Anora

This is what mercy looks like: a chilly room, a narrow bed and a table bolted to the floor. My world shrinks with each passing day and my only reminder of the city outside is a glimpse of sky through the barred window. It is becoming more and more difficult to remember my lavish quarters in the Palace, the glory of the throne room and its ceremonial hall or the pleasure I once took in standing before the Bannorn. I lose the ability to command and am reduced to begging for trivial things, to relying on the mercy of lackeys and simpletons, which is hateful to me.

Yet, though the Bastard Prince and the Cousland usurper have staged their little coup, murdered my dear father and stolen my world away from me, I will not forget who I am or what I was born to be. I am the true Queen of Ferelden, wife of a king and daughter of the nation's greatest general, and I will find a way to reclaim my throne.

I managed to convince my former warder to give me pen and paper so that I might while away the hours in recording my thoughts. I had hoped to bribe him into smuggling letters out for me, words of encouragement to the few but faithful supporters of House MacTirrh, but the insufferable wretch dashed my hopes almost at once. He gave me the items but imposed a dread condition: at the end of each day he would collect everything I wrote and destroy it before my eyes, reducing my daily efforts to scraps and ashes. If I wrote on after that, it was only to combat the mind-numbing tedium and to admire my own penmanship.

Thankfully, I have recently acquired a new warder and he is quite different, much more amenable to my requirements. It helps that he is an elf and has little concern for human politics aside from his own benefit. Being poor, elves are not prone to loyalty – it is much too expensive for them.

Of course, honour is a luxury for all in these dark days. I had little in the way of money to bribe this latest warder with and so I've been forced to make promises of future wealth and, in the meantime, have had offer...other enticements. These seemed to please him well enough and we have come to an understanding of sorts. For the past few weeks, the new warder has taken my ciphered letters from me for delivery to Erlina, Thomas Howe and my father's allies in Tevinter, Rivain and the Free Marches.

If necessary, I may even contact Empress Celene in Orlais – perhaps we can negotiate something, as I'm sure she would prefer me sitting on the throne to the disturbing precedent set by the ascension of Maric's by-blow and an unscrupulous Grey Warden. I know the very idea of such an alliance would make Father's blood run cold, but then, he could be a trifle irrational when it came to Orlais. I am loath to contemplate how he would have acted if asked to choose between my eternal captivity and a reasonable alliance with the Orlesians, even one with favourable terms. While I do not doubt his love for me, I suspect that he would have shaken his head regretfully and let me rot in the Tower. It is a troubling thing, but it is also the kind of sacrifice that kings must make. I doubt the Cousland harlot would understand it, having set a hopeless naïf to ruling Ferelden out of blind love and her own foolish pride.

But now I hear the sound of a key in the lock. Surely, it must be time for my evening meal, since my stomach has been grumbling at me for several hours now and my little candle is shortening and dripping wax at an alarming rate. I am positively famished. I do wish that the new warder would knock before opening the door, but I imagine that he gets a sordid thrill from the possibility he may catch me in a state of undress. Little people enjoy their little powers, especially when they may degrade those who once stood on the heights.

My warder walks in carrying a lantern and a tray of food, which he sets down on the table before me. I see a flask of water, some stale-looking bread and a bowl of stew that smells a bit more appetizing than the slop and dregs I usually receive. But perhaps that's just the hunger speaking.

"Good evening, my lady. You must be wanting your meal. The cook has been most neglectful and I had to remind him to prepare your supper."

He gives me his most ingratiating smile and I have to admit that he is rather comely, although he is a sly, smarmy villain, common as dirt.

"Very well," I reply. "Better late than never."

He stands there, watching me, with an expectant look on his face as if he wants me to thank him for doing his job so inefficiently. I may have to pet the dog once in a while, but he will be waiting a long time before I offer gratitude for gross incompetence.

"Have you any letters for me today?"

"No, I have not," I answer. "I am waiting for replies, which seem rather slow in arriving. I hope you are not holding them back from me or you will be doing yourself a great disservice."

"Oh, no, I would never dream of such a thing. Perhaps messengers have been delayed by the reconstruction efforts along the Imperial Highway."

I pick up the grimy spoon, polish it on my sleeve and sample the stew. It does taste better than usual, probably because it doesn't contain quite so much boiled cabbage.

"Is the stew to your liking, my lady?"

"It will do."

I cast an icy glare in his direction, hoping that he will take the hint and desist in pestering me. One would think the Tower of Denerim would be a place of privacy, but one would be mistaken. I take another few spoonfuls of stew, feeling his eyes upon me still.

"In the Maker's name, what do you want? Must you loiter there and gawk at me? I was unaware that I was to be the evening's entertainment."

My warder shrugs, displaying his usual admixture of apathy and doltish good cheer. "I'm simply waiting."

"For what, precisely? For Andraste to rain blessings down upon you? Get yourself hence!"

He chuckles at this, impertinent creature, and leans back against the wall, making himself more comfortable. When I am Queen, I shall have to pay him the riches I've promised, for I am not a liar, but thereafter I will order the guards to remove his head from his shoulders as recompense for these vile tricks he plays me.

The elf reaches out a gloved hand and snuffs out the candle on the table. "If you must know, I'm waiting for you to die, my lady. I expect it will happen in about a minute now."

I am undone.

I should have known. They would not serve me good food unless they were desperate to have me eat it.

"Of course, if you wish to hurry the process along, you can take another few spoonfuls of that stew. It's quite tasty, isn't it?" the elf says.

His voice has always contained a tinge of something foreign, but now he does not trouble to disguise his country of birth. The Antivan accent is unmistakeable and any fool knows what that means: a Crow.

"They will pay for this. I am still the daughter of Ferelden's greatest hero. I am still the dowager Queen. The people will demand justice."

The elf regards me with an air of pitying bemusement. "Oh, my, but you are mistaken. You are but a thorn in the side of Ferelden's greatest hero and she tired of your ambitions long ago. This is justice."

My head thumps down on the table, my cheekbone smashing against the edge of the stew bowl. The soup spoon catapults into the air, there is a metal clamour against the stone floor and I feel a spatter of warm stew seeping into the cloth of my dress.

The hazy world orbits around me, placing a weight upon the back of my skull like a terrible crown. Something dribbles from my mouth, trickles out of my ears – my body acts against my will, against my dignity. I try to move my hands to stem the flow, but they will not budge. This is crueller than a sword in the throat, worse than mounting the gallows, where at least I might speak before a crowd.

The Antivan elf is still gloating, but I can hardly hear him now. I can only hope Father will forgive me, for I have lost and I fear history will be unkind to us, despite all these noble intentions.