The Languages of the Needle
"And Celia, my wife, was a cabinet maker's daughter. Hardly a royal pedigree."
—Teryn Loghain Mac Tir
My heart did not break when I left you.
No, my heart was already broken, Anora. When I fled Ferelden, my heart stopped.
It would be years before it would start again.
It was time to go.
Celia's heart was not so much breaking as tearing itself into tiny bits, hammering against the flinty walls of her ribcage. Be strong. This is the only way.
And yet traitorous tears were slipping from her eyes, blurring her vision—today, of all days! Why must I choose today to become one of the weepy maidens of the hero tales?
Perhaps it was understandable. Perhaps.
Anora held out a handkerchief to her with a too-serious expression on her small face, and Celia's heart tore anew. How was she going to live without this strange, delightful child, the daughter of her body and her heart? There was so much of her father in her, but more of Celia.
She took the handkerchief, accepting it in the spirit it was offered, and then gathered her daughter onto her lap. Nine years old, the only tangible fruit of a decade of marriage. The rest was long since crumbled into silence and disappointment.
She'd thought the world of her husband, once. She'd been young and idealistic and the Hero of River Dane was such a catch for a girl who had grown up with oak shavings in her hair that she had scarcely believed her luck. The first few years had been almost good. The five years after that, less good, but tolerable. Celia had her own interests, and it didn't matter so much that Loghain was always in Denerim.
Then things had begun to genuinely deteriorate. Celia did not think Loghain had even noticed that he had gone from merely distant to being as cold as a Wilds winter. She suspected that her husband was simply done with his marriage. He would not set her aside, since she had proven herself useful and he needed someone to administrate in his absence. But where there had once been kindness and respect there was now nothing, and in the silence Celia had discovered that she'd had more feelings for her husband than she had thought.
Three weeks ago, her husband had returned to Gwaren, and in Gwaren he had stayed.
It was as if he suspected. As if someone had talked. And then, this morning—the note that had been hidden in her embroidery basket, in a hand all too familiar, and not her husband's—
It made her ill to think of it. Everything was coming crashing in on her head, and it was time to go.
So she held her daughter on her lap and told her all of the things she'd hoped to have years to say, about the necessities that came with holding power. Please, my brightness. Please remember this. Even if you don't understand, remember.
There was a coach; a cold inn; a narrow bed; her empty arms.
I wish I could have told you why I had to leave. The truth was complicated—but isn't it always?
First, allow me to say this: that the only secret that can be successfully kept is the one that is never shared. I shared mine. A foolish decision, and one that cost me nearly everything.
It cost me you.
The bells of Val Royeaux were a great wave washing over the city, counterpoint to the choir that lifted its voice in the cathedral, singing the praises of the Maker and His Andraste. The White Divine would not be making an appearance today, but her influence could be clearly seen and felt. From the scarlet fabric that was draped behind the lectern and the altar, to the way that the wood of the benches nearly glowed with polish, the great Chantry reflected the glory of the White Divine.
Unfortunately, all of the beauty in the world could not change the fact that the building was drafty and the nave bitterly cold. Celia could see her breath as she sang the response, the ragged chorus rising from the assembled parishioners. Beside her, next to the aisle, a middle-aged woman was evidently asleep with her eyes partway open, emitting breathy semi-snores. Celia could almost envy her. Fatigue was dragging at her with leaden fingers.
For I would walk only where You bid me.
Celia resigned herself to waiting. All she had was the instruction, whispered to her by her mother years ago, that should she ever find herself in Val Royeaux she should attend a service in the great Chantry, and wear the bracelet made of braided chain that had been Celia's sixteenth birthday gift. Her mother had not been specific about what would happen after that.
She tried to take comfort in the service, but her thoughts kept straying. It had been weeks since she'd left Gwaren and taken ship to Orlais. Not so long since she had arrived in this land, with every tongue speaking Orlesian and the choirs singing from the towers all day and most of the night. Her mother had spoken so fondly of Val Royeaux; Celia was finding it overwhelming.
