The library was as good as empty. One templar stood by the large double doors, his helmet doffed and his back slumped against the stonework. He could have been asleep on his feet. A few apprentices milled around the card catalogues, and one or two hardy souls were still buried behind piles of books, despite the late hour.
It didn’t take Karl long to spot the familiar, fair head behind the large, open volume on the desk, and he smiled to himself as he crossed the stone floor, leather shoes almost soundless against the flags. Anders didn’t even look up, busily doodling on a scrap of paper, tongue protruding slightly from the corner of his mouth as he shielded himself from the world with the pages of—Karl squinted at the front of the book—Arcane Zoology. Hmm.
“Psst,” he hissed, enjoying the other boy’s guilty start and owlish blinking.
Anders’ hands clamped reflexively over the paper, but he grinned as he recognised his friend.
“Karl!” His grin widened, but he lowered his voice a little in deference to the glances from the other students. “What are you doing here?”
Karl shrugged and leaned against the corner of the wooden desk. It was—like most of the Circle Tower’s furnishings—wooden, ancient, and heavily scarred with decades of pitting and graffiti. The study desks were arranged in blocks of four, with glass-walled lanterns that held magical orbs of energy bolted to the centre of each island. No fires in the library, which explained how bloody cold it always felt in here. A few slim candles burned in wrought iron wall sconces, and their warm light collected in pools upon the ground, lending the high-vaulted room an eerie pattern of shadows, folded softly around the smell of musty books and mouldy scrolls.
Karl reached out and tapped a finger on the side of the lantern. The little bluish-white orb within trembled and buzzed from side to side, and the light it gave flickered.
“Just thought I’d see if you were here,” he said nonchalantly. “I heard what happened in Enchanter Lennox’s class.”
“Oh.” Anders frowned. “It could have happened to anyone, you know.”
Karl tried nominally to stifle his grin. “Mm. Most things could. They just always end up happening to you. Strange, isn’t it?”
Anders glowered at the other apprentice from beneath those dark brows, at odds with the grubby blond of his hair.
There were, Karl reflected, a lot of incongruities where Anders was concerned.
He’d come to the Circle late, and no one knew exactly what his story was. Just that, one day, a gangly, fair-haired lad with a pinched scowl and the kind of spiky distrust usually seen in stray cats had been deposited into their midst.
He seemed to have been struggling to catch up ever since.
It wasn’t that he lacked talent… quite the opposite, in fact. Karl had first come to know of him because one of the Senior Enchanters had insisted that Anders sit in on a seminar about elemental theory for the third-year apprentices, despite the fact he was a few years younger—and a great deal less experienced—than the other students. Many of Karl’s peers had taken the intrusion as either an insult or a challenge. He’d just smiled and nodded at the new boy, whereupon Anders had given him a scowl very similar to the one he was receiving now, and slumped at the back of the class.
He’d held himself aloof from the other apprentices for weeks. Barely talked to anyone, never cracked a smile… and then they heard he’d tried to escape.
It was common enough in newcomers. Karl had done it once, when he was ten, the summer after he was brought to the Tower. It hadn’t been a good plan—hide in the kitchens and try to run out the back way when the butcher’s boy came—but the punishment hadn’t been severe. A week of reduced privileges and a few thorough talking-tos from the most matronly of the Enchanters… he should think of the Tower as his home, she’d said, a haven and a place to feel safe. There was nothing to run from here.
No. Nothing but the ever-present pressure of other people, the rules and regulations and strangleholds… the politics and the in-fighting, the gossip-mongers and the waspish bitchiness, and the endless routines that repeated day after day after day without change. Nothing but that.
Anders’ scowl slid into sullenness.
“I didn’t,” he said quietly, “do it on purpose.”
Karl grinned. “No, of course not. The fact Lennox is a pompous old windbag had nothing to do with it, I’m sure.”
