To Perish Twice
Dragon Age 2, Meredith and Orsino, anytime before Act 2. Title from Robert Frost, Fire and Ice. Even as First Enchanter, Orsino is not exempt from templar authority.
The first warning sounds that Orsino notices come from halfway down the tower.
At least half a dozen mages are shouting. Voices mix together in an erratic babble. Senior Enchanter Gracian is the loudest; again and again, her voice demands to know if anyone's seen her copy of The Alchemical Artifice, Volume 5. Like a chain of roused mabari, the cry is picked up and echoed by the other enchanters, some bored, some exasperated, all asking if anyone's seen the item that Gracian's misplaced this time.
Orsino does not leap from his chair. He does not panic. The candles on the end of his desk leak smoke in an unworried stream; he imitates them, sitting with his back perfectly straight and his expression composed. He studies the page in front of him without really seeing it, letting the neat rows of names and medicines slide out of focus. The number of entries has been increasing. More and more Tranquil are among them. The Tranquil are the hardest ones for Orsino to treat; they cannot be counted on to report what has been done to them, and so he must interview them quietly on a regular basis, asking questions that are answered placidly, with the victims completely unaware that anything is wrong.
More sounds add themselves to the chaos. Under Gracian's voice is the squawk of an escaped chicken from the kitchens, loose and flapping. In the distance, there is the riotous crash of a spell going wrong in one of the workrooms. Someone is yelling at an apprentice. Someone else is calling out for fresh laundry. It is a jangled orchestra, hard to distinguish from any other busy day in the tower, and yet the hair on the back of Orsino's neck prickles as he listens to it all combined.
There are two sets of signals in the Gallows. Orsino knows them both. The first involves obvious cues: apprentices running down the halls, mages making clumsy knocks on the bookshelves, doors being slammed. All are poor warnings. They are ineffective, easily quashed. The templars like it when they can suppress any signs of resistance. They enjoy thinking they can outwit the mages; they bask in holding the leash.
The second set of signals is quieter, subtler, hiding beneath the first. While the templars are busy chuckling at the display of guilty scrambles, the real information slips past. In the case of Senior Enchanter Gracian, the templars assume that she is losing her wits to age, judging by how often they hear her searching for stray possessions. They do not know that she can recite the entire Chant of Light backwards, that she has memorized the name of every student to enter the Gallows, and that she has never misplaced an object in her life.
It is an organic language that ebbs and flows with each year's configuration of survivors. By necessity, it is flexible enough to change overnight, to grow and be pruned as needed. It is the first conspiracy that is gifted to mages after their Harrowings; it helps bring them together even when the templars would force them into isolation. It is a unity that apostates know nothing of, living proud of their independence and hiding. Kirkwall's mages are not in any less danger from the templars. If anything, they experience far greater risks each day. But neither are they alone to suffer it.
And they are in Orsino's care. That is why he endures what he must. That is why he listens to what is coming up the stairs towards him, and why he does not run from it.
The heavy tread of the templars pulses along the stairwells as Senior Enchanter Gracian's voice dies down. One by one, all the other signals go quiet, having provided what little they can for warning. Orsino does not move. He knows that by the time the templars have climbed all the way up the tower to reach him, they will have already fanned out through the Gallows, inserting themselves as a barrier between Orsino and any mages who might seek to come to his aid.
He knows what is about to happen to him. He hears the steps pause; he hears the clink and rattle as the woman outside accepts the weight of her tools from one of the templars, and then the murmured commands for them to leave.
The door swings open.
"Knight-Commander," he says, gravely. This is how they always start.
Meredith meets his eyes without flinching. "First Enchanter."
Three steps and she's inside his room, the door shut securely behind her. Her attendants are already departing - reassigned one floor down, where they cannot hear what he and Meredith may or may not say to one another. Privacy is important for these things.
