Sometimes it's hard to tell the truth from the lie
Nobody knows what's in the hold of your mind
We are all buildings and people inside
Never know who walks through the door
Is it someone that you've met before?
—Little Bird, The Weepies
Solona wrapped her arms around her legs and tucked her chin between her knees. She needed to fall asleep, but her eyes felt pinned open wide.
If she found the noises of the great outdoors foreign and alarming, nothing prepared her for the sounds of a city at night. It was loud and that was a problem.
She needed to escape into the Fade, post haste, and hope against hope that Mister Glowy Mahogany Hair was around, just like he hadn't been these past few months when she could have fucking used him.
Getting worked up wasn't going to help her situation. She needed to close her eyes and relax. She couldn't afford to just hop into the Fade. It would nearly drain her mana with no convenient tears of the Veil through which to slip, and she had no idea how long she'd have to wait for her friend to show up...
She sighed, wondering if she'd ever manage to relax enough to sleep. She considered shifting into a mouse, but though Morrigan never warned of it she was afraid of going to sleep and waking up and forgetting she'd ever been human. The thought made her shudder.
She closed her eyes and buried her face in her arms, trying to block out the noise. Not for the first time she thought that her particular brand of special snowflake magic was worse than just dangerous—it was utterly useless when she needed it most.
"Can't you just pop us all into the Fade sometime when we're fighting? Why don't you ever do that?"
"What the fuck good would that do?" Solona gruffed, earning her some scandalized looks from the gentry seated around them. She ignored them in favor of taking another long pull from the tankard in her fist.
Alistair shrugged. "I don't know—once we're there can't you just...manipulate the Fade?"
"Manipulate the Fade...you mean create some kind of nightmare landscape and frighten the bad guys to death?"
Solona shook her head. "Meanwhile, I'm attracting every demon in shouting distance by tinkering with time and space just for funsies." Alistair opened his mouth to continue but she held up a hand. "Not to fucking mention while we're off in la-la land, our bodies are still lying on the ground defenseless back in the real world."
Alistair put up both hands in a placating gesture. "Alright. I get it. Knocking a bunch of us into the Fade—not so useful. Still, though, what about the whole dream thing." He leaned forward with his elbows resting on the table. "Elissa said you can kill someone in their dreams."
She mirrored his action, leaning forward herself. "So?"
His eyes bulged out. "So? How is that not useful? You could..." He stole a glance around the room, before turning back to her and speaking in a hushed whisper. "You could kill Loghain for us in the Fade. End this whole thing."
Solona didn't miss the anger in his tone and she could sympathize—she kind of wanted to choke the bastard to death herself. "First of all, no I actually can't, but even if I could, Elissa doesn't want me to." Alistair looked confused. She shrugged a shoulder. "Elissa thinks Loghain showing up mysteriously dead is just going to look bad for you...um, I mean us Wardens. She says they'll just pin it on us and we won't have any...what the fuck word did she use? Oh yeah, legitimacy." Solona didn't really understand Elissa's reasoning, but she didn't really have to. It didn't matter anyway. "And even if she wanted me to, I couldn't."
"Do you have any idea how big the fucking Fade is?" He gave her a blank look. "Right! Nobody does. It's not even corporeal. It's ethereal, ever-shifting, infinite...forget being able to kill Loghain in the Fade, how the fuck am I supposed to find him?"
Alistair blinked at her a few times. "I never thought about that."
"'Course you didn't. You're not even a mage." She lifted the tankard to her lips and drank. This was number four, she thought. Enough to make her head feel delightfully fuzzy and to loosen up her tongue. "Didn't you ever wonder why we had to go all the way back to Redcliffe to save Connor?"
Alistair stared into his tankard for a few seconds before looking up. "You couldn't find him in the Fade otherwise?"
"That's right. Fortunately the veil was paper thin in Redcliffe by the time we got there—made it much easier for me to cross through, and the tears in the veil helped me locate the demon." She shrugged. "I know it seemed simple at the time, but if the Veil hadn't been so thin at both the Tower and the Castle, I'd have never been able to do what I did."
Alistair considered the limitations of her abilities by frowning into his tankard, leaning back against the highback bench of the booth they sat in. "So..." Here it comes, Solona thought. "If it's so hard to find another dreamer in the Fade, how'd you do it before?" He cocked his head to the side and regarded her with a little frown. "You said you've been in one other dream, back at the Tower."