The woman next to her snorted and came awake as the service came to a close. The choir sang the last response, and then fell silent as the priest gave the blessing and then turned away. Celia couldn't help the disappointment that twisted in her chest. She rose and rubbed her cheeks with icy hands. She would go back to the inn. A hot meal would ease the knot in her chest, and a comfortable seat by the fire would erase the nagging pain in her hips.
"You look cold, dear," the woman who had been sleeping on the bench said, cocking her head. She was perhaps not so old as Celia had first thought; her eyes were those of a young woman, bright and avid. "Here. Take this." She unwrapped a knitted scarf from her neck, and held it out to Celia.
Her first instinct was to refuse the gift, insist she couldn't possibly take it. But the woman looked reasonably well-off, and Celia was cold. She accepted the scarf and draped it around her neck; it was made of a soft yarn dyed the color of spring catkins. "Thank you," said with gratitude unfeigned. It was the first kind thing that anyone had done for her since she had arrived.
"You're welcome," the woman said. "Have a care not to lose it, now." With that puzzling statement, she stepped into the aisle and joined the stream of people making for the great doors. She was gone within moments.
Celia also joined the throng. As she walked, she absentmindedly stroked the scarf. It yielded to her fingers pleasantly, except for a few knots within the weave. Strange. The scarf is so very well-done, otherwise...
Realization stopped her throat, slowed her footsteps. Those knots were arranged in a peculiar pattern, and her fingers knew how to read it. Ducking into an alcove that held a statue of Andraste set into the side of a building, she unwound the scarf from her neck. She found the trio of knots that marked the beginning of the knotted message at one end, and began to pull the scarf between thumb and index finger, concentrating.
These messages were always brief and abbreviated. Visin Sq. 4 dr sin. Rap 3. See Garance.
Her sprits lifted. Those were instructions. Visin Square, four doors to the left, knock three times and ask for Garance. Of course, she had to find Visin Square, and that would likely be easier said than done.
She walked through the winding streets of Val Royeaux, listening to the tumult of music above her and the rumble of life at ground level. A child squalled unseen; adults shouted at each other. She wondered if she could learn to live here, to love it as her mother had. A food vendor called out in flawlessly accented Orelsian, "Salted beef and figs fresh today, honey straight from the orchards of Mont-de-grace, apples that will make your lover swoon, sweets for your children, come and try!"
A water-seller knew where Visin Square was, and pointed the way. The fourth door from the square opening was nondescript, wood marked with peeling white paint. Celia knocked three times, and waited.
The door opened, revealing a short, round man who peered at her through half-lune glasses. "Yes? What do you want?"
"Is Garance in?" Celia asked, trying to keep her voice level.
"Garance? Hm. Don't look like his type. Still. Follow me." The man turned and plunged into the dim of the narrow house. "And close the door behind you!"
She did, a little amused. The little man led her upstairs, to a room lined with shelves of books and scrolls, a scholar's playground. There was a desk shoved against one wall, and at that desk was a man of middle years, frowning at a book as if it had personally offended him. A boy sat tailor-fashion on the floor next to him, scratching on a wax tablet with a stylus. "Garance," the man with the half-lunes said. "Company."
"Probably a good thing," the man said, and thumped the book closed. "Remy, run to Camille's house, see if there are any messages." The boy jumped up; he was a spindly thing, perhaps a few years older than Anora. He left the room with all haste, and closed the door after him.
The man at the desk stood up—and up. He was one of the tallest men Celia had ever seen. He put her in mind of a crane, an impression that the fashionable queue of his hair and his long nose did little to countermand. "And you are?" he asked. His Orlesian was accented, as if he too was not a native speaker of the language.
"My name is Celia Mac Tir," she said, opting for both honesty and boldness. "My mother's name was Jeanne d'Orise, before she married."
"I remember Jeanne." His gaze was measuring her, and Celia felt the faintest edges of nausea gripping the back of her throat. "A legendary and troublesome beauty."
"She told me that if I ever found myself here, I was to attend a service at the Grand Cathedral and wear the bracelet she gave me." She lifted her arm, to show the heavy bracelet that hung on her wrist. The braided chain glittered in the lamplight. "So I found myself, and so here I am."
"You know who she was. And what." It was not precisely a question.
