Sign of the Maker part six
"Maker, hear me."
Sebastian Vael stood on the mezzanine level of Kirkwall's chantry, his hands clasped in familiar, comforting prayer. Divested of his signature white armour, he wore instead a simple brown tunic over a plain white shirt. The only battles he planned on fighting today were those raging on his own conscience.
He had two hours before his planned meeting with Alistair and, after a restless night of tossing and turning with indecision, he still didn't know how to face the man. Even pushing aside his feelings about Starkhaven's throne, which seemed to crash against the walls of his mind like waves against rocks in a storm, was he really going to take the Hero of the fifth blight, the King of Ferelden, to Anders's squalid, dismal clinic in Darktown? And just what did it mean for the mage if he did? Alistair was a man whose very presence inspired loyalty and trust; surely he could mean no harm. And if he did mean to reclaim Anders for the wardens, wasn't that his right? Anders, on the other hand, was a force of chaos around whom uncertainty and darkness seemed to flow and ebb. But, during their time underground, Sebastian had seen just a snatch of the man beneath, and the words that man had spoken had rocked his own ideas and lingered afterwards. Fear stabbed at the archer's gut and he dipped his head low, so that his brow came to rest on the hands clasped in front of him.
"Maker, what am I doing?"
To those unfamiliar with it, Kirkwall's Chantry could seem eerily silent and cold at times, but Sebastian's ears were in tune with the gentle hum of the place. This was his home, after all, and its sounds and smells were as familiar to him as his own pulse. So it was with an air of concern that he raised his head when he practically felt a shift in the atmosphere around him. Looking over his shoulder to the entry corridor below, he felt a cold tingle run up his spine. The figure now walking slowly but casually into the chantry looked so out of place in his surroundings that it was no wonder the sisters and priests were suddenly whispering behind their hands and shaking their heads in consternation. His tattered green robes and dust-caked boots were a stark reminder to anyone witnessing his procession that the chantry's care was not extending quite as far as it should. However, it was the staff on his back that truly made his audience question what on Thedas would bring him to walk openly into this place. Sebastian noted the stiffening of the few templars present, as they seemed to wonder the same thing, and shook his own head in equal disbelief before he quickly made his way down the stairs, holding a hand up to the guardians by way of instruction. "Leave him. He rides with the Champion."
To Sebastian's surprise Anders's face broke into a warm smile as the archer approached, causing a sudden wave of what felt suspiciously like guilt to flood his thoughts. The change in the Prince's expression from anger to confusion wasn't lost on the mage, who grinned and spoke softly,
"I came here to help you, not to fight."
Sebastian gave a wry smile, recognising his own line all too well from one of their recent encounters in the apostate's home territory. Now, they were in his. He gestured with his head for Anders to follow him, and the blonde obeyed, his eyes happily taking in the views around them as he walked; seemingly oblivious to the strange stares he was receiving. For a moment, Sebastian let himself imagine what it was like, to spend your life being stared at in that way; to get used to it. He shook the thought away as they reached a more private area at the top of the right-hand staircase.
It was only as he made to sit on one of two chairs in the area that he realised Anders had stopped walking and his smile had faded. Instead he was looking at the space where Sebastian now sat with an incredibly sad expression; one that Sebastian had never seen on him before.
"It seems right somehow." Anders addressed the floor as he seemed to focus on a particular spot in the room. "that I should talk to you here, of all places." Then the mage gave himself a small shake and walked to claim the chair opposite Sebastian. He settled into it with a huff of air, placing his staff on the floor, and looked at the archer's expectant expression, allowing the obvious question to be asked.
"Anders. Why are you here?"
"To see you. You look different without all the white."
"You are a known apostate, Anders. You just walked into the chantry in broad daylight without Hawke around to shield you. Are you insane?"
The blonde's head dipped and he looked up at the Prince from underneath raised brows, a half smile on his lips. "I didn't think you'd let the templars take me. And I was right."
Sebastian flushed with mild anger "You took one hell of a risk on that."
Anders sat up and let his back lean into the soft cushion of his seat, his head turning to absorb more of his surroundings.
"Hawke trusts you, Sebastian. And I'm starting to think that it's time I did too." There it was again, that stab of guilt. "Besides, as you said yourself, I have no need to fear the Maker."
Sebastian shook his head slowly "No, not the Maker…" The subtext was left unsaid, but both men knew it was there and each drew his own conclusions from it.
"I came because I…wanted to talk to you. I was lying a little when I said I was here to help you, I admit. Actually, I'm hoping we can help each other."
A prickle of familiar suspicion teased the back of the Prince's neck and he steeled himself for what was to come. "Out with it. What do you need from me?"
"Just for you to listen."
Anders stood suddenly, and Sebastian let his eyes follow the man as he paced a little before coming to stop in front of a table in the area, his hands clasped behind his back. The darker haired man watched the robed back carefully as its owner continued. "I want freedom for mages, Sebastian. I want it with all my soul. But I haven't been thinking clearly recently. I've made some decisions born from a personal need for vengeance that I've regretted. If I'd been thinking more clearly I'd have realised something so obvious much sooner."
