Straining at the Leash: Part Six

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~o~O~o~

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

Corda?”

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

Jowan? Were you following me?”

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

Defensive as ever.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~o~O~o~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Corda groaned. Not this again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Merciful? Of all the

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jowan leaned forwards conspiratorially, swallowing hard.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Straining at the Leash: Part Five

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The man was dark-skinned, with a short, neatly trimmed black beard, and a braid of black hair. He wore a long, pale surcoat emblazoned with a silverwork design that Corda couldn’t make out properly; it looked like a bird, perhaps, or some kind of heraldic device with too many claws. In any case, she found herself distracted by his armour… and the gilt-hilted daggers he wore, displayed as prominently as the crossbow on his back. A pattern like scrolled, repeating waves marked the metal of his pauldrons and, though it seemed thin, it was finely crafted. Each scale of his cuirass was so tightly sealed to the next that it might have been a second skin, and the way they glimmered…! It was silverite, she was certain. Corda had read about the metal in a book on the subject of enchantment and armoury—perhaps one of the most lucrative employments a mage might secure, and a highly advanced area of research—but she had never actually seen the metal close up.

She realised she was staring, and blinked quickly. Whoever he was, the man was most certainly no stuffy, toothless visiting dignitary, and it probably wouldn’t do to gawp.

She bowed graciously, and the stranger inclined his head. Everything in his appearance and posture indicated a grave, almost solemn kind of presence, yet the gaze that swept appraisingly over her was lively and sharp.

Corda wasn’t sure she liked being so swiftly assessed. She hated anyone staring, but he didn’t look at her the way most people looked at her for the first time. It was, she thought, as if he had expected to see her scars. She kept her face impassive, and clasped her hands together within the sleeves of her robes: the model of the quiet, obedient apprentice, at least until she knew what was going on.

The stranger glanced enquiringly at Irving. “This is…?”

“Yes.” The First Enchanter nodded, his voice warming as he closed the chamber door behind her. “This is she.”

Corda intensely disliked people talking about her behind her back. She glanced between the three men, hating the sense of imbalance that came with being the only one in the room who didn’t know what was happening, and fought the urge to scowl.

Greagoir squared his shoulders and huffed irritably. “Well, Irving, you are evidently busy. We will discuss this later.”

“As you wish, I’m sure.”

The First Enchanter smiled and waved him away amicably, and Corda didn’t miss the Knight-Commander’s glare of fury at being so summarily dismissed. The man stalked from the room in a fugue, and she got the distinct impression that Irving was trying to suppress a snigger.

“Now, where was I…? Ah. Yes. My dear Mistress Amell, allow me to present Duncan, of the Grey Wardens.”

The stranger bowed to her, and Corda blinked. Grey Warden? He was most definitely not what she had imagined. Even so… were they really here already? She’d been expecting much more pomp and circumstance.

She recovered herself, and returned the gesture of respect as gracefully as she could.

“Ser.”

“You’ve heard about the war brewing to the south, I imagine,” Irving said, watching her carefully. “Duncan is here looking for recruits to join the king’s army at Ostagar.”

Corda tried hard to keep her face a blank mask of polite interest, and resumed the neat stance with clasped hands that so many an apprentice hid behind.

“I see.”

She looked questioningly at the First Enchanter, but he was giving nothing away. Irving simply smiled at her, his eyes twinkling with some inner amusement that—at that particular moment—Corda found incredibly suspicious.

She inclined her head to Duncan, addressing him with cautious respect.

“The enemy must be causing a great deal of concern, ser.”

He looked levelly at her, his expression inscrutable. When he spoke, his voice was rich and carefully modulated, the words burred with the slight hint of an accent. Northern, Corda thought… perhaps a touch of Highever on the vowels. Curious, because from looks, she’d have pegged him as a Rivaini. Evidently, the Grey Wardens were a far-flung bunch… either that, or the Tower was more parochial than even she had imagined.

“Every enemy merits due concern,” he said. “It is through vigilance that we reach victory… if we are to reach it at all.”

Corda’s careful blankness faltered, and her eyes widened. “You think King Cailan’s forces will not best the Wilders, then, my lord? I understood our enchanters had travelled south to lend His Majesty their support. Are we… insufficient?”

It was a bold suggestion, and a degree far beyond what was proper for an apprentice. Of course, Corda thought, she wasn’t an apprentice any longer, was she? No more threats of the birch cane or confinement to dormitory. The worst they could do to her for rudeness now was probably a stiff talking to and banishment to the library, and that knowledge gave her a wonderful sense of freedom.

Duncan smiled. He looked almost amused by her cheek, and that roused Corda’s curiosity. However, then the smile diminished, and left him looking hauntingly solemn.

“If it was merely the Chasind with which we had to contend,” Duncan said, locking those dark, bright eyes to hers, “then I am sure the Circle’s contingent would be ample. However, there is a greater threat brewing.”

Corda drew a short, soft breath across her teeth, and the gleam of triumph jumped in her blood.

I was right!

“Darkspawn,” she said quietly. “Short of the tribes uniting behind a common banner, that’s the only thing that would pull an entire army down to the Wilds, isn’t it? And, of course, your lot,” she added, half to herself, before wincing and catching at the casual rudeness of the words. “I-I mean—”

The First Enchanter chuckled dryly, and the sound echoed against the chamber’s high walls. Corda glanced at the man, waiting to see if she’d be disciplined, but Irving didn’t even interrupt. He just shook his head, and exchanged a look with Duncan that she found puzzling.

“Indeed.” The Grey Warden nodded crisply, returning his attention to Corda. “There are darkspawn in the Wilds, and they are moving north.”

She bit her lip thoughtfully. Well… that should work out well for King Cailan, shouldn’t it? The vibrant young warrior king, justified in his munificence and his desire to be part of something glorious. All the gossip the Tower had gleaned from Denerim and West Hill over the past five years had said he’d been champing at the bit for some war or skirmish in which he could prove himself his father’s equal.

Something like this would be the perfect opportunity… and yet, somehow, Duncan didn’t look like a man who was seeking recruits for the sake of numbers. The more she looked at him, the more Corda saw that, just like his armour, all the man’s gravitas and quiet dignity was a well-crafted shell.

Beneath it all, he looked worried.

She glanced with brief trepidation at Irving, trying to work out why she was being allowed such an untrammelled part in this conversation. Was this the benefit of her new magedom? Or was she a curiosity, a creature to be trotted out for the interest of guests?

