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The Hyacinth Girl

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You gave me hyacinths first a year ago;

They called me the hyacinth girl.”

–Yet when we came back, late, from the Hyacinth garden,

Your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not

Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither

Living nor dead, and I knew nothing,

Looking into the heart of light, the silence.”

-TS Eliot, The Wasteland, 35-41

 


 

 

The fuchsia drooped with rainwater, their weary heads. Cassandra and Herah were smeared with mud – one from training, one from gardening, and both of them looking nothing but content sharing a tiny table, a platter of breads and oils, a steaming pot of tea. The transience of these idle moments made them that much more cherished. Fleet-footed rain kept the time, and the eaves unravelled at the edges with the downpour, and the breath left their tea-warm mouths in faint white clouds. Beneath the moss-riddled gazebo in the gardens they sat and enjoyed what had become routine – an hour or usually less of quiet camaraderie amidst the chaos. Soon Cullen was slogging towards them, or Josephine was waving for their attention from across the courtyard, or one of Leliana's corvids was squawking at them irritably and dangling a missive from its leg. Duty called, rattled their chains, and they were slaves to its undertow.

Inevitably during these moments Herah would always sigh, “What is it they say again? No rest for the wicked?”

“If that were true,” Cassandra would counter dryly, “then you would have to go, and I would get to stay.”

“You wound me.”

“You'll get over it,” Cassandra would shoot back with a small matching smile.

Herah would snag a last parting treat from the platter, and glance, stern, at Cassandra. To which Cassandra would snort and swat her away; she always ate a little more once she was sure Herah could not see, though. It was something of a private joke, one which Cassandra both resented and secretly appreciated.

It swiftly became a well-known fact around Skyhold that Seeker Pentaghast was excessively more grouchy when hungry. Unsuspecting visitors would approach with complaints, only to find their problems forgotten when faced with a snarly, hot-headed Nevarran warrior descended from a line of renowned dragon-hunters. Most fled to Josephine, and others soon learned to avoid the infamous rage of Seeker Pentaghast at all costs.

Cassandra had the slinking suspicion that Leliana had employed a raven to inform the Inquisitor of any such instances, for Herah would appear – sometimes mid-confrontation – as if summoned, and push slices of crusty butter-smeared bread with slabs of salted meat into Cassandra's hands. At the time Cassandra was furious that they thought such tactics would work, and then she was even more angry when they actually did.

Eventually Herah took to casually leaving a globe of fruit near Cassandra's training quarter in the mornings, or dragged her away when she was catching a brief breath from swinging her blade, and forcing her to sit and eat. Their tea breaks together now were always accompanied by a modest arrangement of food from the kitchens – figs split with seeds like pearls, grapes bunched upon the stem, draped across the plank, small and dark. Even when tramping across Southern Thedas Herah would pull a hidden morsel from her robes and hand it to Cassandra. Together they would chew thoughtfully while planning their next route, or resting their legs after a long hike, gazing out across the sea bronzed with sediment and bearing its waves like fine new white-tasselled epaulettes.

During such times Cassandra could turn and catch Herah's hatchet profile, the slope of her cheeks parallel to the angle of her sweeping horns. More rare still she could catch Herah looking at her, inscrutable. It happened once on one of their tea breaks.

“Has your hair always been so short?” Herah asked as they sat in silence and shade, seeking refuge from the afternoon sun.

Cassandra shrugged, “Not always. When I was a child it was very long – my uncle considered it a necessary vanity. I hated it,” she admitted, twirling a fig between her fingers before peeling its skin back with even white teeth, “Being treated like a fragile doll, dotted upon like one of his corpses kept in the atrium – it was unsettling. My uncle thought it was such a waste when I hacked it all off. Said it 'detracted from my looks'.”

A disgusted, derisive noise clawed at the back of her throat. She chewed at the last of the fig, then flicked the stem away, casting it into the garden and leaning back in her chair, feet planted firmly apart. A touch high at her cheeks, lightly brushing, and she froze. Herah's long arm crossed the space between them, elbow dipped over the table, and she playfully tugged at a lock of dark hair at Cassandra's temple, “I think you look beautiful regardless.”

