“You’re not seriously doing this, are you?”
I stuffed the last of my shirts into the heavy traveling bag I’d appropriated from the supply room. “I am seriously doing this. You should too.”
“What if they come after you?” Tasha said curiously.
“Let them. I don’t give a fuck. If I have to, I’ll move to bloody Tevinter. I’m not coming back here.”
“Kai, they could make you.” She stretched out on my bed, lying on her right side with her head propped in her hand.
I stopped packing long enough to look at her. “They can try. They won't succeed. Anyway, I'd say they’re too busy watching their order fall to pieces these days.”
“Are you going to join the rebellion? I was thinking that might be the safest way to get out and stay out.”
I shook my head. “I don’t want to join the rebellion or any other group. I want to be on my own and I want a life. You know — like everyone else in Thedas gets.”
“What will you do?”
“I don’t know. I’ll figure it out.”
“Lots of people are scared of mages, you know. Especially now.”
I shrugged. “So I won’t let people know I’m a mage.”
“But your staff…”
“You want it? You’re right, it’d be a dead giveaway, so I’m not taking it.”
“You’re not taking it?” She sat back up, grey eyes wide with shock. “But you have to have a staff.”
“Why? I can do magic just fine without one.”
“Because it’s your staff,” she sputtered. “It’s- We- We always have a staff.”
I smirked at her. “I could make a very juvenile crack about having a perfectly good one in my trousers, you know.”
She threw my pillow at me. “Arse. You’re really going to leave it?”
“Really.” I tossed the pillow back on the bed. “I want out of here. I need out of here. Eighteen years is bloody long enough. Stay if you want, but I think you’re mad if you do.”
Even though she was only a year younger than me, she’d already been in the Circle for years when they dragged me there at thirteen. I assumed that’s why it had never bothered her as much.
She twirled a strand of wheat-coloured hair around her finger. “How are you going to leave?”
“I was thinking out the door would be workable.”
“Very funny. The templars aren’t completely gone yet, you know. They could still try to stop you.”
“I think most of the ones still here just don’t know where else to go, Tash. Besides, I was planning on using the east door.”
She squinted at me. “What makes the east door so special?”
“Who? Why do I not know that name?”
I grinned. “Because he doesn’t flirt with you. He’s the templar on door-duty there and we’ve had a thing going for the last year.”
“Waitaminute — are you telling me you’ve been banging a templar?”
I snorted, “Of course not. He’d consider that unprofessional and I am certainly not going to bang a templar. But he likes me and what can I say—profession aside, he’s not unattractive. We flirt. Sometimes we’ve gone as far as having a real conversation. It’s at least been a distraction. Hand me that leather case there, would you?”
She handed it to me, saying, “You’re sure he’ll just let you walk out?”
“Mm hm.” I checked to make sure my razor and strop were actually in the case and stowed it in the bag. “He’s very disillusioned with the templars these days. He’s thinking of leaving the order. He's also admitted he can see no reason for me to be locked up in here.”
"Was flirting with him part of your plan to escape?" She said it teasingly, but the look on her face suggested otherwise.
"Yes and no. He started flirting first, but I may have encouraged it a bit more with this in mind."
She grinned. "At least you admit it. Would you still have flirted with him if he wasn't good-looking?"
I thought about that while I reinforced the wards on my leather money pouch. "I don't know. Maybe. Depends on how not-good-looking we're talking and whether I'd ever be expected to follow through. Fortunately I didn't have to go down that path."
“So you also admit that you're shallow and exploitative."
"Shamelessly." I flashed a rakish smile then looked around the room, trying to find the one thing I’d invariably miss. They’d designed them to appear collegiate, but the rooms fell short. To me, at least, they looked exactly what they were—prettied up prison cells.
"Would he let me through too, do you think?”
“I don’t see why not. You should do it.”
“I really think I might join the rebellion,” she mused. “There are things I’d like to make happen.”