Either way, she drew breath and dove in while she could, eager to hear more.

“I’ve read of such things happening,” she said, eyeing Duncan curiously. “But I thought the dwarves kept them in check?”

He shook his head. “No longer, I fear. The darkspawn have formed a horde, and threaten to invade north into the valley. If we do not drive them back, we may see another Blight.”

“Bl—?” Corda began, her eyes widening a little.

Surely that wasn’t possible. It was a thing of legends, of stories…. And yet, Corda’s mind told her—suddenly rattling at a frenetic pace, and throwing up images of long-ago skimmed books and scrolls—the whole point of the stories was that there were seven Old Gods. The Chantry was quite specific on that point; seven sins, seven pillars of wickedness that ancient Tevinter had wrought and, by the accounts of some so-called holy scholars, seven ways in which mages were the scourge of Thedas.

Faith and belief aside, Corda was exceptionally well-versed in the things the Chantry had to say about the magic of Tevinter… as far as the Circle’s library allowed her to be, at any rate.

Seven Old Gods; four Blights. Why should it be so impossible? Unlikely, yes, but… not impossible. Not impossible, however much we might wish it so.

Oh, Maker’s breath…! 

“Duncan,” Irving chided genially, “you worry the poor girl with talk of Blights and darkspawn.”

Corda looked up sharply, realising that she’d fallen silent, and annoyed at the old man for taking the opportunity to cut across her questioning.

“Oh, but, First Enchanter, I—”

Irving waved a hand, hushing her. “No, my child. This is supposed to be a happy day, is it not?”

Corda wanted to hop from foot to foot in frustration, but willed herself to remain still, and managed a graceful smile as she bowed her head.

She caught Duncan watching her as she looked up, and the suggestion of a smile seemed to touch his lips before he turned to Irving.

“We live in troubled times, my friend.”

The First Enchanter nodded sagely. “Ah, but then we should seize moments of levity, should we not? Now most especially.” He treated Corda to a wide smile; something she wasn’t all that used to seeing on the man. “The Harrowing is behind you, my dear. Your phylactery was sent to Denerim, and you are officially a mage within the Circle of Magi.”

Corda inclined her head. “Thank you, First Enchanter.”

She would much rather have gone back to discussing the darkspawn, but she doubted there would be another chance now. Irving would probably summarily dismiss her, and she wouldn’t see Duncan again, except as some distant figure on the dais during one of the interminable after-dinner speeches.

Then, he would leave and head back down to Ostagar and, if there was a Blight, Corda would be doomed to watching it from the window of the tower, while the same boring routine lapped around her feet, day in and day out.

She wondered, in a brief and facetious moment, whether a wave of darkspawn engulfing the country would even affect what time the refectory served meals.

Irving moved to a trunk near his desk, and as he bent to lift the lid, Duncan cleared his throat.

Corda looked up, and he caught her eye enquiringly.

“Forgive me… phylactery? That is the… vial…?” He gestured loosely with one hand, as if trying to locate the proper word.

She nodded, though she doubted he truly didn’t know it. Any man who addressed the First Enchanter as “friend” would surely be aware of such an intrinsic aspect of the Circle’s function—especially one that was a source of so much contention among the mages. The Libertarian fraternity, in particular, had often made a great deal of noise over the phylacteries, and what they called the double standard of the templars’ using something amounting to blood magic to control them. Oh, the Loyalists always claimed it wasn’t blood magic, just magic worked upon the blood—the way templars’ abilities were fuelled by lyrium, but did not draw on mana in the conventional sense—but few mages truly believed that.

Corda certainly didn’t.

Of course, she realised, if the Grey Warden knew what a phylactery was, that meant the question wasn’t a question. And, if it wasn’t a question, then it was words being lined up just to see what she did with them. Would she take the opportunity to complain about the templars’ strictures, or demonstrate her loyalty to the regime?

She shot a sidelong glance at Irving, busy removing a bundle of items from the trunk, and then smiled at Duncan.

“Quite so, ser. When we come to the Tower as apprentices, small amounts of our blood is taken and preserved in special vials. It is stored by the Chantry, in the event it is… required.”

He met her gaze steadily, his face impassive but his eyes alive with a dozen hidden things.

“So you can be hunted if you turn apostate,” Duncan said quietly.

It was a statement, not a question; a bland observation, not an opinion. His tone was guarded, suggesting whatever personal feelings he might have had on the practice were not open for discussion… and yet, equally, hinting at something far more than the usual acceptance of authority that Corda was accustomed to encountering in the men who wielded the Circle’s power.

Well, well….

“Even the most docile dog may need a leash, my lord,” she said, with a slight incline of her head.

The lid of the trunk Irving had been ferreting about in thudded shut, and the sound echoed off the stone walls. Corda flinched, and inwardly cursed herself. It made her look weak, and she didn’t want that… now less than ever.

Duncan looked thoughtfully at her, but he said nothing.

“Indeed. We have few choices, of course,” Irving put in, as he crossed back to them, his leather-shod feet murmuring against the floor. “The gift of magic is looked upon with suspicion and fear. We must prove we are strong enough to handle our power responsibly… as this young lady has so recently done.”

He held out the items he carried—the embroidered russet silk of a mage’s robe, with a small golden band resting atop it, and a smooth birch staff—and smiled proudly at Corda.

“My dear, I present you with your robes, your staff, and this ring, bearing the insignia of the Circle. Wear them proudly, for you have earned them.”

She stared, caught out a little by the oddness of the moment. Somehow, she’d always thought there would be more ceremony to it than this. She’d risked her life in the Harrowing, hadn’t she? They had dragged her from her bed, thrown her to the demons, and now all she got was an armful of stuff and a “well done, carry on”? It hardly seemed fair, but then “fair” was not a concept Corda had been used to associating with life in the Circle.

It was enough. And, she told herself, it was what these symbols meant that mattered.

“I… uh, thank you, First Enchanter,” she said, inclining her head, and slipping a brief glance at Duncan.

He smiled. “Congratulations.”

“Thank you, ser.”

Corda hugged the ring and robes to her chest, and closed her fingers around the staff. It seemed to hum gently against her palm, and she almost caught her breath. She’d used them before a few times in lessons, but never very often, and it felt odd to know that this simple piece of wood, infused with energy, was hers and hers alone. The runes etched into the top of the neck, just below the slightly hooked head of the staff, were as delicate as spider webs, barely noticeable on the polished surface of the wood. Corda looked forward to the opportunity to sit and study them at leisure… and that led to another thought. She would have new quarters, wouldn’t she? Even now, a couple of bedders were probably lugging her things up the stairs, and she hadn’t the faintest idea where they’d end up.