She shifted her weight before she could stop herself. "The bastard daughter of an emperor. A bard." And a wife who loved her husband far too well, a bright flower among the dull fields of Ferelden. "A spy who thought it safer to settle far in the south and hope that her cousin would not come looking for her." The Empress's road to power had been lined with bodies and washed with blood, most of it of her family.
Garance drew his shoulders together and then shook like a bird settling its feathers. "So. What brings you here seeing the shelter of the fairest flowers, Celia Mac Tir?"
"My mother's past was about to become common knowledge." That poisonous little man! Who knew how long he had known, how many of his people had been installed in Gwaren, in her very household? "In itself, it would not have been that much trouble, but there was something else." She pressed one hand to her stomach, feeling the slight curve of it beneath her skirt.
"You're with child," he said, and his nostrils flared slightly. "And not by your husband, the estimable Teyrn of Gwaren."
"Indeed." I will not be ashamed. I refuse to be ashamed of a child conceived in love. "So. Garance. Will you shelter me?"
He did not answer right away. Then he asked, "How much did she teach you?"
"All she could," Celia said quietly. "I know the thirteen languages of the doorframe, and the twenty-four of the needle. I know the listening arts, and the speaking. I can compound poisons and antidotes."
"I know blades." She smiled thinly. "I play the rebec and the lute, and I'm a passable singer, though I haven't the natural talent for it."
Garance nodded, evidently satisfied. "I am not sure that Empress Celene will welcome your presence. She does not yet have a solid enough grip on her throne to welcome the reappearance of even such...distant family."
She returned his gaze with a calm look of her own. There was no question that the Empress would find out that Celia was in Val Royeaux; it was only a question how she would react. "My mother was confident that I would find welcome among her people."
"So you might." He took a long breath in. "Very well. I will arrange for your transport to one of the safe houses. Once Remy returns, I will send him with a message." He turned away. "There is tea and food in the kitchen, if you wish either."
"You knew my mother," Celia said. "Were you friends?"
He did not turn back toward her. "We were in training together. I was too young and dull for her, I fear. Send Remy upstairs when he comes in."
She did not argue with that dismissal. She stepped out of the room and went down the splintered stairs. She could almost feel this world folding closed around her, enfolding her with petals with soft surface and hidden, razored edges.
In that moment, homesickness was a physical presence in her gut. She missed Anora. She missed Loghain as well, in a way—at least, she missed the person he had been, the person he might have become in another time and place.
And she missed one other.
"It was for your own safety," she said softly, to all of them. "I would have been the blade held at your throat."
That it was true did not make it any easier to bear.
But I am getting ahead of myself.
Your brother's name is Sionn. I raised him only to know that his father is Fereldan; he does not yet know about you. It has not been safe for him to know. Not while we are still in Orlais.
He is a fine man.
He looks very much like his father.
"Are you very certain?"
"I am not blind." Celia swallowed. Her throat was painfully dry. "I have seen the two of them together. They turn to each other like flowers to the sun." Her head dipped forward, and she closed her eyes. "I was so happy that he chose me. But now—now I see why."
She glanced up into Teagan's warm brown eyes. An arl's younger brother, not yet saddled with the responsibilities of any sort of rule. He had come riding into Gwaren for the first time three years ago, escorting some trade goods from Redcliffe to the port.
Since then, he had been a frequent guest...and one of her very few confidants.
"You don't think they..." Teagan trailed off, making a questioning motion with one hand.
"I think any infidelity is only of the heart, not the body. Not that I would mind, if only that was where it began and ended!" She sighed, and slumped. An unnamable feeling had her chest in a vise grip, and every breath tightened it, forced the air from her lungs. "Marriage is an affair of state, not of the heart. But to know that I was chosen simply for my resemblance to the person my husband truly loves—that galls, Teagan. That surely galls."
"You look nothing like the Queen—well, there's a certain similarity around the eyes—"
"Ah." All the breath went out of her at once. "It is not Rowan I resemble."
The stricken look in his eyes told her that he understood, finally understood. Rage shook her, thinking of the deluded girl she had been. She'd thought she'd been so special, that the Hero of River Dane would choose her out of all of the girls in Gwaren to seal his loyalty to the lands he'd been given. But it was her mother's hair and her father's blue eyes, the set of her chin and her guileless-seeming smile, that had drawn Loghain to her.
