Ah, and so, we are back.
You all thought it'd take longer, didn't you? Well, thing is I'm really pretty damn smitten with Talia's story now, and it's by far the one I have the most plot thought out for. I couldn't get a hold of the illustrator from the first book, so I chose something a bit more ambiguous for the front. Also, I'm trying out a slightly different style than the first book where more happens in the chapters. This is mainly because I plan for this book to cover both Awakening and DA2.
By Royal Decree
Let it hereby be known that the Circle of Magi of Kinloch Tower of Lake Calenhad, is to undergo reforms within and unto its methods of education and warding of the mages under their watch.
These reforms are as such, and will be followed as decreed by crown and people, for the betterment of all, and the strengthening of our nation, in this dire time of exhaustion, so that we may as quickly as possible restore the strength and vitality of our country and culture.
Firstly, the Ritual under which young mages are harrowed and transitioned from apprentices to mages proper, is to undergo scrutiny by royally acknowledged investigators, as agreed upon with the representatives of Fereldan nobility, as they do so represent the interests of their subjects and vassals, of which the body of the Circle is entirety constituted. No longer is the Ritual to be kept a secret, and must instead be one the apprentice can ready themselves for, mind and body, so as to ensure as many as possible pass through this so direly needed test.
Secondly, once the Ritual of the Harrowing has been carried out with satisfactory result, the mage in question must now be offered the choice of their future. To simply wallow away in the Circle has proven to foster minds bent on escape, by means necessary that neglect the safety of their fellows to the degree that death of innocents is acceptable. Such a risk cannot be accepted to persist against the safety and wellbeing of the crown's subjects, for magic is no crime to be born with, and should suffer no greater punishments than the risks it bring.
As such, once the mage has passed their Harrowing, they must be allowed a choice. Should they wish for it, they may remain within the Tower, for reasons of their own and the Circle's, and continue as they have done so far, to live out their lives in general seclusion.
Otherwise, two choices remain, for though the mage did not choose their magic, it is a gift that must be employed for the betterment of Ferelden. The Grey Wardens and the Royal Army both seek mages now, for as the fight against the Darkspawn exemplified, one mage can achieve what hundreds of swords may not. While the Grey Wardens have always retained the right of conscription, the Royal Army has not until recently wielded the ability to ensure the safety of mages within its ranks. As it now does, a Harrowed mage is wanted as much as any to join the ranks of their countrymen, in the defense and maintenance of their country.
In addendum, it is no longer forbidden for apprentices, of whom a great many are children, to maintain ties and contact with their families. Visits are no longer to be prohibited, and in kind, visits home will now be allowed within the bounds that the Circle can ensure the safety of those it involves.
- Anora Mac Tir, First of her name, Queen of Ferelden and its People, Protector of the Realm.
Wynne rolled the scroll back together again, a sigh escaping her as she leaned back into Irving's old chair. Hers, now, somehow. Becoming First Enchanter had never been in her plans, as she and Irving had been of almost equal age, and she had expected her...passenger, to carry her off to the Maker's side, long before Irving left this world.
And yet, the wound he had sustained during the Battle for Denerim, nearly three weeks back now, had been far more grievous than she had first assumed upon her examination of them. She had missed a cut, it seemed, and it had been allowed to fester, undiscovered, until the droplets of poison the Darkspawn coated their blades in had spread, and the Taint had consumed him. Her mentor and friend through years beyond counting, lost days after the battle itself was done, when all danger had been thought past.
She had never seen it coming, and nor had he himself, if his vigor and mood in those final days had been anything to go by. The Knight-Commander had been correct in his reluctance to leave Irving alone, much as she was loathed to admit it. For she had counseled against the man, and argued that he could do more good in Kinloch than he could in Denerim. The mages that survived the battle had returned, and they needed what Templars they had here, in the Tower.