True, Anders’ first escape attempt had been more audacious, and more successful than most. A deputation of mages from the Orlesian Circle had paid a visit to the First Enchanter. There had been all the usual pomp and ceremony—celebratory dinner, interminable speeches, much talk about academic brotherhood and the hand of friendship across nations—and, when they left, no one had noticed the extra servant slip into the boat. Two whole days, he’d been gone. He only got caught, allegedly, because the deputation realised he couldn’t speak Orlesian.
Karl had been impressed. He’d made a point of waiting around outside the detention hall to congratulate Anders, when he was finally allowed out, and a grudging sort of friendship had begun to form.
Now, Anders looked up at him with an expression of wounded pride.
“I didn’t know it would explode,” he protested. “Really, I—”
Karl nodded sagely. “Uh-huh?”
“—thought it might just… fizzle a bit.”
Anders looked crestfallen but, as he held eye contact, the corner of his mouth curled into a smile, and irresistible laughter began to bubble between them, hushed in deference to the library’s oppressive quiet.
Karl shook his head incredulously. “You blew up a pie, Anders. A completely innocent, unsullied, cherry—”
“It was blueberry.”
“—blueberry pie,” Karl continued smoothly, struggling to keep his own grin in check. “Where did you even…?”
Anders threw his hands into the air in a gesture of utter frustration. The movement sent the pages of Arcane Zoology fluttering, and scattered pen and scraps of parchment across the desktop.
“He just kept going on and on and he was so boring, and heating the pie without burning it was supposed to be a demonstration of controlling the degree and direction of fire spells, so you don’t singe your own eyebrows off, and… my concentration slipped. Honestly.”
Karl spluttered, aware of the handful of students left in the library giving them looks of enquiring disapproval, and tried to keep the noise down. He bent to pick up one of Anders’ scraps of parchment, and peered at the doodle on it. A tiny cat with tiger stripes was chasing four templars off a cliff, their legs pinwheeling comically in panic.
“You blew up a pie,” he repeated affectionately, pushing the paper back across the desk. “You’re crazy.”
Anders’ fingers touched his as he took the drawing… just a gentle contact, no pressure, no demands, but his smile grew shy and questioning.
Slowly, Karl traced his thumb up the length of Anders’ middle finger, letting his fingertips brush against the tight-drawn peaks of knuckles, and scribing tiny circles on the back of his hand.
Life in the Tower wasn’t all bad. Not all the time.
“Are you going to chapel before bed?” he asked softly.
Anders appeared to think for a moment, then understood the question. He nodded.
“Walk with me?”
Karl grinned. “Sure.”
It was usually quiet in the chapel between services. There’d be a few initiates flitting about, doing things with candles and incense, or dusting the pews, and a couple of priests were usually hanging around. Anders had always assumed it was on the off-chance they might get to look pityingly at a mage or three. He suspected they competed to see who could instil the most self-loathing in young apprentices with a well-placed pursed lip or drawn brow.
To be fair, Ferelden’s Circle Tower didn’t seem to house too many priests of the ‘mages-are-an-aberration-in-the-Maker’s-sight’ brigade, which was a pleasing and refreshing change. In his experience, limited as it was, the Chantry seemed keen on reminding mages that they were cursed and inherently dangerous, and even the enchanters never stopped going on and on about responsibility and the importance of control.
It wasn’t that Anders failed to understand the dangers magic brought. Far from it. Like all mages, he felt the presence of the Fade, and knew the hazards it held. He heard the whispers on the edges of his dreams; just like the little voice at the very back of your mind that—whenever you come to stand at the top of a cliff—whispers ‘jump’.
He was, however, young. He believed in the strength of his will and—despite the chain of events that had brought him all these hundreds of miles to this damp, muddy, smelly little country, with its grey stone walls and dark, dank, dull corners—he considered himself vaguely immortal. Well, they hadn’t broken him down yet, had they? No matter how hard they tried. Anyway, it was pointless, all that templar paranoia. Possession, demons, dabbling in obscure rituals and so on… no. He wasn’t interested. They were things that didn’t affect him.