It was a warm day and the cold ale made her tankard sweat. She made crescent shaped patterns on the table as Alistair talked. "Right. That." She set her tankard down. "That was an accident."
Her lips twitched into a grin even as she rolled her eyes. Alistair could be funny, when he wasn't glaring suspiciously at everybody. Getting a few drinks into him certainly didn't hurt. "Alright, you want all the gory details I take it? Fine, what the fuck? I'll tell you."
What did it hurt? Everyone already knew she was a dreamer. She didn't really have to hide anymore. Much.
He leaned forward again and so did she, lowering her voice. "So it wasn't until six months or so ago that I really started being able to control my ability. I didn't really... understand what I was. I just knew that my nightmares seemed so much worse than everyone else's."
"But then one day I figured out how to hide from the demons, and I realized that I could block them out." That was mostly the truth. Close enough, anyway. "I...found a book on somniari, and I started wondering if that's what I could be." She licked her lips and looked around. Even this edited version of her story was somewhat damning, and she'd never shared it with a single soul before. "Apparently, dreamers of old needed some kind of a connection with a person in order to hop into their dreams. You need to...you need to know them, feel something or other about them and somehow use that to find them."
Alistair frowned. "That sounds... incredibly vague."
"You're telling me? I was reading some historian's best guess at how the dreamers of ancient Arlathan communicated. It wasn't exactly a practical guidebook."
"So that's why you can't find Loghain? You don't feel anything about him?"
"Oh I feel lots, don't worry. But I've never met the guy. I have a half formed idea of what he even looks like."
"Fair enough. But you said it was an accident..."
"Right, I'm getting to that. Anyway, I wasn't convinced that I was right, to tell you the truth. I wanted it to be true, I guess, so that I could finally have a name for this whole thing. But I didn't really believe it would work. Not truly." She met his gaze with a pleading one of her own. If he believed nothing else about her tale, she wanted him to believe this. "I would have never done it if I would have thought for one second that it would really work."
His eyes went wide. "What did you do?"
She looked away. "One night when I was in the Fade, I started... thinking about my best friend. I just focused on her—everything I knew and felt and I...I thought that if I really was a dreamer, she'd be the best one for me to test it out on." She took another pull on her tankard, hating the way her heartbeat sped up and her stomach sank at the thought of Neria. "Being able to focus on her like that...it worked. The next thing I knew...I was in her dream."
She fell silent and went back to moving her tankard across the table, making rings in the wood. Alistair cleared his throat. "Was it a bad one?"
She set the tankard down again and then crossed her arms over her chest. "Not particularly. Not at first. You know, dreaming for a mage is a bit different than it is for you mundanes. It's still... weird and it can be nonsensical, but we at least know we're dreaming." She hesitated, a moment, frowning down at the table. "When I found Neria, she didn't know it was really me." She swallowed the lump in her throat at the memory. "She thought I was a demon sent to torment her using the visage of her best friend."
The breath Alistair sucked in at that was loud enough for Solona to hear. "Why would a demon torment her with your form?"
Her lips twisted into a sneer. "That's a good question. Turns out, Neria wasn't who I thought she was. At all."
The moon hung large in the sky, its pale light glittering over sand and water. Solona looked around, blinking in confusion.
She never dreamt of beaches, having never seen one herself.
Someone gave a disgusted snort behind her. She whirled around to see Neria sitting not five feet away from her, dusky feet buried in the white sand. The moonlight made the elf's white hair positively glow. "Not you again. Don't you demons ever get tired of mining that well? It's not going to work."
Solona froze, eyes going wide. She spared a glance for herself and saw that she was dressed in the same flimsy white dress that Neria wore. Its neckline, if you could call it that since it came nowhere near her neck, left the tops of her breasts exposed, and the bodice was tight enough to make them sit high on her chest in two plump mounds.
She raised an eyebrow at the get-up. Neria's dress was just as tight, and Solona's pulse quickened at the thought that this was a vision wrought from the pretty elf's sub-consciousness.
But any quickening of pulse or breath was premature—Solona's eyes met Neria's and found nothing but bored disdain in their black-green depths.
Solona crossed her arms to her chest; the wind of the Fade blew just as cool on her skin as actual wind. "Why do you think I'm a demon?"
