The corridors of the tower were narrower than the young apprentice recalled. Templar Lieutenant Colston lumbered along several steps ahead of her, his footsteps echoing off the stone walls of the otherwise empty hallway. Where was she headed? Breakfast? Supper? The apprentice couldn’t remember.
Someone’s arms were around her waist, lifting her feet from the floor and spinning her around. The scent of sandalwood and spice hung heavy in the air. A pair of soft lips graced her cheek as her toes touched the marble tiles once again.
“Good morning, love,” a familiar, husky voice whispered in her ear.
The young woman’s knees felt as if they would buckle when the arms let her go. Just as they always did. Just as she knew they always would. She watched the man as he sauntered away from her, the long legs of his overly tall frame taking extended strides. He headed straight for the attentions of another female. The other woman was much shorter and a bit older than her.
The young apprentice felt rage and sorrow tangle a web inside her gut when he repeated the action with the other woman. How could he do such a thing after sharing her bed the previous evening? Didn’t he care about her feelings at all?
Colston stopped in his tracks and turned to her. His eyes looked different. Darker. His mouth curved into a sympathetic smile.
“I can’t imagine how much that hurts,” the templar sympathized. “Too bad there isn’t a way to ensure he never shared his affections with anyone but you.”
The apprentice’s brow arched. What was Colston playing at? Why should he care about Anders and the relationship she desired to have with him more than anything else in the world?
“I know of a way to make that happen,” the templar continued. His grin was wider. More malevolent. “Follow me into that classroom up ahead. Zaria has a potion in her private stores that will cure all your ills. If you drink it, Anders will only have eyes for you. The best part is, he mixed it himself as an experiment.”
The apprentice’s lids narrowed as she studied Colston’s face and pondered the offer he had presented to her. Something about it was off. Something about the entire scenario was wrong. She tried to concentrate, but it was difficult to think. Her brain felt as if it were lost in fog and shadow. She closed her eyes and called a ball of light into her hand. It sprang to life, much quicker and larger than she expected.
The Fade. She was in the Fade. She opened her eyes to see the true form of the demon standing before her. Purple skin, black eyes, perfect in its feminine measurements. She exhaled a perturbed sigh and waved a dismissive hand.
“Begone, demon,” she commanded.
“But it is not that simple,” the spirit of desire smirked. “You know how this must end. Unless…perhaps we can make a deal. Anders can be yours and yours alone, you don’t even need to do anything right now. All I want in exchange is your promise. When you wake from this dream, you locate a spell hidden within the books of the tower’s libraries. With it, you will bind me to one of the other apprentices. That way, we both get what we want.”
The young woman dawned an expression of indifference. “As appealing as that sounds. The answer is still no.”
She called her magic to the ready. Lightning began to crackle around her fingertips. With a flick of her wrist, the apprentice flung the spell at the demon. It struggled for only a moment against the electric bolts before disappearing completely. It was much easier to defeat than she had imagined. Too easy, as a matter of fact.
The air grew heavy as darkness closed in all around her. Grey tendrils of smoke enveloped her body, making it difficult to breathe. The effect of the atmosphere brought waves of nausea to her stomach and she closed her eyes against the whirling vision.
The apprentice bolted upright in her bed. Her stomach remained unsettled. She turned her head to the sight of First Enchanter Irving beaming proudly at her.
“I knew you could do it child,” he told her. “You are even more brilliant than I gave you credit for.”
“Thank you, First Enchanter,” she replied.
“Now,” he said with a pat to her knee. “Follow me to my office. We have much to celebrate.”
Just as before with Colton, there was something off about the entire situation. Even if she was his only pupil, Irving would never come to her dormitory to congratulate her. He would have sent someone to tell her to meet him in his office. She scooted back on her bed and eyed him with suspicion.
“Why didn’t you just send Jowan to get me?” she questioned.
He laughed. There was something cold and ominous about the sound of it. Mirth without joy, unfeeling and sinister.