In fact, very little truly affected Anders, or so he told himself. He’d worked hard at making that so, and treasured the belief, holding it close to his chest and nursing it until it seemed the most infallible kind of lie.
So, they headed to the chapel, as he’d soon learned all good Fereldan apprentices did… and as he’d done most nights since he got here, what was it, two years ago now? Maybe a little more, maybe a little less. Time was the first thing they started to take from you; grinding it down, hour by hour, until you stopped noticing it passing. Perhaps you even thought it didn’t matter… and that was how they got you. Once they changed your perception of things, they were in your head, and they could do whatever they damn well pleased.
Karl walked close to him, their feet marking matched leather-shod rhythms on the stone floor. It was one of the heartbeats of the tower, that sound; the footsteps of mages, ever pacing, measured out in soft slippers and the swish of robes, so distinct from the brash, echoing clink of armoured templars on patrol.
Anders had his arms crossed over his middle, hugging Arcane Zoology to him, but it didn’t stop the little thrill of excitement that popped in his veins every time his shoulder brushed Karl’s. Their bodies inclined closer and closer as they walked, and Karl smelled of soap and paper dust and warm, comfortable things. He glanced at Anders, and gave him one of those knowing little grins, his unruly mop of dark hair curling at his temples, framing all the mischief in his face.
Other apprentices were sloping to chapel alongside them. More swish-slip of robes and leather shoes, and more quiet, subdued figures murmuring amongst themselves, flocking to the serene, candle-lit space over which the great, white, marble Andraste presided.
Usually, Anders sat at the back. Close enough for whichever enchanter sitting in on the service to notice that he was there; far enough away from the front for no one to see Karl touch his hand, or arm… or thigh.
It hadn’t been going on long, this— well, whatever it was they were doing. Flirting, Anders admitted. Kissing. Maybe groping a bit… or a lot. He hadn’t expected it. Hadn’t really expected a friend, much less anything else. Karl was nice, though. Patient, gentle, and kind. Funny.
He’d found, despite his distrust, it had been easy to open up to him, at least a little bit. It had seemed natural to sit and talk with him, to learn how life in this place really worked, and what the other apprentices expected from him. Natural, to feel that maybe more than magic bonded them. Even natural, that afternoon in the empty dormitory, to press a sudden, clumsy kiss to Karl’s lips, while he was mid-way through talking about a paper on entropic magic.
With anyone else, it would probably have ended up being embarrassing, but things weren’t like that with Karl. They’d laughed. Laughter was good. Anders had gone long enough without it to understand how precious it could be.
So, he slid into the dark wooden pew, with its thick, greasy scent of beeswax polish and stifled sanctity, and because Karl was sitting next to him, the sermon didn’t much matter. Anders recognised it, all the same. Mother Donata was repeating—for the umpteenth time, he was sure—one of the sermons of Divine Renata I on integrity.
“We trade our honour,” the priest intoned, her hard-edged, nasal voice echoing against the stonework, “as if it were the cheapest of currency. We do not understand what integrity is, or what it is truly worth, and it is from this ignorance that original sin was born….”
Anders dropped his hand casually to the edge of the pew, resting it on the smooth edge of the wood while he balanced Arcane Zoology on his knee, and pretended to listen. He pressed his lips together, trying not to smile as the warmth of Karl’s fingers nudged against his, and he allowed that warm, familiar grasp to enfold him.
The chapel was fairly full tonight; unusually so for midweek. The pew behind them was empty, but there were four apprentices on the one in front. Two of them—a redheaded girl and an elven boy with close-cropped dark hair—were sitting closer together than necessity demanded, and probably taking the same sort of opportunity as he and Karl, Anders supposed. The realisation amused him, particularly when the elven boy’s cheeks started to colour, suggesting he’d got a handful of something more than fingers.