From behind them someone coughed discreetly. Leliana emerged from the narrow shadow of an ash tree, hands clasped over her diaphragm – a reverent pose she had adopted years ago, one that also allowed her quick access to the concealed daggers strapped to her forearms, “While I agree with the Inquisitor,” she said, “I'm afraid I must interrupt.” She fixed Herah with her blue gaze, “You are needed at the War Table.” As Herah rose to depart, Leliana darted an amused look at Cassandra, who glared through the flush rising in her cheeks.

She did not mind the touching. Nor did she mind the compliments – though the sincerity of the latter's delivery would sometimes take her aback. She was simply unused to it. The occurrence was rare, well-timed, well-intentioned, never out of place or able to be misconstrued. At least, that was what Cassandra thought. Herah did not share touches with anyone frequently, but she did not discriminate either. In preparation for the Orlesian Ball Herah avoided Vivienne's scrutinising eye at all costs. In the end however she was cornered, and trapped, and her measurements taken. For a week she had lived in fear of whatever frilly attire would appear in her quarters, so that when the actual outfit arrived her reaction was to gape.

“That's it?” she asked, fingering the collar of the military uniform.

“That's it.” Josephine confirmed, not bothering to hide her amusement.

For a moment Herah simply frowned down at the red jacket, then she turned to Josephine, expression serious, and said, “If I am to perform well at the Ball, I must know how to dance, yes?”

“True,” Josephine flipped to a new page on her clipboard and scratched a note, “I will arrange for –”

“No. Now.” Herah insisted. She took the board and stylus from Josephine's hands, set them aside, and dragged her tot he centre of the great hall. Before the towering glass panes and the watching eyes of every inhabitant of the throneroom, Herah demanded a flustered Josephine teach her to dance. By the end of the impromptu lesson they had gathered quite a crowd. Vivienne delivered instructions from above when Herah's hand slipped too high up Josephine's back, or when Herah stooped to accommodate their height. Dorian teased Josephine for her furious blushing, and even Solas emerged from his room to watch, wiping at his hands daubed with paint. A smatter of applause mingled with shared chuckles when the pair managed to complete a successful series of steps.

During those days leading up to the Ball, Herah would find any excuse to practice. Oftentimes those she queried would concede with varying degrees of delight or panic. Leliana gave a rueful shake of her head, yet obliged to waltz amidst the rough wingscrape of rooks. Vivienne snapped strict instructions upon her private balcony, yet could not contain her smug glee at Herah's newfound enthusiasm. Cullen cleared his throat between a spat of invented excuses, fleeing around an adjacent corner. Cassandra herself was careful to always be armed with a sword and a death glare whenever Herah crossed the courtyard with that look. She was willing to suffer many things in service to the Inquisition, but dance practice was not one of them.

Y et at the Ball proper all the lessons paid off. Herah expertly guided the Duchess across the dance floor, all while they traded words like blows – parry, riposte – and the court clustered at the balustrade as though attending a thrilling bloodsport. Had gladiatorial spectacles not been outlawed centuries earlier, Cassandra was sure they would have flourished in the likes of Orlais. Later in the evening – after Celene's position as empress had been assured, and she and Briala had reconciled – Cassandra overheard Herah grumbling to Josephine that after so many hours of gruelling practice she'd only been able to dance with “that snake, Florianne.” In return Josephine gave an airy laugh, and lay a fond hand on Herah's arm, “Next time,” she promised.

Cassandra was sure if there ever was a “next time” she would personally drive a dagger into the stomach of every single Orlesian who muttered about h er behind their masks. Being there acted only as a constant reminder of her own station. Orlesians were almost as obsessed with good breeding as the Pentaghast clan itself, and the night of the ball she'd had more questions of her lineage and vicinity to the throne of Nevarra than she cared to remember. She had no love of crowns or power, but she could never escape the claws of family.

