Irving's summon was not unexpected. Maebh took her time on her way to his office. She was hoping to catch a glimpse of Cullen, to warn him to expect a similar reprimand from Greagoir. Unfortunately, he was not to be found on the second floor.
It was all so silly. Her frustration grew as she neared her inevitable destination. The newest Templar had taken an interest in her, and she chose to not discourage him. A few weeks ago he had gone on leave, and came back bearing a gift of olives. Maebh loved olives, a delicacy rarely afforded apprentices. And when the awkward young man bashfully offered her the bounty of his father's grove she didn't have the heart to refuse.
Of course then she had to share with Jowan, who shared her obsession. And explain to him where they came from. In a place with very little entertainment that sort of gossip spreads like wildfire. Maebh stubbornly ignored the winks and nudges from the other apprentices and some of the more scandal-loving mages. She felt for Cullen, though. He took his responsibilities so seriously, and hadn't been in the tower long enough to know how to deal with the scuttlebutt. A more experienced templar would have brushed off such whispers with a sarcastic comment, but poor Cullen's blushing denials only strengthened such suspicions and what had been a friendly moment between the two of them had now become a Problem That Needs To Be Dealt With.
Maebh sighed as she realized what she needed to do. First step would be to display the wide-eyed innocence that Irving expected. Make no attempt to deny the olives, and act surprised that anybody could think anything of it. Also feign ignorance about how Cullen came to know of her weakness. This would work because even if Cullen remembered the conversation verbatim (and Maebh ruefully acknowledged that this was most likely the case), the fact of her not remembering would play into Greagoir's impression of her as a silly, reckless girl.
Irving would believe anything she told him. He would probably even believe the truth. Greagoir would be a tougher nut to crack. He seemed hell-bent on thinking the worst possible motivation for her every move. He already believed that she had relations with a half-dozen of his men. Sometimes Maebh wished that Greagoir's delusions were true. Greagoir-Maebh sounded like she was having a lot more fun than reality-Maebh.
There could be no more dawdling. She had reached Irving's door. Just before she knocked it occurred to her that Cullen's conspicuous absence was most likely no accident. In fact, she would not be surprised if he had been reassigned to the Mages' floor until she took her Harrowing, at which point he would probably be sent back to the Apprentices' floor until she died or he retired. She sighed. She had actually liked talking to him.
She knocked. And waited. And was quite surprised when Greagoir personally opened the door.
He glared at her. "Where have you been? You were sent for half an hour ago."
"Knight-Commander, I came as soon as..." Maebh opened her eyes wide and raised her eyebrows in a valiant attempt at guilelessness.
"No matter," Greagoir grunted with impatience,"You're here now. Sit down."
He walked her over to a chair directly in front of the Senior Enchanter's desk. Irving had a troubled look on his face. It was then that Maebh realized there were some men in the room that she did not recognize. A feeling of uncertainty grew in the pit of her stomach.
She tried to look around without betraying her mounting apprehension. These men were not Templars. There were a half-dozen very well armored guards. Two at the door and one at each window. There was a tall man with dark hair facing out one of the windows. His arms were crossed, his shoulders hunched. Maebh wondered if it hurt to hold his arms so stiffly in such a grand suit of armor. Another man, not quite as tall but more powerfully built, stood next to Irving's desk. He was extremely well dressed, his blond hair was intricately braided , his beard carefully trimmed. He wore a kind expression on his face that seemed somehow artificial, as if he knew that expression was what people hoped to see, so he wore it to hide his true thoughts.
Maebh realized with a jolt exactly who he was and why he was there. And the man by the window who still refused to turn around. She looked down, folded her hands in her lap and willed her rapidly beating heart to slow. She was in a great deal of danger.
She decided to go with her original plan: play dumb.
Irving sighed and rubbed his temples. "First, I apologize for taking you from your studies."
"Enough with the pleasantries, Irving," Greagoir was standing directly behind Maebh's chair, his hand resting on the back. "Girl, do you know why we asked you here?"
Maebh looked up at Irving, eyes wide and imploring, hands twisting in her lap. "I...If this is about the olives I can explain. I don't know why he brought them to me but I didn't want to be rude and so I accepted them. I mean, I also really really like olives so I didn't want to hurt his feelings and miss out on them, too, and I'm sorry I know I should have refused or reported him but I didn't mean anything by it and I would give them back if I could but I ate them. Well, Jowan had some too but he didn't know where I got them. I can pay him for them if you think that would be appropriate but please don't..."
The man by the window snorted and shook his head. "What is this nonsense?"
"Please!" She turned to look up at Greagoir. "Please don't punish Cullen! He just..."