Somehow, she hadn’t imagined that finally earning her magehood would be such a strange, dislocating experience.

“Um. I’m sorry, but… er… what happens now?”

Irving chuckled. “Patience, child. You have been through an ordeal, and there is no need to rush. Your belongings will be transferred from your dormitory to your new quarters. You will need to speak with whomever is to be administering your induction… I believe it is Enchanter Sweeney. You will learn a lot from him, I’m sure. In the meantime, the rest of today is yours. Rest, or study in the library. As you please.”

Corda nodded slowly. Right, then. This was her dismissal; the First Enchanter evidently wanted to get back to discussing recruits and warfare with his esteemed visitor.

She glanced at Duncan, and bit her lip as, unbidden, another set of words sprang from her mouth.

“And I’ll be able to leave the tower, won’t I? I mean, how—”

Irving smiled indulgently, but shook his head. “Yes, but not yet. Not for several months, at least, and then pending approval of a request submitted officially in writing, and the assurance of an appropriate placement.” He held up a hand, silencing the protest he evidently assumed Corda was about to begin. “I know we have spoken of your desire to study in Cumberland, but any such possibility will require a long wait. In the meantime, child, you would do well to remember that these walls protect us as much as they protect others from us.”

He met her gaze and held it firmly as the echo of those last words whispered around the chamber. The candlelight glinted off the shelves full of esoteric curios—skyballs, jewelled paperweights, gilt-bound books, artfully painted maps and Maker alone knew what else—and Corda just knew he meant the war. He meant her to go quietly to her new chamber and be a good little mage and not ask questions… and that roused her curiosity more than anything else possibly could.

She bowed her head. “Of course, First Enchanter. I should go and familiarise myself with my quarters. Thank you.”

Irving dismissed her with a wave of his hand. “My pleasure, my dear.”

“Grey Warden.” Corda dropped a bow to Duncan, finding it more difficult than usual with the staff in one hand—something she’d have to get used to, she supposed—and began to turn for the door.

“Ah!” Irving raised a hand, and that small, clipped exclamation skipped across the air, just the way his voice did when he wanted order from an assembly of students.

Corda turned again, clutching her hard-won bundle of robes to her chest, and regarded the old man’s oddly smug expression. There was something she could only describe as a twinkle in his pouchy eyes, and that unsettled her. She was far more used to seeing Irving up on a lectern somewhere, pontificating in those low, gravelly tones of his, and droning on about the dry, piffling inconsequentialities of the fraternities or the latest templar edicts from Denerim.

Right now, he looked far too cheerful for her liking.

“First Enchanter?”

Irving smiled, and waved dismissively at her. “You will be so kind as to escort Duncan to his chamber, Miss Amell. The guest quarters on the east side of the tower, close to the library. Your things will be awaiting you there,” he added, inclining his head graciously to the Grey Warden. “I fear I must discuss the matters we addressed further with Greagoir… I shall speak with you again this evening, if that is…?”

“Quite amenable,” Duncan assured him, bowing his head with equally stiff grandeur.

Corda fumed silently, feeling like she was choking on all these paper-thin pretences of etiquette. Surely this was what the Tranquil were for, anyway? Only, no… the Circle never liked to show them off to visitors. They were kept firmly in the background; cooking, cleaning, ordering and tidying, when they weren’t doing usefully lucrative things like enchantments. It was like not wanting polite company to see your ugly kitchen maid—not that she was much better, she supposed. Her very face was a blatant statement on the destructive power of magic.

She said nothing, and just bowed again, holding the door open for the silver-armoured Warden with his neatly clipped beard and—yes, she could see as he drew closer—his braid oiled in the manner some of the apprentices she’d known of Rivaini extraction had done.

The Grey Wardens evidently recruited from all over, though it still puzzled her as to what he was doing here, and now of all times.

His presence was an irritation, anyway, for all the glamorous talk of monsters and kings and battles. Despite the sudden interruption of her Harrowing, Corda was still itching to find out what Gwynlian had been up to, and what Enchanter Uldred had been disseminating to his students. It wasn’t as if she’d had enough evidence to go to the First Enchanter, but if she’d just been able to talk to him in private, then maybe…. Oh, but it was no use, was it? Not without something concrete to base the accusations on—if there were even accusations to make.

Still, Corda thought, as the gentle tick of her new staff beat time on the steps that led down to the next floor, in between the slip-slop of her leather-shod feet, and Duncan’s hardier, sturdier army boots, the very fact of Uldred being away at Ostagar might be of benefit. And that she was a Harrowed mage now meant she would be on the same floor as Gwynlian or at least somewhere on the same staircase. If she could find out where it was, she could get access to the idiot bitch’s chamber, probably, and have a good look around; maybe even sneak as far as Uldred’s study, which was much farther up into the Tower’s privy rooms than an apprentice would have been allowed to roam.

Corda was contemplating the details of the plan when the Grey Warden spoke, and his low, smooth voice pulled her abruptly from her thoughts.

“Thank you for walking with me,” Duncan ventured, peering speculatively at her, as if he wanted to gauge her reaction. “I am glad of the company.”

Oh?

Corda kept her face impassive. “I have always done what First Enchanter Irving asks of me.”

It was a staid, mechanical response—a safe thing to hide behind—but it appeared to amuse Duncan. He smiled.

“I’m sure he is very proud to have you as a pupil.”

There was the very slightest hint of dry mirth in his tone. At first, Corda almost missed it… but it was there. She got the distinct feeling he was playing with her, and she was torn between being pleased by the attention—it was certainly rare enough to have someone to engage with, much less such a rarefied visitor as this—and perplexed as to why so distinguished a guest was bothering to make small talk with her in the first place. Not to mention, where was the rest of his delegation? She felt sure that there should have been someone. Jowan’s gossip from the dorms had suggested a whole deputation, with accompanying pomp and ceremonial feast… and, just for a moment, Corda felt a little chagrined at how brusquely dismissive she’d been of her friend, and everything he’d said about the Grey Wardens.

True, apparently the Anderfels had been driven to bankruptcy by the order, and there was plenty of ill-feeling in the Bannorn about allowing them back into Ferelden—or so went the fourth-hand court gossip the Tower had from the few mages who’d been in Denerim in the past year or so—because what good were their constant calls for men and gold without a Blight? Only, if there was a Blight….