This is not Meredith's only opportunity to speak with him. Indeed, there are many days when Orsino thinks he sees her far too often. They glare at one another routinely in the Templar Hall, caught in a war of doors that alternate between open and closed. Sometimes Orsino wonders if their offices are set up that way to torment her more than him; when both their doors are propped wide, he catches her watching him frequently, pen frozen and gaze intent.
She regards him the same way now, her blue eyes cold and calculating, adding him up with imagined crimes. "This chamber was once reserved for the worst of the Gallows slaves," she remarks. "How fitting that it houses you."
He says nothing, rising to his feet. His hands go on top of the table, fingers spread and palms empty. He knows the drill.
Meredith takes her time in approaching. She makes a show of studying his hands before reaching out and turning them over, almost gently, with a care for how hard her gauntlets press against his skin. She strips Orsino of his gloves - first right, and then left, reaching into his sleeves until she can find the cuffs and peel them down like a courtesan's hose. The tendons stand out in sharp relief along Orsino's veins, revealing his tension openly. He may be able to keep his voice relaxed, but he cannot coax his body to lie. He knows she can see it.
Once his gloves are shed, Meredith reaches down and collects her bag, setting it on the table. Stitched from reinforced leather, it clinks with the weight of its contents, belly full with the night's promise.
The first set of bindings she fishes out are the simplest ones. A set of wide manacles, they go over Orsino's wrists, leashed together by a smaller chain between them. The second and third chains are longer; using her boot, Meredith flips over the edge of the carpet, exposing the floor rings that are sunk into the stone on either side of Orsino's desk. Each loop is as thick as Orsino's staff. The metal is scratched, proof of the number of prisoners that have been yoked to the floor over the years, and also proof of how none of them had been able to tear their way free.
Orsino watches with a determined sense of calm as Meredith runs the chains from the floor to his wrists, one on each side, so that he is latched in place with his hands planted in the center of the desk. The entire set of bonds is forged from simple iron; they are so crude and worn that he can guess they were among the originals forged by Tevinter hands for their pet slave-city. If he desired, he could gain more slack in their length by shoving the desk away - but that is not the nature of this game, and both he and Meredith know it.
"I could break these," he says, in idle reminder as she works.
She pauses in looping the right chain through the floor ring. "Are you so undisciplined, Orsino?"
"Are you waiting for me to be?"
She smirks, kneeling down so that she can latch the second set of restraints around his ankles: a pair of legcuffs that mimic the wrists, equally attached to the floor rings. Her hair is a veil across her jawline, escaping from its scarlet hood. The strands are golden, wispy, and warm under the light; they are strangely delicate for a woman dressed in steel.
Willpower is on his side. He does not kick her in the face.
Once Orsino is fully fettered, Meredith stands, dismissing him in the same motion. Only a glance goes down to the ledger he was working on; the nature of the medicinal list is already familiar. She picks up one of the candles instead, examining the Orlesian stamp in the wax, and then sets it back down again so that she can wander around his chamber unburdened. Disturbed from its peace, the candle sputters briefly, and then resumes a steady flame.
Spared from Meredith's direct focus, Orsino reviews what he can of her possible motivations. There have been no recent outbreaks of blood magic in the city, no abominations bursting their flesh in the middle of the Chantry. She has not demanded to search the entire tower - she is only here for his room, then, which means her visit is a matter of routine intimidation. A taste of her power, in case he has forgotten. She must already know that he stores nothing of import in his chambers, nothing that might incriminate him; she must know, and not care. The purpose of her visit is not to find something. It's to prove that she has the freedom to look.
Equally spiteful, he cannot resist an attempt to bait her. "You enter the heights of the Gallows so easily, Knight-Commander. We're far from your lair in the Templar Hall. Are you not afraid?"
"A commander must show no fear, First Enchanter." His jibe was too weak. Meredith does not even pause as she flips through a worn, bookmarked manual on herbs. "Did I interrupt you from anything particularly important?"
"Only the necessary treatment of the mages whom your templars abuse." The reply comes out like a snarl; he reins it in hurriedly, unwilling to lose his composure so easily. "It turns out that one of your templars brought an infection with him the last time he dallied here. Is it fair that we must suffer the trespasses of your loose appetites?"
