Anders sidled up to her as they passed through the city gates, nudged into her with his shoulder and nearly stumbled her. She was tired, no more than usual, but she hadn’t been getting even half the amount of sleep she usually allowed herself. Not that she was complaining. Wiling away the sleepless hours with Nathaniel was in no way comparable to tossing and turning all night alone. Sometimes they just lay together talking in the dark, other times it was so much more than that and she was glad she’d allowed him to convince her not to give up on trying to find happiness with him.
“I see you’ve finally given in.”
“Given in to what? And mind your step for Andraste’s sake.”
“Everyone’s talking about it,” he went on, self-consciously watching his own feet for several steps, as if he expected them to act without permission. “For the last week, you’ve been spotted sneaking from Howe’s quarters at daybreak and rushing down the corridor to your own room to avoid being questioned about it. You’re not half as sly as you think you are.”
Grinning, he edged into her again, the deliberateness of his action making her realize she had absolutely no control over the people under her command. She was lousy at leading. Getting people where they needed to be, not a problem. Rallying them around her to a worthy cause, easy peasy. Not letting herself get emotionally invested in them–impossible. It was a wonder more people hadn’t died on her watch because she wasn’t hard enough to make them take her seriously.
She didn’t like the idea of the others talking about her; she’d undergone enough of that kind of scrutiny while on the road with Alistair. Wynne poking her nose into their business, trying to convince her to reconsider, to spare Alistair later heartache by ending things before they went too far and there was no turning back. The old woman really had no idea. By that point, it had already gone too far. There was no backtracking, no rescinding her heart.
Every time she replayed that conversation in her mind, which wasn’t as often as it used to be, she kept imagining herself asking Wynne why her later heartache wasn’t important. “Alistair is inexperienced in matters of the heart…”
What had that even meant? That Arabelle knew all about hearts, the way they worked and how best to keep hers protected from inevitable heartbreak? Even after all that time, just thinking about that conversation made her angry. She was fully prepared to lay into Anders, her tongue sharpened in ways it hadn’t been with Wynne.
“I’m obviously not avoiding questioning. Here you are, asking questions.” She snapped at him, a harsh hitch of confidence in her voice even she didn’t expect.
Sometimes she could hear Morrigan’s influence bleeding through in her own words, the woman’s outright sarcasm and disregard for the feelings of others… because Arabelle honestly believed the witch hadn’t known any better. Her social interactions had been sparse before Flemeth sent her away from the Wilds and into the world with Belle and Alistair after saving their lives. At first it had been difficult even trying to hold a conversation with Morrigan, but in time they’d become friends. Morrigan had even gone so far as to call Belle a sister before the end, before she dashed all hopes of giving the Witches of the Wilds what they’d wanted from the start.
Sometimes it still hurt to think they’d had an agenda all along, that Morrigan had only befriended her to get something she wanted. She’d called her impractical and foolish, said she was obviously unable to see the greater picture. It had been a cold and callous goodbye, but Arabelle swore she saw tears in the other woman’s eyes before she shifted into animal form and fled Redcliffe Castle.
She went into battle furious and confused—doubting the choice she and Alistair made together.
Anders held up his hand in defense, his gaze softening as he turned it down to rest on her. “I’m not questioning you, Commander. I just think it’s a good thing not to resist the inevitable.”
“The inevitable?” She cocked a brow and glanced back over her shoulder. “What are you talking about?”
Velanna and Justice were walking quietly behind them, the elf scowling—no doubt over one of Justice’s lengthy lectures on the nature of his plight and the unavoidability of it one day catching up with her for the things she’d done.
“You and Howe,” he shrugged. “It was always there, probably before either of you even realized it, but I saw it rather clearly the moment you walked out of the dungeons that day you spared his life. A man who came to the keep with the intention of killing you? Why else would you spare him?”
“I’ve told you a least a dozen times about my friend Zevran. I spared him after he tried to assassinate me, and I don’t feel like that about him in any way, shape or form. Not for lack of trying on his part. He was almost as insufferable as you when it came to trying to get into my knickers.”
“Well, regardless, I could see it from the start, and I’m just glad you finally see it. We live relatively mundane and bleak lives, Commander. Darkspawn this, nightmares that, architect, broodmother, blah blah blah… You need something to look forward to, otherwise what’s the point of even getting out of bed in the morning? And your dalliance gives us all something exciting to talk about behind your back.”
