The outburst that rocked the palace came from the direction of their personal chambers, as best as Alistair could tell, his wife's shout probably audible in the deepest caverns of Orzammar. Word of a messenger had already sent him towards his study, but he started taking the stairs two at a time, following the stream of ever-more creative invective, probably being hurled in the direction of some hapless courier. He pushed the entry door aside and strode down the hallway to the study. Elissa was indeed there, pacing in front of his desk, a sheet of parchment clenched in her hand. Her voice had dropped to a mutter of curses droning under her breath, and one of the palace couriers, a human boy barely into his teens, stood at wary attention in a corner.
Alistair took up a sentinel position in the doorway. "Elissa? What's wrong?"
She stopped in mid-pace, then pivoted on her heel and turned her glare on him; it was all Alistair could do not to flinch from the fury in her eyes. "What's wrong? What's wrong? Did you know about this?" She shook the parchment, the paper rattling in the air.
"Since I don't know what 'this' is, I can't really say, now can I?" He took a careful step forward. "Is it connected to those rumors of unrest in Kirkwall?"
"One could say that." Elissa's answering laugh was a bitter, brittle sound. "Anders. That damned son of a blighted broodmother. Do you know what he did? He blew up the bloody Kirkwall Chantry."
"He-- what?" Alistair stared at her, blinking stupidly. The words had registered, but they didn't make any sense. "I must have heard you wrong, because I thought you just said that Anders blew up the Kirkwall Chantry."
"Oh, you heard me right." Elissa held the parchment out to him. "It's all here, in black and white. I've read it at least three times, but it hasn't become any less true. See for yourself."
Alistair took the sheet of paper and read it over, slowly, his horror mounting with every word. The Chantry, destroyed by Anders -- not mentioned by name, but who else could "a Ferelden apostate with close ties to the Champion" be? The Grand Cleric killed in the explosion, along with dozens of sisters and an unknown number of civilians. The Right of Annulment proclaimed. Reports of fighting all over the city: abominations, demons, blood mages, and battle-maddened templars all on the rampage. A fierce battle in the Circle that left both the Knight-Commander and the Senior Enchanter dead. The Champion fled, Anders most likely with her. In short, a bloody mess. "Maker!" Alistair breathed. "What a disaster."
The letter, which ended with a plea to contain the Ferelden Circle in hopes of stopping the violence from spreading, was signed by "Acting Knight-Commander Cullen", at which Alistair raised his eyebrows. That could be helpful, or it could be a problem. But he couldn't spare any time to think through the implications just yet. He looked up from the letter to Elissa, who was still vibrating with fury.
"I saw him. Not two months ago, I saw him, and I looked him in the eye, and I told him not to do anything stupid. I suppose now I know what my influence with him is worth." She turned to look the courier, whose presence she seemed to have forgotten until that moment. "Leave us," she snapped.
The boy bowed. "Yes, my lady. Shall I wait for a return message?"
"Not at this time," Alistair replied. "Thank you for your service."
"Your Majesty." The courier bowed again, then backed out of the room with haste, closing the door behind him. Alistair turned his attention back to Elissa, who had moved to stare out the window which, as it happened, faced north, roughly in the direction of Kirkwall.
He crossed the room to her, his hand brushing against her elbow. "Love--"
She shook him off, still looking into the distance. "Why? What could have driven them to do something so monumentally stupid?" Her voice shook, and then she did turn to him; her anger was fading, replaced by an aching sadness, and Alistair pulled her into his arms. "I tried-- I tried so hard to help him-- why didn't he trust me?" She punctuated her words by pounding her fist against his chest, and he tightened his embrace, resting his cheek on the top of her head.
"You cannot blame yourself, my dear."
Her voice was muffled against his shirt, thick with unshed tears. "I know. And I don't. Not truly. I have no illusions regarding who should carry the blame. But--" For a long moment she fell silent, and Alistair stroked her back, tracing slow circles with his palm. Then she let out a slow sigh. "I still wish he had chosen differently."
