A Canticle of Arguments: Chapter 5

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When Selby arrives, Anders prides himself on putting on a good show. He has combed his hair, brushed his coat down, and got through quite a lot of the jobs in the clinic, although the silence still seems to echo like an ocean in his head. 

She removes her cloak at the door—the dark fabric is misted with raindrops, the damp stains of splashes running all along its hem, meaning it’s probably been raining all day, and he had no idea—and smiles at him.

Anders. You look well.”

So do you, Selby. Ravishing as ever,” he adds, and she smirks.

She is old enough to be his mother, and her face is that of a woman who has lived through both her own hardships and those of many others. A thick fall of grey hair frames narrow, sharp cheeks, and her eyes are a dark blue, the irises ringed with lines that are almost black. When she is angry, they are like terrible, swirling pools and, at other times, they soften with an almost maternal kindness.

Selby is not a mage, although her sister is… or was. They were both Kirkwall born and bred, but someone made a report to the templars, and Agnes was taken in the night, her family told to make no attempt to contact her. Of course, that command was ignored and, when Selby did manage to get a line into The Gallows, she discovered more than she had ever bargained for.

Agnes told of the rapes and beatings, the humiliations and degradations the templars inflicted on them for fun, or to exert their power. It set the course of both sisters’ lives. Mariah Selby—up until then a respected wool merchant in the city—gave herself to the Underground, selling her business and all but disappearing from the surface trade. Agnes was made Tranquil, and yet the abuses didn’t stop there. She died three days before her planned rescue, and the templars left her body splayed naked in the prison cell they’d kept her in, her blood congealed on the stones.

But they will pay. They will all pay…. These abuses will not be forgotten, and every last one of them will feel—

Anders blinks. Yes, Justice’s burn. Yes. Fine. There has to be justice. Just not right now.

He dredges up a smile, aware that Selby said something he didn’t hear. They are standing at the back of the clinic, by the banked-down fires, and she is helping him to drain both the linens and a large batch of blindweed, which has been boiled and now needs to mature in the grain alcohol he bought with the money Hawke gave him. Anders has been lucky this time: none of the refugees have nicked it and tried to sell it for a profit, or just drunk the lot.

Selby snorts. “Knew you weren’t listening. Come on. Copper for ’em?”

Hm?”

She grins. “Your thoughts, boy. Head in the clouds again, ain’t you? Thinking about something interesting?”

Anders shrugs. He considers making a nominal complaint about being called ‘boy’ although, secretly, he rather likes it.

Not really.”

Selby slips him a sly, sidelong look. “I did see you brought your friend to the meeting again.”

The wet linens slop from the copper, steam billowing up as Anders guides them into a dry basket with a stout paddle, and tries to play ignorant. Selby is a crafty old minx, however, and she never lets him get away with anything.

Oh?”

Yes,” she says, slapping the bottom of the copper. “You know. Whatshisname. The Fereldan. Dark hair, green eyes… bum like two hazelnuts in a handkerchief?”

That matronly act of hers fools no one. Anders snorts, but it’s amusement instead of disbelief, and he can’t really bring himself to try and be shocked. Anyway, it’s a very accurate description of Tobias’ backside, especially when he’s breaking in a new pair of breeches, and it looks like he’s been practically poured into the leather.

Anders blinks again, aware that serious distraction lies along the path of thoughts like that. He shakes his head.

Really, Selby,” he murmurs in mock reproach. “But, yes, that’s him. Hawke.”

He’s very generous,” she observes, as she helps him heft the linens up onto a table, ready to peg out on the strings that run the length of the clinic, so that hopefully the bandages will be dry by the time they are needed.

Anders nods slowly. It’s true that—ever since he introduced Tobias to the Underground, he has been flinging coin at it. Sometimes, he gifts extremely large amounts of money… and, once, enough to pay for an entire group’s passage to Rivain. It was a very dramatic gesture.

Ye-es,” he says warily, because he suspects—as there often is with Selby—that there may be some hidden sting to her line of questioning.

Trying to impress you, is he?”

Anders frowns at her, though his rebuke is only very slightly less playful. She has her tongue firmly wedged in her cheek, and it looks as if she has a gumboil. Her eyes glitter with mirth.

I couldn’t say,” he demurs.

Selby’s grin widens. “Then you haven’t bedded him yet? Tch! I thought you liked men.”

The corner of Anders’ mouth twists and, once, she might have made him blush… which he sometimes thinks is her life’s ambition. Instead, he just chuckles.

I do. I told you, I like… people. For who they are, not what.”

Well, that’s mainly true. After all, his attractions have, in the past, taken little notice of things like age, gender, or hair colour. And, as much as he would like to believe otherwise, it is not simply physical lust that draws him to Hawke.

So?” A ribald elbow connects with his ribs as Selby crosses behind him, picking the first wet swathe of bandage out of the basket. “I wouldn’t have hung around. You shouldn’t either, my lad… or someone else’ll snap him up. Mind you, given the way he looks at you—”

Selby!”

What?” She raises her thinly plucked brows. “S’true. We all seen it. Smitten, I believe is the word.”

She cackles, and moves away to peg up the bandages. Anders does likewise, but the warm, wet linens are sluggish in his fingers, and he struggles with what should be a simple task. He wants very much to believe her, and to believe in a pretty fairytale, where everyone knows he and Tobias are meant for each other and, the moment they kiss, there will be tweeting bluebirds and sparkly rainbows and everything will be fine.

Unfortunately, life is not like that, and part of him is almost angry with Selby for dangling these impossibilities before him… or maybe angry with himself, for being so obviously stupid. The entire Underground is quite possibly laughing at him.

And yet….

Anders frowns, and looks curiously at her.

D’you really think so?”

She treats him to a broad, smug grin. “I suspect it cuts both ways. Said you was distracted, didn’t I?”

He is a distraction… and it is folly to persist, when you cannot pursue such an… entanglement. Why do this? Why indulge this obsession, or welcome notice of it by others? This is not right. This is—

I’m not. I can still do my work. I’m still—”

Selby’s grin widens even further. “Hush, now… I didn’t say it was a bad thing, did I? Think I’ve seen you smile more in the past two weeks than I have in a year. If that’s what having him around does—”

He’s not ‘around’,” Anders protests. “We’ve just been doing a bit of work together.”

Whatever you want to call it,” she says airily, peering at him over the string of wet bandages.

Anders sticks his tongue out at her, and she laughs.

All I’m saying, Anders, is that it looks like it’s good for you. Little bit of support. Someone to lean on… as long as you’re careful,” she adds, and her smile begins to fade.

He frowns. “What’s that meant to mean?”

Selby comes out from behind the line, brushing her hands together, and picks out another long, wide strip of bandage. She shrugs.

Hawke… I knew the name was familiar. ’Course, he was one of them smugglers, wasn’t he? Got hisself involved in that bust-up between one of the small companies and the Coterie, year or so back.”

Anders winces. Technically, Tobias is still a smuggler, though he doesn’t run any coherent company, or officially associate himself with any of Kirkwall’s organised cartels. He’s a free agent, as it were… and yet a good man. Isn’t he?

He is,” Anders says glumly. “He— he’s a good man, though, I mean.”

Saying it aloud seems to confirm it, at least a little bit. It makes him feel very slightly braver, and he meets Selby’s gaze, watching with curiosity the way she arches an eyebrow, her mouth twisting into a doubtful moue.

He is,” Anders repeats, stubborn and suddenly determined to wring a polite agreement from her, if nothing more. “Anyway, you shouldn’t confuse goodness with legality, Selby.”

He picks up a wet square of cloth used for binding splints, folds it in two, and hangs it over the line. The wet linens are dripping onto the floorboards, little splashes of warm water dappling the tired, scuffed wood with dark stars. He smooths his fingers along the cloth, and peers at Selby from under his lashes, searching for some sign of her response.

