Transmutation, Chapter 3

Everyday Temptations

In the days that followed Cullen learned the routines of his new home.  He found his way around the unfamiliar halls and came to understand that mages did not cook with fireballs or play catch with bolts of lightning.  What he’d been taught to fear was more a myth than a reality.

He saw children as young as five or six who had been brought in from all over Ferelden, taken from their families or turned over to a Chantry somewhere.  Few of them displayed the power do to much more than hurt themselves or break the dishes.  Most simply settled into the dormitory with the other novices.  The apprentices that watched and guided the little ones had long experience dealing with homesickness and tiny rebellions, from their own adjustments to life in the tower as much as from having seen them with each new child.

The newest Templars were usually assigned to the most senior enchanters, those who had been with the Circle for decades and whose stability was most proven.  Cullen was the youngest of the Order at the Tower and the first new recruit to have come for several years.  As a result he did little more for his first few weeks than walk the upper corridors with an older man.

Braden filled his head with stories of catching mages in various undignified positions, either through spells gone awry or during interrupted liaisons.  The man seemed to view most of them as harmless academics, though he had a few tales of Harrowings that had not gone as well as Cullen’s first.  The resulting abominations had been killed at the first sign of change in the slumbering mage and thus had not been much of a threat.  Braden’s descriptions and obvious repulsion, however, left a strong impression.

The older man seemed pleased to have a trainee.  The others acted indifferent to their newest member and no one asked where he’d trained or with whom he’d served.  When their shift lined up for their lyrium each week, it was always Braden beside whom Cullen ended up standing, chatting about the day’s assignments or the latest gossip to make the rounds in the barracks.

The Chantry discouraged close relationships and the long consumption of lyrium drew Templars ever further into themselves as they aged.  Though most of the men and women were polite enough they tended to be cold and self-involved, as likely to squabble as they were to cooperate when they could be bothered to deal with one another at all.

It had been as true in Denerim and the various villages around Ferelden as it was at Kinloch Hold.  Braden became the first friend Cullen had had for a decade, since the boys with whom he’d begun his training had been scattered to tiny villages across the country.  His tours with his mentor lasted only a month but even once he’d started patrols on his own the two spent most of their off-duty time together, playing cards or discussing Tower politics.

It bothered him less as the weeks passed how little the other Templars interacted.  Braden tried to interest his protégé in the wider world.  He’d spent his youth in the Couseland Tyrnyr, in the town around the castle where the shifting alliances of the bannorn and arlings affected trade and thus daily life.  Such machinations had comprised the bulk of daily conversation, rather than the weather and the state of the crops, and the older man had never lost his interest in them.

Though Cullen never did learn much beyond the names of a few arls and teryns, the stories of trickery and skirmishes among the nobility fascinated him.  Braden’s grey eyes would flash when he told of a particularly dastardly betrayal and his evening-stubbled, prominent chin rose proudly when he talked of the two Couseland children, now adults but long the darlings of the surrounding countryside.  The daughter, in particular, had been a firebrand who had gotten her skill in swordplay from her mother.  Cullen almost felt he know the family, after so many stories of their antics.

Though he spent most of his patrols on the quieter upper floors, Cullen rotated through all of the areas of the tower over his first months so that he could become familiar with its inhabitants and their roles.  He met the Tranquil that lived there, housed apart from the active users of magic but still very much a part of the Circle.  It took time to grow accustomed to their utter expressionless faces.

Had he thought about it at all, he’d have assumed mages made Tranquil would return to their families.  He quickly came to realize that they could not.  They cared about those they had once loved no more than they did total strangers.  Emotion no longer colored anything they did, which made them excellent organizers and open to menial labor around the tower, but because they could not readily interpret the deceits and motivations of others they would have had great difficulty functioning in the outside world.

Thus they lived alongside their former fellows, thankfully incapable of resenting the lost power they had once had.  They existed free from jealousy, outside of pride or shame.  The Tranquil became a sort of servant class to the mages and the Templars, asexual automatons that lived by the rules they’d been told and could not harbor a personal agenda or ambition.

Most people found their monotonous voices and vacant faces more creepy than calm.  They served as a reminder to young mages of what awaited them should they refuse to submit to the Harrowing, as well, something that engendered a fair amount of resentment among the novices.  Almost no one would hurt the Tranquil.  They would defend themselves to a point if they’d been told they could but for the most part it would be like beating a doll—it might make you feel better but the stuffing on the floor will make you feel worse in the end.  It was difficult to feel more than a mild fondness for them, even toward one you saw daily.  A Tranquil didn’t feel even that, of course.

