. A completely innocent, unsullied, cherry—”

“It was blueberry.”

“—blueberry pie,” Karl continued smoothly, struggling to keep his own grin in check. “Where did you even…?”

Anders threw his hands into the air in a gesture of utter frustration. The movement sent the pages of Arcane Zoology fluttering, and scattered pen and scraps of parchment across the desktop.

“He just kept going on and on and he was so boring, and heating the pie without burning it was supposed to be a demonstration of controlling the degree and direction of fire spells, so you don’t singe your own eyebrows off, and… my concentration slipped. Honestly.”

Karl spluttered, aware of the handful of students left in the library giving them looks of enquiring disapproval, and tried to keep the noise down. He bent to pick up one of Anders’ scraps of parchment, and peered at the doodle on it. A tiny cat with tiger stripes was chasing four templars off a cliff, their legs pinwheeling comically in panic.

“You blew up a pie,” he repeated affectionately, pushing the paper back across the desk. “You’re crazy.”

Anders’ fingers touched his as he took the drawing… just a gentle contact, no pressure, no demands, but his smile grew shy and questioning.

Slowly, Karl traced his thumb up the length of Anders’ middle finger, letting his fingertips brush against the tight-drawn peaks of knuckles, and scribing tiny circles on the back of his hand.

Life in the Tower wasn’t all bad. Not all the time.

“Are you going to chapel before bed?” he asked softly.

Anders appeared to think for a moment, then understood the question. He nodded.

“Walk with me?”

Karl grinned. “Sure.”

~o~O~o~

It was usually quiet in the chapel between services. There’d be a few initiates flitting about, doing things with candles and incense, or dusting the pews, and a couple of priests were usually hanging around. Anders had always assumed it was on the off-chance they might get to look pityingly at a mage or three. He suspected they competed to see who could instil the most self-loathing in young apprentices with a well-placed pursed lip or drawn brow.

To be fair, Ferelden’s Circle Tower didn’t seem to house too many priests of the ‘mages-are-an-aberration-in-the-Maker’s-sight’ brigade, which was a pleasing and refreshing change. In his experience, limited as it was, the Chantry seemed keen on reminding mages that they were cursed and inherently dangerous, and even the enchanters never stopped going on and on about responsibility and the importance of control.

It wasn’t that Anders failed to understand the dangers magic brought. Far from it. Like all mages, he felt the presence of the Fade, and knew the hazards it held. He heard the whispers on the edges of his dreams; just like the little voice at the very back of your mind that—whenever you come to stand at the top of a cliff—whispers ‘jump’.

He was, however, young. He believed in the strength of his will and—despite the chain of events that had brought him all these hundreds of miles to this damp, muddy, smelly little country, with its grey stone walls and dark, dank, dull corners—he considered himself vaguely immortal. Well, they hadn’t broken him down yet, had they? No matter how hard they tried. Anyway, it was pointless, all that templar paranoia. Possession, demons, dabbling in obscure rituals and so on… no. He wasn’t interested. They were things that didn’t affect him.

In fact, very little truly affected Anders, or so he told himself. He’d worked hard at making that so, and treasured the belief, holding it close to his chest and nursing it until it seemed the most infallible kind of lie.

So, they headed to the chapel, as he’d soon learned all good Fereldan apprentices did… and as he’d done most nights since he got here, what was it, two years ago now? Maybe a little more, maybe a little less. Time was the first thing they started to take from you; grinding it down, hour by hour, until you stopped noticing it passing. Perhaps you even thought it didn’t matter… and that was how they got you. Once they changed your perception of things, they were in your head, and they could do whatever they damn well pleased.

Karl walked close to him, their feet marking matched leather-shod rhythms on the stone floor. It was one of the heartbeats of the tower, that sound; the footsteps of mages, ever pacing, measured out in soft slippers and the swish of robes, so distinct from the brash, echoing clink of armoured templars on patrol.

Anders had his arms crossed over his middle, hugging Arcane Zoology to him, but it didn’t stop the little thrill of excitement that popped in his veins every time his shoulder brushed Karl’s. Their bodies inclined closer and closer as they walked, and Karl smelled of soap and paper dust and warm, comfortable things. He glanced at Anders, and gave him one of those knowing little grins, his unruly mop of dark hair curling at his temples, framing all the mischief in his face.

Other apprentices were sloping to chapel alongside them. More swish-slip of robes and leather shoes, and more quiet, subdued figures murmuring amongst themselves, flocking to the serene, candle-lit space over which the great, white, marble Andraste presided.

Usually, Anders sat at the back. Close enough for whichever enchanter sitting in on the service to notice that he was there; far enough away from the front for no one to see Karl touch his hand, or arm… or thigh.

