Alistair actually hesitated in the seminary door, squinting in the bright sunlight. Only the presence of the red-haired initiate next to him propelled him outside, into the cobbled court that bordered the Cathedral itself.
"Come on," the other boy said with a grin that looked slightly strained. "We just have to deliver the books to Mother Kaellyn. You look like we have to climb the Frostback Mountains, of something."
"It's the sunshine," Alistair said, surprising himself with the honest answer. "We've been locked up in the seminary so long; I think I forgot what the outside looks like. Think we'll grow wings and starts squeaking by the time we're assigned to our real duties?"
The boy shot him an uncertain glance, as if trying to decide if Alistair was being serious. "We practice in the training yards every day."
"And we spend even more time in the classrooms."
"I heard you spend even more time scouring the pots in the kitchen," the red-haired boy countered with a wink, pushing the gate open.
Alistair grinned. "It's my calling. Some of us will guard the Tower, some will protect chantries, some will hunt apostates – and I will be the best pot scrubber Templar in Ferelden."
The boy tensed at that, biting his lip. "You shouldn't make jokes about that."
"Why not?" Alistair asked, and blushed at how his voice had squeaked. "We'll be spending our lives standing guard and looking very stern, when we're not going to be hunting maleficars. You're going to go crazy if you don't joke about it."
"I think you already are crazy," the boy said, as they turned into the alley that led to the market district.
"Yep, most people do," Alistair said lightly, but it stung that this initiate, a boy no different from him, should judge him so readily when he had only been making a joke, and a heartfelt one at that. "Sorry, I didn't catch your name earlier. I'm compiling a list of people who think I'm crazy, see."
"A thick book, you mean," the boy said. "And it's Cullen."
"Alistair, but you already knew that." No surname, so… "You a Chantry boy too, huh?"
"A Templar, yes," Cullen said primly, then relented. "But if you mean whether I grew up in the Chantry, then yes, that too."
They stepped out into the market and its midday bustle. Stalls were covered with all kinds of wares and there were more people that Alistair had seen outside of services at the Cathedral. The various smells, from rotting potatoes to roasting meat, mixed with the cacophony of voices, haggling, begging, shouting, singing and laughing assaulted them; it was like running into a wall.
Cullen stopped, tense, and watched a donkey cart loaded with cabbages rattle by.
"Come on," Alistair said. "And let's watch our pockets, too."
"We only have the books," Cullen said distractedly, looking around. "If I had money, the pickpockets wouldn't even have time to get it; I'd spend it in a thrice."
"What on?" Alistair asked. His own eyes were fixed on a cheesemonger's stall.
"Oh, anything," Cullen said distractedly. "All those things… Somebody told me they had this fruit in Antiva; looks like a big pinecone, only it's like an apple inside." He frowned. "He was probably having me on, though."
"Pineapples," Alistair said without thinking. "They're called pineapples."
Cullen whirled around to him, his mouth tight. "That's not funny!"
"I wasn't—" Alistair sighed, and rubbed a hand over his face. He hated that bit. "Look, I didn't always live in the Chantry. I was in a cas— big house kitchen often. They had fruit specially imported for the ar— the lady of the house. I never ate one, but I saw them. They really look like big pinecones, only there's green leaves on top, spiky ones."
Cullen's eyes narrowed suspiciously. "So how did you end up in the Chantry, then, if you lived in such a household?"
Alistair gave a practiced, easy grin. "They didn't need another mouth to feed, so they sent me to train to be a Templar."
"The best pot scrubber Templar in Ferelden?" Cullen asked, but his face was relaxing into a smile.
"That's me!" Alistair declared grandly and, recalling Arl Eamon's exasperated lessons in etiquette, swept the other boy a deep courtly bow.
Grinning, Cullen gave him a knight's salute, fist over heart. "Lead on, ser pot scrubber."
Alistair turned and started weaving his way past the merchants, the shoppers, the carts, and the occasional stray chicken. He was about to turn into the street, when he paused, his eyes on stall. "Cullen, did you ever have those? They're Antivan, too."
"Hmm?" The other initiate looked over his shoulder at the fruit stall that had caught Alistair's attention. "Oh, these are oranges, aren't they? I've seen them before."
"Ever tried them?" In his pocket, Alistair clutched his hand around a copper penny, the last of this month's allowance.
"No," Cullen said. "Have you?"
Without answering, Alistair walked over to the stall. The merchant, a swarthy Antivan with a big moustache grinned at him. "Looking for something sweet, boy?"