Neria huffed a breath and leaned back, propped up by her elbows. The wind made her shimmering white dress cling to her petite curves, but if Neria felt cold, she didn't show it. She cocked an eyebrow up at Solona. "Alright, fine. If this little act of yours makes you feel hopeful...so be it." She took a deep breath. "You and all your demon brethren think that if I'm reminded of my imminent betrayal of Solona, I'll be so wracked with guilt that I'll succumb to the bliss of your power, or some such nonsense. And I'm telling you, play dumb all you want, it's not going to work. I don't feel guilty at all."
Solona could have sworn that her face went numb. Imminent betrayal? "How are you going to betray her?"
Neria let her head drop backward, exposing a long expanse of the smooth, dark skin of her neck while she gazed up at the stars. "Jowan and I are going to escape the Tower without Solona."
It felt like the beach had been set to spinning. A parade of increasingly intense emotions shot through her in quick succession—shock, anger, and then sickening hurt. "But...why?"
Neria moved to a sitting position. "Because, Solona. You're not a particularly good mage, in case you haven't noticed." Her face was expressionless, as if this entire conversation was so utterly beneath her. "You're a decent healer, I'll give you that, but so am I. Your primal magic is weak, you can barely cast a hex at all...you're just kind of... useless."
Hot tears prickled at Solona's eyes and she felt her chest tighten as Neria continued to stare up at her as if she were no more important than a piece of furniture. "How...how can you say all that?"
Neria made a tsk noise with her tongue. "Oh Solona. You are a very sweet girl. And we've had some fun. But really, it's for the best if you stay behind. I don't think you'll last in the outside world very long at all." She shrugged, and the condescending sympathy on her face made Solona's gut twist painfully. "You're just not good enough."
Solona couldn't breathe. This was all so surreal. It was impossible to rectify this cold, calculating woman with the image of Neria in the real world. She was always smiling, always sweet, always made Solona feel that when they were together, they were the only two people in the entire world... But this was the true Neria, a part of her understood, uncloaked in front of her for the very first time.
She shook her head. "You're wrong, Neria. You don't even know." A bubble of hysterical laughter escaped her. It really was rather ironic, wasn't it? "You think I'm not special, that I can't do anything. But nothing could be further from the truth!"
Neria sat there staring up at her, unmoved by Solona's words. She had to wonder what the demons who'd masqueraded in her form must have done in order to try to get Neria to break. The thought made her stomach lurch.
They are going to leave me. "Please, Neria. You can't just leave me here without you and Jowan. I can't stay here by myself." She knelt in front of Neria, and reached out to shake the skinny elf by her dainty shoulders. "I am not useless!"
The instant her fingers made contact with the skin of Neria's shoulder everything changed.
The entire world went flat and then there was a vertigo-inducing lurch, and she was suddenly seeing everything in duplicate—she saw through her own eyes, and she saw through Neria's as well.
What is this?
Solona didn't know to whom the thought belonged and in the next second a lifetime's worth of memories flooded her consciousness and she could do nothing but gape dumbly at the whirl of images and emotions flying through her mind and body.
So much pain. And hatred. And penetrating sadness. But beneath it all...a cold, black...void.
Solona gasped, and then let go of Neria, and then she was falling, falling...
"And then I guess I woke myself up," Solona finished. She'd given Alistair a brief summary of the dream—leaving out a few things, of course. "By the next morning I'd half convinced myself that I'd been dreaming the whole time—that the whole thing was some elaborate trick of a demon on me."
"Wow," Alistair said, blinking into his empty tankard. "That's a hell of a story." He frowned then, and cocked his head to the side, giving a little snort and shooting a disbelieving look at her. "Why are you telling me all this?"
The waitress arrived just then. "Another round for you two?"
Alistair looked about to object, so Solona cut in before he could. "Two more, please. And thanks."
His objection must not have been all that strong because he shrugged and leaned forward, still apparently enthralled in Solona's story.
"You haven't even heard the best part."
Alistair's eyes went wide and Solona had to fight a smile. Maybe it was the ale. Maybe Alistair was a decent listener. Whatever it was, it felt good to confide this secret of hers—even as edited as it was (there was no need to tell him everything)—it was a bit of a relief to finally share that awful experience with someone.
He even looked sympathetic. Solona had to wonder if that would last when she finished the story. "So the next day, I could barely look at Neria. I wanted to believe that I'd invented the whole thing in my own dream, but deep down, I knew better. And then..." She shook her head, her mouth gone dry at the memory. "We're sitting there in the library, just me, Jowan, and Neria, and she leans over and tells me that we need to talk, that there's something she and Jowan need to tell me."