“You are too important to just send someone to fetch you, child,” he answered. “You’ve studied hard and proven yourself worthy of more than mere accolades. In my entire long life, I have never met anyone as brilliant as you. I have a suspicion that when my time as First Enchanter draws to a close, it will be you who takes my place. The youngest First Enchanter in the history of the Circle.”
The apprentice liked the sound of that. There would certainly be changes in the confines of the Circle if she were in charge. But something in the back of her mind was nagging at her. She couldn’t quite place it.
Irving stood and beckoned her to follow. She looked toward the door and saw only blackness on the other side where the lyrium lamps of the corridor should have been shining. She peered up into her mentor’s eyes and the irises flashed the color of ink for a split second.
“I have the sneakiest of suspicions that the demon of desire wasn’t my true foe,” she surmised.
Irving stopped. As he turned toward her, his shape morphed into the largest beast she had ever laid eyes upon. She had seen drawings of Pride demons in books, but she hadn’t realized how big they would really be.
The voice that resonated from the creature was booming, yet haunting. “Your pride will betray you one day, young one. Perhaps not now. Perhaps not in the Fade. But it could very well be your undoing.”
Solona’s head was pounding as her lapis blue eyes blinked open. The dim light shining above her head was too harsh, too bright. She dropped her hands to her sides and scraped her nails across the wool of the blanket beneath her. The aching muscles of her right leg contracted as she stretched her foot to touch the large piece of wood at the edge of the bed with the tip of her toe. She ran the digit across the smooth surface until it touched upon deep scratches etched into its length.
She was in her own bed in the apprentice’s dormitory. Her Harrowing was complete and she managed to retain her head. As her vision began to clear, Solona realized someone was standing above her. She sat up, put her feet to the floor and rubbed her eyes, allowing the image of a dark haired young man to come into focus. The light was still glaring, but becoming more bearable.
“Were you planning on standing there watching me sleep all day?” she croaked. “Or did you want something?”
Her throat was sore, as if she had spent hours screaming, her mouth dry as the desert. Then she remembered the potion she was given just before her test. The aches and pains she felt must have been a result of that concoction.
She watched her best friend tuck a wisp of his thick, shoulder-length hair behind one of his large ears. He flashed a relieved smile, revealing a set of large, slightly crooked teeth and a pair of deep dimples in his cheeks. Even at the age of twenty-one, Jowan appeared to be nothing more than a tall, skinny boy. To anyone who didn’t know him, they would probably think him to be no older than fourteen or fifteen. His shy, self-depreciating demeanor only added to that effect.
“I’ve been waiting for hours. Thank the Maker you’re alright.”
The space between his heavy brows disappeared as his fingers began nervously fiddling with the front of his robes. There were obvious questions swirling around in his mind, questions he was afraid to ask. She waggled her head.
Spit it out, Miri.
That’s what Solona always said to Miriana when she behaved in such a manner. It had been fourteen years since the young mage had seen her sister, and it still never ceased to amaze her how much Jowan reminded her of her twin. Her brow arched with annoyance.
“Of course I’m alright. What did you expect?”
“I don’t know,” he shrugged. “I guess I was worried. When you disappeared yesterday morning and didn’t come back at all last night, I figured you had been taken for your Harrowing. Most mages get carried out in shrouds after the test. I thought that maybe…”
Solona folded her arms over her chest with a huff. “You were worried that I wouldn’t pass my Harrowing? You can’t be serious.”
She remembered what the demon said about her pride, and a cold shiver ran down her spine. It couldn’t be helped. Not in the tower. Confidence was key within the confines of the Circle. Those who wavered were eaten alive by the nest of vipers that called the place home. She straightened her shoulders and donned the mask of indifference she wore and knew all too well.
Jowan cringed at the harshness of her tone. His fingers moved faster as he awaited her inevitable admonishment, which irritated Solona even more. She closed her eyes and exhaled slowly through pursed lips. She had to remind herself that he was her friend and she didn’t have to keep up appearances quite so much with him. He was merely concerned with her well-being and only because he cared.