Later that week while bringing the usual bundle of fresh flowers to Cassandra's rooms, Herah found the Seeker pacing her quarters. Ducking through the doorway, Herah approached the small table with an old bouquet, “Something the matter?” she asked, kneeling to replace the flowers, and plucking stray petals and stalks into a perfect array.

“No.” Cassandra continued to pace, her footfalls clunking heavy and metallic. Even though Herah said nothing in response, Cassandra sighed in resignation, “It's my uncle,” she admitted, “I have decided to write a return letter.”

Satisfied with her work, Herah stood, holding the wilted flowers in her hands, “And?”

“And,” Cassandra relented, though her pacing endured, if slower than before, “I have discovered I am still as bad at writing as ever.”

“Here I thought eloquence was always one of your sterling qualities,” Herah made her way to the basket in the corner that served as a rubbish container, and deposited the old flowers there.

Cassandra's mouth tightened, “'The Inquisitor was a witty Qunari.' That's what they'll say. You watch.” Then her eyes widened, “You! You could edit it for me!”

Herah shrugged and held out her hand, “If you like.”

Suddenly hesitant, Cassandra pulled the square of parchment from where it was tucked into her belt and handed it over with a wary narrow-eyed stare, “Don't. Laugh.”

“I never laugh,” Herah's face remained utterly impassive as she took the letter and unfolded it.

While she read, Cassandra took up pacing once more. For a while the only sound was the nervous click of her boots, and the muted birdsong through the camed windows. At last Herah remarked, “It's...succinct.”

“It's awful,” Cassandra's pacing quickened in tempo.

“No. Not necessarily,” Herah said slowly over the sharp staccato steps, “Here.” She gestured to the small wooden table and pulled back a chair for each of them, “Sit.”

Reluctant, Cassandra did so, though her fidgeting continued; she alternatively buckled and unbuckled the straps at her forearms, or tapped her fingers at the metal backing of her gauntlets. Pulling an inkwell and stylus toward her, Herah ripped a new blank page from the little book clasped to her waist, “To Vestalus (at Cumberland), Skyhold 9:41 Dragon – Salutations.” She began reading from the original letter, “I am uninjured and in good health. I would have written sooner, but my work with the Inquisition requires constant vigila–”

“Don't read it aloud!” Cassandra hissed, snatching the letter with enough ferocity that it crumpled in her fist, “That will only make it worse!”

She frayed the edges of the parchment with wandering fingers, ceaseless. The cheerful birdsong was all but muted beneath the jangling of her heel against the floorboards. In the centre of the room the flowers throated pale and blue, tiny starlit petals flocked together, hyacinths from the garden; she concentrated on them instead of on the shredded paper in her hands.

Warmth from Herah's palms, the vein-ridged knuckles and blunt-ended fingers, as she stilled Cassandra's fretting hands with her own, solid, immutable, “He's going to be happy to hear from you.”

During such times Cassandra could not deny that friendship was rather nice – she supposed. Other times though she wanted to throttle the Inquisitor for sheer pigheadedness.

“Admit it: We're lost.”

They stood atop a ridge overlooking the vast expanse of impenetrable leafy jungle. The Emerald Graves swallowed landmarks amidst its creeping mass of vegetation, trees towering over ivy-clutched châteaux. Wildlife teemed in the underbrush. The sprawling growth engoldened and engreened itself with bristling colour, blurring the distant horizon behind a filter of mottled arboreal foliage. The deathly crop thickened so far the awning of trees seemed to curve and drop out of sight.

“We are not lost,” sunlight dappled through Herah's fingers as she shaded her eyes to squint across the tangled copse below. While her range of facial expressions remained limited, Herah tensed, coiled slowly inward like a spring; she was not as inscrutable as Cassandra had once believed, nor was she beyond her fair share of petty squabbling.

“We have been wandering around these parts for hours,” Cassandra's gestures grew broader the more agitated she became, her footfalls heavier, “I haven't even seen a fade rift since before we passed that herd of giants, which we conveniently just 'had' to cull. And need I even mention our delightful experiences in the Château d'Onterre?”