"Fair?" Meredith's eyebrow lifts, arching like a drawn bow. She shuts the herbalism book shut and reaches for another. "Are such things not more bothersome for my templars than for your mages? I would have thought you more than capable of remedying such things, what with your abilities."
"It isn't a matter of being able to cure it," he snaps. "It's how my people were affected in the first place."
She makes a thin-edged smile, one that barely twitches her lips, though the smugness in her eyes gives away the true depths of her amusement. Orsino has seen such expressions many times before. But as she's smoothing out her face, there's a strange flicker: a frown that's there and gone like a lyrium hallucination, a tension that seems at odds with the satisfaction she should be enjoying at his helplessness. He cannot tell if it was deliberate. It does not match.
"Who among you is not dangerous, Orsino?" Like a serpent, she switches direction easily; the territory of this particular debate is one she has trampled over long enough that she can afford to pick her attacks at random. "Tell me. Who deserves to be free?"
Wary of her mood and his inability to read it, Orsino flings out honesty as a taunt. "All of them."
Meredith's teeth flash as she makes a harsh tch. "None of them. If they could leave their curse behind and walk out those doors without ever having magic again, we would let them go gladly. But abominations still exist. Blood mages continue to practice foul arts. If mages were allowed to blend with normal society, other people might forget how dangerous those powers are," she continues, jabbing a metal-clad finger repeatedly at the door while she speaks, as if she could stab the wood from a distance and watch it bleed. "You might forget. And then we would risk a slaughter, all because someone shortchanged a mage for two loaves of bread, and that mage happened to have a fit of temper."
The circulation in Orsino's hands has begun to tingle. The manacles are heavy, crimping the blood in his wrists. When he tries to reposition them for relief, the chains only give him half an inch of leeway. "And so you punish us in advance for crimes we have not even committed," he retorts. "Tell me, Meredith - when you beat an honest merchant for theft, how long do you expect him to remain that way?"
"Then what would you have me do instead? How can we otherwise protect you?" Meredith's boots strike the floor like paired hammers; she is pacing, gripped by a rare fit of passion that Orsino did not expect to draw out. His words have opened up a hidden artery that pumps bile instead of blood. "Consider what would happen if we did allow you to leave the Gallows. If we told the city that mages are never to be insulted, never to be distressed, then does it not become the responsibility of Kirkwall itself to see that you remain undisturbed? Would all mages be humble, and not abuse their immunity? How many would rise, becoming inflated with their own power and implied superiority?" Her sneer is rich with mockery when she turns it upon him. "I did not know you supported Tevinter standards, Orsino."
"Speak not to me of Tevinter atrocities!" He is roaring now, he is roaring, and in his mind he denies that Meredith was wise to send her people away so they could not hear, for he will allow her no wisdom. "You turn a blind eye to the atrocities that your templars commit! How are you any better than the Imperium?"
Meredith matches him note for note, her voice climbing alongside his like a pair of warring hawks. "And do you believe it is any easier on my templars, Orsino? Would you have them treat your mages kindly, only to see those same friends become monsters - and then to be forced to decide between striking their friends down, or watching them slaughter innocents? Do you think that your mages are the only ones who suffer when one turns rogue? My templars must harden their hearts, Orsino. If they do so by keeping your mages in fear, then fear must be the course!"
It is in the war of rage that Orsino decides he will claim victory first. Exhaling slowly, he inclines his head, but it is not from agreement: he simply does not know how to penetrate her stubbornness. "If we did not have such provocation, it would be simpler," he insists, wheeling the conversation back around to an earlier point in hopes of reclaiming ground. "Can you not see how straining a person's will only drains it that much faster?"
There. Again, a flash of something in Meredith's eyes, a tightening, a burst of some emotion that he cannot interpret. It is there and gone like summer lightning, a byproduct of an invisible storm. "We place you under extraordinary strain because we have to, Orsino," she whispers, her fury forced down so tightly that she almost appears serene. Almost. "Those who cannot endure the templars will never be able to endure their own curse."