"I find this...a rather unsettling change." The Templar in question stated, having held his tongue for the long minutes she had spent perusing and reading the document aloud. His expression had fallen into worry before she had even finished the first line, and remained as such even now; "We are certain this is not a forgery? Maker knows there are a great many that would enjoy the downfall of the Circle. And there are people capable of faking handwriting, and even the Queen's personal seal."
"Yes, I...find I must agree that it is a risk." She agreed hesitantly, for there was a nagging feeling at the back of her mind. It was not doubt so much as to the veracity of the document, as to the cause of its creation. She would not be among the last to admit that the Circle...was somewhat outdated, in some of its methods, but the reforms decreed by the Queen were bordering on the radical, and brought with them the dangers such entailed, if handled incorrectly; "Before we act on these, we must ensure that the message was indeed sent by the Queen."
"...I agree. How?"
"One of us must go to Denerim." She knew he wouldn't like it, even before his face grew an extra wrinkle at her words; "I will go, unless you feel what Templars we yet retain are capable enough without you."
"...I would rather not, in truth, Wynne." It seemed Greagoir as well had some problems adjusting to the fact that she was now in the position Irving had held for what seemed like a lifetime; "But I do agree that someone must go. Cullen I would normally send, but he still recovers from the battle. Ser Ava I trust, and she is very much capable of departing today. With your allowance, I will give the word."
"Do so, please." Wynne nodded, internally relieved that she would not have to return to the capital so soon. It was still a ruin, and bore the signs that battle had raged. The ground was still dead, even where frost had not killed it to start with. She did not enjoy the presence of the Imperials, and she knew Greagoir knew it. Neither did he, in truth, and did little to conceal it. They brought too much...confusion, with them. Too many questions that hadn't needed be asked, and that neither common knowledge nor the Chantry could immediately answer; "But ensure that she knows to be discreet, and that this is simply a verification, neither an investigation or a refusal if the decree is legitimate."
"That goes without saying." He almost seemed offended that she had felt the need to press it; "I must admit, I had half expected the messenger to be the Hero of Ferelden...though if the decree is legitimate she surely had a hand in it."
"I...actually think not." Wynne admitted, a slight smile coming to her lips. The Knight-Commander saw this no-doubt, else the frown on his face was simply one of weariness at the situation as a whole; "She's said to have been...quite busy recently, in Highever."
"...the Grey Warden headquarters is in Amaranthine, though." Greagoir noted; "There is no Blight, so she can't be there to conscript."
"Oh, it's far less serious than you make it, Greagoir...or perhaps far more so, depending on your definition." She mused, leaning back in the chair again. It was indeed a very comfortable chair. She could see why Irving had been so wont to fall asleep in it; "She's getting married."
"...Ah." His reply was rather imminent, and it was clear he hadn't fully understood why this was something even worth noting until a moment later; "...with the Cousland? Into the Cousland House? Her, a mage who isn't even Andrastian, or even Fereldan?"
"Oh yes, I am very much afraid so." Despite the situation, it was rather amusing to see the stoic old Knight-Commander in such a...well, she supposed it could be called a frazzle, could it not? He certainly reacted much as she had anticipated; "I suppose singlehandedly defeating the Archdemon and ending the Blight might have made the Chantry look the other way...Oh, do cease to be so dour, Greagoir. Wouldn't you rather admit that she has earned that much? In the end she did not even come back here, much as I seem to remember her swearing such."
"...I suppose she has matured." He blinked and fastened his eyes on her again; "Still, how did you know of this, First Enchanter? Is it really so that the Circle's leader spends her time on gossip?"
"Well, I could hardly not have heard of it, since my apprentice is invited and would not be silent on the matter..." Cíada had grown more than she herself seemed to realize, traveling with the Wardens. She was a girl no more, and a woman far more so than not. She wondered if young Cullen had realized the same; "And yes, I would have given her leave to attend, decree or not...You could always send Cullen with her, to ensure nothing atrocious occurs, naturally."