"I do not think I have ever been loved as myself," she said, her voice soft.
"Ah, Celia." Teagan took her hands. His palms were warm against his. "Haven't you?"
And because he was there, because he was looking at her with that intent expression, she told him the rest. All of it—her Orlesian mother and the pains she had taken to hide her ancestry, what she had taught Celia, how she had died. She had lived a difficult life, and though she'd successfully hidden from many of her own bad habits for a time, it hadn't been enough.
They had found her, in the end.
And when all was told, when Celia had run out of words, she looked to Teagan. The feeling of being crushed under the weight of her secrets had been replaced by a leaden dread. Surely now he would pull away, ride back to Redcliffe, swear never to see her again.
Instead, he leaned forward. One of his hands slid along her jaw, warmth spreading from his fingers into her skin. Then his mouth was on hers, lips and tongue seeking, and finding.
She returned that kiss with a tidal ferocity, the feeling that this was somehow inevitable. She ignored the little voice that whispered in her heart, after this, he will never be the same. And neither will you.
It happened once, and once only.
That was all it took.
I do not blame your father. It took me many years to lose my anger and come to a sort of peace with the memories, to understand that he truly was doing the best he could with the terrible hand he had been dealt. He stood by you, took care of you, and in a way I am proud of him.
Together we made you. Our marriage may not have been fated to stand the test of time, but I do not regret it. I only regret that I couldn't take you with me. You would have loved Val Royeaux, Anora. The roses—ah, the roses! Late summer is a truly glorious season here. But had I taken you, Loghain would never have been content to claim I was dead and let that be an end. He would have tracked me down, followed us to the farthest corners of Thedas.
Besides. You were to be Queen of Ferelden.
The elven woman sat on a garden bench, perfectly composed. Celia seated herself across from her, settling her skirts. The sun was a bit wan, a mere shadow of what it would be a few months from now, in the height of summer.
The elf was, truly, not much to look at; small and dark, perhaps a little plump, with even features and dark hair and eyes. But it was not her looks that made her the toast of Val Royeaux. "Maîtresse Erlina," Celia said. "It is good of you to see me on such short notice."
The courtesan smiled, and in that smile was part of the secret of her appeal. Her smile transformed her face, warmed her eyes. She nearly glowed. "No trouble at all. To tell the truth, I was quite looking forward to meeting the mysterious Celia d'Orise! It is only a wonder that we have not met before."
"I do like my privacy." In truth, she was kept as far out of public view as could be managed. She, like Garance, was a handler of bards, part of the loose confederacy of the flowers. She worked from behind the scenes, and was content with that. Celene seemed to be content to ignore her presence in Val Royeaux, as long as Celia was not in sight.
Besides, being Teyrna of Gwaren for ten years had destroyed any taste she might have had for the public eye.
"So. You had a favor to ask of me? Something delicious, I hope." Erlina's eyes were alight with interest.
"Less delicious than dangerous, I fear, but I think you might find it intriguing." Celia took a long breath. "You have heard that King Maric of Ferelden has been declared dead, yes?"
Erlina inclined her head. "Such a sad story! He was never the same after his Queen died. And his son, the prince—a very dashing man, but perhaps not up to the rigors of kingship."
"Fortunately, he will have a Queen equal to the task." Of that, she had no doubt. She had consumed every scrap of news of her daughter she could find with a voracious hunger. "And the favor I have to ask of you concerns her. Anora Mac Tir will need someone to help her negotiate palace life. Someone of...certain talents."
"I see." The courtesan pursed her lips a little. "And your concern for this new queen is?"
"I was born in Ferelden. Anora is my daughter."
Erlina's eyebrows went up. "Ah! And that solves so very many mysteries. As it happens, I have reason to wish to depart Val Royeaux. If you can provide me with safe passage, I will go." She smiled again, her lush mouth curving like a drawn bow.
"Just for a few years. Just long enough to help her establish herself. There are...challenges." Celia drew a breath in. Erlina simply waited, watching her with quiet eyes. "I left Ferelden because someone had discovered who my mother was, and that I'd been...indiscreet. He would have used those two things against Anora. I believe he has used them to improve his position with my former husband, the Teyrn of Gwaren."
