Keeper really did her best to make Astoria feel like no time had passed.
After Sorcha released her older sister from her tackle, Astoria stood up to greet Keeper Deshanna. She wasn’t sure at the time how she would be received – with love, or with the same coldness she last felt from her grandmamaé.
“Astoria Isthaemoriel Hercana Lavellan,” Keeper said in that tone, “you have been away for far too long.”
“I wasn’t sure I would be welcome.”
Behind her, Sorcha scoffed. “You’ve always been welcome,” she said, and hung her pale arm around Astoria’s neck. She smiled a toothy grin at her, and turned to Keeper. “And how come you never call me by my full name?”
“It’s too long,” Keeper deadpanned, and waved them both into the house. Astoria shared a look with Sorcha before running back to grab her bags and walking into the house, placing the car keys on the hook by the door – where it’s always been kept.
In the evening, Sorcha and Astoria together made dinner, while Keeper went down the street to meet with one of the Hahrens. Astoria chopped chilies and looked out one of the wide windows from the kitchen to the grassy field behind their house.
Sunset in the territory clearly never changed. The field looked like it was on fire in the descending sun, while the sky turned orange and pink and the trees cast long shadows that reached right to left across the field. She remembered playing in that field as a girl – when her mother was around, after her father left and Sorcha was born. The three of them would run through the fields, pretending to be halla, while Keeper watched from the back patio.
It was a simpler time.
“You’re twenty now,” Astoria said, “Have you thought about applying for university?”
Sorcha laughed cynically at her. “Like Keeper would let me leave the territory after you never came back from Redcliffe. No, she learned her lesson, and I get to just learn Clan politics here. She’s pretty stressed actually, our ambassador keeps sending her bad news from the conclaves—”
Astoria interrupted her. “If you’re not going to go to university, just what have you been doing with all the money I’m sending you?”
“There are other kids in our Clan who want to go to universities, ‘Tori, kids who aren’t mages. I made a scholarship for them to help them pay for it.”
“Oh. That’s, well, that’s pretty great actually.”
“I called it the Dream Scholarship. You know, fulfilling dreams and such.”
“It sounds great, Sorcha,” Astoria said earnestly.
She smiled, then turned around to pull her shoulder-length black hair up into a bun. Astoria was amazed with how much her sister had grown in the last eight years – the last she’d seen her, she was only fourteen. Sorcha was at least six inches taller than she used to be, and was now even height with Astoria. Her pale skin – paleness inherited from their father – was covered in freckles from the sun. Their father’s straight black hair, narrow eyes, and wide jaw were all copied and feminized into Sorcha’s visage. Astoria only wished Sorcha knew what Daelian Hercana had looked like – when he left, their mother burned all their photographs of him.
With her hair tied up, Sorcha gave her a toothy grin, the kind that made her mismatched eyes shine. One green eye, one eye blue; the Lavellan family trait.
“You gonna put the peppers in the rice or what?” she chided, and set to kneading a flat palate of dough for making flatbread.
Astoria looked at the flour on the counter and on Sorcha’s hands. She was suddenly two thousand miles away in a different kitchen, watching a different person she loved knead dough on a steel table, his heart in his eyes as she showed him recent sketches for her clients—
She inhaled sharply, and quickly dropped the chopped chilies into the cooked, steaming hot rice, and fled the kitchen.
She ignored her sister as she called after her and dashed down the hall to her bedroom, the bedroom she’d lived in for eighteen years that still had that twin bed and that three-drawer dresser and the paintings she did in school tacked to the walls and the old roll-top desk—
Astoria sat down in the middle of the floor next to her suitcase and breathed.
If Astoria was a conductor for electricity, Sorcha was a natural firebreather.
Her magic was still new and rough when Astoria left, and she’d never seen her sister’s full potential until the morning after she came home. Keeper took her place on the back patio, this time with a committee of the Hahrens as well, drinking morning tea, holding her ironbark staff in one hand and a white ceramic mug with Sorcha’s baby handprints in pink and purple in the other.
Sorcha and Astoria stood in the field behind the house. Sorcha held in one hand her staff – the staff that once belonged to Astoria – and was, at the moment, screaming a vortex of flame into the sky.
