A drop of blood seeped into the fine cloth Anora was holding, staining the threads. Without yelping, she brought her pricked finger to her mouth-if she were quiet, maybe her nurse wouldn't notice—
No such luck.
"Stupid girl," Gemma hissed, and snatched the cloth, needle and thread still attached, away from Anora. "You've ruined it! All that work and you got blood on it-it'll never come out! You've nine summers, that's far too old for a mistake like this."
Anora took her bleeding finger out of her mouth, and scowled. "Mother will get it out, she knows how."
"Your mother is busy." Gemma snapped the thread that was still on the needle. The panel Anora had been working on was more than half done, but the blood was on a part of the design that didn't have much stitching on it. It would be visible when the piece was done, if it couldn't be gotten out, and Anora would have to start all over.
She hated embroidery.
Her mother always said that she would be glad she knew it, some day, but some day was a very long way away. "I can go find her," she said.
Gemma's mouth was settling into a familiar hard line, the line where maybe became and stayed no. She opened her mouth to speak, reached for Anora, then froze as the door to the nursery opened and Anora's mother swept into the room.
Anora's heart leapt with gratitude. Mother would make this all better, Mother would know how to get the blood out, Mother—
"Out," Mother said to Gemma, and the nurse set down the embroidery and fled. Anora stood stock still, the world tilting around her as she tried to decide what to do. Adults didn't cry. "Anora, come here," Mother said, and dropped down into a padded chair.
Carefully, Anora padded across the braided rug, stopping in front of her mother. "Do...do you need a handkerchief?" she asked, then rummaged in her apron pocket. "Here—" She held the square of cloth out, mute, wondering if there was something else she was supposed to do because Mother was looking at her as if she didn't recognize her.
"Oh, little one. Yes. Thank you." Mother took the handkerchief and wiped her face, then held out her arms. "Come here."
She climbed into her mother's lap, and the scent of perfume surrounded her. "I must go away for a time," Mother said. "Your father will take care of you while I'm away."
"Where are you going? When will you come back?" Anora hesitated. "Can I come with you?" Without Mother, who would keep Gemma from pinching her and slapping her, as she did sometimes when nobody was looking?
"I will be some time," Mother said. Anora felt her mother's arms tighten around her. "You must be strong. You are so much like your father. Both of you with your stubborn pride, unbending like old oaks." There was a sort of rueful admiration under the tremble in her voice. "Listen to me, little one. There are things that I have to tell you. You won't understand them now, and if you are very lucky indeed you will never need to. But you must listen now, and listen well."
Anora listened. She understood none of it, but she listened, and wrote every word that her mother said on her heart.
You will be a woman in a world that belongs to men, little one. If you desire power, you must know how to stand on equal footing with them. Look to your father, Anora. Be his daughter, and be unafraid...
Reading the Warden's intentions was easy enough; she was a mage, and mages lived by peculiar social customs that did not include hiding one's heart from prying eyes. She paced the room Anora had been given like a creature caged: wall to cupboard, cupboard to door, door to table, back to wall. As if it were the Warden who was in hiding on the Arl of Redcliffe's estate, and not Anora.
"I'll support you," she said at last, stopping and looking at Anora with those black eyes of hers, a strange contrast with her light hair. "Alistair would be a disaster of a king, wouldn't he? He can barely decide what to have for breakfast, much less anything more serious."
But there was a tightness in her jaw and her hands that revealed everything.
The Warden Kathil loved the bastard prince, and she was going to try to place him on the throne. Another woman might have been taken in by the lie, but Anora had been around nobles most of her life, and this woman was no match for her.
"Then it is done," Anora said. "You support me, and I will support you in return. Eamon will simply have to learn to live with disappointment." She smiled conspiratorially, and the Warden returned that smile.
Mages of the Circle were predictable in a few respects. All of them had a gnawing hunger to be loved and acknowledged. The Tower was a cold mother, and forbidding.
Anora would have this one eating out of her hand quickly enough. With Anora's encouragement, the Warden would find herself convinced that to place Alistair on the throne was to lose him forever. She would not risk it, not with Anora whispering into her ear. After the Blight was over, Anora would spend some time taming this creature. She was bright, if misguided, and powerful.