Corda breathed deeply, her head swimming with possibilities. It was unlikely, she decided. Very unlikely. Not impossible, but… well, was that the kind of excitement anyone wanted in their future?

She blinked, aware of the slightly expectant quality the silence around her had developed, and she glanced at Duncan, only to be assailed by a sudden flare of tired irritation at the fact he’d clearly been sneaking a surreptitious look at her scars. It didn’t surprise her; people usually did that. Frequently, they asked banal questions as well, which he so far had not. She cleared her throat as they passed one of the templar statues set back into a niche in the curved stone wall—some old Knight-Captain who’d single-handedly quelled an abomination, so the story went, and was immortalised in graven stone to glare down at all mages who passed him ever after. Corda was always tempted to pull a face at the thing every time she passed it.

“Forgive me, my lord,” she began, peering enquiringly at Duncan, “but I am curious. Is there not a full deputation of Grey Wardens arriving at the Tower?”

He chuckled dryly. “No. No, it is just me.”

“Ah.”

Well, that was odd. It didn’t have all the weight of a political pressure, then; a move by King Cailan to secure more support for his pets. Perhaps, Corda thought, it was a more subtle recruitment drive… or simply a plea in earnest, if the situation in the south was worse than anyone thought, and the order actually genuinely, urgently needed men.

“We never hear much of the Grey,” she said diplomatically, trying to inject some optimistic curiosity into her voice. “Only stories. Legends, if you will. They are quite… impressive. The order seems most dedicated.”

She sneaked a sidelong look at Duncan, and was mildly annoyed to find the man watching her with that same air of faint amusement. He inclined his head slightly, acknowledging the compliment.

“We have but one purpose. Our duty is to battle darkspawn wherever they appear… and that is what we do.”

“Then what you said in the First Enchanter’s chambers, about a Blight…?”

Duncan’s expression grew sombre. “Yes. We believe there is an archdemon leading the horde. If this is so—”

Corda blinked. “One of the Old Gods?”

A look of faint disapproval flickered across his dark eyes, and she cursed herself inwardly for sounding so enthusiastic. One was not, after all, meant to sound so interested in the prospect of devastation and peril.

“Darkspawn do attack the surface in ragtag bands,” Duncan said slowly. “But archdemons are the one thing capable of rallying them, turning them into an unstoppable force… a veritable army. I fear that this is what we will have to face.”

They were following the curve of the tower’s wall, nearing the library. The light that filtered through the high, small windows was bright and clean, and the sound of the chapel’s midday service bell reverberated through the stonework.

Every day the same. Every chime, every beat, every bloody repetition….

“So, King Cailan’s army is set to beat back this threat? Will it, uh….” Corda swallowed heavily, aware that there were things one was not meant to voice. “Will it be enough?”

If he thought she was seditious, Duncan didn’t say so. He just kept looking straight ahead as they walked, apparently taking in an interest in some of the ornamentation on the lintels of the great doors that bisected this part of the corridor.

“Perhaps,” he said carefully. “If we play our cards right.”

They were nearing the library. There were a few apprentices wandering about, clutching armfuls of books and talking quietly together. A single templar stood by the westerly door to the chamber and, at this hour, all the doors were wide open. The smell of books and the years of pressed paper greeted Corda like an old friend, but she was too preoccupied to truly appreciate it, and gestured to Duncan that they take the left-hand part of the hallway, cutting past the Tranquil’s inventory office rather than skirting the entirety of the library to reach his guest quarters.

“How many mages have joined the king’s army?” she asked, her voice low in deference to that shiny-suited templar. “I know several of our senior enchanters left, but as to how many others—”

“The Circle of Ferelden sent seven mages to Ostagar,” Duncan said shortly, a surprisingly blunt degree of frustration and disdain colouring the words. “Seven… in response to the king’s call. I asked King Cailan’s permission to come and seek a greater commitment from the Circle.”

Ooh, that is one tantrum I’d like to have seen….

“Seven is quite a few,” Corda said doubtfully, forgetting for a moment that she probably shouldn’t disagree with the man.

Duncan shook his head. “I had hoped to place a mage or two within every contingent. I cannot do this just seven.”

“Well, perhaps mages don’t need to—”

“Mages will make all the difference in this war,” he said shortly, giving her a sharp look. “The darkspawn have their own magic, and our resources must exceed theirs.”

Corda’s brow furrowed. Darkspawn had magic?

Hm. You should tell the people about it. I’m sure every good Fereldan citizen would be queuing up to shiv them with a pitchfork. Get the lynch mobs out, and you wouldn’t even need an army….

“Perhaps,” she said carefully, “if the Chantry allowed us more freedom of movement, more of us would be able to attend your call, ser.”

He smiled. “Indeed? I sometimes wonder if the Chantry’s many laws regarding magic are entirely necessary.”

Corda blinked, a little surprised at hearing such a statement from a man like him. Surprised… but encouraged.

“Quite so,” she said, treading lightly with her words, just in case this particular Grey Warden was trying to bait her into heresy, just for the pleasure of decrying her to the Grand Cleric. “There are worse things in the world, after all.”

Duncan nodded vehemently. “Darkspawn are a greater threat than blood mages—than abominations, even. It takes decades for the world to recover from a Blight. I wish the Chantry could see that. We must stop at nothing to defeat the horde. Nothing. But— ah, listen to me!” He gave her a small, grim smile. “An old man’s rantings can’t be very interesting, I am sure.”

Corda snorted. “I’ve been an apprentice in this tower for years, ser. Old men talking have defined my life.”

He laughed at that; truly laughed, in a warm, rich bubble of mirth. His eyes glittered with it, his lips peeling back to show white teeth against dark skin, framed so precisely by that neatly trimmed beard.

“I’m sure they have!”

A few apprentices on their way to the library scattered the wide corridor, and they all but shrank back against the walls, staring with saucer-blown eyes at Corda and her unusual guest. Duncan’s laughter danced against the stones, and Corda allowed herself a small smile, relishing the looks of surprise and awe she drew.

“We don’t really hear much from outside the tower,” she said, as the Warden’s mirth subsided. “I mean, they permit us to walk in the grounds, but short of smoke signals to the docks….”

Duncan smiled afresh and nodded in what seemed to be a sympathetic manner, Corda noted with quiet glee.

“Indeed. A good view of the other side of the lake, perhaps, but a rather… isolated… existence?”

“You could say that,” Corda said tightly.