"Who?" Erlina asked.
"Rendon Howe. Arl of Amaranthine. And one of the most intelligent men I have ever met, much to my disgust." She folded her hands, thinking of Rendon and his unblinking gaze that always put her in mind of a hawk that the butcher had kept when she was young. It wing had been broken, and it spent its days glaring balefully and snapping its beak at anyone who dared to come too close. "He has a network of informers. Compared with the court of flowers, he is strictly an amateur, but..."
"It is Ferelden," Erlina said. "I understand. And a talented amateur can do much damage in a country that is terribly straightforward, yes? I will be on my guard."
Celia could say no more about Rendon Howe. Something had broken in Rendon irrevocably during the battle of South Reach, left him a man of frustrated, impotent desires that he sought to assuage by amassing power and wealth. Erlina would discover it for herself, soon enough. Every rumor that came out of Ferelden, of the supposed friendship between the Howe and Loghain, each story she heard of their close companionship made Celia sick to her stomach.
If she had stayed, Rendon would have destroyed them both and Anora into the bargain.
"Take care of Anora," she said, and there was more emotion in her voice than she'd meant to show. "Please. I can't be there to guard her against the threats she will not see coming."
"I swear to you, I will guard her life as my own. Do you wish me to carry a letter to her? Some proof?"
"Just this." She pulled a small knife from her sleeve. A moment later, the edge had whispered through a lock of Celia's hair, gold still undimmed by silver. She folded the lock into a piece of parchment, and handed it to the courtesan. "She will understand." I hope. Ah, Maker, I hope.
Erlina tucked the parchment into her sleeve. "The business that compels me to travel should come to a head in the next three days. Do you have passage arranged?"
Celia gave her the details, the name of a ship and a captain. Then she said, "That business you mentioned. It has to do with the Empress?"
For a moment, the elf's expression was closed, her eyes gone distant, her hands still. Then she nodded. "In my profession, it does not do to become attached. So I will go, and hope that I am forgotten."
The rumors were true, then; the Empress had a new favorite, a young elf who had until recently been under Erlina's tutelage. Celene had a habit of wanting her favorites all to herself—often to the detriment of anyone her new fascination had been involved with before her.
The Empress liked a bit of sport, and simple murder was beneath her. Instead, she would destroy her victims financially, to see how they would react. Some of them would come to her and beg for mercy. Others ran. Some simply tried to sit still, and wait for Celene's wrath to pass. It never did, not without blood to appease it.
The Maîtresse was very likely penniless, and contemplating the possibility of her own death should she linger in Orlais a little too long.
"I am sorry," Celia said, and in that moment meant every word. The woman across from her was grieving, little as she showed it—always the polished surface, the consummate actress that her profession demanded that she be. Celia fisted her hands in her skirt, an old habit that her mother would have had something sharp to say about. "Teyrn Loghain," she began, and then stopped. How to explain it? "He and King Maric were close. Maric's death..."
"He will take it hard," Erlina said, evidently reading Celia's expression.
She nodded, momentarily wordless. She had thought herself long over her former husband. But the thought of him alone, grieving the man who had been the most important person in the world to him besides Anora...Celia did not doubt that Loghain still loved Maric. He was as unwavering as a star, in that way.
He would be alone, but for Anora, and Anora was a woman grown and would soon be married. It was a peculiar emotion, something akin to pity, that moved uneasily in Celia's chest. Pity, or regret.
We were not well-suited; but that does not mean I did not love you, Loghain Mac Tir.
She said nothing, but knew that the elf who sat across from her had seen enough to come to a conclusion or two. She straightened her back. "Good travels to you, Maîtresse," she said quietly.
Erlina rose, and sank into a brief but graceful curtsy. There were footsteps, and Celia turned her head; there, just beyond the linden tree, was a familiar head. "Mama!" her son crowed as he came skidding round the corner in the path, gravel thrown up from his boots. "There you are!"
Behind Sionn came another familiar figure. Remy, over the last twelve years, had gone from a stripling lad to a handsome young man. He was aware of his appeal—a little too aware at times for Celia's tastes—but she forgave him much for the way he could make her feel when he looked at her, how good he was with Sionn.