She looks guardedly at him for a moment, then her face splits around a wide smile, her cheeks wrinkling, and she laughs.

Fair point,” she admits with a nod. “We ain’t so spotless on that either, are we?”

Anders smiles back at her as they finish off the linens, although his expression is a little forced. It’s true that the law and real justice are not always the same thing, and the Underground is of course illegal by its very existence, but he feels a little uncomfortable with it sometimes. For all the years he spent enjoying the flouting of rules, he worries that some of the apostates he has met want to see the whole world burn, just to salve the anger they bear.

And should there not be fire? Doesn’t the Chantry itself speak of being cleansed in the flames? If the apple is rotten throughout, it is useless to pare it back to the core. Besides, they must pay.

They must all pay….

He shakes himself as Selby crosses to the pot of blindweed, and he pads after her, readying the jug of grain alcohol and the vat they will soak it in. She places a large metal sieve over the vat and holds it steady, so he can pour off the water that the tough, woody herb parts have boiled in. Anders thinks, for a moment, he’s gotten off reasonably lightly, but then she’s looking at him again with that peculiar, speculative expression in her eyes.

So,” Selby says, as he bites his lip and tries to focus on pouring out the copper without spilling the blindweed everywhere, “about this Hawke of yours.”

He’s not—” Anders begins, as the sodden herbs splosh out, all rough stems and greenish pap. It smells vile, and he wrinkles his nose.

What’s stopping you?” she demands. “Hm?”

He sighs as he upends the copper, tipping the last of the water out, and swipes a hand around the warm belly of the metal, scooping out the last bits of herb.

I-I can’t. That’s all,” he mutters, flicking bits of blindweed off his fingers. “Everything I touch ends up… you know. Anyone I’m close to, I’m scared I’ll hurt, or put in danger. Hawke’s an apostate too, so he’s already at risk, and… I’d never forgive myself if anything happened.”

And what about if it didn’t?” Selby asks dryly. “Ain’t that just as bad?”

Anders blinks owlishly at her as he sets the copper down. She smirks and draws off the sieve, and says nothing as he helps her lift the vat and tip the water back into the copper, ready for the next batch. It’s still clean, or as good as, and they don’t waste resources here.

I—”

You give yourself too much credit,” Selby says, narrowing her eyes. “Every damn one of us is capable of fouling up, my boy. You’re not special in that respect.”

Together, they tip the blindweed into the now-empty vat, and Anders winces as he pours on the alcohol. He wants to bluster and weasel away from her words, but he has to admit she’s right… and her brusqueness does help. Selby sees the world in refreshingly crisp divisions of black and white, and he’s grateful for that sometimes.

I don’t know,” he says dubiously, looking to her for another small shove. “I mean, I wouldn’t want to hurt him.”

She smiles, her deep blue eyes twinkling lasciviously as the rough smell of the grog seeps through the air between them. “Oh, he looked like a big boy to me. What’s the harm, eh?”

Anders chuckles. She has a point. Tobias Hawke is well known across certain parts of the city for his ability to take care of himself… and that’s discounting most of Varric’s more imaginative stories. And he has made the first move. Numerous times, as a matter of fact. That is powerful stuff all by itself, as far as Anders is concerned. For so long, he’s played the cad, picked up fun where he found it and been the pursuer, the cheeky, winking rogue. Now he allows himself to admit it, he finds it has struck home with unexpected force to be the object of someone else’s attentions… especially an attractive man who makes no bones about his desire.

I say you should go for it,” Selby says, nudging him in the ribs again with one bony elbow. “Have a little fun.”

Anders smiles politely, but wringing the gesture out leaves a bad taste in his mouth. She doesn’t understand. People don’t. It’s not as if he can really explain about how Justice sees things—how he sees them. How they feel.

He doesn’t want fun. He wants… well, what he wants isn’t a good idea.

I’m going to ask him to come with us,” Anders says, and he doesn’t know for the life of him why. It’s a stupid thing to say, something he shouldn’t mention yet, because he just knows Selby won’t approve. Damn it, he’s barely made the decision himself. “At the end of the month. The Gallows run.”

Selby’s face stiffens, just as he knew it would.

Creer said we wasn’t doin’ ’em no more,” she says, her brow crumpling into a frown. “It’s too dangerous. We risk losing people every time, and the templars are getting wise. Creer said we were better off focusing our attentions on the north road and the docks, where they bring ’em in. Get ’em out before they get ’em in. For one, I agree.”

I don’t.” Anders shakes his head. “I don’t agree with a single mage being in that place… not when there are templars like Alrik on the loose.”

He swears he can feel the temperature of the room drop by several degrees. The look of irritation that swipes across Selby’s face is swift, and brutal, but then it softens into sympathy.

Anders… you’ve got to let that rest. He’ll get his, you know it, but don’t make it worse than it is.”

He scowls. “And how can it be worse, exactly? You know what he did, what he’s planning to—”

You have no proof of that!” Selby reminds him sharply, and the words slap Anders into silence, but the voice in his head is roaring.

Ser Alrik is one of those rotten eggs… one of those sadists who float to the top. And he must pay. We will have him for what he did.

After Karl died, Anders couldn’t let it be. He bribed and cajoled the information out of places he should have known better than to go fishing—and there were details he didn’t need to know. Details Justice didn’t need to hear. They fuelled everything for a while, made it worse… made it almost impossible, until he was—yes, all right, distracted—by the news about Hawke’s Deep Roads expedition, and how only Varric’s brother had made it back alive, and Tobias was lost, or dead, under the ground.

It was a shock, and it brought him back from the edge for a little while. Just long enough to remember that there were people who needed him, that—just because some sadistic bastard tortured and humiliated Karl until he was too weak to resist the Rite of Tranquillity, and just because a man like Hawke could die so senselessly, when Anders could have insisted on joining the expedition, and maybe protected him—other people’s small, everyday tragedies didn’t simply stop or go away. So he stayed. He tended the sick and nursed the dying, and healed the ones he could save. And that was something.

It wasn’t enough, but it was something.

Of course, Hawke came back. Surprised everyone… surprised Anders by the strength of his own reaction. He’d never imagined just hearing the news that Tobias was all right would have floored him the way it did.

He’ll believe me. After the things he’s seen, the things he’s done… he knows that, even if something sounds impossible, it might still be true.

Tobias might believe him, or he might not. Few others in the Underground do, and Anders blames himself for that. He was incandescent when he first reported back what he’d heard—the rumours about Ser Alrik’s great plan to turn every mage in the Marches Tranquil—and his brothers and sisters in the cause pursed their lips, furrowed their brows, and tutted in consternation. No one thought it possible, no one rose up in righteous fury… and then Selby took his arm, made him sit down, and gave him half a cup of watered wine, and he realised how loudly he’d been shouting.

He suspects some of them still think he’s mad.

Now, Anders bites his lower lip, and looks guardedly at Selby. “There’s enough to make me think it could happen,” he says, and the words chime like dark stones of prophecy against his ears. “Men like Alrik won’t stop until they’ve either yoked or killed every last one of us. Gethyn’s with me. He agrees.”

Her cheeks hollow just a little; she’s drawing breath to tell him he’s a fool. Ordinarily, he’d agree. Gethyn Drummer is one of them, yes, but the whole Underground knows he is a firebrand set with a hair trigger, unreliable and unpredictable. And they don’t know Hawke at all… only as the man Anders has dragged along to a couple of meetings, and who has dropped more coin on the cell than any new face should, apostate or no. Some of them probably think he’s a plant by the templars or the viscount’s administration—and he does have too much to do with the guard and the city officials to be considered safe enough to hear much of the Underground’s really sensitive information—but they don’t know him like Anders does.