“Well, if anyone could make things happen, it’d be you. Your talents are just as wasted here as mine.”
“If you’re not going to join, where will you go?”
I opened my bureau, checking there was nothing I’d forgotten. “I suppose I’ll just go to Ostwick first; at least I know the area somewhat. After that, I’ll have to play it by ear.”
"You do know out in the real world you're going to need money." She picked up a small porcelain figurine of a large-eared fennec and gave me a questioning look. I indicated take it and she slid it into a pocket.
"I have some.” I waved the money pouch at her and secured it in my bag. “Once it runs out, I'll figure that out too. Get a job or something, I suppose."
She twirled another strand of hair around her finger; I don't know that she was even aware she was doing it. "You've never lived out there as an adult. Aren't you even a little scared?"
"No. I know there's going to be a lot I need to learn and it probably won't be easy, but I'm more scared about what might happen to me if I stay here. I'm over thirty now, Tasha. I'll be damned if I'm going to waste one more moment of my life in this fucking place." I secured the straps on the bag and picked it up. It was heavy, but not unreasonably so.
"It hasn't been that bad, has it?"
I set the bag down again so I could pull on my coat, pausing a moment to look her in the eyes. "Yes. It has. I won't deny there have been some good people and good moments, and I appreciate the quality of the training, but running beneath all that, I've hated every fucking moment of being locked up in here. Now wish me luck, and do think about getting out too."
She blinked. "You mean you're leaving now?"
I picked up the bag and adjusted the strap so my back and shoulder would take the bulk of the weight. "You thought I was just practicing?"
"I suppose not; it just seems so sudden." She stood, giving me a little smile. "Mind you, I don't know what I was expecting. They're hardly going to throw you a goodbye dinner. What will you do if one of the senior enchanters sees you?"
"Walk past them and keep right on going. We're not children anymore, Tasha. I'm more powerful than the majority of them and so are you. Anyone who wants to stay in the Circle is more than welcome to, but I'm leaving. Period."
"What if you're wrong about the templars?"
"I'm not. But if it came to that…I don't know. Maybe I'd just see if they'd actually kill me."
"You don't mean that."
I just looked at her and said, "It's getting late. I need to get moving."
She closed the distance between us and gave me a hug made awkward by the bulky traveling bag. "Good luck, Kai. Be careful, okay? I know you'll do well." She smiled crookedly. "You want this too badly not to."
"I meant it about the staff — you can have it. Maybe I'll see you on the outside?"
"I'll stop in Ostwick on my way to join the rebellion if you're still there."
"Sounds good; we'll have a beer together. You can tell anyone you think might care that I said goodbye."
She picked up my staff and accompanied me into the hallway. The corridor — cream-coloured walls above dark wood wainscoting and worn wood floors — was well lit with spelled glass globes hanging from the ceiling. Once again it was supposed to look collegiate, but to my mind it failed. There were alcoves all along it the templars could watch from, and all the corridors ended at locked doors.
Tasha leaned on my staff and looked me up and down. “I’ll miss you, you know.”
“I’ll miss you too,” I admitted. “You kept me sane in here. Take care of yourself, Tasha. Seriously, wait a bit if you want, but leave here and come see me. We'll go out on the town and do scandalous things that are so breathtakingly original even the City Watch will simply applaud and let us go."
"You make it sound awfully tempting."
"It's supposed to be. Admit it — if it weren’t for me tempting you, you’d be a total stick in the mud."
“Brat. I’ll think about it.” She took my hand and gave it a squeeze. "Just stay safe, okay? I need you to be, so when I do leave I can come begging to sleep on your couch at the worst possible moment."
We reached an intersection in the hall. Tasha watched as I turned to the east, gave me a little wave and headed the opposite direction to her quarters.
I didn't encounter anyone on my way to the east door; it only took a matter of minutes to reach it. Ryton was stationed there as usual, though these days rather than standing at watchful attention he'd found himself a chair and a small table that his helmet and two ginger cookies were currently resting on. He regarded me gravely. "So you're really going through with it."
