Josephine had returned from Val Royeaux with the Inquisitor, and she'd brought with her four wagonloads of heavy wool fabric and yarn, politely extorted from some noble or another. Cullen had not seen her except in passing in the two days since she'd come back, but he had felt the effect of her return—Leliana and Cassandra were more relaxed. Fewer nobles came to him with their concerns. He did not have to haggle on his own with merchants. She took on far more than her share of the burden of maintaining their supply lines into the mountains, and it was a relief.
On the morning of the third day, he shook the ache from his bones, and climbed the ladder down to his office to find a box of Orlesian pastries on his desk. He was being summoned to an interlude, and Maker help him if he did not go. We have much to catch up on, Josephine would be saying. I do hope to see you.
As if he'd had a choice to begin with. As if he and Leliana weren't going to fold in the face of her disappointment, and attend her blasted tea parties. Lateness was acceptable, but absence was not. With the dagger-point of a lyrium headache digging into the backs of his eye sockets, Cullen dragged himself up from his desk and made the walk down to the throne room.
Today would be a good day, he ordered his body, pressing his fingers into his brow as he went. His neck was already stiff, but this was normal. No tremors, no fevers, no vomiting. It would get him through this interlude, then his correspondence, then his meetings, then the evening drills, without a single problem, and he would go to bed and have a dreamless sleep. It wasn't too much to ask.
So early in the morning, the throne room was quiet: no tittering Orlesians. No pilgrims or petitioners. Only a few messengers, drawing straws to see who'd get the bad assignments that day, a pair of silent, yawning guards, waiting to be relieved, and a lone serving girl, setting a pot to boil on the hearth.
This made it very, very easy to hear the indistinct shouting coming from behind Josephine's office door.
It was not strange, in and of itself: interludes frequently became heated. The better part of reconnecting as friends and colleagues was having and settling necessary arguments before they had the chance to fester into resentment. Cullen moved closer to the door, holding his sword to his side. Josephine wouldn't notice an eavesdropper, but Leliana surely would.
"It was a trap, Josie!" Leliana was saying. "If twenty men had set upon you when you entered the Boisvert mansion, the Herald would not have been enough."
"But twenty men did not fall from the ceiling to attack me," Josephine said. Her tone was level and pleasant—the tone she used when some noble or functionary blatantly insulted her. If Cullen so much as recognized it, Leliana knew it, intimately. "I was not poisoned, or strangled, or shot through the eye by a distant crossbowman on my way to buy the shoes you admired, or any of the dooms you imagine might befall me at any moment."
"You should have told me," said Leliana, "you should have involved me. Finding a sponsor, gaining the favor of a judge and a royal minister, Josie—if you think I will condone this foolish gamble, you are mistaken. "
"I have the use of four judges in Val Royeaux alone. I do not need you to condone anything."
Now their voices were very close together. Quietly, Leliana said, "We can discuss this later. The Commander will be by at any moment." Then there was a long, long silence. Cullen nodded at the night guards as they walked by on their way to a much-deserved rest, and nodded at their replacements, too.
There were things he was not meant to know about Leliana and Josephine's operations, just as Josephine did not need to concern herself overmuch with the scouting missions that Cullen sent soldiers along with, and Leliana didn't need to know of every line-item on the army's budget the way Cullen and Josephine did. Still. It was only polite, and not cowardice at all, to give them a moment to calm down before he joined them. When the serving girl who'd been lighting the hearth approached him with a tea tray, he smiled through his headache and took it from her.
"You're late, Commander," Josephine said. She was seated at her desk, in her massive pink chair, her cheeks flushed—from her argument, surely. Her hair was piled atop her head, and she was in a yellow gown, high-necked, with lace at her throat and at her wrists. No jewelry, but for the gold hoops in hear ears. The effect was austere, and dazzling.
Leliana had moved both armchairs so that they faced the door. She looked up from the reports she must have meant him to think her was engrossed in. "I've brought the tea," he said, and she nodded. He set it on Josephine's desk, and turned around, and the entire room swayed. He locked his knees—he was not going to fall, he told himself. The dizziness would pass momentarily, and the tea would settle his churning stomach.
"Wonderful," Josephine murmured, and swept from behind her desk to pour. Cullen sat in the unoccupied chair. "There is the question," she said, handing Leliana a delicate cup, and Cullen a large mug, from the same set, "of how we're to allocate Boisvert's wool."