"and that obvious thing is?..." Sebastian's eyes were shifting nervously. This was not a conversation he wanted to have here. Somehow Anders was able to forget their surroundings entirely and speak as if they were still buried beneath layers of rock, and not deep in the territory of those who would have him dragged back to the circle in the blink of an eye; and Sebastian was yet to be convinced that such a course of action wasn't still in everyone's best interests.
Anders turned to look at the archer, his brown eyes bright with something they'd been devoid of for so long; hope. Something was very different about him, that much was obvious.
"You, Sebastian. You're the obvious thing. I mean, you're a member of the chantry. You're a part of the system and I let myself doubt you because of it when, in fact, you're the very person I should be talking to the most!"
Sebastian swallowed hard, but the other man continued regardless.
"Your words when we were in that cave, about the Maker caring for mages, about human interpretation being twisted, they made sense to me. You actually listened to me. And for a little while you even stopped judging me, I could feel it! And that made me realise that if things are going to change on a large scale, then you could be the ideal person to help me do it. You're a good man, Sebastian, even I can see that. People here respect you. If you'll just listen to me, I know that you'll understand why things need to change. You said you needed to see, to understand. I can help you do that."
Oh, Maker…why are you doing this to me? Sebastian's expression was stony as he stared at the floor, his elbows resting on his knees. He was aware of Anders looking down at his bowed head, awaiting any kind of response. The voice that he eventually found was almost emotionless, causing the apostate to take a small step back and frown slightly, suddenly fearing his judgement.
"You would preach to the preacher?"
The look on the mage's face when Sebastian raised his head to meet him was one that suggested his determination was faltering, and it almost broke Vael's heart to feel so utterly helpless, crippled suddenly by an inability to think. Within him raged a four-way battle between gut feeling, heart, mind and duty. And all the while he was watching the light in Anders's eyes fade into doubt, and it killed him. Wasn't this the very man whose soul he had prayed for the strength to save? And here he was, asking for help…but at what cost? And why now?
Sebastian felt trapped and torn and in desperate need of a sign; of guidance. Elthina had once told him that asking for a sign was a way of admitting that you didn't know your own heart, and that we could not always expect the Maker to bail us out of a tough corner. The Maker didn't offer signs lightly, after all.
Suddenly Anders was in front of him on one knee, his pale hands tight fists as he gripped the robes that pooled on his raised thigh; his expression determined.
"Damnit, I promised Hawke. I promised him I'd at least say it out loud. So, just…just don't say anything. Just listen. Please."
Sebastian stared mutely at the mage's lowered head, watching feathered shoulders heave with some unseen effort, unsure of whether he wanted to hear what was to come. He had said that, if there was corruption in the circle, then he wanted to know. He had said that…but now, sitting here opposite the kneeling apostate, he was suddenly scared of what such knowledge would mean. He had so few foundations left to rely on; could he stand to see more destroyed?
The words that reached his already overflowing mind were small and quiet, but they may as well have been the key stones in a dam wall for the torrent of emotion they unleashed in the archer as they were spoken.
"I was raped."
Sebastian's mouth fell open as his breathing hitched and became ragged. His blue eyes widened so far that he could practically feel them straining in their sockets. Unable to speak, he just watched the man in front of him; watched as those hands balled yet more green cloth into their waiting fists; watched as the mage's shoulders started to shake. If anyone had seen the two men now, it would have looked for all the world as though the apostate were giving confession to the priest…and, in a way, maybe he was.
"Not just me. And not just once. I…Maker…" Anders's voice was strained, choked suddenly as he gulped the air, seemingly shocked at just how forcefully his own emotions were threatening to explode out of him. He bit his lip with apparent frustration before he steeled himself to continue. "…this isn't just about me, but I need to tell you how they…what they…You need to understand."
Sebastian could see that the man was holding back a flood, and a horrid coldness crept up his spine as he realised that he was the person Anders had chosen to trust with its release: He, the man who had minutes before been wrestling with feelings about leaving the chantry to be a Prince. The man who had agreed to lead the mage's King to his very safehouse. Pushing aside his own decisions for now, Sebastian rose slowly to pull a curtain across the small area, creating a safe space and privacy. Anders deserved that much.
He saw the kneeling mage flinch at the sound of the heavy curtain on its rail, and then his shoulders seemed to sag with what looked like a relieved acceptance. Sebastian quietly returned to his seat and sat down.
Cortland Hawke towled his hair dry with vigour as he hummed an old Lothering farmers' song. Pulling his red house robes around him, he walked out onto the landing of the Hawke estate, stopping to smile at the spot on the balcony where he had kissed Anders good bye.
Only that morning he had felt depressed and alone, watching the man he loved walk out of his bedroom as if it were his life. But, when Anders had returned just a short while later, the change in him had made Hawke's heart soar with renewed hope.
"I've spoken to Justice, Cortland. It's all going to be okay!"
The words swam even now in his relieved mind, his body feeling happy echoes of the crushing hug the mage had gripped him in as he spoke them. He had offered to go with him to the chantry, of course, but Anders had insisted he go alone. He didn't want Sebastian to feel ganged up on, he had said. And so, here was Cortland Hawke, getting ready to meet his mage in darktown, anxious to hear how his confession went, but giddy with the excitement of having him back to his usual, only slightly dark and revolutionary, self.
