Sideline Wednesday: The Champion's Side, Chapter 37

Struggles and Striving

By the afternoon Sebastian and I talked through our discontent we’d spent hours together in one parlor or another, chatting politely with yet another noble family that simply had to host the Champion one time more than their neighbors. We’d danced a hundred stately rounds when I couldn’t face another boorish rich boy who’d never done anything more exciting than walk through Lowtown once on a dare.

His presence at these balls and dinner parties gave him unprecedented access to the nobles of Kirkwall. I often tried to deflect attention to his cause. Talk of betrayal and murder in Starkhaven meant a welcome relief from scrutiny, short-lived though it might have been, and genteel Sebastian made quite the impression on the ladies of Hightown.

The prince’s genuine sorrow and piety won their hearts but no breath of scandal ever touched him. Their husbands found him honorable and masculine enough to be likable, as well. In fact some of them told him how much they enjoyed his company much more aggressively than their wives. He told me of their advances in hushed tones and oblique language.

The wild days of his youth had shown him plenty. He was neither shocked nor offended, merely surprised that the ladies would content themselves with sighs and glances while they husbands and sons tended more toward brushes of the hand and outright propositions.

I laughed at him. “The ladies have far more to lose,” I explained. “Few of them have money of their own or could wrest it from the family vault should they be disgraced.”

All in all, we shared a quiet three years, my friends and I. We grew comfortably more entrenched in Kirkwall society, high and low. My neighbors enjoyed the scandalous appearance of one or another of my companions wandering in and out of my door at all hours. They thrilled at asking me how I, little slip of a thing that I appeared in my ball gowns, dared walk home from Lowtown in the wee hours with that elf while they discreetly enquired about the debauchery of those nights I never returned at all.

Through the whole three years of our indulgent complacency, matters in the Gallows grew more dangerous. I checked on Bethany regularly and, though I was never allowed to see her, Cullen reassured me that she was well-liked and compliant. Certainly her letters sounded content, almost happy. For all that she was imprisoned she no longer had to hide who she was, which I imagine counted for a lot

I wondered how unhappy I would have been had I been forced to pretend I couldn’t swing a sword, that I adored the frippery and manners noblewomen born and raised were forced to adopt. But while I was an eccentric, self-made noble, freely slaughtering my way up and down the Wounded Coast and throughout Kirkwall’s back alleys, mages like my sister were locked up because they might hurt someone, even if most of them never had.

Anders and I talked about this unfairness, when he could stay calm enough to keep Justice under wraps. I had to concede they had a point. Our little crew had killed more people in Kirkwall and its environs than all the blood mages we’d stopped put together, often as not without using a scrap of magic. Bandits hacked up travelers on the road with simple blades and ferocious Mabari, not fireballs and lightning.

Yet the possibility of possession always lurked behind any mage’s best intentions. Murderers or not, mundane criminals chose to act. No one really knew just how vulnerable even the best-behaved mage was to determined demons. But everyone “knew” a demon would use that person’s power to kill indiscriminately.

The Chantry insisted the Circles be prepared for the worst case. The Templars’ theoretical protection of mages and the general population from each other had mutated over the centuries. Somewhere along the line the Right of Annulment had been created to allow the entire population of a Circle to be put to death.

The theory the Chantry put forth to justify killing every man, woman, and child they’d collected showed a very Qunari view of mages. Should one of them fall prey to a demon certainly anyone in contact with him or her would fall as well. The reasoning didn’t hold when it had been applied to me and Ketojan and it failed as a justification for imprisoning mages, as well, at least in my eyes.

Sadly, my beliefs held exactly zero sway over the teachings of the Chantry. Though I argued with both Sebastian and Elthina, though Petrice’s extreme example showed the folly of their teachings, neither could admit that they lived in fear. “Magic is meant to help man, not to rule him,” they would parrot until I couldn’t stand another round with either of them. There’s just no besting dogma with a true believer.

All of this created a certain sympathy in me toward the mages with whom my sister lived. Anders let slip one day that they people helping others escape from The Gallows had asked him to stay away, after what happened with Ser Alrik. Not only had the bodies pointed the way to the best escape route but they’d caused quite the uproar among the Templar ranks.

His increasing instability frightened people and their reactions made it worse. This vicious spiral had dragged him down while Sebastian and I had enjoyed the hospitality of every noble in Kirkwall. Remembering how little time I’d managed to spare him weighs on me, now. At the time the crumbs of help and care I threw him seemed enough. His sudden improvement eased my concerns and I thought little of how isolated he’d been or what he’d been doing. He dismissed my queries with easy cheer and, in my relief, I accepted his vague responses.