Cullen reached out to take his tea, and he felt his hand close around it only on a delay, as though his body had come unmoored from his mind. He felt the heat seconds after he felt the texture of the porcelain, and he could not smell it at all, let alone taste it.
Today would not be a good day.
But it would not be the worst day. His grip was steady, at least, and the ensuing argument ran along familiar tracks. The refugees needed blankets, Josephine said. Harding's people in the Hinterlands and the Emerald Graves needed better gear, new cloaks, Leliana said. The mountain patrols, Cullen said, the soldiers in the valley, they had suffered this past winter, and shouldn't have to suffer through the next one. It was domestic: Josephine pacing back and forth while she gave them the speech she'd no doubt been rehearsing since Val Royeaux, Leliana utterly still in her chair, but for when she held out her cup for a refill; and still, he could hardly hold the thread of conversation. It was a relief, when Josephine and Leliana fell into the tones of their previous argument, and ignored him entirely.
"You're quiet, Commander," Leliana said. "You haven't been indignant on the army's behalf even once."
Cullen groped for words, tried to recall what they'd been saying these past ten minutes. He'd thrown his lot in with Leliana in the last interlude, and so it was Josephine's turn, now. "The Lady Ambassador is right," he said, and pinched the bridge of his nose, as though it would alleviate his headache, and not merely reassure him that he was still possessed of a body. He counted the seconds until he felt the pressure of his own fingers, and when he did, he went on: "Everyone needs blankets, not just the refugees. Winter will come early this year, but not so early that we can't acquire more cloth."
Josephine paused in her pacing, and she and Leliana frowned in unison. Then Josephine looked toward the fire and said, "I will have runners sent to the camps to offer work for those who can knit and sew, if you will both condone it."
Leliana's nostrils flared. "Surely, it is not for me to condone your actions," she said.
He closed his eyes. The room was so warm. If their fight was to have a second round, and they were angry enough to have it in front of him, perhaps they wouldn't notice if he dozed off for a moment.
But there was a knock at the door, and Cullen flinched and sat straight in his chair. "I'll handle it," Josephine said, and set her writing board down on her desk.
"Pardon me, my lady," said the messenger: the Orlesian girl Josephine favored. Cullen had come to know, and to dread, the sound of her polite taps at his office door. "There is an urgent summons from the Herald."
"And what has the Herald been told about summoning us from our interludes?" Josephine said. She brooked no interruptions between the hours of seven and nine: no juvenile pranks, no visiting nobles wishing an audience, nothing short of another Venatori army on their doorstep, and even then, the Venatori might be persuaded to delay their attack until after teatime.
"It was—quite urgent," the messenger said.
"And is that all she said?"
"Ah, there was more to the message, but surely, I could not repeat it in the presence of Sister Leliana. It was—blasphemous. Her Worship will arrive within the hour." The messenger bowed deeply and beat a swift retreat.
He had not touched his tea yet. He took a sip. It had gone cold, and he could hardly taste it, in any event. "This will be about Caer Bronach," Leliana said. "She wanted our plan of action a week ago. I will gather the reports, and meet you." But she did not leave the office before she put a hand on Josephine's shoulder and, presumably, gave her another meaningful look. Josephine shook her head, and Leliana sighed and left.
"We will set up the table," Josephine said, and swept across the room to finish the last of the tea. She closed her eyes with pleasure, and Cullen struggled to his feet. His legs held him. The episode would pass—perhaps even by the time Cadash showed up. He fixed himself on the yellow of her dress, the wisps of hair curling at the nape of of her neck, and followed her through the door.
Months and months, and they had still not fixed the hole in the passageway's wall. It was not essential to the keep's defense, and no visitors to Skyhold would ever see it; only the innermost members of the inner circle were allowed in the War Room to begin with. He paused to feel the sharp spring air on his face, to center himself.
But it smelled dreadful. "Has Sera been through your office recently?" he asked, and pinched his nose. It did not help that it was a familiar, somehow. "Maker's breath, what has she set off this time?"
Josephine turned around to look askance at him. "It does not smell any different," she said. "
"Perhaps she's left a fish to rot under the rubble somewhere," Cullen said, looking about for signs of displaced stone.
"Commander." She took a half-step backward, body angled away from him, as if to run. "There is no smell."
He straightened and looked out the hole in the wall once more. Josephine took another step away from him, and his stomach twisted. He knew this smell, intimately.
It was Lake Calenhad—Lake Calenhad, in high summer.