She glanced to where Erlina had stood. The courtesan was gone, without trace left behind. "Come sit with me," she told Sionn, and patted the bench next to her. "Tell me what you have been doing."
As her son launched into a long and vivid description of his adventures ("and Remy very nearly fell in the river, Mama!") she let his presence, and that of Remy, soothe her heart. This boy was so very different than Anora, who from the first had been self-possessed and serious. Young Sionn was a climber of trees and a thrower of balls, a slayer of imaginary monsters.
She rather thought that he was much like Teagan Guerrin had been, when he was young. Or would have been if he had not grown up during the rebellion, in a time of war.
And he made her laugh, and had held her heart together when it was still breaking, and for that she was grateful. And for Remy, who would soon enough leave her for what would be the first of many assignments.
For the moment, she let herself be amused by her son, and by the smiles of her lover.
I have always listened for news of you. So many nights I stood at my window, straining my ears as if the wind itself might bring me the sound of your voice. And when I heard of the Blight, and of your father's decision to close the borders, I knew that my worst fears were coming true, that Rendon Howe's madness had finally infected your father.
And when I heard what happened to poor Cailan—ah, little one, I wish I had been able to be there. I wanted to wrap you up and take you somewhere that no one could harm you.
Then your father—
Only the closed borders, and the fact that I could not cross the Waking Sea alone, kept me from your side.
It's been too long, Anora, and cowardice has kept me away from Ferelden.
The spring rain was falling abundantly on Val Royeaux, the bells dimmed a bit by the shush and patter of falling water. There was a knock at Celia's study door, and she shoved her chair back from the desk. "Come," she called, thinking that it must be Sionn back from the market.
The opening door revealed someone far different.
She looked at her visitor, blinking only once, and set her mouth in a firm line. "You may as well come in," she said. "Have a care not to drip on the rug, Remy."
She had not seen him for five years, not since the Blight in Ferelden had been broken and Remy had been assigned to Tevinter. They had corresponded, of course, in short, coded messages.
He was hers, and that he had been removed from her immediate grasp had not pleased her. But she had made do.
Remy settled himself on a carved wooden chair. His hair was soaked, and his shirt, but other than a few lines around his eyes he looked much the same as he had five years ago. "I failed," he said, his accent clipped like a Tevinter coin. "But I gather you already knew that."
"How could you have been so foolish as to let someone get past you?" she asked. "Magister Numicius was the one person in Tevinter we could count on to be sympathetic to our interests."
"The gambit backfired," he said. "First the jeu that I helped him orchestrate failed. Rather spectacularly, I might add. Then someone traced the connection back to us. One of our own. Formerly one of our own."
"Who?" she asked, leaning in a little.
His dark eyes were calm. "Pivione."
Celia blinked. "The bearer of that name is dead, unless—"
"Her apprentice. Leliana." Remy smiled thinly. "We thought she had gone inactive. It turns out that she truly does have a new master."
"The usurper King?"
The bard shook his head. "Worse. The mage Grey Warden. Now Warden-Commander in Ferelden."
Celia narrowed her eyes. The Wardens were so often a stray arrow, an element difficult to predict in any situation. She sat back, thinking. "The news out of Ferelden these days is very strange." She turned it over in her mind. Rendon dead. Loghain dead. The only person who knew who she was Teagan Guerrin, and perhaps his older brother Eamon. The bastard King on the throne. A sundowner at large and answering not to the Orelsian nobility or the court of flowers but to a Grey Warden. Sionn grown to manhood, and chafing at the restrictions of life in Val Royeaux.
Anora locked in a tower in the middle of nowhere.
She took a sharp breath, and her decision was made. She looked at Remy, whose expression was shifting between trepidation and hope.
Their course was set.
I do not even know if you will get this letter, Anora. But if you do—
I love you.
We are coming for you.
All my love,
And thus concludes this little trio of Old Roads side stories; the first two are What Goeth Before and High and Solitary and Most Stern, both available on my profile. (And, really, hasn't anyone wondered how Teagan managed to get to his forties without being married? Heh.) This was written for the LJ community da_minorkey.