With that, she takes one step away, and then another, and then Orsino forgets the rest of the room as Meredith whirls and stalks directly towards him. The joints of her armor slide like the scales of a dragon. Her gaze is fixed on his; it does not waver. She plants her hands upon the desk. Gauntleted fingers brush his own, metal digits interlacing flesh. She leans in.
"How about you?" she murmurs, each word a low-pitched challenge. "How well are you enduring?"
This close, the scent of her thickens the air. Orsino inhales her with each breath that he takes. He can smell the oils of her armor; the chain and leather are soaked with it. "I am still standing here," he grits out. "Aren't I?"
Mercurial as the most delicate of spells, Meredith's gaze lingers on him before darting away. But she simply turns to pick up the nearest candle, contemplating it for a second time, and with far more interest. Light jitters across the room as she slides the taper out of its holder. The motion weeps wax erratically, leaving melted, cream-colored bulges down the candle's length.
She swings the naked taper around in a slow arc, and for an instant - a crazed, yet realistic instant - Orsino wonders if she will set his desk on fire while he is still latched across it.
His fears are only partially relieved when she turns the candle towards his hands.
Without wasting time on threats, Meredith brings the flame close and tips it to the side. Wax splashes on Orsino's exposed skin. He cannot help the hiss that breaks from his mouth. He clamps down on it instead and crushes it between his teeth. The small, smug curve of Meredith's lips is the only reward for his efforts.
"If you offended me," she begins, as conversational as if she were discussing the duty roster at breakfast, "all I could do would be to defend myself with a sword. A dangerous weapon, true. But only metal. Yet, if I offended you," the candle tilts again, "you could slaughter me with an idle flick of your finger, along with half the guards around me. The willpower it must take each day to resist this is... astounding."
Orsino does not answer. His attention is claimed entirely by the sight of the wax slithering in abbreviated trails on his skin. Where the fluid hits the cooler manacles, it hardens like a glue between him and the metal. The cuffs are slender, forged for the delicate wrists of an elf; they are the same ones Meredith uses on him every time. He wonders if she saves them just for him.
Meredith takes his silence as the totality of his response, and splits it open to find further excuse. "You do not submit to me, Orsino. Perhaps you should."
The wax itches. Heat crawls over Orsino's body in thin slices; despite his best attempts to ignore the pain, it is becoming harder and harder to keep from wincing. "I bow my head to Chantry rules, do I not?"
Her lips firm. Without warning, she yanks on the upper fastenings of his jacket, opening the hood wide; the stays of his collar go next. Grasping the edge of the embroidered cloth, Meredith circles around him, pulling as she goes. Both sets of sleeves bunch against Orsino's shoulders. Fabric pins his elbows back, splaying his arms, leaving his throat open to the cool tongue of the air.
Her voice is smooth, barely tainted by the violence of her hands. "A city guard pays particular attention to those who may harbor criminal intent. Sanitariums exist to corral those who are mad. We templars must keep vigil over anyone who possesses magic. Every life has the opportunity to work against its own proclivity for weakness, First Enchanter. Yet, until that breaking point is passed, it can be impossible to tell who will snap and who will hold strong." Another hard tug, and the ring of Orsino's jacket is down past his waist, his back arching against the pressure. "Mages have the ability to destroy so very much when they do collapse. If I had powers, would you not wish me restrained, Orsino? If you held the chains, would you not wish the freedom to do this?"
In illustration, she prowls back around, entering Orsino's field of vision once more. Metal fingers run down his chest, finding the laces at the front of the robe and popping them open. With a few brutal twists, Meredith strips back his layers, baring the rest of his torso in a nest of crumpled cloth.