His stomach had not stopped twisting, and he welcomed the sensation. First this, then the tremors, then the chills and aches. It was physical, and undeniably real, and therefore he found it far more bearable than mood swings, or the eerie numbness that had come over him earlier. There had been a hole like this in the wall of Kinloch Hold, after the tower was reclaimed. Some maleficar had used Maker-knew-what magic to bore through the ancient stones. The surviving mages had scouraged the Circle with fire and ice, but, with bands of darkspawn still roaming the countryside and Denerim in ruins, it had taken months for Greagoir to find stonemasons willing to make the journey from Denerim to Lake Calenhad.
He could think of the Tower, now, without feeling the phantom hands of desire demons trailing down his neck, his chest, his thighs. Progress, after a fashion. He'd shed one madness in favor of another, of his own choosing. It was a bitter thought.
"The lyrium?" Josephine said, and moved cautiously toward him.
Of course she knew. He told Cassandra when he was having a particularly difficult day, and then, as if by Andraste's own hand, his office would be silent as a grave for hours. Cassandra's particular charms could only account for so much. "Yes," he said, and allowed her to take him by the elbow and lead him into the war room, where prying eyes, however unlikely, would not see him.
"I'll be fine," Cullen said.
"Has this happened to you before, this—hallucination?" said Josephine. He shook his head, and her face was unreadable. "You're shaking."
His attention had drifted; she'd come inside his guard without his noticing, and taken one of his trembling hands in hers. He flinched and held her wrist, instead—strong wrists, underneath that fine fabric. She winced, but felt his forehead with the back of her free hand. He'd never been so near to her for so long; the circumstances were regrettable, but the smell of her perfume, some flower, Andraste's Grace, it cleared his mind.
He steadied, and only then did he become aware of the tightness of his grip. He released her imemdiately, and she rubbed at her wrist, frowning. "I've hurt you," he said.
Josephine shrugged. "It's nothing, Commander. I am not made of glass, despite—" She pinched back her words with a fierce look, one that was not directed at him. "It is nothing," she finished.
With clumsy fingers—surely, she could not want him touching her right now, but she didn't push him away—he undid the tiny buttons of her sleeve and rolled the cuff back, to assess the damage he'd done. There, a thumbprint, on the back of her arm, and perhaps more would rise later. "We should go to Cassandra," he said. "If this is the first sign that my mind is slipping...."
"You would like to be relieved of your command sooner, rather than later," she said. "'We' should go to Cassandra?"
"You saw," Cullen said.
"So quick to flay yourself," said Josephine, offhandedly, examining the back of her wrist. If she was angry with him, he would know how to react; were she tearful, he would be far less uncomfortable than he was now. But she gave him nothing, and that was the worst of all.
"I—perhaps—not today," he said, unable to stop himself babbling in the face of her indifference. He dropped to one knee before her, penitent. He had thought he'd be stronger, when this moment came, he had thought he'd leave behind his command as he'd shed all his former selves. But one more day of having the most righteous purpose he'd known, that was all he asked. "If we must go to her, and we must, and we will—one more day."
"My Creator, judge me whole," she said, pressing her palm to his forehead, a Chantry sister's benediction. He had seen Leliana and Cassandra in the chapel in this exact position, before Cassandra went into danger with the Inquisitor.
"Find me well within Your Grace," he said, the words tumbling from his mouth, "touch me with fire that I be cleansed; tell me I have sung to Your approval."
"I'm sure I can't sing half as much of the Chant as a—former—templar can," Josephine said. "Stand up, Commander, you're being melodramatic."
Cullen met her eyes, and somehow, she was halfway to a smile. "Says the Antivan," he said.
"Antivans are never melodramatic," Josephine said, "the rest of the world is needlessly stoic. And—very well. Not today." She touched his forehead again, and he was better, stronger, than seize her hand and press the kiss of faith to it. He was no templar, and she was no sister. She did not offer absolution, only a reprieve. "Would you like me to make your excuses for you?"
"I'll be fine," he said, and pushed himself to his feet.
The first time she'd faced Cassandra in a practice bout, she'd shown herself to be far more than a bookkeeper.
She had lost, as everyone lost to Cassandra—it was only the natural order of things—but Cullen, who had spent a decade sizing up recruits, recognized a trained killer when he saw one. But her administrative genius outstripped even Josephine's. Her decisions about how to best spend their coin put arrows in quivers and shields on his soldiers' backs, which made her a puzzle Cullen had no real desire to solve.