“You are a very unhappy person, Anders.”
“Maybe,” he shrugged, “but until about a couple months ago, I was far happier than you and that’s saying quite a bit. I’m a miserable son of a bitch.”
“Oh, you’re not so bad. You do try very hard to make the best of things. So… is it really that obvious? I mean, does everyone know?”
“Disgustingly obvious,” he nudged her again, a playful gesture that purposely stumbled her steps. “It’s all anyone’s been able to talk about.”
“Not really. It’s been mentioned, but we don’t spend our days in constant conversation about whether or not you like it from behind, or if you have to be on top because you can’t stand not being in control of every single thing in your life.” She reached out and slapped him hard across his bicep, making him wince and yelp. “Ow, hey! I’m just saying it’s nice to see you smile. Flames, it’s nice to see Howe smile every once in a while. For a long time, I wasn’t even sure the bastard knew how…”
“Anders!” A dusky-skinned elven woman started walking toward them, the sound of her voice snapping his attention from Arabelle. “It’s about time you showed up.”
“Namaya?” The pace of his steps picked up, carrying him quickly away to meet with the woman. “You’re here.”
“I keep my promises, unlike you,” she barked, a scowl furrowing her brow and drawing attention the sharpness of her large, green eyes. “I know it took a while, but it turns out you were right. The cache is here in Amaranthine.”
Belle arrived beside him, Justice and Velanna falling in around them. She crossed her arms over her chest and studied the elven woman with curiosity. Sometimes Anders and Oghren left the Keep and traveled to the tavern in the city to drink, just to get away from it all, but now she wondered if there was something more to their little escapes. She’d thought for sure they were indulging in local women, but the situation before them seemed like a little more than a casual romance.
“You found it!” he remarked, his entire face lighting up.
“I did,” Namaya shrugged. “What you do with that information is up to you. I, for one, am done dealing with mages.” Turning those stunning eyes on Belle, she added, “Word of advice, don’t let him sweet talk you. He’s very good at that.”
“I think I’m immune to his charms, but thank you for the warning.”
“I… uh… guess I should thank you.”
“Damned right you should,” she shook her head. “You get caught, Anders, I’m not helping you again. That’s all I’m saying.”
Pushing through them, Namaya didn’t look back at them as she disappeared into the crowded streets of Amaranthine. Arabelle waited until she was gone before turning her full attention on the mage beside her. He was suddenly very nervous, every ounce of his in-your-face confidence hidden beneath a stammer as he searched within himself for the right words.
“I… uh… I suppose that requires some explanation…”
“No,” she stepped back, arms still crossed as she shook her head. “Not at all.”
“I am fluent in sarcasm,” he reminded her. “You can’t fool me. Look, Namaya is… a friend.”
“A friend? I didn’t know you had any friends outside the keep,” she teased.
“Ha ha. You’re so funny. I’m actually quite popular, which is why I spend time with you. I keep hoping my popularity will rub off on you.”
“So, this friend, what was she doing for you?”
“Last time I escaped from the Tower, I asked her to look into some things. That’s why I was in Amaranthine in the first place.”
“Anders that was months ago.”
“I know. The Templars thought I’d come to take a ship, but it was to meet her.”
“To find a cache?”
Shifting her stance, it was an odd thing to see him so uncomfortable and uncertain about his own words. Normally, he had no trouble speaking his mind, saying whatever nonsense rolled through his head for a good laugh, or to make someone else squirm, but the depth of his insecurity was evident as he lowered his gaze to the ground between them.
“During the Blight, the Templars moved their store of phylacteries to Amaranthine,” he explained, “for safety. My phylactery is among them, Namaya learned. So long as the Templars have that sample of my blood, they can find me. I need to destroy it.”
“You’re right,” she shook her head. “We need to do this. They shouldn’t be allowed to control you. I hate that they can. It’s wrong.”
“Look,” he shifted uncomfortably, “I know we’re busy killing darkspawn and all, but the sooner we find this vial, the better I’ll feel.”
“Do you know where to look?”
“There’s an abandoned warehouse in the merchant district,” he explained. “It should be there with the others.”
“Let us find Aura, and then we’ll take care of it, I promise you.”
“Thank you, Belle… er… Commander.”