Alistair's eyebrows shot upward. "Oh yeah?" he said, before giving a smile to the waitress as she set two more tankards of ale in front of them and then took away their empty ones.
"Yeah." Solona's mouth set into a grim line. "She told me that she and Jowan and his Chantry girlfriend had hatched a plan to escape and they wanted me to come along. Neria had it all planned out...we were all going down to the basement together to destroy our phylacteries and escape."
"Huh." Alistair wore a thoughtful frown as he held his tankard halfway between the table and his mouth. "So she changed her mind?"
Solona glared at him while he drank. "No. Don't you get it? I changed her mind."
Alistair lowered his tankard. "Oh."
"Yeah." Solona took a healthy pull, hoping to drown the lump that wanted to lodge permanently in her throat. It was no picnic, dredging up feelings and memories of Neria that she'd just as soon forget.
A whole chain of rings decorated the wooden table before Alistair spoke again. "So how do you know she didn't just change her mind on her own? How do you know it was you?"
Solona frowned. This was a question she puzzled over herself. "Well, it wasn't just the fact that she told me. It was...it was the way she looked at me." She glanced up, wary of his response but he just looked at her in curious sympathy. She let out the breath she was holding. "I don't know how to describe it. But she looked at me differently." Like I was a puzzle worth solving. "It scared me. Because...because I think I did convince her that I wasn't so useless, that there was more to me than she knew. But...for Neria... it was like she'd thought of that all on her own." Solona frowned, running the pad of her finger over a wet circle until it was divided in half. "Like it was all her idea to look closer into my story. She started asking me questions."
Alistair leaned forward. "Did she figure out what you can do?"
"I don't think so. But it felt like she was going to, and that scared the shit out of me. After learning what kind of person she was in her dream..."
She didn't tell Alistair of the sinking certainty she had felt that Neria would uncover her secret, and once knowing it, use her considerable power over Solona to convince her to use her abilities toward any end Neria saw fit.
It scared the hell out of her and she had known then that what her friend had told her was true: if people knew about her they would want to use her toward their own ends.
She couldn't let that happen.
Alistair cut in to her reminiscing. "So what did you do?"
The glass in Solona's throat remained even after another long pull from her tankard. Staring at the fading chain of watery rings strewn across the table, she confessed. "I went to Irving and turned Jowan and Neria in."
Alistair's mouth gaped open wide and his eyes went round. "Andraste's elbows! I wasn't expecting that."
She couldn't meet the Templar's gaze. Why was she doing this again? She was definitely drunk. How else could she tell him about all this? Oh, but it had been on purpose, she remembered, taking a deep breath and trying to clear her head. "I...didn't know what else to do! I thought he might help them, instead he just... he just wanted to make sure that cow Lily got an equal share of the blame."
A low whistle escaped Alistair's lips. "Well," he said, a beat later. "I can't really say I blame you. You did what you were supposed to do in that situation."
"Yeah, well, I did what I did, and I'm not proud, and frankly, I wish I'd never even known about the whole thing and that the two of them had just escaped into the night and left me behind."
The silence stretched on for several minutes after that; Alistair seemed lost in his thoughts and Solona waited patiently for the question she was sure would come next. He set his tankard down and leaned forward, folding his arms atop the table. "So that's why you hate using your abilities?"
There it is. Good. Maybe this would finally convince the suspicious Templar that she wasn't a threat. She leaned forward and met his eye. "If I had my way, I'd never use them again."
He turned his head and looked at her out of the corner of his eye. "Really? It isn't... tempting at all? Knowing that you could change a person's mind without them even knowing?"
A wave of nausea washed over her as she remembered the sensation of joining minds with Neria in her dream. "It was awful. For one brief moment I had complete access to the...to the totality that is another person's mind." And it didn't help that she was a bloody sociopath to boot, she thought, but didn't say.
In any case, she was telling the truth when she said she didn't want to use her powers again. "Assuming that I could? I'm still not quite sure how I did what I did with Neria. And frankly, I don't want to learn. Digging into a person's mind and twisting their motivations to your own ends?" She leaned forward, gripping the edge of the table with her hands. "If I do that, how am I any different than a demon?"
"I'm a...I'm a monster."