“Complain, complain, complain! That's all you ever do when you're hungry,” Herah retorted, the lines of her broad back stiff, “Just have a slice of bread from our packs.”

“I don't -!” Cassandra's brows knitted into a scowl, “Stop changing the subject!” she snapped, “We should head South and ask those elves for directions.”

“We don't need to ask for directions. I know exactly where we are.” Herah insisted, stubbornly continuing to face away despite the fact that Cassandra tried to edge around in order to stand before her, stolid and confronting.

“But -!”

“No.” Herah cut her off flatly.

From behind them Varric interrupted, “I hate to break up this lover's quarrel, but did you just hear that?”

They both turned to stare at him with identical expressions of indignant fury. Before they could both launch into a simultaneous castigation however, a thunderous roar rolled across the canopy, scattering flocks of birds. A mob of brown-skinned nugs scampered through the thicket, their too-human hands scrabbling at the thick roots in a blind panic. Wingbeats from above, kicking up storms of dust and loose foliage. A massive shape momentarily blotted out the sun.

Cassandra rounded on Herah in rage and disbelief, “You led us to a dragon's fane?” she shouted over the high shriek wheeling overhead.

“Could you two love-birds wait to argue until after the dragon kills us?” Varric yelled as he pulled Bianca over his shoulder.

They survived, of course, and Varric lived to continue his teasing for days to come. He regaled whoever would listen of the time the Inquisitor and Seeker Pentaghast almost got them eaten for lunch by a dragon that breathed frost and slicked the Emerald Graves with swathes of ice. It grew so irritating that Cassandra went out of her way to avoid him whenever possible at Skyhold – even more than she usually did.

“A moment of your time, if I may, Seeker?”

Cassandra paused on her way up the steps to Skyhold's main keep. Night was dropping a lavender curtain across the sky, and the first stars peered curiously down. The very last person she expected to approach her as she turned in for the evening was Varric Tethras. Still she stopped to address him with a long-suffering sigh, “Yes? What is it?”

“Oh, nothing of much importance,” Varric adjusted the wrists of his gloves, nonchalant, “I just had a few questions for my next book. Research, you might say. Not that  book ,” he added when her eyes lit up, “A different one . About the Inquisition.”

“What kind of research?” she asked, suddenly cautious.

He shrugged, “I need a few more details about our beloved Inquisitor.”

She cocked an eyebrow, “Then why not ask her yourself?”

“Well, you see,” he cleared his throat, “It's about her – and you. Together.” When she continued to look blankly at him, he sighed, “Your relationship.”

We are good friends, yes,” she answered simply, “Is that all?”

Come on, Seeker,” Varric laughed as though she'd told a funny joke, “You don't seriously think anyone believes that 's all there is between you two ?”

People think we're –” she stared, mind reeling, “– more? How? Why?

“You two do everything together! And you always look so cozy, too,” he waggled his eyebrows suggestively, making her scowl.

“Because we're friends!” she growled, exasperated.

He held up his hands, “Whatever you say, Seeker. I must have misjudged the situation.”

“Clearly!” she said as he turned to leave.

“Of course,” he shot over his shoulder, “you wouldn't mind if I asked the Inquisitor herself, would you?”

At that she froze, then grabbed him by the scruff of his neck and dragged him aside into the shadow of Skyhold's main keep, “Listen here, Varric,” she spat, “You will not go sowing unwarranted drama! What goes on between two people is none of your business!”

He shrugged her hand off and placed his own over his heart, “You have my word, Seeker!” he drawled.

She watched him saunter away with a furrowed brow and a tight jaw. She stormed away, each footstep announcing her with a great peal of metal imprinted on earth, vehemently set on ridding herself of such talk. But the thought once planted was blooded to teem. In the nights following the encounter she lay awake and listened to the slow intentness in dread, playing and replaying all their moments together, this time cast in a different light; and she was unwilling yet powerless to stop or slow this gravitation. The feeling crept, briary and enduring, and she was fain to confront it – eventually, she knew. Yet the longer she waited, the more she strode at Herah's side and felt the fields of native heath beneath and between them wither and crackle underfoot with words unspoken.