She finished, coughing up smoke, and the Hahrens clapped for her. She bowed dramatically.
“Your turn, big sis.”
“I don’t exactly have a source of electricity here – not without knocking out power to half of Mythal’Arla.”
She held out the First’s staff to Astoria. “Give it a shot.”
Astoria hesitated. She was tentative to reach for it, to feel it’s channeling power again. How long had it been, exactly, since she’d last touched it?
“It won’t bite.”
“You know they’re trying to pit our magic against each other, to see who’s really meant to be First and who’s meant to be Second?”
“Of course I know that. I also know that I’ve had far more training in magic than you have, and I’ll win by a landslide. Just take the damn staff and make them shit their pants.”
Astoria grinned, and reached out and grasped the handle. Instantly, her senses felt more acute, like the Fade was aiding her ability to sense the world around her. Arguably, it was.
She breathed in, holding the staff, feeling lightning magic in her fingertips down to her toes. She held the staff with both hands, and breathed out. In to charge, out to hold—
She slammed the staff to the ground, and the morning field was illuminated by an arc of blue light as lightning blew from the top of the staff’s crystal into the sky, branching dendritically until it had nowhere else to go, and shot back down into her, then down into the ground where it disappeared.
The Hahrens clapped politely.
“They so still hate me.”
“Yeah, they kinda do,” Sorcha laughed, and took the staff back from Astoria.
Later that night, Astoria and Sorcha and Keeper joined hands in an aura of peace, and Astoria held the magic up while slowly tattooing Ghilan'nain’s mark into the face of a teenage girl. She chose pink ink, and was bravely silent throughout the vigil.
With three mages, the process went by much faster than it would when Merrill and Astoria would do the ritual in Astoria’s studio back home—In Haven, she reminded herself, not home—and with significantly less magical strain.
After the ritual, the Clan held a dance at the Cultural Center to celebrate Brynna’s coming of age and her Vallaslin Rite. Astoria danced with her Clan, the old dances she had nearly forgotten, and saw faces she hadn’t seen in years.
She had been so afraid that they would reject her, antagonize her, and vilify her for leaving them. So far, only the Hahrens had shown any sign of displeasure – but, nonetheless, they reinstated Astoria as Second, and watched her at the celebration without hatred or disgust.
She felt like a cup that was once shattered now glued back together – her Clan, her people were back in her life. She was with Sorcha again; she was living in Keeper’s house again.
But, whether she noticed it at this time or not, there was still a piece missing from her as she danced and sang with her sister and her cousins and her People.
He cooked, he made bread, he cleaned the kitchen, he opened and he closed, he ran on a clock and only stopped to pass out for a few hours and start it all over again.
Three days. He kept it up for three days. But one morning he got out of bed and looked outside and saw the light on in Astoria’s studio across the street and had felt so much hope—only to see that it was Dorian, his solitary figure in the only other shape in the room.
By day five since returning to Haven, Rylen had basically dragged him out of the bakery.
“You live and you work in one goddamn eighty foot by forty foot space, you need to get out.”
Of course, Rylen’s idea of “getting out” meant taking Cullen to a gym, because the black-haired Starkhavener was a filthy gym rat.
They were on the climbing wall on the ropes, perhaps just 45 feet up, when Cullen rolled his eyes and called him on his bullshit.
“I don’t know what you mean,” Rylen said, “I’m just bringing my friend to a wonderful co-ed gym where there are some fantastic things to do because he’s been so dour lately.”
“It’s literally been five days.”
“Dude, even your cupcakes taste like depression.”
“Fuck you.” Cullen climbed higher, finding the pathway to the top again. He honestly felt bad for the two women belaying him and Rylen because they were taking so long.
“I’m just saying, if this is what reality is gonna be like, maybe just pop a few lassies and lads and be on your way. Seriously, it’ll lift your mood.”
Cullen looked down from the elevation he’d gained to give Rylen a scathing look.
“Come on, you know I’m right.”
“I also know that you’re an ass.”
“But I’m an ass with good intentions.”
“Still a big, huge, mouthbreathing ass,” Cullen chided as he reached the top of the wall, tapped his hand on the top of the wall, and gave the woman belaying him a thumbs up to start letting him down. As he passed Rylen, he gave him a cheeky grin and a middle finger as he descended.