It hadn’t been going on long, this— well, whatever it was they were doing. Flirting, Anders admitted. Kissing. Maybe groping a bit… or a lot. He hadn’t expected it. Hadn’t really expected a friend, much less anything else. Karl was nice, though. Patient, gentle, and kind. Funny.

He’d found, despite his distrust, it had been easy to open up to him, at least a little bit. It had seemed natural to sit and talk with him, to learn how life in this place really worked, and what the other apprentices expected from him. Natural, to feel that maybe more than magic bonded them. Even natural, that afternoon in the empty dormitory, to press a sudden, clumsy kiss to Karl’s lips, while he was mid-way through talking about a paper on entropic magic.

With anyone else, it would probably have ended up being embarrassing, but things weren’t like that with Karl. They’d laughed. Laughter was good. Anders had gone long enough without it to understand how precious it could be.

So, he slid into the dark wooden pew, with its thick, greasy scent of beeswax polish and stifled sanctity, and because Karl was sitting next to him, the sermon didn’t much matter. Anders recognised it, all the same. Mother Donata was repeating—for the umpteenth time, he was sure—one of the sermons of Divine Renata I on integrity.

Booo-oorrring.

“We trade our honour,” the priest intoned, her hard-edged, nasal voice echoing against the stonework, “as if it were the cheapest of currency. We do not understand what integrity is, or what it is truly worth, and it is from this ignorance that original sin was born….”

Anders dropped his hand casually to the edge of the pew, resting it on the smooth edge of the wood while he balanced Arcane Zoology on his knee, and pretended to listen. He pressed his lips together, trying not to smile as the warmth of Karl’s fingers nudged against his, and he allowed that warm, familiar grasp to enfold him.

The chapel was fairly full tonight; unusually so for midweek. The pew behind them was empty, but there were four apprentices on the one in front. Two of them—a redheaded girl and an elven boy with close-cropped dark hair—were sitting closer together than necessity demanded, and probably taking the same sort of opportunity as he and Karl, Anders supposed. The realisation amused him, particularly when the elven boy’s cheeks started to colour, suggesting he’d got a handful of something more than fingers.

A muted snigger beside Anders told him Karl had noticed as well, and he squeezed Anders’ hand. They’d known each other long enough for the message to be understood. Anders shot him a quick, subtle glance, and inclined his head very slightly, gaze darting to the side door that led to the westerly corridor. Karl’s lips twitched; almost a smile, and definitely a promise of lechery to come.

“At some time,” the mother continued to quote, “we have all thought, ‘What does it matter if I keep hold of my integrity? I am but one mortal. I am powerless.’ How blind we all are!”

The templar standing on the other side of the nave, in the lee of one of the great stone pillars, certainly wasn’t blind. He cleared his throat meaningfully, and the fitments of his armour jangled softly as he shifted position.

On the pew in front, the redhead and the elf both stiffened, then edged apart, and Anders struggled to hold in a laugh. There just seemed to be something so absurd about it all… this place, and its stupid rules, and the stupid way they all let themselves be caged and herded and reproached, day after day after day.

They said it wasn’t a prison. She’d said that, the old bag he’d been dragged in to see after he tried to leg it. ‘The Tower is not a prison, but a haven… a home.’ Every would-be escapee got the same lecture, Karl said.

Karl said there was a degree of truth to it, but then Karl was usually one for looking at both sides of an argument. In Anders’ opinion, three square meals a day—notwithstanding the mystery meat served in the refectory, and that yellow stuff that might possibly have been cabbage—and a roof over one’s head did not a home make. He didn’t tend to think much about it, though, because it seemed to be a waste of time. You either knuckled under and got on with it, the way most people did, happy to let yourself be sucked into the routines and the little games, the power struggles and the daily politics, or you waited for an opportunity. He was doing the latter. They wouldn’t hold him here. They hadn’t anywhere else, so why should Ferelden be different?

The priest was getting a bit impassioned, leaning on her lectern and waving one wrinkly finger in the air to emphasise each slice of rhetoric. Trouble was, the lectern was just to the right of the statue of Andraste, with her eternal flame cupped before her and, from his angle, it looked suspiciously like the revered mother was pointing at her backside.

“Did not the virtue of a single slave destroy the Tevinter Imperium? Did not the dishonour of one man drive the Maker from our sight?”

Anders bit his lower lip, hard, and tried to hold in a fit of the giggles.

“And truly,” Mother Donata quoth, winding up for her big finale, “nothing but the integrity of our hearts will win the love of the Maker back to us. It is all the power we shall ever possess to change this world for good or ill.”

She cast a glance around the room, then fastened both hands to the lectern and leaned back, as if the effort of all that spiritual nagging had exhausted her.