It doesn’t matter, in any case. Anders trusts him. Anders would trust him with his life and—if they are going to enter The Gallows, instead of pulling back from those missions, the way their self-appointed leader, Elias Creer, would apparently like—he can’t think of anyone he’d rather have fighting beside him.

Anyway, he figures Hawke probably owes him one after messing around with all those bloody bandits. 

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Chapter 6
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Justice in Surrender: Chapter 9

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Tobias didn’t know where the Mage Underground met, or what to expect from the night, but he arrived at Anders’ clinic a little earlier than they’d arranged.

The last few walk-ins of the day were leaving, and one of the most recent runaways-cum-apprentices was making comfortable an old woman whose fever and delirium didn’t look like they would last much longer. Tobias had seen her there before. She had no family left since her husband’s death, and he supposed there were worse places for someone like her to die.

All the same, the heavy pall of stillness in the air made his back itch… as if death was waiting, crouching in the shadows and listening for every creak and whistle in the old woman’s slowing breaths. Tobias lingered by the rough wooden doors, and couldn’t wait to leave.

“Hawke.”

His chest tightened a little at the sound of Anders’ voice, and he raised his gaze, drinking in the familiar sight of him. In all honesty, Tobias told himself, it was stupid. How many times had he come down here, felt his pulse turn light and quick at the sound of his name on those lips… and why did he keep doing it to himself?

Anders looked exhausted, but his expression was strangely hard and drawn as he came towards Tobias, wiping his hands on an old rag.

“Are you all right? I heard what happened. The gas, and—”

“Hello to you, too,” Tobias teased with a smile.

“Don’t. I heard people died.”

Those dark brows were creased into a frown, and fatigue ringed Anders’ eyes. He tossed the rag into a hamper that stood beside one of the pallets, full of bandages and other linens for boiling, and glanced over his shoulder before he came to join Tobias by the door.

The runaway-assistant was making the usual nightly pass, blowing out most of the candles and banking the fire down. The scent of elfroot and soot rose from that awful coat, and Anders looked at him with a mixture of reproach and concern that made Tobias feel uncomfortably exposed.

“I’m fine,” he said gently.

Anders nodded and blinked, as if he was trying to hold onto a thought. He seemed distracted as well as tired, almost swaying on his feet, and Tobias fought the urge to reach out a hand to touch him… steady him, perhaps.

“Yes. I mean, yes… of course you are.” Anders sounded mildly accusatory, as if the very fact of Tobias emerging unscathed from the Lowtown debacle was only to be expected, his perennial good fortune just some kind of slightly annoying peccadillo. The healer rubbed his forehead with herb-stained fingers and frowned, looking troubled. “It, uh, it was the qunari?”

Tobias shrugged. “Maybe. Directly, indirectly—I don’t know. I don’t think I know anything anymore. Just that I’m sick of this bloody place. As soon as the estate’s settled—”

“Huh.” Anders’ hand dropped to his side, and he smiled grimly. “That again?”

He gestured to the door, and Tobias followed him out into the tunnels. Darktown stretched ahead of them into the night, perilous and labyrinthine, and yet somehow peculiarly comforting.

“No, really,” Tobias protested. “It’s happening. It’s finally happening, at last. All the paperwork, it’s all in motion… the viscount himself signed off on it, right in front of me.”

Anders stopped and stared incredulously at him. “Truly? Viscount Dumar actually…?”

“Mm-hm. Mother’s claim was legitimate, it was just snobbery and politics stopping it. I may have made a few suggestions. Requested it as my payment for stepping in on the gratlock problem, and his lordship was happy to oblige. Well, I say ‘happy’… heh. Still, you know the Arishok requested me by name?”

He let himself preen, caricaturing his pride for Anders’ amusement… only the healer wasn’t laughing. He was still staring, and a hollow sort of look touched his eyes. He blinked, and it passed, but left Tobias unsettled all the same. A rat darted along the footing of the nearest packed-earth-and-timber wall, and vanished into the piss-fragrant shadows.

“No,” Anders said quietly. “I didn’t know that. Going up in the world, aren’t you?”

The words seemed to lack emphasis, and Tobias didn’t know how to respond. He shrugged diffidently.

“Well… a bit. Maybe. Anyway, you know the story there. It’s Mother who wants her childhood home back, not me. Not that I’d complain about getting out of Lowtown, but….”

He let the words trail away, too aware of Darktown surrounding them. Here and there, a couple of bodies were visible at the edges of the tunnels and undercrofts; most of them were probably just sleeping. Compared to what most of these poor bastards had, Gamlen’s hovel was palatial.

If Anders thought the same, he didn’t say so. He didn’t say much as they walked, and Tobias just followed where he led, his unease growing as they took twist after turn through the Undercity.

Anders led him up one of the old stairways under the docks, and through a dark network of alleys, each one offering barely a glimpse of moonlight. The air was rank with old piss and filth. Tobias realised they’d most likely come this way so he wouldn’t recognise the route, though he guessed they were probably at the back of Lowtown, right down in the far reaches past the bazaar.

Anders seemed oddly quiet right up until they turned out of the last alley, into a narrow street at the end of which stood a small stone-built tenement, the windows pitted into its worn face like the cells of a honeycomb. There were shrouded lights in several of the windows, but a lone candle burned on the sill of one room, at the bottom of the building. He almost flinched at the feel of Anders’ hand on his arm.

“Hawke?”

Tobias glanced down at the pale fingers resting, unclenched, on the sleeve of his tunic.

“Hm?”

“Don’t… I mean, don’t give them too much,” Anders murmured, his hand falling back to his side. “D’you understand? The people you’ll meet in here, they’re hard-pushed. We’re all… well, we all have to do what we can, but… don’t share too much of yourself at first. All right?”

Tobias smiled, rather touched by the worried look on the healer’s face, and that charmingly insecure protectiveness he seemed to be showing. Of course, he wasn’t entirely sure whether Anders was feeling more protective of him or the Underground itself, but it was nice to dream, even if just for a minute.

“I’ll be careful,” he promised, allowing his smile to curve just a little wider. “And I won’t talk to any strange men.”

Anders laughed softly, that taut look on his face broken in a moment of surprising warmth as his gaze softened.

“Oh… it’s a bit late for that, isn’t it?”

Tobias chuckled, and followed him across the empty street, feeling oddly exposed in the dimness. He squinted, trying to find his bearings, but he didn’t think he’d ever seen this part of town before. If he had, it had either not been worth noticing, or it looked so different in the dark as to be unrecognisable. Definitely somewhere between the bazaar and the docks, he decided. It could almost feel like the back end of the alienage district, except there was very little sound and, if there was one thing about the elves, it was that they were noisy buggers in their own backyard. Any time he and Varric had swung by to check on Merrill, he’d always noticed the constant buzz of noise and life and colour, from the candles kept burning around the vhenadahl tree to the squalling of babies in overcrowded rooms, and the eternal dramas of lives being lived on doorsteps.

No, this was altogether somewhere more contained… more secret.

Anders hunched into the doorway, pressing himself up against the wall, and rapped softly on the peeling wood. After a few moments, the door opened just a little, and there seemed to be the scuffle of movement within.

“It’s me,” he said quietly.

The shadow-shrouded shape within mumbled something Tobias didn’t catch, and Anders nodded.

“Yes, that’s right.” He glanced at Tobias, something that looked very like nervousness colouring his face, and smiled weakly. “My friend.”

A hard, dry spool of want and anxiety—desire mixed in equal parts with gratitude and trepidation—unfolded in Tobias’ chest, and looped itself around his heart. He’d known, intellectually, the risk that Anders was taking by bringing him here tonight, but it hadn’t seemed real until now.

He blinked, and tried to make out the shape hidden in the shadows. There wasn’t much point. The door closed, then there was a noise like a chair being scraped over a wooden floor, and it opened again, just wide enough to admit them.