In the field, she wielded a battle-axe half her own size, but at Skyhold, she carried a short and well-loved sledgehammer at her hip. She ran her thumb over its head now, listening to Leliana deliver a report from her people at Caer Bronach.
"I imagine it as a funnel, a clearing-house, for all of the information we gather in Ferelden and the Free Marches," Leliana said. Of the three of them, she was Inquisitor Cadash's clear favorite, and while it rankled some days—today, it suited him just fine. He might even make it through this meeting without drawing the Inquisitor's notice. "I have the capacity to coordinate all of our operations at Skyhold, and I have been, but why should I? Charter is the best of my field officers, and it is time to see what she can do without my direct oversight."
"And what about Orlais, Nevarra, and Tevinter?" the Inquisitor said.
Josephine removed Leliana's markers from Denerim, Tantervale, and Starkhaven, and put them back down on Val Foret, Hunter Fell, Cumberland, Minrathous. The Inquisitor nodded her understanding. "We will need to disguise its purpose," Josephine said. "Commander Cullen has sent his people there already, but I want the keep cleaned and rebuilt as a waystation for Ferelden nobles on their way to Skyhold—a taste of the Inquisition's hospitality and generosity. And an opportunity to gather information."
The Inquisitor turned to Cullen. "And the soldiers you have there, Commander?"
Cullen's mouth was dry, and his head pounded. He swallowed hard. Josephine consulted a page of Leliana's report, and leaned over the war table to place Charter's markers along the Storm Coast, and up, into the Free Marches. Ansburg, Tantervale, Wycome, Ostwick—Kirkwall.
In doing so, her hand brushed his trembling one, the contact hidden by her wide skirts. His duties were here. Kirkwall was only one city, and no longer his entire world. "The usual mix," he said. Josephine's hand closed on his pinky for the barest instant—such kindness was cheap, he supposed, when she held his future in her hands—but still, he found the strength to go on: "The young, the faithful. Veterans of the Blight. Knights without banns, templars without Circles, mercenaries looking for coin. They have a cause in us, and that should be enough to unite them, for the moment."
"I see," said the Inquisitor, neither approving nor disapproving. It was maddening, when she did that. He felt Leliana's eyes on him, too. "Let's cut this short," she added. "Ambassador Montilyet, Commander Cullen, you're dismissed. Sister Leliana, I need to talk to you about my and Josephine's last visit to Val Royeaux."
Josephine stiffened, and she marched from the room without so much as a glance at Leliana. Cullen followed close at her heels, shutting the door behind him. Now he had to go back to his office and face the rest of his day, with a head throbbing so hard his teeth ached, a hand that was shaking too badly to hold a sword. He would manage. He always managed.
"You're being shut out of some operation," he said, once they were in the throne room. Josephine leaned on the wall by her office door. The room had filled up: Varric by the fire, surrounded by a group of elven children. Masked Orlesians in their whites and their pale blues and yellows, pointedly snubbing the Ferelden nobles.
"That is—one way of putting it," Josephine said. "Are you well?"
Let her change the subject. If she didn't see fit to tell him, it was none of his business. "It doesn't matter," he said.
She scoffed, and then she pressed the back of her hand to his forehead, in full view of the entire room. Cullen felt his ears turn red—but, Maker be praised, no one was watching them. "You're burning," she said.
"I suppose I am," Cullen said. He was so cold, but he could work through this. If he stopped, if he allowed himself to wallow, it would consume him.
"And what happened before, in the war room—you are not fit to work today. Up, to your office. I will take care of everything." Cullen opened his mouth to protest his fitness, but Josephine turned her smile on him, and he, like everyone else, crumbled like a rotted timber. Josephine's particular magic was to make the crumbling seem like the most natural, desirable thing in the world. "You deserve a rest," she said softly. "Come along, Commander."
"Of course," he said, and marshalled his wits against her charm. If Leliana and the Inquisitor were keeping her from an operation she wanted a hand in, this was merely her way of asserting her control over a bit of the Inquisition. And it would be useful, for her to get a glimpse of how the army was run, beyond the Inquisition's budget. "Lead the way."
His body felt heavy, impossibly heavy, by the time he sat behind his desk.
"What needs to be done?" Josephine said, taking in the state of his office.
