"Maker, hear me."
A soft, lilting brogue, rising gently from the central mezzanine of Kirkwall's chantry, caused Grand Cleric Elthina to pause her steps and turn. She let her eyes move sadly toward the kneeling boy she had raised as her own; the boy who was now a man, she reminded herself with a soft shake of her head. Sebastian seemed to spend so many hours on his knees these days that she wondered how he was able to keep up with the lifestyle Cortland Hawke's companionship demanded of him. When would the lad see that his service to the Maker shone through in his every action, his every word? Elthina knew as well as anyone that a holy duty can take many forms and, for someone such as the Vael Prince, that duty could be performed as admirably on his feet as on his knees.
But he would not hear her.
He had ever been a stubborn child. At the whim of the winds of change, but ready to fling himself body and soul in whichever direction they took him. She prayed each day that the winds tearing at the Prince's heart would one day settle on a direction and offer him some peace at last. For now, she could only watch over him; ready for those times when he would ask her for guidance. With a fond smile, she turned away and left the man to his privacy.
"Maker, hear me."
Sebastian's lips formed silent words as they brushed the knuckles of his hands. Once, he would pray with his hands open, fingers reaching upward as if they could channel the Maker's very light. But today his fingers laced over clenched fists, their tips creating pools of whitened skin with the strength of his clasp. "I know that in the past I have asked you selfish questions. I have sought selfish answers. Now, I look to you to give me the strength to save someone other than myself." Sebastian's eyelashes rested on his cheeks as his eyes closed and his frown deepened. His strong brow furrowed and he let it fall to rest on those hands as he spoke to the chantry floor with a strained whisper.
"Maybe many people. I I don't know."
With a twitch of his jaw, the Prince dug his elbows deeper into his raised knee, his forehead pressing ever stronger downward onto his hands.
"Maker, I am lost and I look to you to guide me. This city's heartbeat is quickening, and my ears hear it so loudly it deafens me. I know that the mage, Anders, lies at the heart of something. His soul is dark, and yet
yet he does not seem to be an evil man. The wrongs done to him are real. His good intentions are real. He has saved more people in a matter of years than I have in a lifetime. So why does he scare me so much? Why do I feel in my bones that he himself must be saved? When I was unsure of my path, you sent me a champion. Now, that same champion sees in the mage some force of change." Whitened knuckles finally loosened as Sebastian Vael placed both palms instead on the stone floor beneath him. His squeezed his eyes shut, and his voice rose to a hoarse whisper as he made his plea.
"Maker, hear me. Grant me the power to ensure that his change is for good. Lend me the strength to save the mage from himself, and to save those around him. I am not a good man. You know this. But, Maker, I am trying. I need you."
For a moment the Prince rested, prostrate, until he finally let out a breath and rolled back onto his heels. A rueful smile played on his lips as a realisation hit him. He looked up at the golden statue in front of him and said gently "I suppose even this request is a little selfish, isn't it? Will I ever learn?"
Using a hand to steady himself, he shoved up and onto his feet; the flickering candles of the chantry reflecting in his white armour. The younger sisters of Kirkwall had sometimes remarked from behind shy hands that the Prince truly did embody the very vision of the Maker's paladin. He certainly didn't feel like it. He knew that, with Hawke, he was doing good for the first time in his life. Not just spreading the light of the chant, but actually doing good with his own two hands. But that same path also encompassed Anders. And, when it came to the mage, Sebastian's will would falter time after time. Even Fenris, whose hands had ripped hearts from warm bodies before Sebastian's very eyes, seemed easier to comprehend. He would lock himself away in that dusty mansion and drink himself into a haze, acknowledging the fact that he had limits. But Anders? The same eyes that could pierce Sebastian's core with their anger could, at times, be filled with dancing warmth. The same lips that spouted dangerous, fiery hate could then speak softly of cats and of love. The very same hands that, with a gesture, could burst templars into flames would also drain their owner to the point of exhaustion if it meant saving one sick child; and Anders had saved so many.
The man was something the archer could not fathom. A loose cannon. And his closeness to Hawke, and therefore to Sebastian, vexed the Prince no end. Was he placed in their midst to be saved? Or were they placed around him? Despite the obvious tension between the two men, Sebastian was not arrogant enough to dismiss the latter possibility entirely, but if that was the case then why had Anders insisted they gather ingredient for a non-existent potion? And why had he requested that Hawke distract Elthina? It was all too suspicious and the Prince could not rest easy without answers.
With a final bow to his Maker, Sebastian turned, descended the stairs and strode out of the Chantry and onto Kirkwall's streets.
Anders was dead on his feet.
It was becoming a fairly standard state of being for him and one that he was getting worryingly accustomed to. With a weak smile he patted the head of a small girl whose broken leg he had just fixed. Her Mother grasped his other hand so tightly he feared his wrist would snap.
"I don't know how we can thank you, Ser healer. Truly, you were sent to us from the Maker. Thank you, thank you so much."
Anders gave an embarrassed shake of his head and beckoned towards one of Lirene's girls. "Please, don't. You can thank me and the maker when you don't have to beg for bread. I wish I could do more."
The woman smiled warmly at him. "You do just plenty. You are a hero to the people here."