Alistair swallowed. "The oranges." His voice caught again, making his ears burn. "How much—how much do they cost?"
"Twenty bits a pound," the merchant answered.
Alistair's heart sunk. "And how much for one?"
The merchant eyed them over. "You two Templar seminary boys, yes? For you, a discount. An orange for a penny."
Alistair grinned and offered the now rather sweaty coin. "Thank you, ser."
Laughing, the merchant picked an orange and tossed it to him, already turning to his next customer.
"Come on," Alistair whispered, and ducked into a side alley, so close to a tavern that it mainly stank of piss.
Cullen was eyeing the orange in his hand enviously. "What do they taste like?"
"Wait and see," Alistair said, depositing his parcel of books into Cullen's hands.
The orange was hard to peel, immediately spraying his tunic and his hands with sticky juice. After some wrestling it gave in, and Alistair tore it in two, offering one half to Cullen. The discarded peel on the cobbles looked the colour of Cullen's hair.
"Careful, it's really messy," he said, licking his fingers clean.
Cullen looked down at the orange half, as if he wasn't quite sure what to do with the fruit.
"Just try it," Alistair said, wiping juice off his face.
Cautiously, Cullen bit into a segment, its juice immediately dripping down his chin.
"Told you to be careful," Alistair said indistinctly, savouring each mouthful. This rated so far above the Daily Grey Stew at the refectory that he was prepared to prolong the experience as much as he could.
Judging by Cullen's expression, which changed from cautious to blissful, he felt the same.
The orange was gone in far too short a time, and eventually, fingers and faces licked and wiped clean as they could, they resumed their walk towards Mother Kaellyn's chantry.
"Uh," Cullen said suddenly, and turning to face him, Alistair saw that he was blushing. "Thank you f-for the orange. That was nice of you."
Alistair grinned, but tried to shrug nonchalantly. "Oranges are nothing. Wait till you've tasted some good Orlesian cheese."
"Are those the mouldy ones?"
"They're not mouldy!" Alistair said indignantly. "Well, they are, but that's not the point. They're wonderful. Best thing ever."
Cullen didn't look convinced. "If you say so," he muttered. After a minute he looked up again, something clearly on his mind. "Do you have your posting orders yet?"
Alistair shrugged. "They said they will decide what to do with me after I do my month of Tower duty. It's too early for me, anyway. And you?"
"I turned sixteen last month," Cullen said, looking away. "I've been assigned to the Tower. Leaving next week."
"Ohh," Alistair said, feeling vague envy. "Not till spring for me, but you get to travel and to see the girls already."
Cullen looked startled. "What girls?"
"Well, at the Tower. They have girl mages too, don't they?"
Cullen's expression turned stormy. "They aren't 'girls'. They are mages. They brought sin to Heaven and—"
"And doom upon all the world, yes," Alistair said impatiently. "But magic exists to serve man, yes? And if it exists, it's the Maker's doing. They can't help being born with magic. It's like your hair colour," he added with a look at Cullen's carrot-topped head.
Cullen whirled around to face him, stopping in the middle of the street. "They're dangerous! You must really be crazy; weren't you listening at all in the lessons?"
"Sure they're dangerous." Alistair shrugged. "So are we. We've been trained to kill people, don't you think that makes us a little bit dangerous, too? A smidgen? No?"
Cullen grimaced and stormed ahead, his back stiff. Shrugging, Alistair followed.
"They're evil and they can k-kill you just by looking at you, and they can call in demons," Cullen said heatedly. "Aren't you— at all afraid?"
"Well, yes," Alistair said, struggling to keep up with the other boy's angry stride. "I mean, I wouldn't want them to summon a demon on me or turn me into a toad. But they don't do that all the time. They're just… people."
"Yeah, and you're so experienced with mages!"
"I've met one at Re—where I lived before I joined the Chantry," Alistair said. "He was just a man in a robe. Told me not to break my neck."
Cullen went pale. "He threatened you?"
"No, I mean, I was up in tree; there was a nest and I wanted to see what the chicks looked like," Alistair explained. "He looked up and told me to be careful and asked if I needed help coming down." He paused, remembering. "They had those awfully huge red beaks."
Cullen blinked. "The mages?"
"No, the chicks. I think they were crows. I never found out, I fell out of the tree before I could get a good look."
"Did the mage cast a spell on you?"
This time it was Alistair who had to blink. "Uh. I guess? He made sure I hadn't broken anything and did something to heal my arm. I still got in trouble for tearing my shirt, though."