The man with the mahogany hair chuckled and then shook his head, fixing a sympathetic look on Solona. "No, my dear. You are not a monster. You're so much more than that. Don't you see? We both are. We're special, you and I. Gifted." His face grew serious and his eyes hardened. "You should not turn your back on such a blessing."
"I... I guess I didn't think of it that way." Alistair's hazel eyes searched her face, brows pulled together in a thoughtful frown. After a few seconds he seemed to relax and offered her a small smile. "Good to know you're not hankering to come hang out in my skull anytime soon."
Some of the tension drained away at his humor. She cocked an eyebrow at him. "Who wants to hang out in an empty room anyway?"
"Oh, very funny. Ha ha ha." Alistair cocked his head to the side. "So what happened? You obviously didn't escape the Tower..."
"Oh right! This is the best fucking part of all. You're going to love this. So, I go to Irving and tell him what's up and he tells me to go along with it all and he'll handle it. The four of us—Jowan, Neria, Lily and me—head down to the catacombs to look for our phylacteries. We find Neria's and we find Jowan's—no problem. Mine? Nowhere to be fucking found."
"So you destroyed their phylacteries?" Alistair said with a wince.
She hesitated, not missing the hint of disapproval. "They did. 'Course at the time, I figured it didn't matter much because I didn't think we'd get away with it." She took a deep breath and let it out, exhaling slowly. "Anyway, we had just stepped foot back on the first floor and we see that Irving and a bunch of Templars are waiting for us, along with this big strapping blond fella I didn't recognize."
"So Irving told Gregoir?"
She nodded. "Jowan freaked out when he saw the Templars... that's the first time I saw him use blood magic." She looked off to the side, shaking her head slightly. "That had to be Neria's doing—I can see that now. He'd have never taken up with it if it wasn't for her influence."
Alistair didn't look too convinced but she let the matter drop, not caring to launch into yet another defense of her oldest friend. "Anyway, Jowan got away but the rest of us were stuck. Gregoir was all set to have Neria sent away to Aeonar, when the blond stranger piped up. Said he was with the Grey Wardens, and that they could use someone with Neria's abilities."
Alistair's face screwed up in confusion. "Grey Wardens? What? There were no—"
Solona held up a hand and laughed. "Oh, trust me—you're going to want to hold your questions till the end." She took another drink from her tankard, a little amazed at how amused she felt about the whole thing now. The drink and the knowledge of how things eventually got resolved helped her find the humor in the situation. "I had no idea that the Wardens were at Kinloch Hold, but once I found out I was just about beside myself with excitement. I kind of had a...fascination with the Order when I was a kid. I had this whole fantasy that I'd be able to Join and escape the Circle someday, but I never dreamed that it might come true."
"You did?" There was admiration in Alistair's gaze, if Solona wasn't mistaken, and she couldn't help but find that encouraging.
"I did. And Neria knew it." She gritted her teeth, remembering what it was like to have the possibility materialize before her eyes only to have it snatched away a moment later. "But this big Ander fella... Sven or Hans or something like that...he wanted nothing to do with me. Pulled the Rite of Conscription to recruit Neria, but flat out refused to recruit me."
She could see that Alistair was dying to ask a question, but he stayed quiet, waiting for her to continue. She took another long pull on her tankard and set it down, running her sleeve across her mouth to wipe it.
"So that was that. Neria hugged me, said all this fake sweet shit, and left that night with the Warden. And I went back to the Circle without my two best friends."
"Sounds like you were better off," Alistair muttered into his tankard.
She narrowed her eyes but thought better of correcting him. It didn't matter now, anyway. "Afterward, I wondered...it seemed far too coincidental that a Grey Warden happened to be in the Tower the night Neria wanted to escape. I couldn't help wondering if she'd known, somehow, that he was going to be there."
"But, we never even sent a Grey Warden to the Circle!" Alistair didn't seem able to keep it in any longer. "Last I heard, Duncan had sent a letter about visiting, but I never heard if there was a response, and then he decided to go to Highever instead."
Her lips curved into a smirk in spite of herself. "Just listen...so a few weeks go by and then I hear that the army wants mages for a battle against darkspawn to the south—a request of the king and the Grey Wardens. Once I heard that, I volunteered to go."
Alistair's eyebrows rose. "You wanted to see Neria again?"
"I wanted answers. I wanted to know if she really went through with it. And I wanted to know if she survived."