Duncan inclined his head again. She felt more secure in speaking to the man, content to believe he wasn’t baiting her for the sole purpose of tripping her up, but it did leave one unanswered question: why was he so interested in talking to her at all?

As they moved past the swell of the library’s outer wall, where the enchanted lanterns that hung high above the arches and doorways cast pale ovals of light against the stones—like silent, sombre eyes peering down from the carved lintels and austere panelling—Duncan seemed to note their surroundings with interest. Corda wondered how much he knew of the Tower’s inner workings. Most visitors, for example, thought these great sets of doors and high, pointed archways were simply to impress, little knowing that the Circle’s grand architecture was backed up by several inches of solid, steel-bound oak, as ancient and unyielding as stone. Should there be sufficient cause, every mage in the Tower knew the templars would not hesitate in closing these mighty portals, and isolating whatever spot in which trouble broke out from the rest of the building, leaving those within to either starve… or be hacked down if they did try to break through.

For all the little touches of opulence—the tapestries and hangings, or the thick, Avvar-inspired rugs that were more numerous in this part of the tower, where outsiders were accommodated—Corda couldn’t help but feel her prison had been constructed by the same kind of mind responsible for abattoirs.

Cattle. That’s all we are. Herded through day after day, hoping we won’t be pushed out onto the killing floor….

She ventured a curious look at Duncan, aware that they would reach the guest chambers at any moment, and she would probably not have another opportunity to speak with him. Corda cleared her throat.

“Um…. About your recruitment drive?” she asked, as casually as she dared.

Duncan looked levelly at her, his face betraying no sign he found her impertinent. In fact, he seemed quite interested in what she wanted to say. That in itself set alarm bells ringing in Corda’s head, but she’d gone too far to stop now.

“I assume there’s no sense in trying to draw mages from outside Ferelden? No one would get here fast enough, if this horde is pressing the valley like you say.”

He nodded. “Indeed. I had sent letters to Starkhaven, Kirkwall… the White Spire. Even Cumberland. Very little was forthcoming.”

“But the Grey Wardens are supposed to be the darkspawn’s scourge, aren’t they? Surely, if there were enough of you—”

“If only,” Duncan interrupted wearily, shaking his head. “We are few in number, though I suppose it is fortunate there are some of us in Ferelden at all. Were it not for King Maric, that might not be the case.”

“Hmm.” Corda chewed the inside of her lip thoughtfully, wondering how far it was safe to voice her thoughts. “And Cailan too, I imagine. He’s somewhat… enamoured of the order, according to gossip.”

It probably wasn’t polite to discuss, she supposed, but politeness could go hang. Besides, she found she rather liked Duncan, and she doubted he was the kind of man to go off huffing about a bit of tattle. He wore his formality the same way he wore that skin of shimmering armour, she decided: a part of him, but a part that could easily be removed when it had done its service.

“He has been most supportive,” Duncan said, though his tone hardened a little, assuring her that there would be no further probing of His Majesty’s motivations.

Pity, that.

“You’d be looking for recruits for the order, then, too?” Corda suggested. “Not just for the king. I mean, if there’s an army of darkspawn, you need an army of Grey Wardens. Stands to reason.”

Duncan smiled sadly, and she wondered what she’d said wrong.

“Would it were that simple. But, yes, I am hoping we will find some suitable candidates. We have already acquired a few in the past six months—fine young men, all of them—but our ranks are somewhat bare.”

The doors to the guest quarters lay at the end of the corridor: tall, wide doors set into a broad stone arch, their oaken panels studded with heavy rivets.

Now or never….

“I heard the Grey Wardens only ever have one mage amongst them,” she blurted. “Yet you don’t seem to distrust mages, ser. Is it your commanders who do, then? Because, if there were to be recruitments from the Tower, I—”

Duncan was smiling at her again, with that oddly guarded twist of mirth in his eyes. Corda frowned, feeling exposed and confused, and just a little irritated.

“I am sure we will have an opportunity to speak of this further,” he said gently, and she only just resisted the urge to huff in annoyance.

Corda sniffed and nodded towards the nearest of the guest chambers, its door already standing open, with a Tranquil bedder carrying a leather pack inside. She supposed she shouldn’t have been surprised that Duncan didn’t seem to have much luggage. Nothing about the bloody man seemed predictable, after all.

“Well,” she said, dusting her free hand against the skirts of her robes, “here it is. Not much, but I’m sure you’ll be comfortable. If you need anything, you can ask one of the Tranquil. There’s usually one droning about somewhere.”

“I am sure I shall manage,” Duncan said dryly.

“Right. And, er, thank you for telling me all those things,” Corda added, as he began to move to the door. “About the darkspawn and everything. It was… enlightening.”

He inclined his head, but said nothing. She cleared her throat uneasily, unable to shake the feeling that she’d embarrassed herself.

“I suppose, if war does come this far north, we’ll all have to be ready.”

“Indeed we will,” Duncan replied, and his dark gaze stayed trained on her until she bowed, and left him to settle in the room, retreating like she’d been scalded.

Even as she walked briskly back down the hallway, making for the stairs that led to her own new quarters, Corda couldn’t have said why she was so eager to get away.

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Straining at the Leash: Part Four

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Back to Straining at the Leash: Contents
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Corda had once read, in one of the treatises buried deep in the library’s restricted section, that crossing the Veil was like opening one’s eyes.

It certainly felt that way. She hadn’t expected it, but then she hadn’t expected any of it. She’d been frogmarched up before First Enchanter Irving, with Knight-Commander Greagoir standing by… and they were quite the double act, those two. All that lugubrious stuff about the role and responsibility of mages, the sacred duty, the purpose of the Harrowing and what she must learn to face—and there, at the core of it all, the fact that she would be murdered if she failed, or resisted.

Corda supposed that to fail wouldn’t be so bad. If she entered the Fade and succumbed to a demon, she probably wouldn’t know anything about it. She assumed one didn’t.

She stepped up to the swimming, singing orb of light that held the ritual’s focus, and she felt the call of the lyrium swell and throb in her blood… and all she could think, as the feel of the Fade enveloped her, was that Jowan would brown his robes before he got this far, no matter what she thought she’d prepared him for.

Silly sod….

The world ebbed, dissolving into coils of pale, sparkling light that wound around her, soothing and cocooning.

Slowly, the faces in the chamber faded away, and the light filled Corda’s vision: coruscating spider webs that crawled over her skin, crowding her eyes. A whimper escaped her as she felt her grip on what was real slide away.