A few months after he suddenly rejoined my circle of friends I arrived home to see him standing before the fire in my foyer. Though I’d grown accustomed to finding one or another of my companions enjoying my own hospitality as they waited for me to return it had been weeks since I had found Anders bothering Sandal about enchanting when I came home.

This time he merely waited for me, ignoring my strange, talented, dwarven staff and my dog, as well. He looked anxious, nervous and excited at the same time. When I walked through the door he rushed over and helped me divest myself of the filthiest of my armor. I’d been cleaning up marauders with Aveline and Isabela and I was a bloody mess.

Once Bodahn and his son had wandered off with my boots, gauntlets, and weapons Anders took my hands and told me he needed my help with something. He started to tell me about a discovery, a Tevinter potion that would allow him to expel Justice without hurting either of them, but the longer he spoke the less he was able to meet my eyes.

He had to be lying. My suspicious questioning only made him defensive and he accused me of being unwilling to help because I didn’t care about him. He said I obviously didn’t really care about mages. Though he didn’t throw that afternoon we’d shared in my face it lay beneath his every reproachful word like a debt owed.

How could I refuse? Once I’d managed to extract a promise that he wouldn’t use this potion to poison Templars or hurt himself, and another pledge that no blood magic was involved, I acquiesced. He was so desperate, so earnest. My own guilt over neglecting him convinced me that he needed me.

Our first trip, to the Bone Pit to get something called drakestone, went smoothly. I brought Merrill and Varric, the former the one most seeking Anders’s approval and the latter his only other real friend. Neither of them would balk at what seemed to me a shady request, though I didn’t put it that way to them.

We picked up chunks of the rock, warm to the touch and slightly sulfurous smelling. Merrill exclaimed that she would hate to drink anything containing it but Anders responded with no more than a slight shudder. I didn’t know enough about potions to completely disbelieve that powdered rock could be an ingredient but I was glad it wouldn’t be going into my mouth, either.

Then came the sewers and something he called sela petrae. It wasn’t until we’d found the first bit that he explained what it was.

“Crystallized urine. For your potion. Really.” I spoke flatly, my distrust clear. Anders may have treated his body shabbily, and Justice more so, but I knew there was no way he’d put something like this in his mouth.

He didn’t even try to lie, after that, just gave me those deep, pleading eyes. “We’re already here, Anders,” I sighed. “We might as well keep going.” He answered with the saddest smile I’d seen from him, which is saying a lot. If only I could help him find somewhere safe where he could be happy, I thought. But with Justice inside no such place existed.

We returned him to the clinic with strict orders to the women that helped him to get him into a hot tub and clean robes. He must have sent a message almost the moment I left him, however, because by the time I got into my own steaming bath a grubby child had brought a note.

Bodahn had left it on the writing desk and gestured to it with disgust when I emerged. Thankfully he knew better than to wash papers or he’d have given it a good scrubbing. It did rather smell and some of the writing went around smudges of filth. I imagine it was difficult to keep paper clean for long in Darktown.

Anders had written a plea that I visit him but not for a few days. He had something to do but he needed one last thing for this potion and he could count on no one else. I crumpled the scrap angrily. I’d give him three days and then we’d have it out; I could forgive an awful lot in my friends but I wouldn’t overlook lying.

I bathed my frustrations in the growling drone of Fenris’s reading that night. He’d heard all about our trip to the sewers but, beyond a flip remark about the proclivities of mages, he didn’t pursue the subject. My response must have warned him that it was the last thing I wanted to discuss. He chose a dry history of Orlais and opened an excellent bottle of wine to cheer us.

As often happened, we found far more to interest us in discussing the text than in the book itself. While Sebastian and I discussed abstract religious concepts and very personal politics Fenris and I explored any topic that arose in his reading.

History fascinated him, not just the book that started our lessons or elves in particular but all of Thedas’s bloody and contorted conflicts. “I want to understand how the world became the way it is,” he told me. “But so much is myth that I may never know.”

The history of Tevinter and its uncontrolled mages varied from source to source. Some wrote sympathetically, some in horror, but none seemed able to set aside the larger issues of Circles and the Chantry to simply detail what had happened. Many accounts differed in describing key events and none was a first-hand telling.

So we gathered clues from histories about other parts of Thedas, drew conclusions from reactions in other places rather than stories of what may or may not have actually occurred. These discussions lasted well into the night and found us, heads together, poring over a text to argue the meaning of a passage.

I needed the distraction of such a night and the tortured sleep afterward that would help me ignore my anger at Anders. Fenris delivered beautifully and I dreamt of tackling him on his own table rather than clouting my tortured mage with my shield.

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