As he made his way down the stairs, his Mabari hound barked and wagged his stumpy tail, and Bodhan cheerfully informed him that a letter had arrived. Things felt relatively normal again. He would have felt even better if only his mother could be standing by the fire to smile at him…
Cortland shook his head as if it would dislodge that particular nasty memory, and looked down at the writing desk. The letter in question was very plain, and that put his mind at ease. Not Orsino or Meredith then, thank the Maker. The only person he wanted to save the world for today was a certain blonde apostate, who had several months of a relationship to make up to him. Unfolding the paper, the rogue's eyes scanned the surprisingly short note, wondering what could possibly be said of any import in so brief a missive. His heart jumped a little as he realised just how wrong he was.
Please meet me in the Keep
-King Alistair of Ferelden
His lover on the road to recovery and a visit from his homeland's King? This day was just full of surprises. Hawke stroked absently at the light stubble he'd accrued on his chin.
"I think I'd best have a shave."
Sebastian looked down at his hands. He could still feel the weight of the mage in his arms. He remembered the vibrations as the blonde man's sobbing frame had quaked and shivered in his hold. His knees were damp with the apostate's tears, and his mind was numb with the accounts he had just heard and he hadn't yet found any words beyond 'I'm sorry'. Anders, on the other hand, seemed to be a different person. Standing over by the table again, his face was a little red and blotchy, but smiling. He even managed to hold the smile as he looked back to that spot on the floor that had preoccupied him earlier and said
"I killed a man there once."
Sebastian felt that if his brain had to absorb anything more today, he may just explode.
"He had been made tranquil, despite being harrowed. Said he'd rather die than face a lifetime of nothing…I could understand that. "
"And you…killed him?"
Anders cocked his head and the smile became thin. "mmm. Him…and the templars who had set up the trap to catch me. It was the first night I met Hawke. He was here; hell of a way to meet Justice."
Sebastian dropped his head into one hand and spoke with a tired voice "The first time I met Hawke, he was carrying out my own Justice; whatever it was."
"He's good at that."
A pause fell between them, and Sebastian took the opportunity to stand at last, sighing heavily as he did. He was dimly aware that he was due to meet Alistair in a little under half an hour. He felt like a cog in some kind of mad machine that he could not control, which of course he always had been. Weren't they all?
The circle was broken. The chantry's own templar ranks were filled with corruption and vile behaviour. Mages were feeling trapped and desperate, and Anders's words from the cave-in came back to him again:
When a mage is at his lowest; when he is cornered, frightened, broken and lost; when what the world has to offer is not worth having… that's when he is the most dangerous.
So much had gone wrong. This was not his chantry. This was not the Maker's protection. Elthina needed to know and she would need Sebastian to help her make things right. But what of Starkhaven? What of the coming war? King Alistair needed him as much as Anders and his cause did. And King Alistair had a proven track record as a hero…Anders was a loose cannon who, even now, could casually admit to murdering a man right here in the chantry. His obvious trust in Sebastian near throttled the Prince better than any spell could.
"I'm sorry to have laid quite so much on you, Sebastian. I suppose Hawke was right again. I'm glad we spoke." Anders retrieved his staff from the floor, attaching it with ease to a clip at his back. "I should head back to the clinic. Those lives won't save themselves."
He started to walk towards the curtain, then stopped and turned to add seriously,
"Neither will the circle mages of Thedas. Freedom is everyone's right and I will give it to them. Not for my own personal revenge, but for the sake of all those locked away in stone towers. I hope you can help me do that."
And he was gone.
As Sebastian swept the curtain back and into place, a young templar greeted him on the other side, making him almost jump.
"Apologies. We just wondered if the mage needed any guidance back to the circle after his confession." He gestured with a thumb towards the departing, robed figure.
Sebastian felt himself shudder, and he knew then that a seed had been planted in him; one that he couldn't ignore. "No. No, he's perfectly safe."
The templar shrugged and turned away, and Sebastian knew even as he spoke those words than he was lying. His heart ached at it, but he knew that Anders wasn't safe. He had never been safe. Come circle or grey wardens or his own reckless need to rebel, forces would conspire to trap him and take him to that place where mages become their most dangerous. Sebastian understood now that when he looked at Anders, he saw a man doomed, but he also knew how important it was that no mage was made to fall that far again. He would help Anders's cause. But Anders himself?...
Maybe Alistair and the wardens were the best option for the broken mage.
He had asked the Maker for guidance. And Anders had come to him to cleanse his soul on the very day that his King wanted to meet him. Surely this was a meeting that was ordained. Surely the King would take Anders back under his wing where he could be safe, leaving Sebastian to talk to Elthina about the circle. As for Starkhaven; he believed in Alistair, and he would take back his crown, but the Maker didn't give signs lightly and so to ignore the seed that Anders had given him, right here in the Maker's house, would be foolish.
Sebastian Vael walked out of the chantry with purpose. Tomorrow he would return and speak with Elthina. They had much to discuss.