A muted snigger beside Anders told him Karl had noticed as well, and he squeezed Anders’ hand. They’d known each other long enough for the message to be understood. Anders shot him a quick, subtle glance, and inclined his head very slightly, gaze darting to the side door that led to the westerly corridor. Karl’s lips twitched; almost a smile, and definitely a promise of lechery to come.
“At some time,” the mother continued to quote, “we have all thought, ‘What does it matter if I keep hold of my integrity? I am but one mortal. I am powerless.’ How blind we all are!”
The templar standing on the other side of the nave, in the lee of one of the great stone pillars, certainly wasn’t blind. He cleared his throat meaningfully, and the fitments of his armour jangled softly as he shifted position.
On the pew in front, the redhead and the elf both stiffened, then edged apart, and Anders struggled to hold in a laugh. There just seemed to be something so absurd about it all… this place, and its stupid rules, and the stupid way they all let themselves be caged and herded and reproached, day after day after day.
They said it wasn’t a prison. She’d said that, the old bag he’d been dragged in to see after he tried to leg it. ‘The Tower is not a prison, but a haven… a home.’ Every would-be escapee got the same lecture, Karl said.
Karl said there was a degree of truth to it, but then Karl was usually one for looking at both sides of an argument. In Anders’ opinion, three square meals a day—notwithstanding the mystery meat served in the refectory, and that yellow stuff that might possibly have been cabbage—and a roof over one’s head did not a home make. He didn’t tend to think much about it, though, because it seemed to be a waste of time. You either knuckled under and got on with it, the way most people did, happy to let yourself be sucked into the routines and the little games, the power struggles and the daily politics, or you waited for an opportunity. He was doing the latter. They wouldn’t hold him here. They hadn’t anywhere else, so why should Ferelden be different?
The priest was getting a bit impassioned, leaning on her lectern and waving one wrinkly finger in the air to emphasise each slice of rhetoric. Trouble was, the lectern was just to the right of the statue of Andraste, with her eternal flame cupped before her and, from his angle, it looked suspiciously like the revered mother was pointing at her backside.
“Did not the virtue of a single slave destroy the Tevinter Imperium? Did not the dishonour of one man drive the Maker from our sight?”
Anders bit his lower lip, hard, and tried to hold in a fit of the giggles.
“And truly,” Mother Donata quoth, winding up for her big finale, “nothing but the integrity of our hearts will win the love of the Maker back to us. It is all the power we shall ever possess to change this world for good or ill.”
She cast a glance around the room, then fastened both hands to the lectern and leaned back, as if the effort of all that spiritual nagging had exhausted her.
“There end the words of Divine Renata I, and so I ask you—all of you, this night—to meditate upon your own integrity. For only by the purity of your actions, the clarity of your purpose and will, shall you find your own salvation.”
And not accidentally allow yourself to become possessed by a demon and rampage through the entire third floor, causing general mayhem, chaos, and a horrible mess that some poor sod will have to clean up. Now go in peace.
Anders almost choked with the effort of suppressing a snort at his mental ad lib, and felt Karl’s elbow nudge him sharply in the ribs. He turned the giggle into a cough, and disentangled his fingers from Karl’s in order to bring a hand to his mouth as the nearby templar glared at him.
He wasn’t one of the younger knights, this one; a broad man with greying brown hair, a broad, rough-hewn face, and a semi-permanent scowl. As the service ended, and people started to filter out and towards their respective common rooms, dormitories or—in the case of the older mages, the senior library and the snugs on the upper floors, with their capacious brandy decanters and comfortable chairs—the templar loomed out from behind his pillar.
Anders’ shoulders stiffened at the sound of the man’s voice, and the all-too-familiar epithet, but Karl moved in front of him, eyebrows raised in solicitous enquiry.
“Not you, Thekla.” He jerked his head dismissively. “Go on, hop it. You… whatsit… Anders. Enchanter Lennox says you’re to see First Enchanter Irving. Tomorrow morning, first thing. You understand?”
Anders gulped, and stared at the sword of mercy emblazoned on the templar’s armoured chest. It was better than looking into those stony, rather angry eyes. He nodded.