Greagoir groaned out a sigh and covered his eyes with his free hand while the blond man chuckled. "For the love of the Maker this has nothing to do with your entirely inappropriate relationship with that boy." He turned to the blond man, "Ser, if you would like to ask her anything you're welcome but I can't guarantee that she will make any sense."
Irving was perfectly still. "Greagoir, was that truly necessary."
Greagoir's grip on the back of the chair tightened. Maebh glanced up at him, and realized he was being harsher than usual for some reason other than to simply humiliate her.
The blond man smiled kindly, and walked over to the front of the desk. He leaned against it in a sort of studied nonchalance and crossed his arms. "Hello. I believe I may have met you before."
Maebh blinked and let her jaw drop. "Good King Maric! Oh forgive me for not recognizing you! I... I don't know why you would remember me, I was just a child when you visited..."
He chuckled again. "Yes, a child who managed to grow up quite a bit and forget what her king looks like in six short months. But I'll forgive the blow to my pride," he made a stabbing motion at his chest and winced in mock pain. "But only because you called me 'Good King'. Besides, I'm sure that your attention, like most of the young ladies here, was most likely drawn elsewhere when last I came," he drawled a bit and his eyes twinkled.
Maebh looked down at her hands. "I'm not exactly sure what you mean, ser."
Greagoir snorted. "The fickleness of your girls never ceases to amaze me, Irving. Ser, you should know that in the last three months her attention has been drawn to Bran, Bryant, Cullen and Maker knows who else. She's practically a public menace."
Irving shook his head slightly. "Again, Greagoir, that was uncalled for."
Maebh felt a blush creeping up her cheeks. "I d-don't understand..."
Irving smiled reassuringly. "He's asking about the crown prince, child."
Maebh's blush deepened. She cleared her throat. "I cannot deny that the prince is an attractive young man. But seeing as how I had no cause to speak to or interact with him other than the briefest of introductions when you came to visit, I'm sorry to say I don't understand why this meeting is taking place." She took a deep, slow breath.
The memory of the royal visit swirled in her head. The tower had been buzzing for months with anticipation. The king of Ferelden had only once visited the tower after being coronated. There were rumors of things that had happened to him at the tower before, during the Orlesian occupation, and it was said that was why he avoided the tower. His son was fifteen years old at the time, and the two had gone on a tour of Ferelden. One of the stops was at the Circle Tower.
Maebh remembered the entire visit with aching clarity. Her despair and longing that bubbled in her gut from the moment Irving announced the possibility to the day they finally left. She remembered standing side-by-side with all the other female apprentices in the large common room to formally meet the royal pair. Opposite her was Jowan. He had slipped out of order so that he could stand across and try to keep her gaze, should she need his help. She had wondered at the time what Jowan could have possibly done to help her. Larryn on her right and Petra on her left were also nervous, though for more mundane reasons.
The introductions were agonizing. The king and crown prince were so affable, so genuine and well-mannered that they had a conversation with each apprentice like they were old friends. They made their way down the males' side first. Maebh couldn't hear what they said to Jowan, but he cracked some kind of joke that made the prince laugh heartily and the king slap him on the shoulder.
At that moment, at that very moment the prince had glanced behind him, made eye contact with Maebh and her insides instantly turned to ice. Petra touched her shoulder and whispered, "Is something wrong? You're trembling."
Maebh did what she did best. "Oh," she turned and giggled, "He's just..."
Petra smiled condescendingly. "Yes, he's very pretty. Please try to hold yourself together. You're going to embarrass us if you cannot keep your composure."
Maebh took a deep breath and smiled at her. "Will you pinch me or something if I start to babble? I really don't want to seem like a fool."
Petra sighed. "Yes. I'm sure even you can at least pretend to be intelligent for the full three minutes of your entire life that these men will ever talk to you."
Maebh was grateful for Petra's sneering attitude. The anger she felt growling in her belly grounded her. It was much better than the aimless apprehension that had been pulsing from toe to fingertip for the last two weeks.
The procession continued, inexorable. Too slow and yet too fast, the king and prince were talking to Petra, the very picture of magely composure. "It's easy for her," Larryn whispered in Maebh's ear, "She doesn't exactly prefer the company of men, if you get my drift."
Again Maebh was grateful for the ridiculous behavior of her fellow apprentices as she was distracted by the thought of exactly how Larryn came to such scandalous information. And then the king was in front of her, holding out his hand.
"And hello to you. My she's a pretty one, isn't she, Cailan?" He raised an eyebrow and smiled wryly. "She'd give your Anora a fit if we brought her back with us."