He followed Anders, holding his breath as he edged into what turned out to be a tiny, cramped hallway, unlit except for the reflected glow of a fire and candlelight coming from an adjacent room. The shape behind the door proved to be a cowled figure in a rough brown cloak, who moved behind him to bolt and lock the entrance.

“Come,” the figure said, and reached up with one thin hand to push back its cowl, revealing a woman with a thick fall of grey hair and a face pinched into hard, gaunt lines.

She looked at Anders, then Tobias, and he took her inscrutable expression to mean she disapproved of his presence. Her eyes were a truly dark blue, almost violet, and there was evidently some question in them as Anders met her gaze.

“It’s all right,” he said. “Honestly it is. Um… Hawke, this is Mistress Selby. She’s probably done more for mages in Kirkwall than anyone over the past five years. Selby… I’ve told you about Hawke.”

“Yes, you have.”

She turned that powerful gaze on Tobias, and he did his best not to wither beneath it. She’d been one of the ones at Anders’ clinic, that night he’d overheard them… the matronly influence trying to keep the peace. Tobias recognised her voice now, but he wasn’t sure why it held that slightly disparaging tone—something a bit beyond the level of suspicion he’d have expected from these people—so he made an effort to be as polite as possible.

“Mistress.” He inclined his head. “I’m pleased to—”

“You’d best get in,” she snapped, addressing Anders. “They’re waiting.”

With that, she turned and made her way into the adjacent room, leaving Tobias deflated and looking to Anders for support. Anders just shrugged.

“Come on,” he murmured.

Tobias stifled a sigh and followed him. It wasn’t as if he could do much else.

He didn’t know what he thought he’d find in that poky, stuffy little room. Wild-eyed rebels, perhaps, all sharing that impassioned zeal that Anders was given to, or maybe dark, serious types with their faces hidden, like some secret brotherhood… possibly with its own funny handshake. He wouldn’t have been surprised.

What he got was a rag-tag group of people standing around the fire or sprawled on a handful of chairs and stools. Some wore cloaks or cowls, as if they’d had to walk a long way through the city to be here, and some looked as if they’d just rolled in off the street. Merchants, labourers, clerks and menials… it seemed the Underground drew from all walks of life.

And, naturally, every single one of them turned to stare at him. Tobias willed himself not to shrink under their gazes, grateful for the way Anders stood in front of him, angled to the room with his chin up, his face impassive.

There were maybe fifteen people crammed into a space not much larger than the main room of Gamlen’s place. Aside from the assorted chairs, stools and crates being pressed into service as seats, there were few furnishings; just a couple of rough-hewn wooden shelves on the damp plaster walls, and the swollen, misshapen belly of a fireplace in worn cob and mud-brick. The smell of soot and dirt, and tired, unwashed bodies hung heavily in the stale, crowded air.

A short, wiry man with short-cropped dark hair and small, dark eyes rose from his stool and, thumbs in his belt, surveyed them both openly.

“This is the one you spoke of, then, Anders?”

The voice was familiar. Tobias recognised it from the night at the clinic, and his listening through the tattered curtain.

Anders nodded. “Yes, Gethyn.”

That meant it was likely the shadowy Elias—the man who never seemed to exist when you wanted to ask a question about him—was here somewhere, too. Tobias wondered which of the gathered apostates and sympathisers he was, and almost missed the sour look that Gethyn was busy giving him.

“Mage?” he demanded.

When Tobias looked nonplussed, Gethyn raised his left hand, holding it slightly cupped. With a brief flash, two inches of flame bloomed in his palm, dancing just above the skin. He sneered as he let it die, lips bent in a thinly veiled challenge.

Tobias sighed inwardly. Great… do we whip them out to measure now, or later?

He met Gethyn’s gaze unflinchingly, and lifted his right hand. Allowing the power to swell within him took a moment’s concentration—not that he was about to let that show—and he’d been keeping it choked back for so long that it felt strange, like tongues of whispering ice under his skin. Tobias flexed his fingers, and allowed the coruscating blue flickers of magical energy to wrap themselves around his hand, twirling and spinning until they became a ball in the centre of his palm.

There was silence, the soft crackle of his magic audible in the quiet. He held himself perfectly still for a moment. Then, a log popped on the fire and, abruptly, he snapped his hand shut, extinguishing the light.

“Mage,” he confirmed.

Mistress Selby came bustling forward, tutting disapprovingly.

“Gethyn,” she chided, “stop it. Serah Hawke has been vouched for. That should be enough.”

“It is enough,” chipped in another voice—a deep, rolling voice that could only have belonged to one person.

Tobias’ gaze swivelled at once to the man in the corner. He couldn’t believe it had taken this long to notice him. He should have stood out immediately: broad, muscular, and dark-skinned, with a predatory air about him. Rivaini, Tobias suspected, as the man rose to his feet. Close-cropped dark curls framed his face, all proudly arched nose and flared cheekbones, and his smile was wide and bright.

“Anders.” He nodded in greeting, grasping the healer’s arm, wrist-to-wrist, in a gesture that seemed, to Tobias, to smack more of familiarity than the desire to express formal respect.

Anders returned the nod. “Elias. Keeping well?”

“Well enough.” That big smile widened even further. “And, of course, Serah Hawke.”

Tobias stood his ground as the taller man took his hand and shook it firmly. Eyes so dark as to be pupilless pools raked succinctly over him, the reflected firelight glimmering across their surface, and left him feeling vaguely uncomfortable.

“Elias Creer. I’m pleased to meet you at last. Your name seems to be on the very air in this city, messere.”

Tobias arched an eyebrow. “Really? Like the chokedamp?”

Creer laughed. “Hah! Very good… though I believe there have been a few other nasty vapours around of late, haven’t there?”

Tobias’ hand was still caught in a vice-like grip. Word of the gratlock thing had apparently travelled fast, and he wasn’t sure he liked that kind of notoriety. He did his best to look nonchalant, and lifted one shoulder in a careless half-shrug.

“If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that Kirkwall has its own complex bouquet,” he said, as Elias finally relinquished his hand. “Lots of different flavours of stink.”

The Rivaini laughed again, and something like a dark shudder slipped between Tobias’ shoulder blades. It wasn’t revulsion, precisely, or fear… he couldn’t identify it. Creer didn’t feel like a mage, though it was admittedly hard to tell, given Anders’ presence in the room. Seeing past him with that strange cobweb of senses—the silver threads of magic that quivered in response to one another, and laid their tongues against power wherever they found it—was difficult at the best of times, and right now it felt as if the healer was burning bright enough to blot out the sun.

Tobias just smiled, and it looked like Elias was going to say something else, but Gethyn—clearly an agitator, that one—was pacing by the fire, and snapped out an irritable complaint.

“So? Everyone here? Are we going to get a move on?”

“Peace, Gethyn,” Mistress Selby said sternly.

She’d brought in two jugs of cheap wine, and Tobias found himself being passed a small clay mug, into which some of the scummy, dark liquid was poured. It seemed to be a tradition. He glanced at Anders, took aboard his slight nod, and followed what everyone else was doing.

The fire’s deep light flickered over Selby’s eyes as she spoke, and her words sounded like some kind of oath or dedication. Those gathered all raised their cups, and turned solemn stares towards her.

“In memory of those who have fallen,” she intoned, “to those who still stand, and to those who shall come after us, for whom we fight. For as long as we draw breath, we shall not submit.”

There was a chorus of murmured assents, and each mage and sympathiser present drank. Tobias did so too, and found it was rather like swilling warm vinegar. He swallowed heavily, tried to disguise his wince, and glanced around the room. Some of those gathered looked as if they might be familiar, somewhere beneath the cowls and hoods. Faces he’d seen in the market, or knew vaguely as part of the backdrop to the city.