After fourteen years in the Circle, Solona had become a master at backhanded compliments to those who held power and an expert in slinging insults at those she felt were beneath her. In honesty, she found people intolerable as a general rule. Most were stupid, disloyal, blatantly dishonest, and wore false humility like a badge of honor, all of which were insufferable characteristics to her. They were traits she exposed and manipulated in others for her own advantage, and she felt justified in the deed. In her mind, they deserved it, and most would do the same to her if given the opportunity. Through loyalty and general sincerity, Jowan happened to be the exception to the rule.
Still, most people who watched the two of them believed her to be overly cruel and critical to the boy she claimed was her best friend. Solona didn’t see it that way. He was the one person she was always honest with. It was true, she was harsh in her criticisms of him. But her words were meant to serve as a way to toughen his resolve and help him grow a thicker skin. Any insults she afforded him were nearly always made in jest. The only exception to that was when her temper got the best of her, but it happened so rarely with him.
“Just sit down,” she finally ordered with exasperation when she realized he was beginning to back toward the door.
The apprentice skulked to her bunk and settled himself as far away from his friend as he could before concentrating on his twiddling thumbs. “I’m sorry,” he said, his apology quiet and timid. “I couldn’t help it. I was worried.”
“It’s alright, Jowan” she relented with a sigh. “I’m just a bit out of sorts.” He continued to fidget with his face set in a scowl. “Okay, out with it. What’s on that thing you call a mind?”
“What was it like?” he asked. “I’ve heard it’s like facing the Void itself.”
“Let’s just say you have to use your brain. Not that difficult, really.” She smirked. “Of course, that means you’ll be in serious trouble when your time comes.” Jowan pouted the way he always did when she teased him. She rolled her eyes. “Oh, lighten up. You know I’m only kidding.” His sullen expression remained unchanged. She sighed. “You’ll be fine, Jowan.”
Had it been any other apprentice, Solona’s taunts would not only have continued, but probably worsened. She couldn’t bring herself to do that to Jowan, though. She loved him. Not romantically, of course. He just wasn’t her type. But like a brother.
“I’m sorry, Solona. I can’t help it. I’ve been here longer than you have.”
She rolled her eyes. “Oh, please. You’ve been here, what? A whole two months longer than me? All you have to do is quit setting the instructors’ hair on fire.”
He shook his head despondently. “It’s not like I can stay an apprentice forever,” he whispered as if he hadn’t heard a word she said. “And there are things far worse than death.”
“As usual, you’re worrying over nothing,” she chided. “But I’ll help you if need me to.”
“And how are you going to do that now that you’ll be living upstairs?” he questioned, seemingly out of the trancelike state he was in just moments before. “We won’t have the same classes anymore. We won’t even have the same meal times. I doubt you’ll have time to even talk to me, let alone help me. And even if you do get the chance…you probably won’t want to.”
She cupped his chin and turned his face so he could see into her eyes. His green orbs glistened in the nearby lyrium lamp and tears stained his cheeks. She swiped at them with the flats of her thumbs.
“You’re my best friend…my brother. I’m not going to just move upstairs and forget about you. We’re all each other has, and we’ll always be together. Always have been, always will be. No matter what. I won’t have it any other way.”
For a moment, she thought she saw something in his eyes. Something she recognized. Something she had seen in her former lover Anders’ amber orbs too many times over the years. She dropped her hands to her lap and glared at him.
“Speaking of which, best friend, where in Andraste’s name have you been sneaking off to after lights out every night? You’re not planning on trying to escape are you?”
The question was only half made in jest. He jumped to his feet as if the seat of his pants were on fire.
“I almost forgot, I was supposed to tell you to see Irving as soon as you woke up.”
Solona’s stomach turned, and she swallowed past a lump in her throat. She had to control her fear. He couldn’t possibly be thinking of running. Not him. Not Jowan. In an effort to hide her misgivings, she cocked her left brow and smacked her lips.