“Yes, ser,” he mumbled. “Thank you, ser.”
“Right. Someone’ll be along to escort you. If I had my way, you’d bloody well go now, but… go on. Pair of you, off to bed.”
Anders nodded, allowing Karl to give a solicitous assurance on his behalf, then grab his elbow and drag him towards the side door. He was vaguely aware of some of the other apprentices tittering at him, but that wasn’t anything new.
“Wouldn’t worry about it,” Karl said, as they passed through the great, iron-bound oak door and into the west corridor, which lay between the main floor and the rear staircase leading down to the dorms. “Probably nothing more than a bit of a finger-wagging. You said it yourself… your concentration slipped, right?”
Anders smiled weakly. “Mm.”
“There you are, then,” Karl said confidently, giving him a cheerful jab with his elbow. “Not going to send you to Aeonar for that, are they?”
He shook his head, unwilling to admit that it wasn’t the threat of punishment that unnerved him, but the prospect of standing in front of First Enchanter Irving’s desk and suffering the man’s disappointment. Irving—with his pouchy, hangdog face, and that gravelly, grating voice—had a terrible way of making you think he actually gave a damn. Maybe he did, Anders thought reluctantly. It was possible, after all. Responsible for this whole tower full of people, from children right up to the pompous old windbags like Lennox, who probably needed twice as much supervision… it was enough to leave anyone looking knackered.
The corridor was almost empty: silent, but for the soft scuff of their leather-shod feet, that interminable swish-slip of robes and footsteps against the stone. Pretty much everyone else seemed to have left by the main doors, though one or two apprentices passed by, slinking down towards the staircases, looking tired and overworked. A single torch burned by the chapel’s side door, and statues of Andraste—or possibly some other devout sort, blank-eyed and faces tipped to the heavens—lined the hallway’s alcoves. The small, high windows allowed thin beams of moon-touched light in to pierce the shadows, and Anders pondered, for a moment, how long it had been since he’d looked up at a proper full moon, instead of a bit of sky glimpsed through a window.
He pushed the thoughts away, and shot Karl a mischievous grin.
“Anyway,” he said, his voice a little husky in the quiet, “if they wanted to do that, they’d have to catch me first, wouldn’t they?”
Karl blinked, and a confused frown started to cross his brow, but Anders didn’t give him time to react. He tossed Arcane Zoology into the air, hiked his robe up to his knees with the other hand, and ran.
Karl laughed, part disbelief and part a comfortable lack of surprise. He’d known Anders was crazy for a while now, but it didn’t stop the knowledge catching him unawares every so often, like the glint of sunlight on a mirror.
He caught the book as it flew towards him in a scuffle of pages and errant bookmarks, tucked it under his arm, and headed in hot pursuit.
They ran breathlessly through the hallways, feet slapping the stones and robes flapping out behind them. It was joyous, unrepentant rebellion; noise in the quiet, movement in the stillness. Karl almost caught up with him on the twist of the stone staircase that led down to the apprentice dorms, but Anders jumped the last two steps with annoying agility. He glanced back at Karl with a bright-eyed grin, and then darted away, through the open doorway—the heavy wood doors pinned back, its great pointed stone arch cleaved the high wall—and into yet another corridor lined with doors and statuary.
Karl kicked out once last turn of speed, scrabbling back an advantage now they were both on level ground… and now that they were within potential earshot of the dormitories. The low, semi-distant buzz of chatter took the edge off the silence, pools of light spilling from the doorways further down the corridor. There would be templars around the corners, and the constant pressure of other bodies, other presences, jostling for space where they were all packed in together, bunk on bunk and desk against desk.
He caught up with Anders, caught him around the middle, and cannoned the pair of them into the wall. Anders gave a gasp of laughter as they collapsed into the shelter of one of the alcoves, shielded from the possibility of snooping gazes by yet another statue of Andraste. He was flushed, bright-eyed… beautiful.