Over by the fireplace, a skinny woman swathed in a brown cloak peered back at him from beneath the hood she hadn’t lowered. A glimpse of preternaturally pale green eyes made him wonder if she was elven, but Tobias knew better than to stare for too long.

Anyway, the meeting seemed to be grinding into gear.

“What news, then?” asked one of the men, fair-haired and with sunken, pinched cheeks. His accent seemed faintly Orlesian, and the soil of travel rimed his clothes. He looked like he hadn’t slept in a week, and he downed the rest of his wine in one swift swallow. “I’ve been back barely a day.”

Gethyn snorted bitterly. “More raids, Luc. Two so far this week. Last night, it was a house in the foundry district. A man killed trying to prevent the templars from taking his daughter, and she wasn’t even a mage. All they had was a report from a neighbour… most likely lies made up over some minor quarrel. This is what happens when those bastards don’t even wait for evidence!”

The blond, Luc, curled his lips around a growl of distaste. As Selby leaned over to top up his cup, a look passed between them that caught Tobias’ attention. Lovers? Or just co-conspirators? He wasn’t sure, but he was curious. Was there even a difference, in a group of people who seemed to know each other well enough to pick up on a dozen different kinds of verbal shorthand?

A man who hadn’t spoken before—well-dressed, heavy-set, and with thick, reddish whiskers on his chin—grunted and shook his head, flabby cheeks juddering as he moved.

“Hmph… they’ll cover that up, mark you. Just like they do the bloody magisters.”

He crossed his arms over his red velvet doublet, and Tobias tried to get a closer look at the gold signet on the smallest of his thick fingers. His accent was foreign, too… not that far-flung, but not native Kirkwall. Somewhere else in the Marches, maybe?

What magisters?

Tobias narrowed his eyes. He wanted to ask, but got the distinct impression that he was being watched, and everything from his curiosity to his expression was being quietly evaluated. He glanced at Anders, hating the desire within himself to cling to the healer, and also very aware of the distance he’d left between them. Anders stood a good four feet away, the half-empty cup of wine held in one pale hand, his face motionless as he watched the room.

Tobias felt Elias Creer’s gaze on him, and bit his tongue.

“We never had proof of that, Master Temmen,” Selby said, eyeing the fat merchant warily. “Until we do—”

“Bah!” Temmen’s fleshy lips wrinkled in distaste. “We all know it’s true! Meredith just sees fit to overlook it, because the Imperium’s up to its filthy neck in black market lyrium, and her men are the bastards keeping the trade running! If I had a sovereign for every bloody Tevinter who owns a mansion in Hightown, not to mention the sodding slavers working right under the Guard’s nose—”

“Ah,” Elias said smoothly, “but you’re right.”

Temmen stopped mid-sentence, his chin still wobbling slightly, and looked perplexed. Creer unfolded lazily from his chair, and rose to address the room.

“Have we not been seeing this worsen, year on year? Every week there’s some new gang of thugs prowling the city. The slavers our good Master Temmen mentions… the lyrium smugglers—both those with roots in Seheron and Tevinter, and the dwarven-led operations—not to mention the home-grown activities of our own dear Coterie, and their ever-present war with the Orzammar Carta….”

He paused, and cast a very brief glance in Tobias’ direction. Tobias kept his face carefully blank. The slavers he and Varric had run out of the old Amell estate aside, his previous association with Athenril and her band of smugglers was common enough knowledge to anyone who knew his reputation, but he wasn’t prepared to have either of those things held up for scrutiny.

It was like the elf had always said: they worked on supply and demand, they didn’t trade in flesh—whores or slaves—and they weren’t in the business of making enemies if they could avoid it. All right, it hadn’t been respectable work, but it had been clean enough, at least amid Kirkwall’s filth. The fact Athenril had gotten cocky and pissed off both the Coterie and the Carta was beside the point… as was the fact that, after the third time she cut him out on deals he’d earned a fair share in, Tobias had seen no problem with selling a few choice secrets out from under her. Not his proudest moment, perhaps, but it had paid good coin, and bought the Coterie off his back for a little while to boot.

He wondered how much Elias knew… and how much he was willing to tell.

“We must ask ourselves, brothers and sisters,” the Rivaini continued, encompassing them all in a gesture of spread hands and wide eyes, “where does it end? The City Guard are laying on more patrols, fine… but they’ve been mired in corruption for so long, that reform won’t happen overnight. Knight-Commander Meredith claims her templars act for the city’s best interests—that it is mages who are responsible for every breakdown of public order—but, we ask, will she blame us for everything? Every crime, every transgression… every sneeze out of turn… where does it end?”

A few of the cloaked figures shuffled uneasily, but just as many of the gathered members were staring at him, nodding and murmuring assent.

“You preach to the converted, Creer,” Luc said darkly. “Even in Orlais, they whisper Meredith wants only power.”

Mistress Selby shot him an enquiring look. “Were you able to make contact?”

The fire crackled, and its deep, sharp shadows raked at the walls.

Luc nodded. “Yes, but Val Royeaux is a tinderbox. The whole of the Heartlands feels it… ripe with pressure. The Divine has moved against a war with Ferelden, but no one knows how long the Empress will stay her hand, if Queen Anora doesn’t curb her ambitions. She is less blunt a politician than her father, but not by much. Her trade treaty with Nevarra, and the powers she has granted the Grey Wardens… they make for tense times.”

“Bugger the griffon riders,” piped up an elf in the corner; a bony, shaven-headed creature in ragged trousers and a grubby shirt, his feet bound with strips of dirty cloth over rough wooden pattens. “The Blight’s over. No one cares if they get the whole dog-lord country as a reward. What about the movement there? The Orlesian Underground is the only—”

“The Orlesians,” Luc snapped, “are hanging by a thread. There is as much ill feeling against mages there as there is in the Marches. I did not even dare to get near Montsimmard. Between the templars and the Wardens, it is far too heavily watched. Everyone we knew there, they’ve all gone… fled into the Dales or across the Gamordians. There’s still something of a front active there, but they can only do so much. In Val Royeaux, everybody talks of the Fereldan Circle’s annulment… some idiots even say mages started the Blight itself.” He curled his lip, and spat onto the damp, musty rushes that strewed the floor. “In the two weeks I was there, six apostates were drawn and quartered in the Cathedral Square. So, our contact holds out little hope for any co-operative action. Right now, they are simply doing what they can to help their own.”

A stunned, despondent silence fell over the room. Tobias, still smarting a little from the ‘dog-lord’ crack—not to mention the image of apostates being torn limb from limb—struggled to keep up. He hadn’t followed events back home much… nor had he known there were groups like this elsewhere. Still, that stood to reason, didn’t it? Co-ordinated efforts across nations… mages rising up against injustice, and standing against the abuses perpetrated by people like Knight-Commander Meredith.

It was a wonderful idea, so why did he suddenly feel so uneasy?

“The Divine’s agent still does nothing, then?” Elias asked coolly, folding his arms. “I understood the First Enchanter had made a petition.”

Luc shrugged and shook his head. “Still waiting. I don’t think it will come to much… maybe a public address, a few words on benevolence and charity. After the Fereldan annulment, the Libertarian cause is all but lost in Orlais. Even Enchanter Clairveaux—many of you will remember his outspoken support of a free Circle—now publicly condones the vigilance of the templars.”

A ripple of discontent ran around the room. Tobias wasn’t familiar with this Clairveaux’s name, and his ignorance shamed him. He couldn’t help feeling, had Bethany been there, she’d have been intrigued. Their life had never featured much to do with the politics or study of magic—beyond Malcolm’s instruction in controlling power and resisting temptations—and their father had never encouraged discussion of the Circle, or even much in the way of anything that lay beyond the basic precepts of keeping oneself alive, and one’s head down.