“Evade the question, if you want, but I will find out. I always do.”
“We’ll talk about it later” he sighed. “Alright?”
“Fine” she huffed. “But don’t think I’ll forget about this.”
His expression turned to a grimace before he circled and disappeared through the doorway. Solona immediately went to the dressing table next to her bunk and began brushing out her shoulder-length, sable brown hair. Her lapis eyes stung against the salty tears forming within them. How could he even think about doing such a thing? Was it her? Had he finally gotten tired of putting up with her intolerance and bitchiness just like everyone else?
Maybe it wasn’t that. Maybe it was something else. There had been rumors floating around that he was a blood mage, but Solona knew better. Jowan really did have trouble mastering minor flame spells, and had actually caught an instructor’s hair on fire a few years back. He’d probably kill himself if he ever attempted using blood magic. Whatever it was, he was going to tell her, even if she had to beat it out of him.
After rinsing her mouth and popping a peppermint leaf between her teeth and jaw, Solona did a quick job of her makeup then headed for Irving’s office. When she reached the main rotunda on the second floor, she decided to make a detour through the library first. She wanted to see if she could catch a glimpse of the newest templar who had been assigned to the tower. She had heard that Riker was tall, well-built and extremely handsome, and Solona wanted to see him for herself.
She couldn’t explain it, but she had always found herself attracted to the men who watched over the mages. She supposed it was probably due to the fact that fraternization between mages and templars in the tower was strictly forbidden. The illicit trysts she had with them over the years were certainly enjoyable and always felt dangerous and intriguing.
Unfortunately, the only templar guarding the library that morning was Shepland and he was an ugly old coot with a bad attitude and even worse breath.
Oh well, maybe tomorrow.
As she rounded the corner to the mage’s rooms, Solona espied the templar who had become her latest potential conquest over the past several months, and her foul mood picked up instantly. Teasing Cullen had become one of her favorite pastimes following Anders’ last escape, and she did it every chance she got. He was just so different than her former lover. Quite his opposite, in fact, aside from the color of his hair and slightly deeper brown eyes.
Where Anders was extremely tall, Cullen stood at just under six feet. Anders was thin and lanky, and Cullen muscular. Anders’ hair hung in long, loose curls down past his shoulders when unbound. Cullen’s was trimmed short and neat and lay back in gentle waves across the top.
The most striking difference between the two men, though, were their personalities. Both were handsome, but where Anders was always very aware of his good looks, Cullen seemed oblivious to his own. Although charming to a fault, age and experience had made the healer extremely arrogant. The templar, on the other hand, was young and shy. They were traits Solona never found particularly attractive before, but after the ceaseless heartache she had endured at the hands of her previous lover, she felt the need for a change. One that might finally allow her soul to heal without becoming overly attached. Cullen was a templar, after all. How far could their relationship ever actually go?
Solona had been in love with Anders for years, since the age of thirteen. Although he was much older than her, she had been infatuated with him from the first time she saw him when she was eleven. He was all she thought a man should be, and she was determined that he would be her first lover.
After the first time they were intimate, Solona tried everything to win the healer’s heart, but nothing she did ever seemed to work. He always held her at an emotional distance, refusing to acknowledge they were ever anything more than friends with benefits. Still, she loved him with everything she was.
The last time she shared a bed with Anders, she awoke alone, as usual. She thought nothing of it at first and headed to find Jowan in the dining hall. She spent the entire day looking for the healer, but he was nowhere to be found. No kisses on the cheek or greetings of “Hello, Love,” in the corridors that she had become accustomed to over the previous few months.
The next morning as she sat there at the long dining table next to Jowan, eating another breakfast of bland oatmeal, she heard chatter about her lover’s latest escape. He hadn’t said a word, but snuck out of bed and disappeared as if he were never there. Just the way he had so many times before. Just the way he promised he would never do again.