“There end the words of Divine Renata I, and so I ask you—all of you, this night—to meditate upon your own integrity. For only by the purity of your actions, the clarity of your purpose and will, shall you find your own salvation.”

And not accidentally allow yourself to become possessed by a demon and rampage through the entire third floor, causing general mayhem, chaos, and a horrible mess that some poor sod will have to clean up. Now go in peace.

Anders almost choked with the effort of suppressing a snort at his mental ad lib, and felt Karl’s elbow nudge him sharply in the ribs. He turned the giggle into a cough, and disentangled his fingers from Karl’s in order to bring a hand to his mouth as the nearby templar glared at him.

He wasn’t one of the younger knights, this one; a broad man with greying brown hair, a broad, rough-hewn face, and a semi-permanent scowl. As the service ended, and people started to filter out and towards their respective common rooms, dormitories or—in the case of the older mages, the senior library and the snugs on the upper floors, with their capacious brandy decanters and comfortable chairs—the templar loomed out from behind his pillar.

“Oi, you!”

Anders’ shoulders stiffened at the sound of the man’s voice, and the all-too-familiar epithet, but Karl moved in front of him, eyebrows raised in solicitous enquiry.

“Yes, ser?”

“Not you, Thekla.” He jerked his head dismissively. “Go on, hop it. You… whatsit… Anders. Enchanter Lennox says you’re to see First Enchanter Irving. Tomorrow morning, first thing. You understand?”

Anders gulped, and stared at the sword of mercy emblazoned on the templar’s armoured chest. It was better than looking into those stony, rather angry eyes. He nodded.

“Yes, ser,” he mumbled. “Thank you, ser.”

“Right. Someone’ll be along to escort you. If I had my way, you’d bloody well go now, but… go on. Pair of you, off to bed.”

Anders nodded, allowing Karl to give a solicitous assurance on his behalf, then grab his elbow and drag him towards the side door. He was vaguely aware of some of the other apprentices tittering at him, but that wasn’t anything new.

“Wouldn’t worry about it,” Karl said, as they passed through the great, iron-bound oak door and into the west corridor, which lay between the main floor and the rear staircase leading down to the dorms. “Probably nothing more than a bit of a finger-wagging. You said it yourself… your concentration slipped, right?”

Anders smiled weakly. “Mm.”

“There you are, then,” Karl said confidently, giving him a cheerful jab with his elbow. “Not going to send you to Aeonar for that, are they?”

He shook his head, unwilling to admit that it wasn’t the threat of punishment that unnerved him, but the prospect of standing in front of First Enchanter Irving’s desk and suffering the man’s disappointment. Irving—with his pouchy, hangdog face, and that gravelly, grating voice—had a terrible way of making you think he actually gave a damn. Maybe he did, Anders thought reluctantly. It was possible, after all. Responsible for this whole tower full of people, from children right up to the pompous old windbags like Lennox, who probably needed twice as much supervision… it was enough to leave anyone looking knackered.

The corridor was almost empty: silent, but for the soft scuff of their leather-shod feet, that interminable swish-slip of robes and footsteps against the stone. Pretty much everyone else seemed to have left by the main doors, though one or two apprentices passed by, slinking down towards the staircases, looking tired and overworked. A single torch burned by the chapel’s side door, and statues of Andraste—or possibly some other devout sort, blank-eyed and faces tipped to the heavens—lined the hallway’s alcoves. The small, high windows allowed thin beams of moon-touched light in to pierce the shadows, and Anders pondered, for a moment, how long it had been since he’d looked up at a proper full moon, instead of a bit of sky glimpsed through a window.

He pushed the thoughts away, and shot Karl a mischievous grin.

“Anyway,” he said, his voice a little husky in the quiet, “if they wanted to do that, they’d have to catch me first, wouldn’t they?”

Karl blinked, and a confused frown started to cross his brow, but Anders didn’t give him time to react. He tossed Arcane Zoology into the air, hiked his robe up to his knees with the other hand, and ran.

~o~O~o~

Karl laughed, part disbelief and part a comfortable lack of surprise. He’d known Anders was crazy for a while now, but it didn’t stop the knowledge catching him unawares every so often, like the glint of sunlight on a mirror.

He caught the book as it flew towards him in a scuffle of pages and errant bookmarks, tucked it under his arm, and headed in hot pursuit.

They ran breathlessly through the hallways, feet slapping the stones and robes flapping out behind them. It was joyous, unrepentant rebellion; noise in the quiet, movement in the stillness. Karl almost caught up with him on the twist of the stone staircase that led down to the apprentice dorms, but Anders jumped the last two steps with annoying agility. He glanced back at Karl with a bright-eyed grin, and then darted away, through the open doorway—the heavy wood doors pinned back, its great pointed stone arch cleaved the high wall—and into yet another corridor lined with doors and statuary.