The closeness of the space forced them together, not that Karl minded it in the slightest. It just made it easier to lean in, a silent question and the thrill of permission granted. Anders’ face softened, his eyes growing deep and hazy as his lips parted. There was something ineffably wonderful about that, Karl thought, as he brushed a gentle kiss to the corner of his mouth in a tender and teasing caress… something wonderful, every time. He was so lovely, so artless, so free. It should have been ironic, but it didn’t feel that way. When they were together, like this, it was easy to forget they couldn’t leave these halls, because why would they want to? Nothing else mattered, nothing else was real.
He cupped a hand to the back of Anders’ neck and kissed him properly, deeply, relishing the little moan of pleasure the action elicited, and the feel of Anders’ fingers twisting knots into the front of his robe.
Arcane Zoology thudded to the floor between them, slipping from beneath Karl’s arm as he pressed closer, losing himself in the yielding warmth of Anders’ mouth, his taste, and the subtle, dark crackle of power that chased beneath his flesh.
Stifled laughter echoed against his lips and Anders broke the kiss, all snorts and giggles. He smoothed the crumples from Karl’s robe in a manner that really didn’t do much to soothe the tension at all, and smiled hazily at him.
Karl pushed forward again, palms pressed flat to the wall behind Anders’ head as he claimed one last slow, methodical kiss.
The point was fast approaching, they both knew—or, at least, Karl hoped they both knew—at which stolen moments like these wouldn’t be enough. Snatched kisses and brief squeezes were very nice, but they didn’t quite hit the mark. Still, he remained painfully aware of that narrow bridge of years between them. Anders was younger than him, with all the bombast and brash confidence of inexperience, and Karl didn’t want to be the one to make him feel vulnerable.
That was one more thing he hated about the Circle. It made things so bloody complicated. They were cooped up like this, all together, and yet supposed to forego all those natural impulses… as if being a mage somehow stopped you being flesh-and-blood, with needs and drives and desires. He hated the secrecy it engendered, and the way it forced them into clumsy, ugly trysts, as if wanting to be close to another human being was something to be ashamed of, to hide away like a dirty secret. And then there was the interminable bloody gossip….
Anders pressed close against him, wringing the last breath out of the kiss, the firm outlines of his body plain beneath his robe. At moments like this, he didn’t seem all that innocent, and Karl had to remind himself to hold back.
“Andraste’s tits,” he murmured appreciatively as they parted.
Anders sniggered and twisted his head to the side, peering critically at the statue they sheltered behind.
“Yeah. Not bad, are they?”
Karl snorted, and let his fingertips trace the soft curve of Anders’ cheekbone, melting a little as he turned his head back in response, those dark eyes warm and hazy.
“I’ve seen better,” Karl murmured, which was a lie.
Anders raised an eyebrow. “Oh? Breast connoisseur now, are we?”
“Eh, more of a leg man,” he admitted, pulling away grudgingly, and nodding to the far end of the corridor. “You should, um… y’know.”
“I know.” Anders huffed a resigned sigh. “So should you.”
“Wish we were in the same dorm.”
Anders nodded—familiar territory, this one—and gave him a wicked smile.
“Yeah, but then no one would get any sleep, would they?”
Karl smirked, and bent to pick up the tattered volume at his feet as Anders slipped out of his grasp and, brushing down his robe, prepared to head back to his dormitory.
“Here, don’t forget this.”
His fingers brushed Karl’s as he took the book, and a small, shy smile passed between them.
“And… good luck. Tomorrow morning,” Karl added sheepishly. “If I’m not up when they come to take you away.”
Anders narrowed his eyes. “Very funny.”
“Well, it was.” Karl shrugged. “Apparently. I hear people will be talking about the pie thing for years. You should probably be proud of yourself.”
He grinned as Anders grimaced and, with an awkward shrug and a mumbled ‘goodnight’, turned and started to head for the lower apprentice dorm. Karl watched him go, and silently cursed every single damn rule the Circle had.