Cassandra and Cullen linked arms among the crowd, so they couldn’t get lost. The din was almost deafening; Cassandra had to practically shout directly into Cullen’s ear in order for him to hear her.
Cassandra wore a ball cap and sunglasses – she wasn’t sure how well her employer would like it if she were recognized here – but Cullen proudly showed his face, and held aloft a sign painted on stiff paper, “FORMER TEMPLAR AGAINST THE REGISTRATION ACT.” He’d actually received a lot of handshakes and hugs that day.
They marched every day in front of the Parliament building with thousands of others, all sharing the same messages of love and resistance.
“Hello, this is Minister Elanor Threnn's Denerim office.”
“Yes, hello – I – my name is Cullen Rutherford from the Haven/Frostback Valley Voting District. I wanted to voice my opinion on the recently passed Mage Registration Act. I know Minister Threnn was one of twenty-six that voted for the Act, and as a constituent, I want Minister Threnn to know that she will not have my support in the coming election next year, unless she takes action to overturn the Act.”
“I—we’ve had a lot of calls today, thank you for voicing your opinion—Oh, madam, uh, yes—Mr. Rutherford, was it? Minister Threnn is actually in her office at the moment, would you be willing to speak with her about your concerns over the issue of the Mage Registration Act?”
Twelve days after Antiva, he was watching the news during breakfast when he nearly choked on his cereal.
<<<King Alistair of Ferelden has ordered Parliament to cast a re-vote for the Mage Registration Act. His Royal Highness has made public statements decrying the Act, regarding it as ‘barbaric and cruel, a horrible reminder of the way Mages were treated in Ages past.’ King Alistair went on to express his disgust with the current treatment of imprisoned mages, and has challenged lawmakers and the Minister of Mage Affairs to begin rehabilitation programs for imprisoned mages with non-violent offenses. >>>
<<<We continue our story later tonight as Parliament votes once more on the Mage Registration Act. MPs across the nation have been flooded with calls and emails from their constituents to vote ‘no’ on the Act. Theodore, I think we’re watching history being made. >>>
<<<I agree, Helen, I think today may be the start of a Thedas-wide revolution for Mage Rights. Up next, we have Minister Florence Cousland, you’ll know her as the sister to Teryn Fergus Cousland of Highever, on to discuss the political campaign she’s leading for her Mage Freedoms Act. >>>
Cullen could hardly focus at work the entire day. He kept checking his phone, waiting for the news alerts, completely forgetting what he was doing in the middle of making a sandwich for a customer.
“Dude, just go sit down,” Delrin told him after lunch. He then put Keran on register and went to work the kitchen himself.
Though, it wasn’t until right before dinner when the 40/10 vote was announced, and the Mage Registration Act was deemed unconstitutional, and a new law passed 35/15 decriminalizing the status of using magic so long as it is not in violence against another person or entity.
He nearly vomited he was so happy.
Cullen raced across the street into Chargers, where Isabella and Merrill were hugging and crying behind the counter, and they pulled him in for a hug too, and Cullen asked Merrill how to get to Clan Lavellan.
She took Liam and his younger sister Kala in the four-wheeler out to the Clan school, so that Kala could practice driving in the parking lot.
“Easy on the gas!” she screeched as Kala zoomed forward and nearly ran into the curb. She slammed on the brakes, and Astoria was so, so pleased that the seat belts did that annoying thing where they lock on you if the car stops too suddenly.
“I’m sorry!” Kala whined, and let go of the steering wheel but left her foot pressed against the brake pedal.
“Like a feather, Kala, like a feather,” Astoria reminded her. She let Kala drive a few more circles around the parking lot, before directing her to drive out onto the main road.
“The…not the parking lot?” Kala gave her a disbelieving look.
“You’ll never get used to street driving if you don’t try,” Astoria said, and scowled at Liam through the rear-view mirror as he silently but physically prayed. “Don’t do that, Liam. I bet you were ten times worse when you first learned to drive.”
He rolled his eyes. “Yeah, but Papaé didn’t let me go on the road for like, a month. And this is Keeper’s car! Did she even give permission to let Kala drive?”