A single candle is the least of what Orsino has had to endure in his life as a mage. When he sees her bring the flame closer, he chokes back a laugh; even a novice recruit could be more creative for their torments. The temperature should not have been intolerable - but Meredith's hand dips the wick closer, and then closer still, so that the heat dances perilously alongside his skin. Drip by drip, she colors him, her face showing no emotion as she works. Patience makes her methodical. She does not waste effort in scattering the wax, but directs it like treacle syrup, rotating her wrist slowly as the flame laps at the taper's crown. Wax pools and runs down the crevices of Orsino's collarbones. One by one, hot points blossom on his body like the tips of fat needles being driven into his flesh.
With gritted teeth, he reminds himself that he has faced demons before. He has fought abominations. He has taken fireballs head-on and spent days in the infirmary to show for it; a candle is the smallest of offenses in comparison. It should not mark him badly, should not be hot enough to blister - though it might, it might, and Meredith is careless enough to inflict permanent harm, careless enough to set the flame to him directly if she is bored enough. Even so. A candle is a small thing.
But it is in Meredith's hands, and he is in Meredith's hands, and he can do nothing about it - and just like that, his resolve for immobility breaks. An animal's panic surges up to replace it. He arches and flexes his shoulders, trying to shed the knots of heat, hating the thought of her staining the fibers of his clothes, defiling the crimsons and golds and greys. Humiliation tightens his chest. He will have to clean up for hours after this, all because of her childish malice; he will have to think about her with every melted clump he peels away.
She does not chide him for struggling. She pulls the candle back far enough to keep it from being knocked aside, and only watches him thrash. "If our positions were reversed," she remarks curiously, "would you not want to put me under the flame?"
"No," Orsino manages, once he has mastered himself enough to speak evenly. "I would use ice."
In Meredith's grip, the taper flicks away, arrested in its work by sheer bewilderment. He forges ahead. "Ice burns, but it numbs a person as well. It stings the flesh, yet leaves no welts behind. Under the influence of ice, you shiver. You tremble," he spits out, ignoring how his body was doing exactly that, "and your muscles clench, completely out of control, utterly helpless - and yet, the only outward evidence of what you endure is blanched skin, dripping wet. I would use ice on you, Meredith. I would summon layers upon layers of it, and wrap it 'round your flesh until your own body heat shapes your prison, melted smooth around your body like a second skin, even as you beg and rub mindlessly against it in search of relief."
Spots of color are in her cheeks by the time he has finished. In truth, he falls silent only because he has run out of proper imagination to torture her with. There is nothing left inside him now but a hollowness that comes from a body that is trying to shut down to avoid further pain, willing even to shed hatred in exchange for survival.
Her hand goes on the back of his head, bowing him forward; when he resists, she twists her fingertips into his scalp, ripping at the hairs until pain waters his eyes. As soon as his shoulders slump, she braces one of her elbows on his spine, and lets the candle drip onto his neck.
Pain rakes across Orsino's nerves. Unseen, the wax sears like a brand. Though his mind can assess the threat, his instincts have control; he hears himself make a sharp, undignified cry, feels his muscles contort. The candle drips again. His hips slam into the desk, bruising the bones. Strapped to his wrists, the chains sing with iron tongues. His hands instinctively try to lift, only to be brought up short against the restraints. Meredith's hand weighs like a boulder on his skull.
When the next spatter comes, he jerks; he is panting now, willingly bending forward to try and retreat from the source of pain. His shoulders hunch. Wax curls down his throat as his face presses against the wood of his desk. His voice is lost among the papers.
Meredith follows him down. She leans onto the desk, the hard ridges of her armor creasing his shoulderblades. Her arm is over his back. Her hair tickles his skin.
"If I told you to do it," she whispers into his ear, "would you break your chains now?"
He gasps enough breath into his throat to shape an answer. "I will not give you the pleasure of seeing me lose control."
She is utterly, absolutely still for a moment. Then she draws back, letting go abruptly, leaving his body aching everywhere that she has touched it. "How good for you then, First Enchanter," comes the detached reply. Her tone is as incomprehensible as ever, as alien to Orsino as sun is to shadow. "Your will remains strong. How very good," she adds, with the gentleness of a cobra, "for us both."