Cullen edged away cautiously. "He could have infected you with a demonic… something!"
Alistair sighed. "Cullen, it was ten years ago. He was just a kind man in a silly robe who fixed my arm. Trust me, mages are like normal people most of time."
"They look like normal people most of the time, you mean."
"Oh, whatever." They went on, silently this time. Eventually Alistair couldn't stand the silence, as usual. "Are you afraid of going to the Tower?"
Cullen shot him a scathing look. "Are you kidding? There'll be dozens of them. Casting spells left and right."
"There'll be other Templars, too. It's not like you'll be there alone, surrounded by mages. Plus, we've learned how to stop them. Didn't Knight-Commander Cyrion say you were the best at mana draining in our year?"
Cullen went faintly pink, which clashed terribly with his hair. "Yeah." He shot Alistair a sideways look. "Didn't he say you were the only student in all his years in the Chantry that he couldn't get to sit still for a single minute?"
"Hey!" Alistair shoved Cullen's shoulder.
Cullen shoved back. "It's true, I heard him myself!"
Alistair grinned, picked one of the books from Cullen's hands, and held it over the other boy's head. "Sitting still is boring!" He took off, weaving his way between the people in the donkeys in the narrow street.
Behind him, Cullen gave an indignant yelp and gave chase.
Pausing in the doorway to the seminary chapel, Alistair looked around until he saw the slim figure huddled in one of the front pews. Personally, he didn't feel closer to the Maker in a chantry than anywhere else, but he could easily understand the need for some comfort. And while he certainly wasn't the most pious initiate in the seminary, he still paused and bowed his head as he entered, before walking quietly forward and sliding in next to the other boy.
Cullen was praying rather incoherently, mumbling snatches of the Chant and prayer, together with heartfelt but disjointed pleas of his own making. He fell silent when Alistair sat next to him, and looked up with a glare.
"Blessed art thou who exists in the sight of the Maker," Alistair said sincerely. "Blessed are—"
"Don't you dare mock me here," Cullen hissed, his fair skin mottling with angry red patches.
"I—I wasn't." Alistair said, so taken aback that he actually jumped. "I'm sorry." His eyes actually stung at the unexpected attack, and he whipped his head around to stare at the statue of Andraste behind front of the pulpit so that Cullen wouldn't see his face.
"Oh. Sorry, I just…" Cullen still sounded guarded, but not poisonous any more.
Alistair swallowed, hoping he could trust his voice, and turned back. "Yeah, I guess I'm not famous for my devoutness, huh?"
"I seem to remember the Revered Mother throwing you out of a service or two," Cullen agreed wryly. "Still, sorry about snapping at you."
"Apology accepted," Alistair said. He bit his lips; this was not a topic he liked discussing, but he hadn't come in for glibness. "I believe in the Maker, and in Andraste," he said, tracing knots in the wood of the pew that had been polished by many generations of templar bums. "I just don't like sitting still, and some bits of the Chant just sound so silly."
"The Chant is not silly!" Cullen said. There was a storm gathering on his pale face again.
"Oh, come on. 'Her bacon and shield'?"
Cullen sniggered and then pressed his hand to his mouth, looking over his shoulder to see if they had been overheard. "That's just old Sister Theohild, though. You know she's a bit…"
Alistair grinned. "I like her all the better for it." He pulled his tunic straight and looked at Andraste again. It was silly, really, how no statue of her ever looked the same. Maybe the real Andraste had been really ugly? "Look, I know you're leaving for the Tower tomorrow."
Next to him, Cullen had gone utterly still, his hands clutching the pew in front of them. "Come to wish me a pleasant journey and to have fun with the g-girls?" he asked acidly.
Alistair whipped around to face him. "So sorry I give a damn about what you told me. Do have a pleasant journey. I hope you drown in Lake Calenhad!" He scrambled out of the pew, cursing as his tunic caught on a splinter of wood.
He was halfway down the central aisle, when there was hurried shuffling behind him, and Cullen caught up with him, catching his arm. "I'm s-sorry," he said, sounding utterly miserable.
Alistair stopped and turned around. Cullen was ghastly pale, which meant that now both his skin and his hair clashed terribly with his tunic colours. Now that they were facing each other, Alistair could see Cullen's lip was bitten bloody.
His obvious distress made Alistair bite back what he was planning on saying, a rare occurrence, and go for the truth instead. "Look, I remembered you saying that you were af—that you weren't looking forward to going to the Tower, so I thought I'd see if there was anything I could do to cheer you up. Even," he gestured, encompassing the chapel, "praying with you, if you wanted to."