In practice, most of what Tobias knew had come from Werner, the old apostate in Athenril’s employ, who’d escaped the Kirkwall Circle with enough bitterness to fill a barrow, and an in-depth knowledge of telekinetic and force spells… for which Tobias had been surprised to discover a mild aptitude.

Still, all this business of who said what, and who stood where left him nonplussed. He began to wonder if Anders’ precious Underground wasn’t more of a gossip club for the embittered and slightly paranoid, but then Luc shook his head again, that pinched, gaunt face a sharp blade of defiance.

“In any case,” he said briskly, “there is the matter of sea passage. The Raiders are making it more difficult than ever. I say Orlais is no longer a viable route from the Marches. We are far better advised to rely on Anders’ contacts in the Vimmarks.”

Tobias pricked up his ears, his gaze falling at once on the healer. Anders just nodded, like he’d been expecting Luc’s words, and the shoulders of his tatty coat rose and fell with a weary sigh.

“It’s possible,” he said, as the room’s attention turned to him. “There are still merchant caravans covering the mountain and coast routes, but we can’t risk moving as many as we did before. And, with the state Starkhaven’s been in since the coup—not to mention the unrest in their Circle—that’s still not much of an option. I had word from Elinor, in Ostwick; they’ll help as long as they can, but it costs more, not to mention needing papers….”

He eyed the merchant, Temmen, meaningfully, and the man blustered.

“What? Ah, well, yes. Yes, but it takes coin, doesn’t it? Getting seals copied, signatures forged….” He shrugged dismissively. “We’ll just have to send fewer. Those we can’t get out first off will simply need to wait, or pay their own way.”

Tobias’ gut clenched as he was struck by the sudden sensation of the floor pitching beneath him. It was Anders, he realised; he blinked at that all-too-familiar lurch of power, and saw several other mages in the room wince.

“No,” Anders said, and it was the hollow echo of Justice’s anger that swelled beneath the word. He took a breath, evidently struggling for control. “No… we do not back away from helping people, simply because it becomes more difficult. They need us now, more than ever. Would you deny them?”

“Anders is right, Master Temmen,” Selby said pointedly, anger etched into the lines of her face. “At this moment, I have four children in my house, not one of them more than twelve years. Would you see them turned over to the templars for want of a couple of sovereigns? No… we’ll see to passage to Ostwick. It’s safer than Orlais, and it don’t take no fussing with boats. That’ll do for now.”

“I’m merely saying,” Temmen protested, “that some will have to wait, or that maybe our efforts should be focused on those who are already outside the Circle’s reach, hm? After all, when the templars are growing ever more vicious, is there sense in antagonising them?”

“He’s got a point,” someone else chimed in—the elven woman Tobias had noticed before, still hooded, as if she didn’t want to risk showing her face fully. “It’s the ones who’ve broken out that bring all of us to danger. I say we help those born free stay free… show the world we can live alongside the rest of ’em without trouble. Let those who’ve fallen foul of the templars work it out themselves.”

The meeting nearly broke into uproar at that point, several voices overlapping each other, and cries of anger and disbelief mixing with those of frustration and support.

That was the crux of it, Tobias realised: the root of the argument on all its levels. Mages were not just one group. They were, their gifts notwithstanding, people… in all their chaotic, jumbled imperfection. Whether they were good, weak, strong, wicked, or as morally ambivalent as the average, non-magical slob, they would never fit into simple categorisations.

He leaned against the wall, watching the room divide into bitterly entrenched camps. Those who feared Meredith’s reprisals—or who longed for a quiet life, or were simply worried about the logistics—argued against the Underground’s resources being poured into helping ex-Circle apostates, while those who had known life beneath the templars’ heels were incensed at the very prospect of not helping.

“Why not let ’em run on their own, eh?” the elf asked. “That’s all I’m saying.”

Anders glared furiously at her, and the firelight couldn’t quite wash that hint of blue from beneath the paleness of his skin.

“Do you even know what it’s like?” he spat, his voice chased through with that hushed, awful tension, the cracked prism of his iron-hard control clenched around everything fighting for release. “How hard it is to get away in the first place? You run because the alternative is unbearable, because if you don’t you’ll forget what the sky looks like, and you’ll die withered up in their bloody prison. You risk everything, and you run and you run… and they still find you. They take your blood, keep you chained by it—and it’s not blood magic when they do it, is it? Oh, no. They use it to track you like a rat, and they won’t stop, and you know they won’t. You wake, every morning, and that first second you open your eyes is bliss because, just maybe, you’ve forgotten and you think you’re free… only then you remember. So the first thing you do is run again. And it never stops.”

The hair rose on the back of Tobias’ neck, and the stale air tasted metallic. Anders glared at the elf, and the ragged shoulders of his worn coat were hunched like some angry, moulting crow. Every eye in the room was on him as he lifted a hand and pointed at her, his mouth bent into a hard, bitter curl.

“Think about that next time the templars march into your alienage, Selene. Next time they come to take some helpless child. Does it feel like justice then? Does it? Does it feel like justice to all those people rotting in The Gallows?”

“There’s no smoke without fire,” the elven woman protested, as the volume of the argument rose. “You can bet some of ’em done what the templars said they done—you really want to risk your lives springing blood mages and abominations?”

“If you believe everything the templars feed you, you’re a fool!” Anders snapped. “Our duty is to those who can’t help themselves… the ones Meredith’s people abuse every day. Will you turn your back on them simply because they’ve endured things you’ve never had to know? Will you stand by—try to tell yourself it’s not your problem—when almost every mage in Kirkwall who dares to speak out ends up made Tranquil?”

Tobias bit his lip. He could see the trembling in Anders’ hands… and he was pretty sure everyone else could, too. The elf backed down, looked away, and mumbled something about ‘bloody Fereldans’, which struck Tobias as eminently stupid. He thought Anders might actually lose it completely then, but Elias entered the fray, his voice smooth and conciliatory, rolling over the ructions like honey.

“We have never made a distinction between those living free and those who flee the Circle,” he said calmly. “But, by the same token, directly moving against the templars is dangerous. That’s true, and no one will ever be asked to do more than they are willing to do. It is not for us to put anyone in danger, who does not accept the risk willingly… even where our goal is to help our brothers and sisters. I trust I make myself clear?”

The few dishevelled murmurs of assent didn’t seem like a consensus.

From his corner near the fire, the shaven-headed elf hooked his arms around one scrawny knee, and glared at the rest of the gathering. “She wouldn’t dare do that anyway, would she? I don’t think she would. They’ve got to have a reason for using the Rite.”

Gethyn—who had been suspiciously quiet for too long, Tobias thought, sitting and watching everything with those beady little eyes—scoffed dismissively.

“Oh, and you know for certain what she would and wouldn’t do, do you? We can’t put anything past Meredith. Especially while the Grand Cleric refuses to speak publicly on the issue. I wouldn’t be remotely surprised to find that Anders is right. The very fact the templars are prepared to perform the Rite on fully Harrowed mages—an act that the Chantry itself declares illegal—should tell us enough.”

“We don’t know—” someone began, which brought a chorus of dissent.

It was true. No Harrowed mage should be made Tranquil, under any circumstance. Tobias wasn’t that well-versed in the fine print of Chantry statute, but there had been a fairly vocal few evenings in The Hanged Man when the subject had come up. Anders said the law was clear: a mage’s Harrowing was final. It meant he’d demonstrated his capability to master himself and his gifts, and no one could take that away. It conferred rights, such as mages had them. Membership of the Circle, and its protection; you were its responsibility from that point on and, if you succumbed to demons or the temptations of forbidden magic, there was no Tranquillity. Only death, and the swift blade of some well-trained templar magehunter.

Whatever Meredith was doing—or whatever was happening on her watch—there was no excuse for that. No excuse for what had happened to Karl.

Tobias bit the inside of his lip as he thought of it. Was that was this particular anger boiled down to? Or was that one dark, private wound just a part of something larger?