“I’m Second, and my permission is all the permission anyone needs.”
Kala drove at a snail’s pace down the road. When they came to the turnoff for the Cultural Center parking lot, Astoria made her pull in and practice parking.
She’d last seen Kala eight years ago when she was barely six. Just like Sorcha, she’d grown so much over the years, and Astoria had missed it all. Liam and Kala were like cousins to her – she would babysit them, sit down for dinner with their family once a week, and danced with them when they were young. Astoria missed so much of their growing up; she practically insisted to their parents that she take Kala to teach her to drive, and for Liam to come along.
After Kala nearly cried trying to park until she got it right, Astoria told Liam to get in the front seat and to drive them home. The siblings switched, much at the relief of both of them, and Liam expertly sped the car out of the parking lot and down the hot roads as the sun lowered westward into the horizon.
Liam parked the four-wheeler in Keeper’s driveway, and Astoria gave each teenager a kiss on the cheek. “I’m proud of you,” she said as she ruffled Kala’s short, curly hair. “Come on, both of you. We’ll have tea with Keeper and Sorcha before dinner.”
Liam and Kala walked ahead of her into the house, headed straight for the kitchen. Astoria stayed a moment in the foyer to kick off her shoes and run her hands through her hair – the shaved sides she’d had were starting to grow out, and she liked it. It had been years since her hair was even chin-length, and she was missing the look.
“Astoria, there’s a super tall shemlen in here!” Liam’s voice called from the kitchen.
Her heart nearly stopped beating. Creators, it was barely two weeks since—
Her feet moved without her willing them to. She had to see, she had to see and disprove her wildest dreams, her most secret of fears. She pushed aside the beaded curtain into the kitchen and saw him sitting at the breakfast table across from Keeper and Sorcha, so tall and absolutely human next to her kin, his hands wrapped around a glass of water that was sweating condensation onto his hands in the late summer heat, his brown eyes stuck on her.
She didn’t know what to say, so she stood frozen in the archway, the beaded curtain swishing and click-clacking behind her.
“Never had a human in my house,” Keeper said, breaking the tension, “but you always managed to attract all sorts of folk to my kitchen.” Sorcha hissed at their grandmamaé, but Astoria and Cullen ignored her.
“Why are you here?” was all she managed to say.
His face was such a mix of emotions – happiness and excitement, covered by a thick veneer of anticipation and anxiety.
“I came to ask you to come home.”
“OUT,” Keeper immediately ordered, snapping her fingers at Liam and Kala. They instantly fled the kitchen past Astoria, and she heard the front door open and slam closed.
“No,” said Keeper, “you have only just returned to us. Two weeks we’ve had you home, just two! And who is this boy? He shows up on our territory, knocking on my door and asking to see my Astoria? Where did he learn such awful manners?”
“Honnleath,” he replied sheepishly.
“Dareth,” Sorcha said to him.
Astoria held up a hand towards Sorcha and Keeper and narrowed her eyes at Cullen. “Why did you come? I told you I can’t go back—”
“Didn’t you see the news yesterday? King Alistair called a re-vote. They voted no, Astoria. They changed the laws – magic isn’t illegal anymore.”
The news hit her like a brick. She looked at him, unknowing, unthinking. Then, she laughed.
She laughed so hard she had to grip the counter next to her to keep from falling over. Her chest hurt from it, her abs ached from wheezing. Her laughter filled the room, while Sorcha and Keeper and Cullen just looked at her.
“Oh Creators – I’m sorry, I just – what?” she giggled quite uncontrollably. “There’s no way.”
That’s when Cullen held out the newspaper she hadn’t noticed that was lying on the table. The front-page article – she couldn’t believe it – it had to be a joke -
“They really, really did it,” she whispered, and took the newspaper from him. “It’s true.”
“It’s hardly a promise,” Keeper said. “Look how quickly they overturned their previous ruling.”
“That’s because people protested it,” Cullen argued, “the people of Ferelden said no, that they wouldn’t stand up for this kind of treatment. And the King ordered a re-vote, and Parliament made it unconstitutional. They decriminalized magic. The mages are free.”
Sorcha looked stricken. “But we just got her back.”