Cullen looked away, apparently fascinated by a tapestry depicting Hessarian's Act of Mercy or, as Alistair usually thought of it, 'the one with all the fire and blood'. "It's not like we're friends," he said eventually. "And you are always the one making trouble—"
This time Alistair didn't even bother replying. Turning around quickly, he strode for the door, his stomach churning with anger and disappointment. It was true, he didn't have many friends at the seminary, and Cullen was just somebody he'd first talked to only a week previously, but the rejection stung more than he would have thought. Maybe it was because he'd taught himself not to care, after Redcliffe; not to get close to anyone again. And just as with the arlessa, it was his reputation that was the problem, not something he'd actually done. Well, he'd learned long ago that life was unfair.
Cullen's hand landing on his shoulder was so surprising that Alistair jerked around, automatically moving into a battle stance and reaching for his sword… that wasn't there, because he wasn't on the training grounds, but in a chapel with a ginger idiot.
He sighed, straightening. "What do you want, Cullen? Please don't mar your precious reputation by consorting with the likes of me. I wouldn't ever be able to forgive myself."
Cullen yanked his hand away as if burned. His lips moved soundlessly for a moment, and then he lowered his head and spoke in a whisper so quiet, Alistair had to strain to hear him even in the silent chapel.
"I'm just so scared, all right? Laugh if you want, but I can't even pack, I can't do anything, I can't even think straight, because all I can see is going to the Tower." He looked up, his eyes burning. "I bet you weren't told to eat up your gruel like a good boy or a demon would come and get you."
Alistair almost laughed, but bit his lip at the last second. "No. It was the Mabari."
"They told you the Mabari would eat you?" Cullen asked, sounding both fascinated and appalled.
"No, it was either eating up or having my food given to the hounds. And I didn't like going hungry."
"No, I bet," Cullen said distantly. "Where are you from, really? You never said."
"Redcliffe. It's a village—"
"On the shore of Lake Calenhad," Cullen supplied, nodding. "But there's no big houses there, it's just a tiny place next to the castle—" his voice trailed off as his eyes grew wide.
Alistair looked away. Hessarian looked anything but merciful, plunging his sword through a burning woman. He'd had a few nightmares from that tapestry, when he'd been younger.
"That's where you saw the mage, right?" Cullen asked.
Alistair turned to him, startled. There was no derision in the other boy's face or voice, just plain curiosity. He nodded cautiously. "Yes. The arl had all sorts of visitors. Elves, even a dwarf once. Diplomats, nobles… I watched them from the stables, sometimes."
"Did you ever see the king?" Cullen asked. He sounded almost excited. "The Arl of Redcliffe is his brother-in-law, isn't he?"
"Once," Alistair said, very cautiously. "I was allowed to show Prince Cailan to the armoury."
"What was he like?"
Cullen looked wistful. "Oh, I don't know. Either of them. You've actually seen the king!"
"So have you, in the Cathedral, at Summerday," Alistair pointed out.
"Yeah, from the back of the crowd. I could barely make out where he stood at all." Despite sounding aggravated and wistful, Cullen was a far cry from the huddling, almost crying boy Alistair had found a few minutes before.
It was likely they would never meet again; Ferelden was big and templars' duties took them to its furthest corners. Still, Alistair loathed the thought of leaving Cullen alone and terrified, asking for help and guidance from somebody who had reputedly turned away from human affairs twice.
"Come on," he said, making a sudden decision. "If we sneak into the kitchens, there is still cheese left from dinner."
Cullen blinked at him. "Cheese?"
"Can't tell midnight stories without snacks," Alistair said sagely. "Come, I know this place, up in the library wing. Nobody ever disturbs you there."
Cullen looked undecided. "I really should pack…"
"Two tunics, three shirts, two pairs of trousers, smallclothes, and weapons?" Alistair shrugged, reciting most of the inventory of any templar initiate. "Come on. There was this time when King Maric sent a delegation of Antivan diplomats to Redcliffe. Personally I think it was because he was tired of arguing with them, but he told the Arl it was a great honour, of course. So when they got there, which happened to be in the middle of the night, because they'd misjudged the time…"
Cullen followed him through the door, their steps echoing on the chapel's stone floor.
Behind them, the candles spluttered, throwing moving shadows at Andraste's statue. A fleeting trick of light made it look as if her lips had curled up in a fond smile.