The time came when she was still unsuspecting, unready, but not unrehearsed. For hours she moiled at the wooden and straw-stuffed dummies, until Cullen approached and asked if she'd like to play a game of Wicked Grace. Foolishly – and more attributed to pure exhaustion – she agreed. Skyhold's tavern was busy but not unpleasantly so, and he led her to a large table on the second floor. There the others waited: Josephine, Iron Bull, Blackwall, Cole, and Dorian. Without giving any thought to the two additional empty seats, Cassandra dropped into a wooden chair at random.

Two sets of footsteps approached, and the last of the players arrived. Cassandra's eyes grew wide, and she hid her face behind a mug, gulping down a heady draught of ale. Varric directed Herah towards the only vacant chair, conveniently situated right next to the Seeker. Cassandra shot him a suspicious glare, but he ignored her. Meanwhile Herah, oblivious, took the seat, scooting it forward as Josephine shuffled the deck. She arched a pale brow at the expert flick of cards between Josephine's fingers, but said nothing. Instead she leaned in to whisper conspiratorially to Cassandra, “Which rules are we playing by?”

“Don't ask me,” Cassandra replied, “I'm terrible at this game.” She resisted the urge to leap to her feet and smack the masked smirk on Varric's face when he saw them leaning their heads together.

“Well, at least I'll have good company when I lose my shirt and soul to this card-shark,” Herah jerked her thumb towards Josephine, who was feigning ignorance and 'accidentally' dealing the wrong number of cards.

“I'm so sorry!” Josephine fluttered as she collected all the cards and began shuffling again, “I keep forgetting the rules!”

Once again the cards were dealt, and Cassandra gathered the small pile cast in her direction, her fingers feeling clumsy and overly large around the waxed rounded edges. She was scowling fiercely down at her hand when she felt a soft warm touch at her wrist. She jumped, knee striking the underside of the table. Herah winced sympathetically, and with an apologetic smile guided Cassandra's hand up from where she'd begun to tip her cards to the whole table. A flush mottled up Cassandra's neck and cheeks as she snatched her hands to her chest, cradling the cards there as though scalded.

“Spoilsport,” Iron Bull shot at Herah, “Cheating is half the fun!”

Meanwhile Varric looked more smug than ever at the course of events. Cassandra swallowed a growl and the desire to fling her remaining tankard of ale in his face. Gritting her teeth and setting her eyes to flint, she willed herself to remain until the very end. Seven stories, four jugs of ale, two of wine, and five hands later, Cullen was stripped of all clothes and pride, and Cassandra saw her opening.

“I'm leaving,” she announced, pushing herself away from the table, “I don't want to witness our Commander's walk of shame back to the barracks.”

“Well, I do!” Dorian snarked, though the others were prompted to follow, leaving Cullen to flee without a stitch of clothing.

They left in a group, Cassandra at the fore. Boots nervously scuffing the dirt, she waited at the exit for Herah, who straggled behind with Varric, exchanging rumbles of laughter. When Herah emerged at last Cassandra jerked her head and waved to get her attention. Those canted eyes flickered like torchlight in the evening dim, and Herah parted from Varric's side. Meanwhile Cassandra ignored the knowing awl of his gaze, and darted up the nearby flight of stairs.

“I was hoping we could speak privately,” she said once she was sure they occupied a secluded rampart.

Herah tilted her head to regard the nervous wringing of Cassandra's hands, “Are we not?”

"Right. Of course.” For a moment she paced the stone rampart. Her rehearsal that morning had gone more more smoothly. The alcohol – even watered as it was – should have helped, but didn't. Finally she blurted out, “People think we're," Cassandra gestured to the space between them, fumbling over her words, "more than friends."

"Why would they think that?"

"Because," Cassandra floundered, "we look 'cozy' together. Because we drink tea together."

"I drink tea with Vivienne as well."

"Because we bicker over directions," Cassandra continued, ticking each example off on her fingers.

Herah shrugged, "I bicker with Bull and Dorian all the time over more than just directions."

"You give me flowers," Cassandra added lamely.