She had fleetingly entered the Fade from a waking state before, but only under the strict guidance of the enchanters. As apprentices, they had been taught of the dangers the Fade contained, and drilled in the care they would have to take.

The lessons echoed in her ears—trust yourself and only yourself, for your will is all that is real, but never be convinced you are infallible, for pride is a demon’s weapon—and yet seemed so totally useless. Oh, it was one thing to say something, to instruct an apprentice to behave in this or that manner… but as to how it was actually done? Yes, the old men were really quite silent on that matter.

Typical, she supposed.

Corda glanced around her, trying to get her bearings, despite all she knew to the contrary. There was nothing real here, no true distances or honest shapes, and yet she scanned the horizon for the things that ought to be there: the dependable width of the sky, or the weight of cliffs and solid ground.

The landscape seemed to shift around her, forming itself to adhere to the things she expected to see—the comfortable, predictable lies of stones and moss and paths—but the ground itself seemed to be made of ropes of fibres; a heaving, living mass, like the roots of a tree.

She raised her hand, flexing her fingers in front of her face. A point of pulsing light—brilliant, sharp white—bloomed in her palm, and it seemed strange how effortless it was. Magic ran through her like breath, and it swelled in everything. She could feel it, all around her, all through everything.

She felt… alive, as if she had woken from a long sleep, and discovered all the cobwebs blown from her. Power flowed everywhere, in everything, and Corda recalled what she’d read in all those dusty Tevinter treatises: the Fade was the realm of dreams, but only for dreamers. For those who knew how to use it, its very unreality became a strength, the tool to bring form to their will.

Here, anything that could be imagined could be brought into existence, with the proper application.

Corda smiled and stretched her hands out before her. Almost at once—quicker and easier than it had ever felt before—light shimmered between her palms, and condensed into a blue orb that bobbed gently in the air. She felt its warmth on her face, and she laughed delightedly. Pushing forwards with a strength that came so naturally to her—as naturally as breathing—she flung the orb out ahead of her and, with a flick of her wrist, transformed it into a spiral, a dancing sheet of light that, with a little concentration, became the shape of a simple chair.

Corda grinned at the shivering spectre of the object. All right, it was rough, and probably not safe for sitting on, but it wasn’t bad for a first try.

Her smile faded as she regarded the chair, and it flickered suddenly into nothingness. She frowned. Not only was it harder than she’d thought to maintain the object’s form, but she was not alone here. She muttered a cuss, annoyed at herself for being so foolish, so distracted by stupid, simple trickery.

Above all, the Fade was the realm of demons.

~o~O~o~

He called himself Mouse, the one who came to her. At first, he was timid and ingratiating, and he told her how he’d been an apprentice like her, so many years ago… how the templars had thrown him to the wolves, so to speak, and left all that was him trapped in the Fade, long after they’d hacked his body down.

Oh, he was good. She was tempted to applaud. Poor little Mouse, with whom every apprentice could agree, could feel sympathy and fellowship. Because they were him, weren’t they? Cast adrift before they were ready, and yet who could ever be ready for the life they were made to lead? Not all magic was equal, not all mages born the same, and yet there they were, trapped and corralled like beasts, and shackled by what the templars told them they were—what the Chantry told them they had to fear—the weak and the strong together. What became of mages like Mouse? What became of the fear inside every apprentice?

No. They had to master it, or have it master them. They became hard, indifferent… beaten on that anvil of their power until they grew so far removed from normal people that maybe they were the monsters some folk believed them to be.

Corda recognised it all. She smiled, and she was hard pressed not to laugh.

They talked for a long while, she and Mouse. He wanted to scare her, to take the fear and build it up, turn it into something she could lose control of. He wanted her to believe in other demons, in spirits of justice and valour that would aid her, and in bigger, more terrible creatures that wanted to devour her entirely. He showed her an old, tame demon of Sloth, said it would tear her in two if she roused it… and Corda didn’t doubt him.

The thing had the form of a horned, half-rotted bear, slow and lumbering, and yet all made of teeth and claws. Its eyes burned like dull coals, and its snout wrinkled as it surveyed the one who stood behind her.

Demons, the enchanters had always taught them, were twisted and terrible creatures, bent on thwarting mortals to their wills. For Corda, every lesson had carried the echo of Chantry teachings, the ever-present crackle of Andraste’s all-cleansing pyre glowing on the edges of the words.

With every passing year—with every book she read, every scroll she snuck from the library’s hidden stacks—Corda had been growing less and less convinced of the truth in this.

They hunger for us, mages were warned. They seek life, to know it and possess it, yet they cannot understand it.

And that was supposed to be enough. It was enough to dismiss the denizens of the Fade as savage, sinister things, mindless and savage, and to determine that they were worth no understanding. Any attempts to do so—to research and evaluate spirits, to piece together texts like Mareno’s Dissertation on the Fade—was painted as blood magic… and hadn’t Mareno himself been branded apostate for his efforts?

Yet they all made sense.

These, Corda thought to herself, as she skirted the delicate games of the Fade, these were not monsters. She was not a trespasser among vile creatures, but rather a guest in a foreign land.

Oh, they wanted what she had. That was beyond doubt. They hungered for her power—she could feel it, feel the spittle practically dripping off the jaws they were so careful about not showing her—and any one of them would have taken her mortal flesh if she’d allowed it… but she knew. She knew, and she would not falter.

Mouse tried to frighten her with worse than words. He coaxed a rage demon out into the open—a small, angry, confused spirit that he tried to make her believe had been tracking her—and he goaded it into a fight.

It was the only time Corda came close to overreaching herself.

She fought the demon because she had to, and it surprised her to find just how easy it was to pour her power into every blast of magic. Mana flowed in the Fade like blood, like air, like the very foggy shroud that seemed to cling to everything. She ripped and twirled and danced, and the power burst from her in great, scalding waves.

She enjoyed it, she found. Enjoyed the metallic taste, and the prickling shivers on her skin and yes, even the heat… even the blistering fire of the rage demon when it burned close to her, wailing and roaring in fury. She welcomed the fire, and there was no fear. No blood, no pain. Just her power, her magic… her retribution. Her will.

She’d never been so close to the fire before. Never looked into the heart of the flames, not since then, when the whole world had turned red in a blaze of anger.

It was the only time Corda took her eyes from Mouse and, when the fight was done and she was riding high on the blood-pounding exhilaration of victory, she turned to find him in his true form.