Cailan grinned wickedly. "Father, this is why Uncle Eamon says you are a bad influence on me." He turned to her. "Might I know your name?" It wasn't really a question.
"You might. But I'd be surprised." Maebh blurted out.
King Maric's laughed, a short burst of mirth. "Goodness. Funny, too? We should come to the tower more often, son." He looked at her again, closer. "By the Maker, you look familiar."
The ground gave way under Maebh's feet. Surely she was falling through the floor. "I... I just have one of those faces."
The king laughed again. "Would that Ferelden be so lucky. It was truly a pleasure to meet you, young..."
"Young Amell. I'm sure we'll meet again once you pass your Harrowing."
Maebh bowed, "I'm honored to please the king. And prince."
By the time she stood straight again, they had already moved past Larryn. Maebh took a deep breath and put on her best blank expression. She turned, as the others had, to watch the rest of the procession. Right before leaving the room, Cailan looked back once. He caught her eye. It was only a split second, and if she had not been staring so intently she would have missed it. But the glint was there. He recognized her.
The royal visit lasted three days. The apprentices walked on pins and needles, even more afraid than usual of stepping out of line and earning a templar's wrath. They knew that the templars would never discipline them while the king was there, but that whatever they did wrong would be punished tenfold as soon as he left. Once for the offense, and nine more times for the embarrassment. Maebh ghosted through the halls only when she had to eat and Jowan was unwilling to sneak her something. The rest of the time was spent in her bunk, afraid to breathe too loudly. The same thoughts chased through her head with no resolution: He recognized her. This was wonderful. He recognized her. This was horrible. What is going to happen. Nothing is going to happen. She's going to be made Tranquil. They're going to pretend like it never happened. He'll come back for her and take her far away and she'll never have to come back to this wretched place. He's going to go away and never come back and she'll never ever be allowed to leave. He recognized her. This was wonderful. He recognized her. This was horrible.
By lunchtime on the second day Jowan finally put his foot down and refused to bring her any more snacks. However, he did talk one of the cooks into setting aside some provisions for her that she could sneak down and eat during the night. Late that night Maebh crept to the kitchen and sat in the dark, nibbling the bit of cake and fruit the kind old woman had left her.
A door creaked open, loud as a crack of thunder in the too-quiet dark. Maebh silently dropped to the floor and hid under a butcher block. Slowly, carefully the person made his or her way toward the table Maebh had been sitting at. She cursed herself when she realized she had left the plate on the table, alerting anybody with a lick of sense to exactly which table she was cowering under. The person bumped his knee into a stool and cursed softly. No templar, surely. A holy warrior strides with self-righteous surety of purpose, and does not slink about in the dark. And not one of her fellow apprentices, who would have known that particular door is the only one that creaks and used one of the others. She thought wildly that maybe it was an assassin come to poison the stores when a quiet voice soothed her panicked mind.
She choked. Precious few people ever knew that nickname. And only one would be bold enough to still use it.
He knelt and held out his hand. "Why are you hiding?" he whispered.
She swallowed a bite of apple. "I was worried about assassins. Why are you here?"
"It's kind of uncomfortable, talking like this. Is there anywhere we can go?"
She thought for a moment before nodding her head. "The larder. There's only one door and plenty of places to hide. Plus the walls are thicker so we don't have to whisper."
"Lead the way, my lady."
She crawled out from under the table, taking her plate with one hand and his arm in the other. She touched a fingertip of mana into the darkness to light their way.
Once safely concealed amongst the bushel bins of potatoes and sides of beef, she let out a breath that had been caught in her throat for months. "Oh, Cailan," she said with tears in her eyes, "I was so afraid you wouldn't recognize me."
He smiled and touched her face. "Maebh, I have been thinking about you ever since they..." He fell silent.
"What. Cailan what happened?"
"You should know that nobody knows you're here. Your father... he told everybody you died."
"What? Why would he do such a thing?"
He shrugged unhappily. "I don't know. It seemed suspicious. He said he had taken you to see the River Dane and you fell in and drowned. They had a funeral and every year he takes flowers and throws them in to honor you. I think that's why father didn't recognize you. Nobody knows you're alive. Are... are you crying?"
She shook her head and angrily wiped her eyes. "Why are you here. Why are you doing this to me. Why are you doing this to yourself. It'd be better if you forgot me like everybody else. I'm Maebh Amell now and that's it."
"I don't care what your last name is, I love you. I always have. And when I'm king I can do what I want..."
"No you can't! The chantry will never let me out! I shouldn't even be here with you now. Maker's Breath do you have any idea what they'll do to me if they find out? When you go back to Denerim and I'm left here with those...men..." She choked back a sob at the horror. She'd be lucky if Greagoir settled at making her Tranquil if he had any inkling.