Alistair led her to his desk chair, and she collapsed into it, face in her hands. He gently rubbed the back of her neck. "It'll be all right," he said. "I would stay with you if I could, but I must make haste to the Circle. First Enchanter Petra is a level-headed sort, but she's so new in her role, and Greagoir is likely to be jumpy after what happened during the Blight." He shook his head. "Petra will need my support if she's to hold things together. I only hope the news doesn't arrive too far ahead of me."
"Yes. You must go, and quickly." Elissa dropped her hands and looked up at him, already composed and calm once again. "I'll keep order here as best I can. I only hope the Chantry doesn't think too hard about my past association with him."
"As do I." Alistair knelt down to bring his face even with hers and gave her a quick kiss. "You'll be all right?"
"Of course I will." She gave him a smile, and he framed her cheeks with his hands. But his plan to kiss her more thoroughly was thwarted by another knock at the door, and he stood and turned.
"Enter," he called, and the door opened to reveal another messenger, this one an elf girl dressed in the livery of the harbormaster, identifying her as a runner from the docks. "What is it?"
"Message for the Queen, Your Majesty," she said. "From a woman named Isabela? She said to remind you that you used to play Wicked Grace."
"Isabela?" Elissa stood with a frown. "I haven't spoken to her in years. What could she want with me?"
Alistair felt a sinking in the pit of his stomach as he remembered where he had last seen the pirate, and in whose company. "Wait in the parlor for a return message," he told the girl, who bowed in acknowledgement, then closed the door. Then he turned back to Elissa and set her back down in the chair, leaning close, speaking swiftly, under his breath. "Isabela is, or at least was, an associate of Marian Hawke. She was with her when we met in Kirkwall."
Elissa closed her eyes and let her head fall backwards with a sharp breath. "Oh, bloody hell."
"You can say that again." Alistair glanced out the window, the spire of Denerim's Chantry looming in the corner of his vision. "Whatever happens next, I can know nothing of it. Nothing. You act as a Grey Warden in this matter, not as an agent of the Crown. If even a whiff of royal involvement is detected..." He shook his head. "Given a choice between another Blight and open war with the Divine? I'd take my chances with the archdemon."
"If anyone asks, you left before the second message arrived." She clasped his hands in hers. "I'll protect you, my love. You can count on me."
"I know." He kissed her again, longer and harder this time. "Now, I'm going to make my preparations to travel to Lake Calenhad, and you can do... whatever you need to do.
Despite everything, she smiled again, and he breathed easier at her resilience. "Good luck. I won't ask you to wish me the same." She leaned forward and rested her forehead against his for a moment before gracing him with one last, swift kiss. "Now go."
For several minutes after Alistair's departure, Elissa stayed motionless in his chair, hardly daring even to breathe. She recognized her stillness as denial, some small part of her hoping against hope that if she sat and waited for long enough, ignored the message and the messenger, that it would all just go away. Or maybe Andraste would come back from the grave to smite them all down. It seemed just as likely. Still, it was a comforting dream.
She closed her eyes, took a deep breath, allowed herself a small prayer for strength, and then stood, walking out the door and into the parlor, where the red-headed elf sat quietly, waiting to be given a task. "I have a return message for the lady Isabela. Tell her this: I remember our game of Wicked Grace, and she should bring the other players to the river crossroads at dusk. Can you remember that?"
The girl stood and nodded. "Of course, m'lady."
"Good. But you'd best forget that you ever saw the king."
Putting her hands behind her back, the girl's eyes widened with an air of innocence. "The king? I've never seen the king, m'lady. Only from far away during a parade, once."
Elissa favored her with a quick smile. "Good girl." She pressed an extra sovereign into the runner's small hand; the elf bowed, then skipped off, clearly pleased by her afternoon of easy money. Elissa watched her go and thought about what to do next.