Astoria frowned as her sister held back tears.
“I need to speak to Cullen. Alone.” She turned, not waiting for him to follow as she led the way out of the kitchen to the living room and out the back door. She heard him close the back door behind himself, and she lead them through the field all the way to the tree line, to where a trail lead to the stream behind the house.
She didn’t stop until she reached the stream bank. A couple stones were rolled to sit next to each other, a perfect pair of seats, put there decades ago by someone Astoria didn’t know.
“Sit,” she said, pointing at the little stone stools, and took her own seat in one. Cullen tentatively followed suit.
“We have a lot to talk about,” she said, “and a lot of things to sort out.”
He nodded, waiting for her. In the dappled sunlight through the boughs of the trees from the setting sun, he was ethereally beautiful. She had to look at the stream to remind herself of what needed to be discussed.
“We need to acknowledge our fight that night. I need you to acknowledge the things I told you, and the horrible, horrible truth of what happened to me and what I did to those Templars. And don’t say ‘it’s all in the past,’ that’s fucking bullshit and you know it. I need you to acknowledge it because otherwise you’ll just resent me for killing your literal predecessor.”
He sighed, scrubbing a hand through his hair. “It’s not something that’s been sitting with me easily. I’m not saying that you weren’t wrong for killing him – Maker’s breath, he was a horrible person – but, you were also just a kid. I can’t blame you for doing it, either.”
“I killed him with magic, Cullen. Magic. I – I’d accidentally used blood magic, after he’d cut me.”
He stared at her. He blinked, and scrubbed his fingers over his eyes. “Shit.”
“You have to know how it happened. I can’t feel good about this unless you know the whole truth – all of it.”
“I – I appreciate you telling me,” he said, removing his hands from his face. “I can’t say I’m not shocked, but – it makes sense.”
“It makes sense?”
“Well, considering the fact that as a child, you used blood magic to take out, what, six armed Templars?”
“Well, Mamaé had already cast a disarming spell…”
“Wait, what? That’s a thing?”
“Also not the point here?”
“Look,” she gestured her hands out in front of her, “use that knowledge as you will. If you’re okay with it or not, and by Mythal’s draconic tits I can’t imagine that you would be okay with it, that’s the truth of my past and I just want it all out there on the table.
“The second thing I want to talk about is just how secure this new law is. What it would mean if I was seen using magic, or if I had to publicly declare that I was a mage.”
“Neither. From what I understand, free and undocumented mages are free to remain undocumented and to use magic, so long as it wasn’t in a violent manner against another person. They specifically said ‘violent.’”
“Okay, but then that leaves it up to the Templars’ discretion as to what ‘violent’ means. Is it violent intent, or if it can be perceived as violent? And what about non-violent magic users who are currently incarcerated?”
“The Prime Minister said that they’d be freed as lawyers review their cases. After that, their records will allow them the same freedoms as any non-magic user would have.”
“And you trust Parliament?”
Cullen shrugged. “I trust some of them, but I mostly trust King Alistair.”
She scoffed. “You Fereldans and your love of royalty.”
“Excuse me? Miss Second of the Clan Lavellan? You’re practically royalty yourself.”
“Yeah, but it’s not like I’m a beloved icon of my people—“
“Your Keeper is, isn’t she?”
Astoria pursed her lips. “Touché.”
They stayed out past dark, working through everything that needed to be worked through, saying everything that needed to be said, until Astoria took Cullen’s hand and squeezed it tight.
She still had to talk to Keeper, and she still had to give her Clan the honor she owed them – the honor they deserved from her. After all, they just got her back.
“Why did you come all the way here, anyways? It’s a long way to travel if I’d said no,” she asked as she led him back through the dark. Though the moon was high and nearly full, the light did not reach quite so well through the branches and the leaves. Astoria could see just fine with her darkvision, but Cullen had to be dragged along and guided.
“Your phone was turned off.”
“Well, you’ve got a point there.”
“I also didn’t want our last interaction to be that terrible day at the airport.”
“Hmm.” Astoria squeezed his hand tighter.
“And,” he said, and stopped walking. Astoria, unable to pull him, was pulled back from her own momentum, and bumped into Cullen. “I also wanted to see your face.”