"Maybe, you must believe me. I would never put you in danger. I have a plan. Once I am king I'll create a position of a mage advisor on the court. I'll choose you myself once you pass your Harrowing. We can figure it out from there." He held her hands in his, pressing them to his chest. His gaze intense and earnest. Maebh's heart pounded.
"That's not much of a plan."
He laughed. "Not all of us are the children of the greatest general Ferelden has ever known. Tell me, Miss Master Tactician, do you have a better idea?"
Maebh thought for several moments and shook her head. "No. Nothing comes to mind." She looked up at him, her grey eyes reflecting the moonlight. "If you can get me out of here I would be eternally grateful."
"I can and I will."
She bit her lip to fight back another sob tearing at the back of her throat. "Well, I've waited six years to hear you say that. I suppose I can wait another ten or so to see if you follow through."
He wrapped her in a crushing embrace, and kissed the top of her head. "Believe me. I'll see it happen and this will all seem like a bad dream."
She relaxed a moment in his arms, brimming with longing and sadness. "I have to go. They'll be checking the beds soon and if I'm not there Greagoir will have kittens."
Cailan tightened his grip. "You know, you shouldn't say such things in a place like this. It could happen."
She giggled and extracted herself from his arms. "What's another decade, my lord?"
Sitting in Irvings office, her hands clenched in her lap, her thoughts raced. Had they found out? Had somebody seen something? Had Cailan said something to Maric? Had Maric recognized her and realized what Cailan was planning? She looked up, trembling.
Maric's eyes bore into her own. The affable posture had stiffened, intensified. He searched her eyes for something. Maebh willed herself to keep eye contact, a picture of innocence and ignorance. "Yes, that's right. I remember meeting you." He looked up at Greagoir. "She's very funny, you know."
"Oh yes. Hysterical."
The king took one last look at her before slapping his thighs and standing up. "Well. I'm satisfied. How about you?"
The dark haired man shrugged. "You know what I think."
Greagoir stood up straighter. "Teryn, with all due respect that is not your jurisdiction. That sort of decision is to be mutually reached by both the First Enchanter and myself. You have been provided with copies of the apprentice's progress reports in her studies as well as any behavioral anomalies that required attention. If you are unsatisfied with our assessment, you are welcome to speak to the Revered Mother."
Maebh understood exactly what the dark haired man wanted Greagoir to do. She felt simultaneous waves of terror at the prospect and unexpected gratitude to Greagoir for his logical, passionless argument. Her eyes met Irving's, who spread his fingers out on his desk. Relax, he seemed to say. We have it under control.
"Well in that case I'm sorry to cause so much fuss," the king held his arms out in a gesture of dismissal. "Young lady, the First Enchanter speaks very highly of your abilities. I'm glad to hear that such beauty is not being wasted on a feeble mind."
"Your majesty is very kind," Maebh said softly.
"Wonderful. My king, I hope you understand that the girl is quite confident enough already without royal compliments. Come, girl, it's back to class with you." Greagoir grabbed her arm. His grip was gentle but he purposefully twisted his shoulder in such a way as to make his armor clank terribly. Maebh yelped in surprise.
At this the dark haired man turned around, his face twisted in anger. He caught himself before saying anything. Maebh ducked her head to avoid his gaze as Greagoir led her away.
Greagoir walked with her all the way to her room. He paused a moment at the door, and did not let go of her arm. "I'm going to indulge you. You can take the remainder of the day to rest. Don't expect this to happen again."
"Yes, sir." Maebh stood at the door, uncomfortable in the silence and wondered what he expected her to do.
"I want you to know that I take my responsibilities very seriously," He said soberly.
"Of course, Knight-Commander. Believe me, I never had any doubt of that," her voice was only the slightest bit rueful.
"What you need to know is that those responsibilities do not only include protecting the tower and the outside world from abominations and maleficars. It also includes protecting you from people who do not understand you as I do. A lynch mob chasing a child they blame for a bad harvest, or some noble trying to protect his family's power can be just as dangerous as a demon. And so long as I'm here, I will protect you."
Maebh smiled, a true smile of gratitude. "I know I haven't been the easiest apprentice for you to deal with. I do appreciate what you did. And I am sorry about the olives."
"Olives? Olives!" Greagoir shoved her away from him. "Thank you for reminding me! The next time you get a craving for delicacies you are to keep them to yourself and not bother my men with such inanities. Of all the nonsense..." Greagoir turned and stomped away, muttering to himself about fraternization and respect. Maebh slipped into her bunk and buried her face in her pillow. What's another decade.