Alistair's posture went rigid. "Oh, right," he said, not meeting her eye. His brow pulled together in another frown an instant later. "The only Warden we had from the Anderfels was a short, stout redheaded—"
"Ex-fucking-actly," Solona said, slamming her tankard on the table and drawing a few more stares from the patrons around them. Neither she nor Alistair gave them any attention; they were both too wrapped up in her tale. "Imagine my surprise when I get to Ostagar, and there's no fucking Sven or Hans or whatever the fuck his name was, and definitely no fucking Neria!"
For the second time tonight Alistair looked stunned. "Damn."
Solona smiled into her ale as she lifted the tankard to drain it. It was a hell of a yarn—even she could see that. And it was the truth. Not the whole truth, maybe, but still. "So now, maybe you can drop the whole suspicious act and just... get over your little problem with me?"
His head actually jerked up in surprise. "What? My what? I don't have a problem with you."
Her chin dropped. "Don't even try to deny it! You've been an absolute prick ever since you found about me." She crossed her arms over her chest. "You think I'm...sullying your heroic order or something, don't you?"
For the third time that day, Alistair stared at her with his mouth gaping open. He recovered quickly, however, snapping his mouth closed and running his hand over his face. "It's...not that. I swear. I don't have any problem with you being a dreamer. Or a mage, for that matter."
I told you that whole story for nothing? It was her turn to stare. "Well, then what the fuck is your problem with me?"
At least he didn't try to deny that there was one—he looked far too guilty for her to buy that, anyway. He shifted around in his seat, clearly uncomfortable at this turn in the conversation. "It's not a problem with you at all...not really. It's more of a problem between me and Elissa, honestly." At her silent glare he gave a deep sigh and went on. "It's the way you were recruited. It's just...it's just not the way we're supposed to do things."
She frowned as she studied his face, trying to figure out what he was worked up about. "How do you mean?"
He took a huge breath and then let out in a noisy sigh. "Well, for one thing, you're not supposed to know the things you know." He met her gaze then, and his mouth was set in a thin, grim line.
Oh. "The Joining. I'm not supposed to know what it is."
He shrugged. "Typically we don't tell recruits anything about it until it's happening. That's just the way it's supposed to work."
She had to admit, it made sense. Alistair's reverence for the Order was obvious—of course he'd be uncomfortable with deviating from tradition, even though he and Elissa were all that was left of Ferelden's Grey Wardens. "Well, look," she said, feeling suddenly magnanimous. "We don't even have the means to do a Joining, according to Elissa. So, there's no real point in worrying about it now, is there?"
He met her gaze and seemed to hold his breath for a few seconds before letting it out. "You're right. Of course. Best to not dwell on it."
With that he raised the tankard to his lips and drank, casting his gaze around the other patrons at the bar.
They should probably get up and get going, but there was something in the Templar's demeanor that didn't quite sit right, and she couldn't let it alone. "You know, any one of us could die at any time. Elissa says that often enough."
He met her gaze and seemed to freeze for a few seconds. "Right," he said evenly. "You're right, of course."
The delicate way he was speaking rankled her. It was a little rich that the source of their conflict was this looming test that he and Elissa had already passed. That was the rub of it, wasn't it? That was the dividing line between them, and she was a fool not to see it before. She wasn't a real Warden.
Solona's chin jutted out. "I'm not afraid to die, you know. I've passed my Harrowing—I could've died then too, but I didn't. The Joining won't be the first time I've had a life or death test."
"It's not a damn test Solona," Alistair snapped. "And even if it was, I'm not worried about you failing it. I'm worried that you..." He trailed off, rubbing his forehead with a frown. "Never mind."
He kept his gaze trained on the table, reaching for his tankard and drinking from it.
Solona stared at him. He wasn't worried about her dying from the Joining? She leaned forward, forcing him to catch her eye. "You're worried about what?"
"Nothing. Just forget I said anything. Come on. Finish your drink and let's go."
She really had had too much ale because the tavern was positively spinning when they got up to leave. But it wasn't the alcohol that set her mind to racing. I'm not worried about you failing. I'm worried that you... That she what? That she would survive it? That didn't make any sense, but there were only two possibilities to consider when imagining her future hypothetical Joining. Either she survived, or she didn't. Right?
She stumbled after Alistair as he pushed open the heavy wooden door of the tavern, letting in the bright afternoon sun. Her eyes teared up at the sudden light, and it took her a few seconds before they adjusted again.