He was hideous; a great sunken wraith of a thing, bristling with bones and arcane energy. Weakened, she dropped nonetheless into a fighting stance, drawing up the reserves she’d already tapped, and reaching deep inside herself for the last ounces of her power.

The light came again then… that enveloping cocoon that shifted and dragged her with it, and if entering the Fade had been like opening her eyes, crossing back was like being dragged blind through a hedge.

She fought it. She didn’t want to leave, didn’t want to relinquish everything she’d found there… and then the voices came. Corda was fairly sure she screamed. They were the voices of dreamers, of memories—perhaps of lost souls. She heard her brother howling as the flames took him, heard the shrieks of the little children and the raw, desolate wails of their mother… the horror at her freakish progeny: the monster who could do this terrible thing.

The metallic taste of power turned to the taste of fire and death in her mouth, and Corda barely saw the blurred outlines of the Harrowing Chamber swim in front of her before the world turned white again.

~o~O~o~

She woke in darkness, her skin clammy with cold sweat, her pulse beating in her throat and her eyes widening against the shadows. Her breath scraped against the blackness and, for a few sharp, terrible moments, Corda couldn’t feel the limits of her body… the places where she ended, and all the solidity and realness of life flooded back in. There was nothing; nothing but the swirling, seeping dark, and it felt every bit as shrouded and strange as the Fade, but without the comforting, soul-deep burn of power.

No song of lyrium shivered here, no arcane breath kindled in her blood.

The panic started to rise, and her breathing quickened again, gasps breaking from her throat as she stared into the steep-voided nothingness, blind and futile.

“Corda?”

Cool, damp fingers clasped hers—a hand, pinching and clutching roughly at her, at the contracted, thick ridges of white skin that scarred her knuckles—and that panicked her worse than anything.

She flinched away, flailing in the darkness, whimpers breaking from her as her eyes tried to adjust to the lack of light.

“Don’t… it’s all right. Please, it’s all right….”

A dim glow thrummed into life above the bunk, outlining a familiar face.

Jowan?

She couldn’t even say his name. Her tongue seemed stuck to the roof of her mouth, her throat dry and swollen.

She glanced down at her hand, at the thin, pale fingers grasping hers, and watched as they pulled away in unwieldy, awkward movements. The glow became a concentrated oval, the smell of tinder and dwarven matches suddenly sparking in the gloom… he was lighting a candle, and she closed her eyes against its sudden flare.

He moved it away quickly, setting the thing on the far edge of the table beside her bed, and part of her mourned it. She missed its light, its warmth… and yet the flame felt different now. Everything felt different.

After the Fade, it all seemed cold. Weak.

The candle flame guttered, and Corda groaned. She was probably in her dormitory. It felt like it—same lumpy bed, same shapes in the darkness—and yet if Jowan had been allowed to wait with her, it must be near morning. Late, or early, enough for it to be acceptable for him to be here… and for her arrival back to have caused plenty of excitement among the other students, she realised with an inward grimace.

Ugh.

“Corda?”

She blinked crustily, and peered through bleary eyes at the ungainly figure hunched on a chair beside her. Candlelight spilled over his narrow features and, now she was growing accustomed to her own eyes again, the dormitory didn’t seem that dark.

“Jowan?” she managed, raising a hand to scratch at her head.

He nodded. “How are you? Are you all right? They brought you in hours ago. You looked awful… I was worried. You barely moved all the time you were asleep. Did it hurt? What did they— well, I suppose you can’t tell me, can you? Still, just a little hint. I never thought it would happen like that. Just, bam, and they take you. I mean, obviously you passed, but—”

Corda groaned and covered her face with her hands. “Shut up, Jowan. Please.”

“I was worried,” he huffed petulantly, but the babbling did stop.

She peeped between her fingers, watching his crumpled, awkward way of sitting there, staring at her, and she couldn’t help but wonder how long he’d been waiting for her to wake.

Slowly, she sat up. Everything seemed to stay where it ought to be. Her head, though pounding, didn’t actually fall off, and she managed to focus on the faintly wavering outline of Jowan’s form.

“Irving wants to see you,” he said, a trifle resentfully. “Soon as you woke, they said.”

Corda frowned. “Who said?”

He shrugged, and rubbed at his left arm with his right hand, fingers tugging at the slippery fabric of his robes.

“The templars who brought you in.”

Jowan shook his head ruefully, and glanced off down the length of the dorm. She supposed there were probably other apprentices around. No one queuing up to see her, though. No one desperate to know she was all right.

No one except him.

Gingerly, Corda swung her legs off the bed, groping about on the floorboards with her toes until she found her slippers. She reached down and tugged them on, still frowning as she considered the meeting awaiting her. After the performance in the Harrowing Chamber—all long-faced solemnity and pompous posturing—the First Enchanter was one of the last people she wanted to see… but she’d be facing him on a rather more equal ground now, wouldn’t she? A mage. A member of the Circle, just as he was.

Oh, he still had the heavy robes and the bejewelled sash and the pins of half a dozen important memberships on his lapels, yes, but it was something, wasn’t it?

Corda smiled to herself as she reflected on that. Definitely something.

I am a mage.

The words had never been truer, never tasted rounder or sweeter as she rolled them around her mind.

In one respect, she knew the ritual itself hadn’t mattered. The Fade, the demons, all the old men and their puffed-up, sober words… they meant nothing. She was as much a mage now as she had been the day she was born, full of power and untapped potential. And yet, it was the Harrowing itself that had shown her just how much—just how easy it was to reach out and touch the fabric of dreams itself, to open her eyes and travel beyond everything. No teachers, no books, no lessons… no templars and no Tower.

She was a mage, at the gateway of her own potential, and no mere pile of mortar and stone could imprison her.

~o~O~o~

Corda had been called to the First Enchanter’s chambers a few times before, though not for some years. It had been when she was new to the Tower, not long after the dressings had come off and she was beginning to blindly grope her way around that odd new world.

Irving had been kind to her, as far as he’d been able, though he’d always seemed a distant figure, rather than a kind and avuncular protector. She remembered him coming into the chamber during those long weeks when she lay swaddled in wet sheets, her wounds being slowly healed and her mind bound with soothing spells.

She remembered the distrust of the bearded men who’d peered down at her, like she was so much mouldy meat. He alone had voiced the belief she could master her powers, that she was untainted by demons or the lack of control that all mages feared… even if he hadn’t sounded completely convinced.

Of course, in the years that followed, the gratitude Corda had felt towards the First Enchanter had tempered into a sullen kind of resentment. She was never sure why. His age, perhaps, or his consistent and unyieldingly stoic temperance in the face of every single templar restriction or outrage.