“Well, my face is waiting.”
In the dark, she could see the sly smile spread across his lips as he leaned in to kiss her – his lips were warm and soft and familiar – a lover’s kiss in name and in practice, the kind of kiss lovers in film and in novels and in the great sagas of history and of the Blights would have.
“You are making this very hard for me,” she murmured when the kiss ended, their foreheads and noses pressed together.
“Making what hard?”
“Choosing. Choosing to return to Haven with you, or choosing to stay with my Clan. They’re right, in some ways. They only just got me back. They’ve accepted me back, and I’m with my sister again. I’ve seen my cousins and my kin and those that are not blood-kin but are still family nonetheless.
“But I miss Haven already – I miss Sera and Merrill and Josie and Dorian and you. I miss my studio and the Chargers. Because all of you are my family too.”
In the dark, the cicadas and the beetles began to chirp and sing. A small swarm of fireflies migrated through the trees past them, sparkling in slow flashes in the corners of Astoria’s vision.
He smoothed his thumb over her cheek; he briefly touched her scar, she noted, and wondered how he felt about it now that he knew the truth. “Then I will wait. If you want to stay, I’ll go, I understand – your family is…your family.”
“Thank you, Cullen. Really. I mean it.”
He kissed her forehead, on the head of the raven in her vallaslin.
They returned to Keeper’s house.
“I’m sorry Keeper is being so…”
“I was going to say ‘uptight,’ but yeah,” Sorcha shrugged as she held up the flashlight while Astoria and Cullen set up the old camping tent at the mowed part of the backyard, right before the field.
When Astoria insisted that Cullen would be spending the night on the territory, Keeper had refused to let him sleep under her roof. Thus, he would be sleeping in a tent in the backyard. Keeper had also made an inappropriate comment about Astoria sneaking girls and boys into the house when she was a teenager, and Sorcha promptly forced the conversation to end.
“I didn’t know your grandmother was so…adamant against humans,” Cullen remarked.
Sorcha scoffed. “Well, can you blame her?”
Astoria rolled out the rain fly. “Keeper is Keeper, and she will maintain her position on humans for the rest of her life. And she intends to live forever, so, we just have to deal with it.”
Cullen looked at the rain fly. “Is that really necessary?”
Astoria looked up at the sky. She could smell the wind, the changes in air pressure that are identifiable only in places with nature, like the Clan territory, or the Planasene Forest and the Vimmark Mountains.
“It might rain,” she said, “we get summer storms at night. Can you smell it?”
Sorcha hummed in agreement, but Cullen struggled to identify what the two women had known since infancy. He was from southeastern Ferelden – of course they didn’t get summer storms like the Planasene did.
They tied down the rain fly over the finished tent, and Cullen tossed his backpack – the only thing he’d brought with him from Ferelden – inside. “I’ll go get something for you to sleep on,” Astoria said. Sorcha left the flashlight with him and walked arm and arm with her sister into the house.
When Astoria reemerged, she carried bundled in her arms all the pillows and sheets and the thick comforter blankets from her own bed. “Open up,” she told Cullen, who unzipped the door of the tent, only for her to dump the bed dressings onto him before she herself dove into the tent and zipped up the door to keep the bugs out.
He’d set the flashlight in one corner of the tent, which Astoria and her blankets now obstructed, casting half the tent into mostly-darkness.
They didn’t need to say anything about it – they made their bed for the night, first putting down the thickest of blankets on the bottom, then the sheet and a warmer blanket on top, and the pillows on one end. They clicked off the flashlight and undressed to their underwear, crawling under the cool covers, bringing warmth to each other.
The tips of their noses touched in the dark. Astoria lifted her slender hand and reached for him, resting her fingertips in his hair. Such wonderful, curly hair, she thought, tracing her fingers through his hair, around his round ear, until her hand rested where his jaw met his neck. Gently, he wrapped his hand around her arm.
First, the rain against the tent was light – it hit intermittently, slowly, until it gained great speed and momentum and the roaring of the rainstorm filled the tent and their bodies.
Astoria pulled herself closer to Cullen, until they shared one pillow, and lifted her head to whisper into his ear such that he could hear her over the thunderous rain.
“Do you believe in soulmates?”