Arabelle really hated the Templars. She’d never thought all that much about it in the past. Growing up, her exposure to mages and Templars had been minimal at best, but she knew enough about them to draw her own conclusions about the kind of men the Templars were. Morrigan had told her stories about the Templars who ventured into the Korcari wilds, attempting to capture her and Flemeth, and many of the things Anders shared with her were vile enough to curdle the blood in her veins. He’d been abused, tortured. He still had nightmares about being made Tranquil that rivaled his darkspawn tainted dreams since his Joining.
She got it. Mages were powerful. The Chantry said magic existed to serve man, never rule over him, but how did that give the Templars the right to rule over mages. Things were different in the Tevinter Imperium. With a full mageocracy in place where Templars served the mages, she couldn’t imagine it was any less violent or just. In a place like that, how long before a man like Anders, who’d spent nearly his whole life being tortured and abused by Templars, turned the tide and became the oppressor himself? She didn’t like to think about him that way. Despite his occasional obnoxious nature, Anders was a sweet man, delicate and gentle-hearted. He was one of the most sensitive and giving people she’d ever met. He deserved better.
Any way one looked at it, it was a double-edged sword, sharp and slick with the blood of innocents, and as they walked toward the Chantry, Justice edged forward and broke the heavy silence hanging between them all, as though he, too, had been able to think of nothing else but Anders’s suffering.
“I understand that you struggle against your oppression, Mage.”
“I avoid my oppression,” Anders countered. “That’s not quite the same thing, is it?”
“Why do you not strike a blow against your oppressors? Ensure that they can do this to no one else?”
“Because it sounds difficult?” the mage shrugged.
“Apathy is a weakness,” the Fade spirit pointed out.
A strange grin twitched at the corner of Anders’s mouth just before he turned a playful look over his shoulder at Justice. “So is death,” he said. “I’m just saying.”
“What is it you are saying? I’m not certain I comprehend. Are you saying your cause is not worth dying for? Or are you attempting to mock my present bodily state?”
“I don’t know, both? Maybe?”
“I simply do not understand why one of your power and capability does not defend himself or encourage those like him to band together and fight for justice.”
“The Templars aren’t exactly defenseless, you know. They train their whole lives, fuel themselves with lyrium in order to seize our power and make it impossible to fight back. You have no idea the things I faced in the Tower, under their thumb…”
“Then perhaps you need to rally others to your cause against them. Non-magic users who can defend you when you are unable to defend yourself. People of influence, like our Commander.”
“Can we talk about something else? Or better yet, not talk at all? That would be great, thank you.”
“You do that often,” the Fade spirit noticed. “Deflect when you should accept. It is simple conversation, observations I have made and curiosities that rise to mind, nothing more. I do not purposely attempt to offend you, but it disturbs me that you are not more willing to make a stand against your oppressors for the sake of all who suffer as you do.”
“You would be deeply offended if I were to discuss the rotting corpse you inhabit, would you not?”
“He’s right,” Velanna joined in. “Your skin… it’s peeling.”
“Is it? I hadn’t noticed.”
“Can I give you a poultice? Anything that can help?”
“No, I thank you for the offer, but Kristoff’s body is dead. There is nothing that can be done,” he lamented.
“I shant hope for the smell to improve, then?”
Just looking at the woman, Arabelle was sure Velanna hadn’t intended to be funny, but as she met Anders’s gaze, she couldn’t deny the absurdity of her own amusement. Velanna was not one for jokes. Everything with her was deadly serious, but for a moment she swore she saw the elf crack a smile.
“No, you probably shouldn’t.”
They spent the late morning hours searching Amaranthine for Aura, Kristoff’s wife. Arabelle had done some digging, discovered the woman had taken up residence in the city after her husband had allowed his investigation to all-but consume him and eventually kill him. Kristoff died believing Aura was thousands of miles away, when in fact, had he only come back from Blackmarsh a day or so earlier, he might have discovered her there and waiting for him.
Her neighbors claimed she was rarely within the small cottage, but at the Chantry. That was where they found her, kneeling before a row of candles, head bowed, lips moving over silent prayer. As soon as he saw her there, Justice stalked ahead of them, the sound of his armor clanking, footsteps thumping across the floor and echoing through that vast space. Sometimes the sound reminded her of Alistair, another reason she didn’t often bring Justice with her when they went on missions.
She liked Justice, was fascinated by his predicament, but he all too often made her think of things she was trying so very hard to forget.