They kept mostly to themselves and were treated like useful pets.  It seemed a heavy price but better minds than Cullen’s had wrestled with alternatives for centuries and been unable to fine one better.  He supposed it was an improvement over being dead, though they could hardly feel grateful for that.

Cullen did eventually become more familiar with the young woman whose Harrowing he had attended.  He saw her in the halls in her new, green apprentice robes with the other young mages and came to know her voice, the lilt that seemed to float over the chatter of what schools of study were most interesting and which apprentice had been making eyes at whom.  When he guarded the great hall where the mages ate he saw her picking apart her bread with those delicate fingers as she chattered with her friends.  She haunted him, passing through his dreams, laughing at some joke he could not hear.

Boys and girls who joined the Chantry were strictly segregated.  Though there had been occasional opportunities for exploration, most of the men had come to their training quite young and over the years never had much interaction with women not already sworn to chastity or long married.  Cullen had been no different.  The sour and virginal Sisters and Mothers of the Chantry had not offered much to interest a young man and these were the only females with whom he had had regular contact for years.

Some of the Templars-in-training had sought relief with one another but he’d had little interest in these encounters.  Despite the occasional snide remark about their closeness, Braden had never even suggested such a liaison, nor had Cullen considered that to be part of their friendship.  All his shameful longing was reserved for a young mage he barely knew.

Cullen had never been so aware of the weakness of flesh as he became in his first months at the Kinloch Hold.  Privacy was a luxury in the tower, something the guards valued as little for their charges as themselves.  Templars, though sworn to virtue as brothers and sisters of the Chantry, accommodated one another from time to time in the barracks at night, giving in to temptation under cover of darkness.  The two old men he’d surprised behind the stacks in the library, the man in the cubicle beside his entertaining some woman in the deepest hours of the night, teens in their floor-length robes sneaking touches and glances like any other kids their age: all of it made him exquisitely aware that he wanted to do the same things with that woman.

But the Chantry and his training drilled into his head, as they had for years, that mages were forbidden.  Caring about one was the first step to mind control and death by demon, they taught.  Getting involved with a mage was a death sentence and a license for her to run rampant.  So the Chantry had said all his life and so he reminded himself again and again when he saw her poring over books in the library without another soul in sight.

Cullen tried to turn his mind from her and concentrate on learning his duty.  Days when he patrolled the senior mage quarters were easier, the inhabitants mostly content with their lot and well-schooled in ignoring or hiding both their resentments and their more-physical inclinations.  Braden’s patient instruction on the ins and outs of mage ranking and hierarchies in the Tower helped the neophyte avoid running afoul of the touchiest sorcerers and the cruelest of their own fellows.

Despite his recommitment to his vows he found himself watching the young woman, catching her eye as she breezed past on some errand or other.  The First Enchanter often called her to his office for errands or tutoring so brief encounters came almost daily.  She always gave him a little smile or a mischievous wrinkle of her nose when she caught him looking.

One day she walked up to him in the deserted upper corridor, where he stood guarding nothing more than the fitted stones themselves, and boldly introduced herself.  The name Kyla chased itself around his head for hours as he recalled the silken feel of her hand momentarily in his.   He tried to be less pleased that Templars did not wear helmets or gauntlets while on regular duty in the tower and more guilty over how she distracted him.

After that she often spoke briefly with him when she happened upon him alone.  Her eyes twinkled when she discovered how easy it was to discomfit him, how something as simple as a direct gaze made him blush and stammer.  He wondered if she had not, after all, failed in her Harrowing.  Surely a desire demon sought to corrupt him with this sweet torture.  Yet he could find nothing really objectionable in her behavior, certainly no offense he could report to a superior or complain of to Irving.  Mostly she was simply friendly; it was his own failing that he feared.

He found himself increasingly unable to bear her teasing.  One day she was bolder than usual and, to his mortification, Cullen found himself all but fleeing from her.  It had been the only way he could refrain from putting his hands on her, kissing that smiling mouth.  Surely she wanted him to, or why else tempt him so often, but how could he?  And had he stayed, how could he not?

He spent an hour that evening kneeling in the tower’s chapel.  Maker preserve me and give me strength in the face of this temptation, he prayed fervently.  He knew he should beg for a different intercession but he could not bring himself to wish her to stop.

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