Alistair seemed to be walking a lot steadier than her. She was almost as tall as him, but his extra mass kept him from reaching quite her state of inebriation. "Alistair," she said, pulling on his arm to get him to stop. "Wait."
He looked over at her, rubbing the back of his neck. "Come on. We spent far too long in there. We ought to be heading back—"
She stared up at him, annoyed that he seemed so sober when her brain was spinning in mush. Frowning up at him she tried to focus on his face. It was blurrier than she would have liked. "You're not afraid of me dying and you're not afraid of me not dying. So what is it?"
He winced at her, but before he could respond the door to the tavern banged open and a man with silver blond hair and shining armor stepped out into the street.
The next thing Solona knew, they were spitting words back and forth at the graying knight about Ostagar, and Loghain and the Wardens, and she probably should have tried harder to stop it from happening, but her brain was too full of drink and insistent questions to do more than meekly object when Alistair agreed to step behind the tavern and fight the man in a duel.
She followed, knowing it was a terrible idea and doing nothing to stop it. As she watched Alistair and the knight begin to circle each other she tried once again to finish Alistair's sentence. I'm not worried about you failing. I'm worried that you...
Alistair neatly side stepped the older man's assault, bringing up his shield in a fierce and effective counter move.
They don't tell the recruits ahead of time. A stone of ice settled in her stomach as Alistair increased the frequency and ferocity of his attacks, apparently venting all his rage and grief over Ostagar on the poor fool who'd picked the exact wrong time to push his buttons.
He's worried that I'll chicken out. It came to her with a sickening lurch as Alistair drew first blood, slicing open the man's arm with a quick strike of his sword. And though it was never spelled out in any of the books she'd read, and she'd never had cause to wonder about it before, now, it seemed obvious: if she lost her nerve and balked at drinking from the cup, Alistair would...
Because, of course it'd be him. He's the Templar.
Maybe it shouldn't have mattered—certainly it shouldn't have if she was half as committed to being a Warden as she'd led Elissa and Alistair to believe. But the truth was, recognizing how Alistair perceived his duty while watching him thoroughly trounce a seasoned warrior in a battle to the death made it suddenly apparent that she wasn't all that committed to the idea of being a Warden after all.
She made a snap decision. Alistair's back was to her, so it was nothing to simply slip away behind the crowd, dash off into a dark corner, shape-shift into a mouse...and flee.
The gazebo sat at the center of a small clearing, surrounded by shrubbery trimmed into elaborate shapes and bathed in the golden light of the noon day sun. The sweet smell of flowers would have been cloying had a gentle breeze not whirled through the trees, refreshing and revitalizing any who breathed it in.
It was a beautiful and serene setting, or else it would have been had the air not been pierced by a frantic and shrill voice.
"Where the fuck have you been?"
A tall, brown haired woman dressed in blue robes stood with her arms crossed in front of her, bent over slightly to glare menacingly at a figure that sat relaxed in perfect repose on the wooden bend in the center of the gazebo.
The figure on the bench shook his head, and his mahogany hair glistened in the squares of sunlight that streamed down through the latticework of the gazebo roof.
"Solona, dear, such language! Is that really necessary?" He draped an arm casually over the back of the bench and fixed Solona with an apologetic but distant smile. "And as I have said before, I am sorry for abandoning you these last few tumultuous months. I assure you I would have come at once had I known all the trouble you're now in."
"Well," Solona said in a huff of breath. Her shoulders relaxed incrementally. At least he was fucking here. "I could really use your help."
The man gave her a sympathetic frown. "Of course," he said, patting a spot on the bench next to him. "Come—sit here and enjoy this beautiful sunshine with me."
She hesitated only a few seconds before perching herself on the bench next to him, curling her legs under her and putting her own arm up on the back of the bench. "Well," she said, exhaling slowly. "It is good to know you're alright."
After her explosive outburst, her anger had cooled almost instantly into relief. She'd been worried that he was dead, or worse yet, done with her.
And that would be a shame. After all, Aurelian Titus was the only person she'd ever met that she could be almost completely honest with.
The magister smiled warmly at her and gently placed his fingertips on her upper arm. "Let's have a chat then, you and I . . ." He leaned in and his voice dropped so he could whisper conspiratorially, "dreamer to dreamer." His smile grew wide. "Tell me everything."
She let out a deep breath, and proceeded to do just that.
PS. Magister Aurelian Titus is a character from the Dragon Age comic books.