From the very beginning, Elissa and Alistair had prepared for the possibility that the interests of the Grey Wardens and Ferelden might not always align. Upon his coronation, Alistair had officially retired from duty, renouncing his oath and responsibilities to the Wardens, while Elissa had taken care to style herself as Queen-Consort rather than Queen, leaving Alistair as sole authority over Ferelden. Alistair was a friend of the Wardens, and Elissa a close advisor to the throne, but the line between their roles remained bright, and so far unimpeachable. She hoped that would be enough to shield Alistair from the effects of her decision. Whatever that might be -- she was far from certain that she could even offer sanctuary to Anders, given the enormity of his crime. Or that he would be willing to return to the Wardens. Or that Wardens would be willing to take him back.
Elissa rested her cheek against the cool windowpane, allowing herself one last moment to look down into the palace courtyard, where soldiers and dogs and horses gathered together to ride to the Circle. She recognized Alistair's horse, a stable boy securing his armored saddle while he stood at attention in the center of the courtyard. Was Alistair riding to war? She dearly hoped not, but the prospects for a simple resolution to this conflict seemed bleak. And she worried for him, thinking of the horrors might be facing as he once again walked straight into a Circle Tower that might be overrun by demons. He might have to fight hundreds of abominations; at least she only faced the prospect of dealing with one.
And she would trade places with him in a heartbeat.
She waited just long enough to see his blond head appear, in amongst the knights and foot soldiers, the way he preferred to travel, decked out in fine silverite armor, a helm tucked under his arm. Then she turned back from the window -- she could never bear to watch him ride away. And she had preparations of her own to make.
After a quick meal, Elissa had changed into her Grey Warden armor and set out for the crossroads on foot. Not an actual road; every smuggler in Denerim knew that "the river crossroads" referred to a joining of two rivers just north of the city. Elissa trusted the message to be clear to Isabela but cryptic enough to pass scrutiny if the runner were intercepted. She had no reason to believe that the Chantry was watching her, but she had no reason not to believe it, either. Better to be safe.
And her efforts were rewarded; there was Isabela, with longer hair than Elissa remembered, but still recognizable, standing in front of a copse of trees. "Majesty," she said, bobbing in a satiric curtsey.
Elissa shook her head. "Not today. Call me Warden."
"If that makes you feel better," Isabela replied with a shrug. "In here." Elissa followed her into the thicket, where three people stood waiting: a woman with long dark hair and gentle eyes, dressed in mage robes; Marian Hawke, erstwhile Champion of Kirkwall, decked out in full armor and shifting restlessly from foot to foot; and Anders.
After exchanging a brief nod of greeting with Hawke, Elissa walked up to Anders, who neither flinched nor looked away but only faced forward with a calm expression. "Commander," he said.
Without a word, Elissa lifted a gauntleted hand and slapped him across the face, hard. His head snapped to the side, and he spat blood before looking back at her, the outline of her handprint red on his cheek, a small cut in his lip.
"I deserved that, I suppose."
"That, and about a thousand more." Elissa crossed her arms and let her fury flow again, as fresh and raw as when she had first read the letter. "How could you?"
"Someone had to strike a blow for freedom." Despite his obvious weariness, Anders stood up straighter, a flash of defiance in his eyes -- or was that Justice at work? Elissa wished she could be certain. "It is time to stop pretending that the Circle is a solution, that the Chantry is anything other than an oppressor."
"And so your answer is to turn everyone's worst nightmares about mages into a stark reality." Elissa clapped her hands together three times in mocking applause. "Well done. Congratulations. I hope you're satisfied." She turned to Hawke. "And you?"
Anders stepped in front of Hawke before she could answer, shaking his head fiercely. "She did not know. I swear it! I kept my plans from her. She is blameless in this."
Elissa gritted her teeth. "Is she? I'm so glad to hear it. And I'm sure the templars will give you all the time in the world to explain that detail before they cut you both down like Blight wolves." She glared up at him. "Perhaps you could allow her to speak for herself?"