"Naturally..." Greagoir sighed before glancing down at the decree that had started this day off so very eventfully; "Perhaps, on second thought, he could use a visit to Denerim's Cathedral, and a chance to help might alleviate some of his trauma. Knight-Lieutenant Ava will accompany your wily apprentice."
"Oh, you really are such a stickler, Greagoir."
It was a little strange, being back in Highever again.
The Teyrnir returned to its rightful House, all lingering traces of Howe's presence were being scrubbed away, and little remained to prove his treason had taken place, but for the yet to be cleared rubble of a fallen tower. Banner now instead hung from the rafters and the walls, and flowers of hardy winter sorts decorated the hallways. They were small things, each barely reaching a finger's length in total, and yet their numbers made up for their size.
She wasn't sure why she noticed them, only that she did. Maybe it was also because Eleanor hadn't been able to stop worrying about whether or not they had what they needed, whether everything was in place, and whether the great hall could hold the number of guests they were expecting.
Well, the Couslands were expecting.
Aside from Brelyna and J'zargo, very few people from her side of the engagement were attending. Her own mother wasn't even going to be present for her wedding, which did not at all rankle her something fiercely. At all. It wasn't like it was her wedding or anything, after all. But for some reason the Empire needed Rhea Aulus more than her daughter, somehow. It was an absolute pain in the ass, and in the gut, and she was pretty sure her opinion on the matter was why Eleanor hadn't even mentioned her mother once since the news had come out that she'd gone back to Tamriel...somehow.
The Couslands - and was that a name she would now bear, or would she still be Aulus before it? - were expecting quite the company of guests. Every Bannorn under them were encouraged to attend, and bring with them gifts for the wedding of the Couslands' youngest son. Fergus and Anora still weren't official, but she suspected that was more because there hadn't been the time.
With the Seventh Legion having landed just two weeks after the arrival of General Belisarius, Denerim and Amaranthine - the latter had known little about the coming of the Empire until ships suddenly appeared on the horizon and everyone screamed 'Qunari' - had been and still were a logistical mess, from what she understood. Close to six thousand men and women suddenly needed to be housed and fed in the Fereldan winter, in a country that had just barely escaped absolute destruction.
Quite simply, Anora could be forgiven if in all the chaos she'd forgotten about the whole thing. Probably not about Fergus himself, as he hadn't left the city since he got there, but any talk of official courting and marriage was probably constantly put off by the ten million pieces of news the Queen had to deal with.
Talia didn't envy her.
"You're pulling faces." Brelyna noted from behind her. Her voice, sweet and gentle, brought Talia from the race of thoughts and to the room they were in, and why. Seated on a low stool, her back was against her old friend as the Dunmer combed her hair, and cleaned it as well. It had been so long since she'd really seen it glow, and it struck her that the last time she had, she'd been more girl than woman. Now...it was the other way around; "Did I pluck a strand?"
"No...it's nice. Just spacing out..."
Her entire being thrummed, and she couldn't help a smile. All of this felt like some romantic fantasy, really. She was getting married, and in preparations for the whole thing her hair was combed and washed by the girl who would be her bridesmaid - it was a Chantry concept that was somehow shared between the Chantry of Mara and that of Andraste - she was given a luxurious dress that Eleanor herself had worn during her own wedding, the hallways were lined with flowers and the air was so clear and clean that it almost stung the lungs.
And her marriage was to be one of love, not mere political ambition. She was marrying the man she loved, a boy when they met yet now forged into a man grown, hardened by the war and somehow still so sweet and kind beneath it. She had not before Ferelden dared to actually hope for something like this, and yet now it was hers, and hers alone. Damn it, I feel like a giddy kid...
"I'm always thinking, Brelyna." Talia grinned, closing her eyes against the gentle hands of her friend. The Dunmer hummed, something between a chuckle and huff, warm and kind both; "You really should know that by now."