A little more than a month later, Solona was walking the Senior Enchanter’s floor, when she discovered Anders had been brought back to Kinloch. She made her way to the First Enchanter’s office where she was told her lover had been sentenced to a year in the dungeons. She begged Irving to allow her to visit him, although she wasn’t sure herself if it would be to console him or confront him.
When the old Enchanter refused, she stormed out of his office and straight back to the apprentice’s dormitory where she lay in her bunk until well after lights out. She then strolled between the bunks until she found a younger man with hair as blonde as Anders’ but cut and combed instead of long and loose. After very little convincing, she led him to her bed and told him to fuck her. She wrapped her legs around his waist and pawed at him with wild abandon until she reached her climax.
As soon as it was over, she shoved him out of her bed. She then pulled the blankets close to her chest, turned to the wall, and forced herself to sleep with the scent of her former lover’s cologne on her pillow assaulting her senses. Since that time, she had taken many lovers to her bed, but none of them ever filled the empty chasm Anders left in her heart.
She supposed a great deal of her interest in Cullen lay in the fact that Anders always hated the younger man. He seemed irritated whenever the templar was around. Almost jealous. She wondered how the healer would feel if he ever found out she took Cullen to her bed. What if she were to actually become romantically involved with him? Perhaps then, Anders would know a little of what he had put her through. Sexual conquests never bothered the healer, but a true relationship might finally open his eyes.
Although Solona had been trying for months, perhaps now that she had passed her Harrowing, it was finally time. Perhaps Cullen would finally give in to her flirting and coquettish grins. The young mage donned her most winning smile and strode up to the object of her desire.
“Hello Cullen” she greeted him cheerfully.
Cullen began fidgeting nervously. “Oh…um…hello, Miss Amell.”
Solona tilted her head to the side and flashed a wry smirk. “Cullen, how many times do I have to remind you? Call me Solona.”
“I…I’m sorry…I just can’t do that” he stammered.
“I’ll get you to do it someday” she proclaimed as she took a step closer to him. “Now that I’m moving up to the second floor, I suppose we’ll be seeing a lot more of each other.”
He gulped. “Y…yes…I suppose. C…congratulations on passing your Harrowing, by the way.”
“Thank you” she smiled. “You were there weren’t you?”
He nodded. “Yes…I was given the duty to…well, you know…if anything went wrong.”
Solona moved forward another step until she could feel his warm breath caressing her face and pouted. She wrapped one of his blonde tendrils around her index finger and twirled it playfully. “You wouldn’t have really cut me down, would you Cullen?”
The templar tried to retreat back a step, but the wall at his rear stopped him in his tracks. Sadness filled his apologetic brown eyes. “I wouldn’t have relished doing it, but I would have done my duty if it had been required of me.”
“It’s alright, Cullen. I understand, but it does make me feel better to know you wouldn’t have enjoyed the job.”
He searched her eyes longingly. “Of course I wouldn’t have…Solona.”
She glanced down the corridor to either side before putting her mouth next to his ear. “Thank you, Cullen…for caring” she whispered before letting her lips softly touch his cheek.
Solona felt his body shudder against hers at the contact. His natural musk mixed with his cologne was enough to make her light-headed. A familiar stirring against the bottom of her belly prompted her to reach down with her unoccupied hand and run her fingers across the bulge protruding from his uniform as she slowly pulled away.
His face was bright red as he flashed a shy, boyish grin. “My shift ends just before supper this evening, perhaps…maybe we can talk more then?”
Solona nodded. “That would be lovely, Cullen. I look forward to it.”
She turned to head to Irving’s office, but stopped to wave back at him over her shoulder. Perhaps she could convince Cullen at supper to join her in her room after lights out. If they shared a pleasant enough evening in her bed, maybe he would even consider an ongoing affair. Templars were notorious for discussing their sexual conquests among each other. Perhaps the news of an ongoing liaison between the mage and the templar would reach Anders’ ears in the dungeons. It was certainly an exciting prospect.