Apprentice gossip said that, however calm his outward demeanour, Irving was just as gruff as Knight-Commander Greagoir behind closed doors and—when the Tower’s two controlling influences were locked in debate in one of the upper council chambers—enough shouting came seeping under the doors that it echoed like the Maker clog-dancing in steel boots.

Corda had never doubted that was true. She suspected far more went on behind the scenes of the Circle than the apprentices ever knew about… or most of the mages, too, come to that. The senior enchanters never liked anyone to know anything if they could avoid it, and they held tight to the power the templars allowed them, guarding it as jealously as dogs.

She doubted Irving was any different, when it came down to it. After all, mages were generally a petty, self-obsessed bunch, absorbed in their own infinitesimal squabbles most of the time.

Still, she slowed her steps as she mounted the staircase to Irving’s chambers, frowning at the sounds of muffled voices from within. The Knight-Commander, she realised, as the echo of his brusque tones painted the corridor. The templar on guard duty, stationed about halfway down the hall, had his helmet on and appeared to be staring steadfastly straight ahead from inside his visor. He turned his head at Corda’s approach, and she nodded to the man, as confidently as she could manage… despite that small twinge of discomfort that always plunged, deep in her gut, when she saw them fully armoured. She hated to admit it, but the bastards did scare her.

“Here to see the First Enchanter, ser,” she said brightly.

The faceless mask of steel swivelled to examine her.

“Ah.”

Corda tried to stop herself shuddering at the way the man’s voice echoed inside his helm. They didn’t even sound human. He nodded shortly.

“Yes… the newly Harrowed one, isn’t it? He told me to send you in when you showed up, but you’ll have to wait outside, and mind your manners. He’s in conference.”

The templar jerked his head towards the chamber, armour clinking gently as he settled back against the wall, resuming his sentinel’s stance. Corda bowed minutely—just enough to be sufficient for politeness—and hurried off in the direction of Irving’s chamber… and the echoes of voices within.

“…have already gone to Ostagar,” protested a voice, as Corda drew near the chamber’s heavy oak doors. “What else can you possibly expect?”

That was Greagoir, and Corda bit the inside of her lip, holding her breath with the sudden excitement of listening in to something forbidden.

The corridor was lit by the dim bluish hue of magically charged glowstones—expensive trinkets, like the lanterns used in the library—but the gap beneath the wood flickered with the warmth of dancing candlelight. Shadows moved against it, and Corda glanced over her shoulder to check the on-duty templar wasn’t watching her.

Satisfied he wasn’t, she crept closer to the door, placing her fingers gently against the knotted boards and leaning in to listen. The heavy iron hinges and handle were cool to the touch, though heat evidently blazed in the argument within.

“Wynne, Uldred… in fact, most of the senior mages! Surely we’ve committed enough of our own to this war effort.”

Footsteps clunked against the chamber’s floorboards, and more shadows moved beneath the door. The Knight-Commander couldn’t be talking to Irving, Corda decided, and the shadows seemed to spell three people in the room, at least.

“Your own?” The First Enchanter’s voice echoed dryly. “Hah! Since when have you felt such kinship with the mages, Greagoir? Or are you simply afraid to let them out from under Chantry supervision, where they can actually use their Maker-given powers?”

Corda smiled, quietly amused. Perhaps there was truth to the rumours, after all. She would have liked to think so.

“That is not—” The Knight-Commander broke off and gave a frustrated growl. “You are perfectly well aware that the Grand Cleric has already authorised the departure of two detachments from Denerim, and in any case—”

“Gentlemen.” A third voice interrupted, this one deep and smooth, with the clipped, precise tones of a man used to authority. “Please. There is nothing to be gained from arguing. Besides, it appears there is someone here to see you, Irving.”

Stillness seemed to fill the room behind the door, and Corda frowned in the instant before realisation hit her.

Damn!

More footsteps, and one of the shadows under the door was moving… moving towards her.

She hopped back hurriedly, away from the door, and stood there brushing the front of her robes down nervously, attempting to look as innocent as she could.

The door creaked open, revealing the figure of the First Enchanter, swathed in his opulent robes, blue eyes twinkling in the centre of his lined, craggy face, framed between his long, iron-grey beard, and his close-shorn grey hair.

“Ah,” Irving grated, smiling genially, “if it isn’t our new sister in the Circle. Come in, child.”

He extended one long, knotted hand, gesturing into the candlelit chamber. The space was dominated by large, heavy pieces of furniture—a desk, many bookcases and shelves, ironbound trunks, a few chairs—and every surface seemed to spill over with papers, books, quills, and trinkets. The smell of beeswax and lavender polish lingered in the thick, heavy air, burnished with hints of the smouldering fire, and the suggestion of old pipe smoke.

Corda cleared her throat. “Um… thank you, First Enchanter.”

She followed him inside obediently, blinking a little in the sudden rich glare of candlelight. The Knight-Commander was indeed present; he stood near the fireplace, his large, broad, heavily armoured frame a striking sight against the smooth stone mantel, with the glimmer of low-burning flames glittering against his highly polished plate.

He looked up as she entered, his face hard as his armour, as if he was simply annoyed by the interruption—by the fact that Irving’s having summoned her was, in itself, an irritation that should not be allowed.

However, it was not Gregoir to whom Corda’s eyes were drawn.

A third man was present in the First Enchanter’s study, and he was as rare and intriguing as the ranks of valuable books, peculiar curios, and strange little mementoes that crowded Irving’s shelves.

She blinked again, and tried not to stare.

 ———————————-
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Straining at the Leash: Part Three

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well, I—”

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

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

It made Corda want to spit.

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

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

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

“What do you two want?”

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

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

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

“Anyway, listen.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ow! Stop hitting me….”

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

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

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

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

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

Not here, anyway.

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

Blake would still be alive.

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

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

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

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

Jowan’s face fell. “Corda….”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh,” Corda said stiffly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Good, because—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well, good for you.”

Jowan frowned. “Don’t be like that—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Corda….”

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

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

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

“You didn’t hurt me, Jowan.”

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

~o~O~o~

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

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

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

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

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

Jowan pouted reproachfully. “They’re heroes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No… I suppose you’re right.”

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

He always did… except when it really mattered.

~o~O~o~

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

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

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

Psst!”

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

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

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

Cullen. Shit. They know….

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

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

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

“Sshh! Please, be quiet.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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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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