"Well, you're glowing, so I can only really assume it's about the wedding." She huffed at her own words, blowing air from her nose in suppressed amusement; "Of course you'd be, really." The squeal that followed was neither dignified nor something Brelyna often did, so Talia figured she could be forgiven for being unprepared as two arms wrapped around her forehead and pulled her backwards the few inches separating the back of her head from the Dunmer's chest; "You're getting married! By Azura! By Azura, by Azura! I can't believe it!"
"Join the club." Talia grinned, looking upwards to find Brelyna's face hovering above her; "Keep in mind, you had your chance at me. No backsies."
"Oh you really just are terrible." The elf snickered, flicking her gently on the forehead; "A bride-to-be really shouldn't speak of such things."
"I'm sorry, do you know me?"
"Fair point." Brelyna mused, easily settling back into going through her red cascades. Talia sighed contently and leaned back, taking her excuse to use Brelyna's chest as a pillow. She'd grown, and quite considerably at that too. Her friend sighed when she realized why Talia was rubbing against her; "Yep, I really should have known."
"Definitely." Talia mused, feeling far too energized to even bother pretending to be sorry. When Brelyna's fingers finally weaved themselves from her hair, she realized minutes had simply passed them by in a silence so comfortable she hadn't even noticed it. The Dunmer stepped back and held a mirror up before her, replacing all but her own head with Talia's mirror image. If there ever was to be flaw she could call Brelyna on out loud, it would be that she was too much of a perfectionist; "...damn. Did I actually fight a war? I look like a goddamn princess!"
"You are, technically." Brelyna pointed out; "You failed spectacularly at disinheriting yourself."
"Oh yeah..." Right, because she'd been an absolute brat back then. She hadn't been in the wrong, exactly, but the way she'd handled the whole thing, especially the running away from home part, had definitely not been one of her finer moments. Then again, considering what it brought, she really felt like she could afford not to give a shit about whether it had been proper or not; "You know, you really should start charging for this. Not from me, naturally."
"Naturally." Her friend echoed with a smirk that was entirely too self-satisfied; "You know..."
The door opened before Brelyna could finish, and Eleanor poked her head in. The Teyrna looked younger than she had in...well, she couldn't say years, since she hadn't known her for years, but definitely looked like she was well and truly at peace with herself these days. Having Highever back into Cousland hands probably had something to do with it.
"Ah, look at you." And there was also the part, of course, where Eleanor couldn't stop herself from fawning over her to the point that it probably wasn't too dissimilar from if Talia had been her actual daughter. That, on the other hand, might have raised some concerns; "Splendid, simply splendid! You look astonishing, Dear."
"Apparently." Talia smiled, her demeanor softening into one of more seriousness as she looked at her mother-in-law. Or, not yet, but soon enough that she felt justified in using the word; "I'm...are you sure it's okay, that I use your old wedding dress?"
"I would never in a hundred ages be able to make Anora wear it, and besides theirs isn't going to be a marriage of love. I've never been much for the political unions." Eleanor scoffed good-naturedly; "No, if I'm to ever see that thing used again, it'll be the woman with the patience to actually latch onto my younger son."
"Fairly sure he's the patient one, all things considered." Brelyna hummed, a smirk on her face as Talia turned to face her with a dead-fish stare. Eleanor interjected before she could offer a refusal of what was clearly a piece of malicious slander with no holds in the truth.
"The first of the arrivals are already in sight. As the bride-to-be, you and Aedan must greet them at the gates. Ser Gilmore will introduce them while out of earshot, and you can pretend to know them already."
"That...sounds reasonable." Talia nodded, slipping her feet into a pair of soft boots, warm within from the rabbit-skin lining. Eleanor waited as she dressed for the colder temperatures outside; "How many do you think will come?"