Karl kicked out once last turn of speed, scrabbling back an advantage now they were both on level ground… and now that they were within potential earshot of the dormitories. The low, semi-distant buzz of chatter took the edge off the silence, pools of light spilling from the doorways further down the corridor. There would be templars around the corners, and the constant pressure of other bodies, other presences, jostling for space where they were all packed in together, bunk on bunk and desk against desk.

He caught up with Anders, caught him around the middle, and cannoned the pair of them into the wall. Anders gave a gasp of laughter as they collapsed into the shelter of one of the alcoves, shielded from the possibility of snooping gazes by yet another statue of Andraste. He was flushed, bright-eyed… beautiful.

The closeness of the space forced them together, not that Karl minded it in the slightest. It just made it easier to lean in, a silent question and the thrill of permission granted. Anders’ face softened, his eyes growing deep and hazy as his lips parted. There was something ineffably wonderful about that, Karl thought, as he brushed a gentle kiss to the corner of his mouth in a tender and teasing caress… something wonderful, every time. He was so lovely, so artless, so free. It should have been ironic, but it didn’t feel that way. When they were together, like this, it was easy to forget they couldn’t leave these halls, because why would they want to? Nothing else mattered, nothing else was real.

He cupped a hand to the back of Anders’ neck and kissed him properly, deeply, relishing the little moan of pleasure the action elicited, and the feel of Anders’ fingers twisting knots into the front of his robe.

Arcane Zoology thudded to the floor between them, slipping from beneath Karl’s arm as he pressed closer, losing himself in the yielding warmth of Anders’ mouth, his taste, and the subtle, dark crackle of power that chased beneath his flesh.

Stifled laughter echoed against his lips and Anders broke the kiss, all snorts and giggles. He smoothed the crumples from Karl’s robe in a manner that really didn’t do much to soothe the tension at all, and smiled hazily at him.

Karl pushed forward again, palms pressed flat to the wall behind Anders’ head as he claimed one last slow, methodical kiss.

The point was fast approaching, they both knew—or, at least, Karl hoped they both knew—at which stolen moments like these wouldn’t be enough. Snatched kisses and brief squeezes were very nice, but they didn’t quite hit the mark. Still, he remained painfully aware of that narrow bridge of years between them. Anders was younger than him, with all the bombast and brash confidence of inexperience, and Karl didn’t want to be the one to make him feel vulnerable.

That was one more thing he hated about the Circle. It made things so bloody complicated. They were cooped up like this, all together, and yet supposed to forego all those natural impulses… as if being a mage somehow stopped you being flesh-and-blood, with needs and drives and desires. He hated the secrecy it engendered, and the way it forced them into clumsy, ugly trysts, as if wanting to be close to another human being was something to be ashamed of, to hide away like a dirty secret. And then there was the interminable bloody gossip….

Anders pressed close against him, wringing the last breath out of the kiss, the firm outlines of his body plain beneath his robe. At moments like this, he didn’t seem all that innocent, and Karl had to remind himself to hold back.

“Andraste’s tits,” he murmured appreciatively as they parted.

Anders sniggered and twisted his head to the side, peering critically at the statue they sheltered behind.

“Yeah. Not bad, are they?”

Karl snorted, and let his fingertips trace the soft curve of Anders’ cheekbone, melting a little as he turned his head back in response, those dark eyes warm and hazy.

“I’ve seen better,” Karl murmured, which was a lie.

Anders raised an eyebrow. “Oh? Breast connoisseur now, are we?”

“Eh, more of a leg man,” he admitted, pulling away grudgingly, and nodding to the far end of the corridor. “You should, um… y’know.”

“I know.” Anders huffed a resigned sigh. “So should you.”

“Wish we were in the same dorm.”

Anders nodded—familiar territory, this one—and gave him a wicked smile.

“Yeah, but then no one would get any sleep, would they?”

Karl smirked, and bent to pick up the tattered volume at his feet as Anders slipped out of his grasp and, brushing down his robe, prepared to head back to his dormitory.

“Here, don’t forget this.”

“Thanks.”

His fingers brushed Karl’s as he took the book, and a small, shy smile passed between them.

“And… good luck. Tomorrow morning,” Karl added sheepishly. “If I’m not up when they come to take you away.”

Anders narrowed his eyes. “Very funny.”

“Well, it was.” Karl shrugged. “Apparently. I hear people will be talking about the pie thing for years. You should probably be proud of yourself.”

He grinned as Anders grimaced and, with an awkward shrug and a mumbled ‘goodnight’, turned and started to head for the lower apprentice dorm. Karl watched him go, and silently cursed every single damn rule the Circle had.

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Chapter 2
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