Being with Nathaniel during that last week she found her thoughts lingering less on things she could not change, but sometimes at night she still dreamed of him. Between the tentacles, distorted faces and darkspawn murmurings, sometimes she dreamed of Alistair. Dark dreams that terrified her and filled her with dread and guilt. His rotting corpse walking toward her, hands reaching… And still she wanted to go to him.
She woke gasping for breath, as if she’d been plunged into an icy cold lake and held below the surface until her lungs felt like they would burst into a thousand crystal shards.
Nathaniel was already reaching for her when she shot from those dreams, drawing her into his arms and stroking fingers through her hair in an act of comfort she didn’t believe she deserved. Sometimes she wanted to push him away, deride him for making her feel for him when she should have stayed true to the memory of what she lost. Alistair had died for her; how dare she let herself feel for someone else? And yet Alistair would want her to feel, to move on and live a life worthy of his sacrifice… wouldn’t he?
“It’s all right,” Nathaniel would whisper, kissing her temple. “You’re all right, I’m here.”
And she knew when he said those words she could not ever push him away. She belonged there with him. She deserved some happiness. She was not a bad person for letting go, but it still terrified her nonetheless.
“Aura,” Justice began, startling the woman from her prayers. The sound of his voice drew Belle back into the moment and she realized her eyes had watered, unshed tears stinging behind her narrowed lids and lashes. “Please, do not be alarmed. I do not wish to frighten you.”
“You,” she shook her head, her large blue eyes widening in horror as she tried to take a step back and found herself halted by the table behind her. “You are the… in my husband’s body.”
“I am a spirit of justice,” he told her. “I meant your husband no harm. I would ease your distress, had I the power.”
“I knew,” she began, lowering her head in despair, “when he left that this could happen. He told me. His father died a Grey Warden, too.”
“Tell me, is there anything I can do for you? Tell me, and I will do it.”
“Avenge him, Spirit. I will wait for his ashes a little while longer, if it means that whoever did this to him will pay.” The hardness and horror drained from her face, softening her features as she lifted her head and took a step toward him. Hand reaching, her fingers lingered near his face, wanting so desperately to touch the face she once held dear, and then she withdrew.
“The darkspawn,” Kristoff nodded. “I understand.”
Aura moved past him, glancing back and holding his stare for a moment before she left the Chantry. The air was stifling; no one moved. Arabelle glanced over her shoulder at Anders, who only shrugged and shook his head. She didn’t know what to say. Anders spent more time with Justice than anyone else, but he didn’t seem apt to step in any time soon. Drawing breath into her lungs, she approached the Fade spirit from behind, hesitating in her actions, wanting to reach out and place a reassuring hand on his shoulder, but unsure how he would react to such a gesture.
Hand twitching at her side, Justice turned his head to look at her. “And… she is gone. Did I… do the right thing?”
“I think so,” she nodded, finally finding her courage. She brought her hand up to rest on his shoulder, let it linger there a moment as she found a smile for him. “Yes.”
“She loved this man a great deal, and he loved her. I… envy what they had.”
“Love is a strange thing, Justice. A strange and wonderful thing. I wish you could understand emotions the way we do, truly experience them the way they were meant to be felt.”
“Perhaps in time, I will come to understand, but I cannot fathom it. There is a great deal of sacrifice involved. It seems one cannot be selfish in their emotions when it comes to… love. You lost someone you loved.”
“I’ve lost a lot of people I loved.”
“You killed Howe’s father to avenge your family, and that was justice.” His eyes were so strange, hollow and blue, flashing with an eerie, unexpected light. “Your king gave up his life so you might live. I cannot understand what that must have been like for you, but at times I sense your feelings of injustice over what you’ve lost. His sacrifice was not injustice, Commander. Unfair and unjust are two different things.”
She swallowed hard against the tightening muscles in her throat. “Is that so?”
“Indeed, it is. He made a sacrifice, of his own free will. He gave his life so that you might live yours. If it were true injustice, how would one avenge such a crime? Who is to blame?”
“Isn’t it obvious?” she asked, lowering her hand at her side. “Me.”
She turned toward Anders and Velanna, walked between them and headed into the Chantry. She passed the Revered Mother without even turning a glance in her direction, headed down the aisle, past the pews and the people kneeling between them, deep in prayer.