Hawke caught his eyes and shook her head. "Anders. Please." He stepped aside, and she looked at Elissa with a haunted expression -- dark circles beneath her eyes, a deep furrow etched into her brow. "It's true, as far as it goes: he never told me of his plans. But I was involved, if unwittingly, and I should have realized. And so I will have to live with the blood of hundreds on my hands, because I didn't act decisively enough to stop it."
Anders flinched at that, and Elissa shot him a sharp look. "So, you can feel remorse after all. It doesn't seem quite as heroic when the people you care about share your fall from grace, does it? When they carry your murders on their backs?"
"Do you think I enjoyed killing them?" It came out as a strangled cry, and he lowered his head, grasping his face in his hands. "Every life lost that day weighs on my soul, and they always will. I hear their voices and know it was I who silenced them. I tossed and turned every night for a year, trying to think of any other way. But there was no other way. Not if we are to be free." He started to shake, his facade crumbling to show a glimpse of the glow within, and Elissa's hand tensed, ready to pull her sword if need be.
"Justice!" Hawke's head whipped to the side as she saw the change coming over him. "How dare you-- after all this-- this is all your fault!"
"We have tried and tried to tell you." It was Justice's voice that came forth as he raised his face, bright with the energy of his spirit, and met Hawke's eyes. She took a step back, shaken. "The clean line you try to draw between us does not exist. We are two, but we are also one. In this matter, we act together. Always."
Elissa looked at his face and knew it was true. Suddenly she was overwhelmed by a wave of sadness. "Andraste's sacred ashes," she murmured. "What have you done to each other?" Justice-in-Anders turned to her, blue-white eyes boring straight into her soul, and Elissa took a slow step forward, reaching out with tenderness this time, laying a hand on the cheek she had slapped only moments ago. "The Justice I knew, the Anders I knew... neither of them would have condoned the slaughter of innocents." She had to swallow down a lump in her throat. "What happened to those men? They were my friends. I miss them."
He took a sharp breath, and then Justice disappeared, snapping back into Anders or the Fade or wherever it was his spirit resided during the quiet times; Anders turned away and would not look back. "They've gone," he whispered to the ground. "Burned away by too much hatred, a lifetime of oppression, the white heat of rage. I'm sorry."
"So am I." Elissa moved to Hawke, who stared bleakly into the distance. "Why did you come here?"
Hawke glanced at Isabela, who responded with a brisk nod. "Ship leaves in five hours," she said. "Regardless of who is or is not on it. Warden." She nodded to Elissa, clasped hands with the stranger, who responded with a soft smile, and embraced Hawke, bestowing a swift but passionate kiss on her mouth. "Until the next time, yeah?" She stroked Hawke's cheek, cast one last pained look at the unresponsive Anders, and then she was gone.
Hawke focused on the space between the trees for a long moment before speaking again. "When you came to Kirkwall, you offered Anders sanctuary with the Wardens. After what he has done, I understand if you rescind the offer. But it was the best thing I could think to try."
"As I thought." Elissa stepped back, tapping her foot. "Before we continue, may I ask after the identity of your companion?"
Hawke gestured toward the younger woman. "My sister, Bethany. Until recently, a mage of the Kirkwall Circle. Traveling with us, for now. You may trust her as you trust me." Her mouth made a wry twist. "And if that is very little, I could hardly blame you. But she had even less involvement with these machinations than I. She may, in fact, be the only mage in all Thedas with no hidden plans or agenda."
Bethany stepped forward with a curtsey. "A pleasure to meet you, Your--"
"No." Elissa held up her hand. "Do not use that title. I am Elissa, a Grey Warden providing aid to a brother, nothing more, nothing less. As far as you all are concerned, the Crown doesn't even know you are here. Is that clear?" No one moved, until Hawke responded with a quick look to her sister, then a nod. "Good. Now we can talk business. One thing I must make clear: The Grey Wardens of Amaranthine cannot shelter Anders. Cannot. We are too weak here, too broadly seen as Alistair's allies despite our official neutrality. Ferelden is still recovering from a Blight; how long do you think we would stand up against an Exalted March? I will not risk it, nor will I ask the Warden-Commander to do so."