Misguided could be remedied, and Anora thought that it would be no bad thing, to gather other intelligent and ambitious women around herself.
The plan was set, and the Warden stalked away, to all evidence satisfied.
She had not factored her father into the equation.
Nor the actions of that damnable weasel Howe.
Nor the cold fire that discovering those actions had lit within the Warden, and the unbending will with which she had refused Anora's whispers.
As it was, it was all she could do to stand there and grit her teeth as the Warden made one argument after another, proffering evidence of slavery in the alienage, of Father's complicity in Cailan's death.
(How could you? rang Anora's voice in the war room. How could you turn your back on him? He was my husband!
I did what was necessary, Father said. Cailan brought his death on himself. I pleaded with him to stay with my men, but he insisted on being on the front lines.
It had the ring of truth, but she had adored her eternally boyish husband, and had forgiven him everything—even that which he did not deserve to be forgiven for in the least. And her father was not the man he had once been. He had changed, turned hard and cold, fury lighting every word he spoke, and he would not speak to her of why.)
The Warden was a small woman, but she shone like an armored star among the bright finery of the nobles. Anora almost had to admire her, even as all of her plans crumbled away beneath her feet. Father made wilder and wilder claims, and the Warden got beneath all of those claims and pulled out their supports, one at a time.
Finally the vote was called, and was lost. As Anora had known it was the moment that the Warden opened her mouth.
(Andraste Herself was a Fereldan woman, her mother's voice whispered. The greatest wealth of this county lies in the women that it births, from the meanest farmholder to the highest teyrna. Let the men play their games, little one. When the fighting is over, it is the women who are left to pick up the pieces and carry on.)
Her father's blood on her lips, coppery salt on her tongue.
The drop of blood spread along the threads on the fine linen, in a bare space in the design. Anora touched her finger to her tongue. Shut her up somewhere, but I won't have her killed, the uncrowned King had said. This tower had been her home since, three rooms equipped with every convenience but freedom.
Mercy, she had called it that day.
She had seen something in the Warden-mage's gaze, which had never once left her as Alistair struck off her father's head. Something akin to sympathy, or pity. Four years after that day, Anora thought she knew why.
Being imprisoned was no mercy; none at all.
She ran an unwounded finger over the embroidered panel. It was a simple enough design, roses winding about a sword. But to the educated hand, the raised knots whispered a message.
Allow the game to play. We may get lucky. The Warden is on no side but her own. Watch, but do not interfere.
The bloodstain was her signature, her seal.
Anora smoothed the panel flat over her lap, then folded it into quarters. "Another one finished," she called. Her maid came bustling in to take it from her. The panel would go to South Reach, and then to Denerim. In between, it would pass through nameless hands who could read her message, and reply in kind. Nobody thought it odd that the imprisoned former Queen would receive gifts from those who still remembered her.
It had been her mother who had brought in Gemma, a Fereldan trained in the Orlesian arts of bardcraft, to be Anora's nurse. Gemma who had taught Anora the countless ways a message could be passed. Knowledge and communication are both power, Gemma had said, over and over again. If you are to hold power, you must be aware of each and every threat to your rule.
Every threat, including Cailan's increasing desperation for an heir that she could not give him, that she did not think anyone could give him. Including Empress Celene of Orlais, eager to firm up an uneasy alliance in the face of a greater threat beyond her borders.
Including Anora's father, enraged that Cailan would even think about setting his daughter aside, and too proud to let her handle the threat her way.
Her finger had stopped bleeding. She reached for another square of linen, and her basket of thread.
"Stand proud, my Anora," her mother said. "You are the daughter of a great man, and in time you will eclipse him. I am only sorry I will not be there to see it."
Anora nodded, and did not cry.
Author's Note: This is an Old Roads side story that I've actually had in my head for some time now. I'm happy to have finally gotten it out. Anora is not a comfortable person to share brainspace with. :) It was written for the Seven Deadly Sins of Anora challenge, for "pride".