"As a Teyrnir, Highever has two underlying Arlings; Redcliffe and Amaranthine. The latter is, currently, unattended until the Crown finds a suitable warden, or a steward. Under those are the Bannorns, and we expect the presence of at least the closer Houses...So, I would say nine or ten Bannorns worth of nobles and their entourages."
"That...sounds reasonable." Talia repeated, this time with far less confidence.
Half an hour later, thanking the gods and Eleanor for her warm furs and cloaks, she greeted the first of the visitors to Castle Cousland.
The Bann of West Hill was the first to arrive. Jurmin Toller, a portly man with a beard reaching to the top of his chest, brought with him a retinue that in itself could have played the role of an army. Twenty knights in plate, four times that in free-riders and retainers, and more serfs and servants than she could keep a track of.
Bann Osmod of Dogwood was next, already within sight when Toller announced himself. Much like his fellow Bann, Osmod was built like a man unfamiliar with famine, but very much so with warfare. Yet he was soft and gentle in his speech, and greeted Talia as if she was already somehow his superior. She wasn't, since Wardens couldn't take titles, but he seemed either unaware or defiantly uncaring of that fact.
Half an hour later, the rest of the Banns arrived in one massive procession of humanity and beasts of burden. They'd met up by sheer chance at a series of taverns and inns along the main roads, and travelled together for safety against the Darkspawn still roaming the countryside. Bann Cynewald of the River Dane and Bann Aelfwyn of Afton's Valley made their greetings together, a custom Aedan made sure she'd been aware of as not being completely unheard of. They were actually cousins, hence the display of fellowship.
Bann Eric of House Coldren of Bright Hills arrived mounted, then promptly gifted her the horse he rode in on, stating it to be a proof of its quality and breed that he'd dared present himself atop it. Gilmore had been the one to warn her of the man's less-than-orthodox nature, meaning she wasn't dumbstruck with surprise when he made the offer.
Bann Brifard arrived with his wife - he did not offer her as a gift, thankfully - from the Bannorn of Deerford. It occurred to Talia that they were actually from the lakeside of Calenhad, which meant they'd probably heard quite a few things from the Tower. She decided not to ask, because if she did there was a pretty big risk they'd mention something about someone riding along their roads, talking about burning aforementioned Tower down.
Bann Teagan's arrival was unexpected, but definitely not unwelcome. She welcomed him too, far more personally than she had the others. Connor was not with him, nor - thankfully - Isolde. The Bann's nephew now instead lived in the Tower of Kinloch, though she had a feeling things there were about to change. She honestly wished she'd had a hand in Anora's decree, but with the plans for the wedding, she hadn't even considered the damn thing a possibility. Isolde, meanwhile, held down the fort in Redcliffe. With Eamon's death, she was now ruling Arlessa, and Teagan...helped, somehow. The man was rather vague on just what he was doing in Redcliffe.
As the column of humans passed through the gates of the castle, it became apparent that the more southern Bannorns would not be showing. In hindsight it wasn't really surprising, given how hard their lands had probably been hit by the Blight. Putting the plights of your subjects over kissing ass was something she could respect, if nothing else.
The people arriving now, having been sequestered to the rear of the formation, were people she actually knew, few as they were. A girl strode towards her, something between a robe and a dress - whichever it was, the thing was several sizes too big - dragging across the cobblestone. A figure in heavy, Chantry-marked plate followed, keeping to the right of the girl. Of course, the presence of a Templar -it was almost definitely Cullen - really did give Cíada away, even if she had tried to dress up as civilianish as possible.
"You know...I'm still not entirely sure why you invited me..." the elven mage mused, angling her face as she looked up at Talia. Having someone shorter than herself around was absolutely not a reason; "But...I am honored. I didn't think I'd ever get to experience something like this...By the way if this is a trick I'm setting you on..."
"...fire?" the Templar asked, and the voice being female briefly threw Talia for a loop. It made Cíada pause too, though for a different reason it seemed. The girl turned her head just enough to look her warden in the eyes...helmet, an uncertain grin on her lips.