As Lirene's helper guided the woman and her daughter out of the clinic, a familiar wave of nausea came over Anders and he quickly braced himself with one arm on the table behind him. He certainly didn't feel much like a hero. A hero would have stayed with the Grey Wardens and guarded the world from evil. A hero wouldn't need to hide below the city like a criminal and use abandoned tunnels to sneak to his lover's side. A hero's mind wouldn't delve into the dark places his had. He brought a shaking hand to his temple and allowed himself to lean into Justice for a moment, letting the spirit's strength back up his own. He was pushing it, even for him. So much to do, so much
You are weak. You need to rest.
Anders smiled at the voice in his head, and then looked around at the ailing bodies, starving stomachs and desperate eyes surrounding him.
"Not just yet, old friend. Sorry."
He pushed up from the table, ignoring his own growling belly, and headed towards his next patient.
He was mid-examination when he felt his patient flinch a little, and not just because of the welts on her side from her master's last temper tantrum. Removing his hands, but remaining in a crouch, he turned his head to see what she had reacted to and was mildly surprised and annoyed to see the familiar white armour of the Prince of Starkhaven at his clinic door.
The girl's eyes were wide at the spectacle and even Anders had to admit that the man certainly cut a figure. He looked so out of place in the dank and dusty clinic it was almost amusing. Except that it wasn't. With a gentle word to his patient, Anders rose and gestured with his head towards a back room. With a nod, Sebastian strode through the clinic, his sad eyes taking in the picture, before following Anders into the nook.
"To what do I owe the dubious pleasure, Ser Prince?" Anders had his back to Sebastian, sleeves rolled to his elbows as he took the opportunity to wash his hands and forearms thoroughly. Vael shifted uneasily. Once again, his determination had been thwarted by the signs of good work he saw all around this infuriating man. Just how many new patients had been helped today? It seemed their numbers were ever increasing. He chose a neutral tone.
"You look exhausted, Anders."
A soft chuckle came from the healer's back "I didn't think you cared. I'm touched."
"You can't help them if you allow yourself to be drained."
Anders shook the excess liquid from his hands and turned towards Sebastian, a wry smile on his face. "Ah, you care about them at least. Well, it's more feeling than half the blighted city show. I should be glad."
He began to roll down the sleeves of his robe, his back now resting on the rock wall behind him. The smile faded as he looked the Prince in the eye, and Vael's breath hitched as he was hit full-on with just how exhausted the mage really looked.
"Look, get it over with, Sebastian. I know you're not here to enquire after my wellbeing and Hawke's not around. So, I guess this will be another of our brief but fascinating little dialogues. You preach at me for a while, I retort, you get frustrated, I get frustrated and we all go home happy."
The darker haired man almost smiled at that.
"Anders, I know that you do good work here. Those people, they love you. They need you. I can't fault your dedication."
"Why do I hear a 'but' coming?" Anders's eyes darkened slightly, his initial surprise at the kind words giving way to foreboding. "Think carefully about what follows it, Sebastian"
There it was. That shift in the apostate's demeanour that made the Prince's jaw tense, that echo that put him on edge.
"Don't you think you could do just as much good, if not more, from the safety of the circle? You could offer clean sheets, regulated potions
The response was angry. "I can't heal anyone as a blighted tranquil, you know that. This discussion is over."
Anders made to move, but before he could reach the curtain that separated them from the clinic, Sebastian's hand caught his wrist.
"I fear for you, Anders. I can't see the Maker's plan for you. You may be doing good here, but you are a mage first "
"I am a human being first, Sebastian!" The words were spat as the once-warden span on his heel, throwing off Sebastian's grip with an ease that startled the larger man. "And a man second. My being a mage is only third on my list of priorities, though it seems to be first on everybody else's. Right behind apostate, maleficar and whatever other infernal terms you people can come up with to describe the way I was born."
Sebastian's surprise gave way to defiance as he squared up to his rival. "Do you think you're the only one born into a position that displeases you? I was born an excess son and was handed to the chantry just as surely as you were handed to the circle."
The spluttered laugh that emitted from the healer's throat was not an amused or warm sound. "Sometimes your naiveté blows my mind. You cannot even begin to compare the two situations, and trust me when I say you don't want to know why. Besides," Anders folded his arms across his chest and levelled a gaze at the Prince that contained none of his casual charm and far more of Justice than Sebastian felt comfortable seeing, "Unlike you, if I chose to nip off home I wouldn't have a convenient army waiting for me."
He was pushing Vael's buttons and, Maker take him, it was working. Sebastian's face twisted into a sneer as he spat back and gestured through the curtain and towards darktown in general "No, but you seem to be doing a fine job of amassing one right here under our noses, don't you."
The two men breathed heavily, chests heaving with the effort of swallowing anger, until Anders's amber eyes gave a pale blue flicker and his expression changed. Trying carefully not to raise his voice lest his patients hear, he made sure every word got through to the Prince by leaning as far in as he possibly could without his weakness making him lose balance.
"Just keep pushing me, Sebastian. Keep bringing out the fight in me. Because every barbed word you throw at me only strengthens my resolve. Every time you knock me down, I want to get back up. And every time you hit me..." His lips almost grazed the ear they spoke into, and Sebastian felt an involuntary shudder at the sensation of fear that shot through him "
I want to hit back."
Then the moment was over, and the form that had felt so suffocatingly close was suddenly at the curtain, and Sebastian's voice shook as he implored "I came here to help you. Not to fight."
Anders offered a half smile as he threw the last line over his shoulder before heading back out into the clinic and to his waiting patients.
"Oh, you are helping, Sebastian. You have no idea how much."
END OF PART ONE.