He shot a glance at Anders, watching the tension in his frame, the almost petulant hardness in his face as he argued with one of the better-dressed women. Another merchant, by the looks of it, Tobias decided, as the healer muttered a cuss and rolled his eyes in exasperation.

Tobias wondered if things were always this bad. The very nature of the Underground probably meant feelings were usually running high, and it seemed unlikely they ever just got together for a nice chat over a pot of tea, but were they always at each other’s throats like this? And was there always this sour, cold taste of fear in the air?

Elias waded in again before things got too vituperative, those large, broad palms held up in a gesture of peace… ever the ringmaster, Tobias thought warily.

“Peace, my friends… there’s no sense in quarrelling over this tonight. It’s true—it is true,” he added, raising his voice over the last dregs of protest, “that many Harrowed mages have been made Tranquil in the past year. We know this, but we cannot prove that it is born of a political motive. Yes, it is against the Chantry’s laws, but when their only response is to ask whether concerned citizens would rather see what they call ‘troubled’ mages executed instead of given the Rite, how can we proceed? Besides, as long as the Chantry makes the laws that govern its own templars, we have no recourse, and neither does the Circle. It is injustice, but it is an injustice it is foolish to challenge. Doing so only serves to make us too visible. Should we risk exposure so? Let us strike instead where we can effect change.”

It settled the room, but the ill feeling still hung thickly over everything. Anders had slumped back ungraciously against the wall, his face set into what Varric usually termed ‘Moody Rebellious Scowl Number Four’, and a couple of people let loose disgruntled murmurs regarding the uselessness of the viscount, and how there was no government in Kirkwall except the poxy templars.

Elias folded his arms and nodded, waiting for the calm to settle.

“To business, then,” he said, with a glance at Mistress Selby, “and the matters of finance.”

It was grim stuff, discussing the minute details of how to get people out of the city. A lot of the information was couched in vague terms, and it all sounded like a hidden, coded language. Tobias assumed it was so no one ever knew all the addresses of the safe houses, or the names of every ship’s captain or caravan trader who could be bribed, but he knew he was still hearing a lot.

There were references to plenty of places he knew, names that were familiar… and it became apparent to him just how well threaded through Kirkwall’s underbelly the Underground’s sticky fingers were. And yet, the calmness with which they discussed it—six children, three female apprentices, one of whom Selby implied was carrying the result of a templar rape, two apostates who’d been on the run from Starkhaven for months, and two mages from the Kirkwall Tower, recently escaped—suggested a fluidity of routine, and the practiced ease with which these people faced an almost impossible challenge.

Each one would need papers, just to be safe. New clothes, supplies, food, money… a pathway smoothed ahead of them, at least until they learned enough to blend in with the world. The pregnant girl was getting near her time, but it was too dangerous for her to stay in Kirkwall. It was all about getting them as far away as fast as possible, apparently.

Tobias had questions, but he didn’t dare ask them. Anders’ words about phylacteries echoed in his mind, and he wondered exactly how the templars used them. Was it really blood magic? How far did it reach… and how far did someone have to run before he was out of their range, if he ever was?

Naturally, the sticking point was still coin. Temmen seemed to be the Underground’s chief finagler of shady paperwork, and he never stopped whining about the cost. Things were starting to get tense again when Tobias cleared his throat.

“When do you need the money?” he heard himself say.

It was completely against his better judgement, but it was too late. The words already were out, and people were looking at him inquisitively… not least Elias Creer.

“I’m sorry?” The Rivaini arched one heavy brow. “Serah Hawke, did you…?”

“You heard,” Tobias said flatly. “How much, and when?”

Master Temmen stared, then glanced at Elias, because everybody here seemed to do that before reaching a decision.

“W-well, I… I….”

Elias shrugged. “Arranging passage to Ostwick for this trip alone will take the best part of two hundred and fifty sovereigns, if we are to move them all, but—”

“I can get you twenty tomorrow, and another sixty by week’s end, if it helps. I’ve… had a lucky run,” Tobias added dryly.

It was true enough. Also true that he’d had plans for the money but, next to standing in this dim, stuffy room, listening to people argue about saving the lives of children and sticking one to that mad bitch in The Gallows, they paled a bit. He’d explain it to Leandra later. Sort of, anyway.

Probably best leave out the bits about the illegal mages and the plotting to overthrow the accepted social order.

Elias gave him a suave, smooth smile that didn’t quite seem to reach his eyes.

“That is… most generous of you.”

Tobias wrinkled his nose. Well, in the Rivaini’s shoes, he’d have been suspicious too, he supposed.

“Let’s just call it a gesture of good faith. I hope it helps.”

Elias inclined his head. “Indeed, Serah Hawke. Indeed.”

Tobias felt a number of other gazes on him, and he didn’t much like it. They were like needles against his skin, inquisitive and sharp… except for one, but he didn’t quite dare to meet Anders’ eye just then, and focused instead on the dying embers of the fire. No one had bothered to feed it, or bank it up, and a white-crazed mantle of ash had settled thickly over the log that had all but burned up at its centre.

After some more chewing at details, and more tense, impenetrable discussion, the meeting ended with another draught of greasy, vinegary wine, and a wooden plate being passed around. Tobias supposed he should have expected that. People gave what they could. He even noticed the elves chip in a silver or two apiece—more money than most of them saw for a day’s work—and the better-dressed, like Temmen, tossed down a couple of sovereigns. He followed suite, in addition to his sizeable pledge, and noticed Anders contributing a small leather pouch that clinked softly.

After that, things started to break up. Some of the attendees embraced each other before they left, huddling together in knots of twos or threes, tensely murmured words passing between hooded faces. The one known as Luc left first, huddled up against the night and stealing away into the darkness.

Tobias wondered where he went, curious about that shrouded traveller. He found himself at the edge of the room, set apart and all but abandoned. His gaze sought Anders, and found him standing by the fire, in close conversation with Elias. He couldn’t make out what they were saying, but the Rivaini was smiling slightly, and Anders didn’t look all that pleased. The healer shook his head, then leaned forwards and murmured something, and Elias’ smile stiffened, then faded. He nodded, and glanced over to Tobias, giving him a respectful nod and another tight smile.

“Serah Hawke. We will be thankful for your generosity.”

Will be, Tobias noticed. As in, ‘when you do it’ instead of just talking about it. Well, fair enough….

He batted the smile back, just as guarded and hard-eyed as Elias, and it came as a tremendous relief to leave that poky, warm little room.

Tobias let out a breath as, their last goodbyes said, he and Anders stepped from the tenement, back out into the street.

“Well,” he said, as the night breeze ruffled his hair, drawing a slight shiver from him, “it was certainly interesting.”

Anders just smiled thinly, and looked away down the length of the alley. A couple of hooded figures passed into the shadows, and Tobias noticed the candle being extinguished in the tenement’s window. It was almost as if the whole meeting had never happened.

“And that Elias,” he added thoughtfully, watching the way Anders blinked at the sound of the name, “he’s… an impassioned speaker.”

Anders nodded. “Mm. He believes very strongly in the cause.”

Tobias glanced at him doubtfully. “Mages?”

“Freedom,” Anders said, hugging his arms around his middle as if that awful coat wasn’t protection enough against the night… although it wasn’t even that cold.

“Yeah?” Tobias frowned. “Not really the same thing, is it?”

Anders shrugged. “Sometimes. Elias is a Resolutionist. Thinks we should all live free, because we’re no more dangerous than anyone else. I think he has a point. I mean, you don’t need magic to kill someone, do you?”

The moon’s thin sickle slipped from behind a cloud, and for a moment its pale light dappled them both. Tobias screwed up his face.