"Probably not fire." Aedan hummed, clearly amused.
"Well...something. I mean, bugs, maybe." She grinned, shifting her feet. Talia really didn't know what to say to that, her eyes instead going to the Templar. Right, she just had to be polite, even though there was something...familiar about this; "Also, people are supposed to remove their helmets when they enter the properties, Knight-Lieutenant."
"My apologies." the female Templar - Knight-Lieutenant Templar? - replied, unfastening her helmet. The bucket-like piece of metal came off, letting a bun of red hair bounce free, and a face maybe ten years older than Talia's own was revealed; "It is good to see you are both alive and well, Wardens. I...do not know if you recall, we met on the docks at Lake Calenhad. I am Knight-Lieutenant Ava of the Templar Order...also I am in the duty of Cíada's chaperone for the duration of your wedding. I shall not disturb nor interrupt, unless my charge decides to...go a little overboard."
Even Talia had to wince in sympathy at that when she saw the grin on Cíada's face. She tried her best to offer a comforting smile at the Templar;
"...I think you're gonna be busy."
Within the halls of the White-Gold Tower, Emperor Titus Mede preceded over a meeting the likes of which few ever saw, much less had any influence on.
Comfortable on his throne, he could yet not deny the tension in the air, wafting from the Dunmer rising from her knees before his seat. Rhea Aulus bore a face devoid of emotions, but only the truly blind could miss the evidence of the storm underneath that calm exterior. There was a broiling mass of churning emotions within her, and even he could see it.
How much more obvious was it to Cato Flavianus, his Spymaster?
The only other Imperial in the room stood off to the side of the throne-room, keeping his silence in favor of simply watching. It was, Titus pondered, perhaps a symptom of the personality one usually possessed in such positions. Middle-aged and balding, with the nose of an eagle's beak, you could drop him in the streets of any city, and "Ol' Cato" would simply vanish in the crowd, then return the next day with a foot-long list of Dominion-supporters, or corrupt officials.
"It is good to see that your return to Tamriel was a safe one, Queen Rhea." There was always the question when Cato was around, however, on whether he should address people like Rhea Aulus as he had just now, or address them with the monikers they employed within the Empire's network of spies and agents. The Penitus Oculatus made great use of agents trained by the Shadow Legion, and she was one of their best; "I trust you have had a smooth journey?"
"I did, Excellency." she stood at attention before him, her body rigid and proud, yet submissive and aware that she was outranked. She always knew where she stood, even before most others.
"And your daughter?"
"Talia is also safe, Excellency, though she has for the time being chosen to remain in Thedas."
"Of course, of course..." he nodded, leaning back. It was as much of an indication as Cato required, it seemed, and he stepped forward with steps so soft that they were barely heard in the cavernous chamber; "Now, since I trust you have had the time to hand in your report... there have been developments, in your absence. Flavius will fill you in on your next mission."
"Yes, Red Iron, you really will appreciate this one." the Spymaster hummed, hands behind his back as he went around hers. Titus watched as her eyes tracked from one side then shifted to the other, her face still locked forward towards the throne; "Developments are afoot indeed. We are sending you home, Red Iron, to Morrowind."
"Sir?" Finally she allowed confusion to show, something he rarely ever saw in these far-in-between audiences. Titus remained silent, however, allowing the spymaster to do his job, and not do the man's job for him. Flavius never smiled, but he hummed almost whatever the situation.
"The Empire has gathered the necessary strength, Red Iron." Flavius stated, his tone light and cheerful despite his apparent lack of emotions; "You and several agents will depart for Morrowind tonight. You will not know of each other, you will not speak of each other, and you will not hear of each other. You will each have your own targets and tasks, and only upon completion may you report."
"...may I inquire as to whether this is the start of a military operation, Sir?"
"Whenever is anything you participate in not a military operation, Red Iron?"