"Disappointing, but reasonable," Hawke said, shrugging. "What are our options, then?"
Elissa crossed her arms with a thoughtful frown. "Not Orlais. The Wardens there are better established as an independent power, but they still operate in the shadow of Val Royeaux, and Ferelden's political position there is not the strongest. I suspect you will want to avoid the Marches, and most of the Warden groups in most of the other nations are too small to shield anyone. Only Tevinter and Weisshaupt are large enough to disappear a fugitive. If Anders had committed his crimes in service of the Wardens -- killing darkspawn, fending off a Blight -- I am certain the First would help him, but this situation is murkier. We could try it, if you wish. But I think Tevinter is your best bet."
"Tevinter." Hawke sucked thoughtfully on her teeth. "I'm not crazy about the idea, but it does seem the safest, for many reasons."
Anders looked back up, frowning, and broke his silence. "I am not certain--"
Hawke whipped her head around to look at him, eyes flashing. "You don't get a vote," she snapped. "You got us into this mess, now let me get us out of it. Before you make matters any worse."
Elissa stepped between them, cutting off the argument before it could begin. "I'm afraid he has to be involved. Because I have two conditions, both of which he must agree to." She turned around and faced Anders. "First, you will return to active duty as a Grey Warden. The Wardens will sometimes act to protect their former brethren, but in this case, it would be asking too much. If you take back up your oath, I will work to secure sanctuary for you. But only for you. Not for Justice. That is my second condition: you will undergo the ritual to separate from him, as we discussed on my visit to Kirkwall." She shook her head. "Not negotiable."
"I--" Anders looked down at his hands. Then he looked up at Hawke; Elissa saw a long, wordless communication between them, the hope and pleading that poured off Hawke even brighter than the light of Justice brimming within Anders. Their eyes locked together for what seemed an eternity; Anders looked away first, with a glance to the sky and then to Elissa. "We have been together so long. I don't know what chance this ritual will have to work," he said. "But we can try."
Hawke slumped with relief as she stepped back against Bethany, who brought her arms around her sister's shoulders. "Thank you," she whispered. "Oh, thank you."
Elissa sighed. "I can promise no more than Anders, especially regarding sanctuary for you and Bethany. You are not Wardens, after all. I suppose we could conscript you, but I hate to do it with no darkspawn-related emergency afoot. If we started using the Right of Conscription to shelter just anyone, it would weaken it for its true purpose. Not that a fighter of your caliber wouldn't be welcome, Champion," she felt compelled to add. "But I would still worry about appearances."
"I'll figure something out." Hawke glanced at Anders with a weak smile; his answering nod was more solid. "I always do."
"All right," Elissa said. "I'll take you to a Warden safe house on the outskirts of the city. It may take some time to make arrangements for the ritual. Normally I would send to the Circle Tower, but as you might guess, they have their own problems at the moment." She tried not to glare too fiercely at Anders, but wasn't entirely successful. "It will have to be the Dalish, I think; I have friends among their people, and a group has been settled not too far outside the city for the last few months."
Anders and Hawke exchanged a look, and it was Hawke who spoke. "We, ah, may not be on the best of terms with the Dalish right now. Probably shouldn't risk it."
Elissa groaned and rubbed the bridge of her nose. "You just make friends everywhere you go, don't you? Fine. I'll have to work some less savory contacts, then, which might take more time."
"Let me know what I can do," said Bethany. "I haven't much experience with this kind of magic, nor do I have recent contacts in Ferelden, but I want to help."
"When the time comes to perform the ritual, I'm sure your help will be needed and appreciated." Elissa nodded to Bethany, then looked at Hawke. She didn't quite dare to look at Anders -- too much risk of hitting him again. "Follow me."