"I give practically everyone flowers! Technically I've given Empress Celene flowers! Well, a flower. Singular." Herah paused and thought aloud, "I could stop giving you flowers, if that's what you want?"

"No! I like flowers!" Cassandra threw her hands up in frustration, "And you are much better at making bouquets than I."

"It's true." Herah nodded sagely, "You've no talent for flower arrangements."

"A fact my uncle has always despaired ever since I—" Cassandra began, then slammed to a halt and pointed an accusing finger, "You see! This is the sort of banter that gives people the wrong impression!"

“Alright,” Herah mused slowly, “Would you like me to stop anything else? Our tea breaks? I can't promise anything about the bickering, but –”

“No!” Cassandra interjected, voice sharp. Then she sighed, “I don't want anything between us to change. I like our friendship. I am just,” her words lowered to a throaty growl, “irritated and baffled that it is being misconstrued! And,” she admitted, wringing her hands, suddenly bashful, “I don't want you getting the wrong idea.”

Rather than look – well, Cassandra did not actually know what reaction she had been expecting, but it certainly wasn't for Herah to cock her head and say, “Understandable. You needn't worry about that from me. In fact, I think Varric is going to have to get used to the hero of his next novel living without passionate love interests.”

“Then,” Cassandra faltered, “You don't -?”

Herah shook her head, “Too complicated. None of that interests me. Flirting can be fun but,” she made a face, “I think I'll pass on the rest. Indeterminately.”

Breathing a deep sigh of relief, Cassandra leaned against one of the toothy palisades, “Thank the Maker.” She pinched the bridge of her nose, “I was worried. There aren't many I can call friend, and the thought of losing one to something so –” her voice lowered to a gravelly note like a snarl, “–idiotic! It's been weighing on me for days!”

Herah joined her in leaning on the wall, “You'll never need to worry about that,” she smiled kindly down at Cassandra, who coughed, flushing, and refused to meet her eye, “Who told you they thought we were romantically involved, anyway?” she asked.

“A soon to be dead dwarf,” Cassandra muttered under her breath, “I haven't had to endure this much drama since I broke two of Cousin Lorrin's fingers.”

“I beg your pardon?”

Cassandra made a dismissive gesture, “Cousin Lorrin had a bad habit of pinching bottoms. He doesn't do that anymore.”

“You must have been the terror of family reunions across Cumberland,” Herah teased.

“Actually,” Cassandra drawled, “I was the life of the party.”

A huff of amusement, and Herah's shoulder nudged playfully at her own, the massive Qunari having to stoop to achieve it. Still Cassandra allowed herself a small smile, this one guilty pleasure, the singular intimacy of this moment in time. How pristine it seemed, steeped in relief and undiluted affection. She was sure – so very sure – there would never be another moment quite like it. Here something salvaged, something bloomed. Here something never in the first place lost.

Unbeknownst, the time came when she would feel it again, more exigent even than before. Corypheus was dead. Ruins reared among the clouds, foundations jutting like stone spires towards the earth. All the land had heard the great tumult, seen the flashes of sickly green and crimson magic staining the heaves like streaks of lightning. The sky was alight with the shrieks of dragons, and while the battle raged Cassandra felt no fear – not until it was over, and a deathly silence fell across the world like a veil. Now they waited, Cassandra at the front of the group, hardly breathing. The sword was sheathed at her hip, but her hands clenched as though still wielding weapons. She thought of how integral a part of her life Herah had become. She thought of sitting and drinking tea alone in the rain. She thought of braving the eddies and intrigues of the Sunburst Throne without Herah's stoic, silent support. She thought of the wilting flowers in her quarters, shrivelling brown and crackled, never to be replaced. Panic seized her chest like roots, snaking upwards, clawing at her throat.

Striding through the billowing wreckage Herah appeared, her enchanter robes snapping in the breeze like a banner. The rush of relief and warm, desperate delight drove Cassandra's steps forward until, before the whole gathering, she was crushing Herah in a hug, near lifting the Qunari off her feet in spite of her size – Varric and the others be damned.