“No-oo… that’s true. However, the average nutter with a knife, while he can kill you, can’t yield his soul to a demon and take out three streets’ worth of people in a fiery pit of death before someone stops him.”

Anders gave one of those soft, tired laughs and shook his head. “You sound like Karl.”

That took Tobias aback. He stopped, his feet scuffing against the dry stones. Anders walked on another couple of paces, then turned to look back at him, outlined in dim, blue-tinted light. He smiled, and the night breeze caught at the feathers on his coat.

“What? He always said mages needed some element of control. Supervision.”

“My father used to say the same,” Tobias conceded, willing his legs to move again, if for no other reason than that it brought him closer to Anders. The city seemed so still and quiet… he could almost believe they were completely alone in these streets, islanded entirely in the darkness. “But he said the Circles were the wrong way to do it.”

Anders nodded. “Exactly. Most of the people who turn to forbidden magic do it because they feel they have no choice. If they weren’t treated like cattle, or threatened with execution at every given—”

“Then it would only be the ones who crave power that do it,” Tobias teased gently. “Like in Tevinter.”

Anders grimaced. “You’ve been playing cards with Fenris again, right?”

“I told you, you should come along. Boys’ nights,” Tobias added with a grin, falling into step neatly beside him as they crossed one more sidestreet, and elbowing the healer in the ribs. “It’s good fun.”

Anders bowed with the friendly jab, and snorted.

“I refuse to believe every mage in the Imperium uses blood magic,” he said, a trifle archly, though a hint of amusement touched the words. “Whatever he says.”

“He is biased, I’ll grant you,” Tobias admitted. “But still….”

He looked thoughtfully at Anders as his smile faded, and tried to match this man—with his careworn, ragged humour, the trails of laughter buried beneath all that dry solemnity—to the angry, wounded words that had left him in the meeting.

“Anders?”

“Hm?” He blinked, and glanced at Tobias, his face lit in thin planes of blue-painted light that made him seem ethereal, picking out every sharp line and angle.

“What you said, in there… about running. About how the templars take your blood…?”

“Oh.” Anders’ expression darkened. “Yes. The phylacteries. Sorry about that. I was… well, you know how I get.”

He smiled weakly, but the moonlight washed any attempt at levity away.

“The templars still have yours, then? Your phylactery?”

The word felt unfamiliar to Tobias, as strange and unpleasant as the idea itself: a vial of blood kept as a leash, ready to yank an unruly mage to heel.

Anders nodded grimly. “Yes. I’ve tried to go after it a couple of times… they store them in the Circle Tower itself, when you’re an apprentice, then ship them off to Denerim once you’re Harrowed. Hundreds of them… thousands. All kept in Chantry warehouses. They move different batches around now and again, so it makes it harder for anyone who might be trying to find theirs. I thought, when I was in Amaranthine, I had a chance at it, but it didn’t work out.”

“When you were with the Wardens?”

“Mm. I begged Commander Caron to let me go, just to see if I could… well, of course, he wouldn’t. Bastard.”

Tobias frowned. “What did you do?”

“Ran away,” Anders said simply. “You know, that’s… sort of my thing. The information turned out to be false, anyway. Found myself almost walking into a warehouse full of templars. Got out by the skin of my teeth, only to find Caron had tracked me down himself. And he was not a happy man.”

Tobias’ frown deepened. He recognised that tone of understatement, just as clearly as the fact Anders had hardly ever spoken of his time with the Grey Wardens, and always changed the subject at the first possible opportunity if reference to the order came up.

He turned his head towards the other man, catching the stale whiff of elfroot and sweat that nestled in his coat, and watched the thin streaks of moonlight stain that sharp, tired face. Fear closed around his heart.

“So, theoretically, they could still—?”

Anders shrugged. “Maybe. I think I got out of Amaranthine undetected. They… well, they won’t be looking for me, anyway. Of course, Kirkwall’s templars don’t need to know your name before they run you through. Just being an apostate’s enough.”

He was descending into that self-pitying melancholy again. Tobias felt it, and he detested it. He was going to say something—some prod or prompt to bring Anders back from the edge—but the healer looked at him and smiled ruefully.

“You know that, though. Better than me, I suppose. You’ve been running your whole life… and they’ve never caught you.”

Tobias winced, the Underground’s prejudices and debates still a little too fresh in his mind.

“That doesn’t make a difference,” he said earnestly. “All mages need to be treated better, like more than just… just vessels, defined by our magic. Doesn’t matter if we’re living free or captive. You’re right: the world needs to see us as people.”

He fell silent as his own words echoed around him, slightly embarrassed by how fervent he sounded.

Anders’ eyes softened, creasing a little at the corners as he smiled.

“Hmm. You should watch that. People’ll be saying I’ve corrupted you.”

Tobias clenched his jaw as the air positively creaked between them.

Chance’d be a fine thing, you sod….

Anders looked away first, still smiling faintly.

“Thank you, by the way.”

Tobias quirked an eyebrow. “Oh?”

“You know. Offering what you did… it’s a lot of coin. I didn’t expect you to do that. I mean—”

“I did it because it’s right,” Tobias said stiffly. “No other reason.”

He meant that, he realised. Believed it, truly… even before he saw the fleeting look of pleased admiration and tender pride that crossed Anders’ face. He averted his gaze, too, glancing hurriedly at the worn, pitted walls of the alleyway as he cleared his throat.

A badly printed flyer had been pasted up nearby. Tobias couldn’t make out the words, but the crooked lettering was of a familiar type. It would either be complaining about mages or refugees, and quite possibly advertising the benefits of whatever citizens’ militia was on the brink of pouring out of Lowtown this week.

“Anyway,” he said, with a nonchalant shrug, “it doesn’t matter. I’ve got the money, or I will have, once I’ve seen Varric. That antiquities dealer he was talking about is in town, did you know? All the way from Orzammar, and beside himself with joy over those last things from the thaig.” He shot Anders a guilty smile. “It’s like you said. I’m a wealthy man now, right? Moving up in the world.”

Anders snorted and shook his head, that sad smile still wreathing his lips.

“True. I didn’t know. So, he’s paying good money?”

“Mm-hm. All over-excited about dwarven history and primeval relics… offered Varric a fortune to finance another expedition, so I’m told.”

Anders winced. “You’re not going to—?”

“Not a chance. Varric told him exactly where to go.” Tobias shook his head. “Anyway, you wouldn’t get me down there again if you paid me. Don’t care how much.”

The healer’s face relaxed, and he looked peculiarly relieved.

“Oh. Good.”

Tobias frowned. “Why?”

Anders shrugged and, not quite meeting his eye, gave him one of those faint half-smiles. They were reaching the first stairway that led back down towards Darktown, and their feet echoed against the hard-packed dirt that bridged the boards.

“The Deep Roads aren’t any fun,” he said dryly, narrowing his eyes as he peered into the shadows. “Besides, I thought we’d lost you the last time you went down there. I’d… rather not have that happen again.”

Those dark eyes caught his gaze as Anders glanced up at him. Tobias swallowed heavily, hating all these silent, twisted, hidden things. He wanted to hear it properly, just once. Wanted it more than anything. He wanted to hear Anders actually say what he meant… and he wanted them both to be honest.

Of course, that would change everything, wouldn’t it?

And so, he just grinned, and nodded towards the cross-street that lay past the old stairway.

“I can cut back by the bazaar from there, can’t I? I should get home… make sure Gamlen hasn’t already gambled away the estate deeds again.”

Anders nodded slowly. “Mm. Second left. It’s late; be careful.”

Tobias exhaled a long, low breath, and watched it mist on the air between them.

“I am,” he said softly, as he turned to go. “Night, Anders. And… thanks.”

The quiet ‘goodnight’ the healer bade him hugged like shoulders like a whisper, and Tobias held his breath as he walked away, letting the sound of his footsteps fill up the shadows.

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Chapter 10
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