"You had doubts?"
"I always have doubts right up until I see a thing happening," he said with a faint smile. "Two more of the squad deserted last night."
I leaned against the wall, letting it hold the weight of my bag for a moment. "How many of you are left now?"
"I'm not sure. More than six, less than a dozen...soon to be one less."
I raised an eyebrow. "You're really going through with it?"
He sighed. "I know it's hard for you to believe, and I understand why, but when I joined the order it was because I really wanted to help people. Not just regular people — I wanted to protect you mages from the torches-and-pitchforks crowd as well. It…turned out to be a lot different from what I'd pictured. And now…I don't know what the Order's become, but I know I don't like it and I don't want to be part of it. I'm hearing really ugly things, Kai. This war is bringing out the worst on both sides."
"I intend to stay well out of it. What are you going to do, then?"
"I suppose I'll stay at my parents' while I decide what to do," he shrugged. "They have an orchard just outside Ostwick. I told them to expect me."
"You're leaving the order now?"
He nodded, that faint smile returning. "Tomorrow, I'm thinking. Next week at the latest. Like I said, it's bad and getting uglier. Besides, I can’t expect you to socialise with templars any more than I could be seen with an apostate mage."
I smiled back. "Well, once you're no longer a templar, look me up. I'll be…somewhere in Ostwick, at least for a time."
"I will." His mien turned serious, "Have a care when you get to town, Kai. People are squirrelly about mages at the best of times, and with all the troubles lately…"
"That's why I'm not letting anyone know what I am. Even ditched the staff, you'll note."
He nodded. "Smart. Things aren't near as bad here as I hear they are down in Fereldan and Orlais, but there're people using the troubles as an excuse to do evil shite they would've done regardless. Just last week a man was killed in Ostwick just walking home from work. The ones that did it said they thought he was a mage. He'd found a tree branch and, maker knows why, was using it as a walking stick. It was one of the things they used to beat him to death."
"It's been some time since you were there last. Just be aware, and if you do need to defend yourself, try to stay away from using any of your flashy spells. They could backfire if you attract the torches-and-pitchforks crowd, you know?"
I exhaled slowly. "Understood. Thank you for the warning, Ryton." I pushed myself away from the wall and adjusted my bag. "Well. I'd best be going or I'll be walking to town in the dark, since according to you it'd be dangerous to conjure a light."
He nodded again. "Good luck, Kai. The gate's unlocked for you. I'll look you up once we've both got things settled a bit more."
"I'd like that. Good bye, Ryton." We shook hands and I walked out the door. The path to the gate wasn't long, but the entire length of it I felt like a moving target, ready for someone or something to strike at me and stop my progress. Nothing did, but it still seemed like a minor miracle that I reached the gate, and another when it opened smoothly for me. I stepped through and closed it firmly behind me. For the first time in eighteen years, I was outside the Circle. I turned down the path towards town and didn't look back.
"Well, our first one's flown. Do I need to say who it is?"
"However did you guess. What do you want me to do?"
"Do? Let him go."
"Let him go. Training aside, that young man should never have been kept here and I for one am not going to perpetuate that injustice."
"That's dangerous talk, Oliver."
"No, it's a long-unspoken truth. I expect we'll lose more now. It's even possible our little Circle may choose to join the rebellion, though I hope it doesn't come to that. I can think of at least half a dozen who will likely follow Kai's example. With the exception of Gyrdon Lavelle, we shall let them leave as well.”
“Why not Lavelle?”
“There are…disturbing things about him. If my worries are true, it would be disastrous to unleash him on the world. I don’t know that they are yet, but we may even need to consider Tranquility. We’ll discuss it more thoroughly at the next senior enchanters’ meeting.”
“I hope you know what you’re doing. Next we'll be losing senior enchanters, not just your talented malcontents.”
“I do, Petra. You’ll just have to trust me.”