He did not have anyone to impress with it, and he'd kept it spare: a few bookshelves, filled with treatises on supply lines and field tactics, to bridge the gap in his knowledge between running a stationary garrison, if a very large one, and leading a true army. She ignored these, and bent to examine the bottom shelves, where he kept the scant dozen books he'd brought with him from the Gallows. They were old, crumbling, nothing that would be missed—volumes of chess theory, weather-beaten handbooks of retrograde analysis he'd solved a hundred times over, commentaries on famous games. She straightened, and gave no indication of the conclusions she'd drawn from them. Andraste preserve him, he hoped against hope they were good ones.
"I have meetings," he said, "three meetings. Four, if Ser Barris comes back from the valley today. Guard rotations to write. Correspondence to send, and drills to run."
"Then I will clear your schedule," she said. "Can the correspondence wait until tomorrow?" Cullen nodded. "And how hard can it be to write a guard rotation?"
Maker, she really did mean to take care of everything. He stood, supporting himself on his desk, and his office tilted like a drunken sailor. He regretted it immediately, but he locked his knees and took a deep breath. "You have your own duties to attend to Lady Ambassador. I couldn't take you from them. Clearing my schedule will do, I only need a bit of rest—"
She guided him back down to his chair with a gentle hand on the side of his neck. She put her finger on his lips to silence him. On their own, the gestures would have been nothing. Combined, they obliterated him. He kept his hands balled into fists at his sides, unsure what to do with them.
"Commander, I have an entire staff to take care of my work," she said, "all of whom would be honored and overjoyed to draft letters on my behalf."
He was so tired, and so cold, and quite suddenly he could see no good reason to argue that he had a staff of his own, and that he was quite capable of delegating. He flexed his hand, and felt the motion on a delay once more. Josephine waited, patiently. He touched her hip, as much to steady her as to ground himself in her solidity. He slid his hand up to the severe dip of her waist, unhidden by her usual wide belt, feeling the rasp of his gloves on her dress. She felt—good. And here he was, pawing at her like an animal. He withdrew his hand. "Do what you must," he said.
She was the brightest, most real thing in the room. "Of course," she said.
Rylen was suddenly given charge of the evening's drills, and was therefore forced to scramble to learn unfamiliar squadrons. Knight-Captain Briony, back from dueling some Orlesian or another on Cullen's behalf, received a messenger telling her to take the afternoon and night off, and to make her report in the morning. Lord Jean-Gaspard and his chevaliers were called out on an emergency patrol halfway down the mountain, and Ser Barris's templars found themselves detained, searching the valley for a trio of missing Chantry sisters.
"Ambassador Montilyet is only observing," he said, to everyone who looked askance at Josephine. "As I'll be observing her at work over the next week."
"Lest we lose sight of shared goals in the fog of petty differences," Josephine said primly, which got a laugh; because all of Skyhold knew the contents of her disappointed notes to Cullen and Leliana, and because Josephine had the gift of putting people at ease. But it was more than that—it was a conviction that bent and shaped reality to her will: I am your friend, it said, when she asked after the provenance of an Avvar mercenary's curved sword. I have every right to be here, it said, when the messengers hesitated at the sight of her before they addressed Cullen. This is where I belong; how could you think otherwise? it said, when she looked over Cullen's shoulder and murmured a question into his ear.
And then it was over. Cullen slumped at his desk, trying to ignore the way it wobbled. When he found out who'd shortened one of the legs, he'd have their head mounted on his wall. "I cannot thank you enough," he said.
It wasn't half the work he had to do, of course. He needed to see how the templars were settling in, after Therinfal. They were all so young—some of them had yet to receive their first draught of lyrium, thank the Maker, and they never would, if he had his way. He had to inspect the building of a garrison, down in the valley. There were rival blacksmiths to placate, terrain maps to familiarize himself with, angry letters from Grand Clerics to reply to. He'd held himself together this long, and now his stomach was only unsettled, his headache only a distant ache. It was a curious weakness, a lightness. If only he'd heed the call of the little vial in his drawer, he would not have to feel like this. All of the colors would be brighter, all of the flavors would be stronger. To be able to perform a smite as easily as breathing, to no longer be wracked with fever and chills—
Josephine felt his forehead once more, and her hand was small, and cool. It pulled him back into himself. "Let's take a walk," she said. "Shall we?"
Her rooms were in the most easily defended part of Skyhold, nearest the tunnels and escape routes. He'd signed the papers for the merchants who'd delivered her furniture, and personally accompanied them through the keep—a show of force. Beyond this, he'd never had reason to enter them. He had not been expecting so much gold. Gold hangings on the wall, gold pillows on the armchair, an armoire inlaid with gold leaf, with a line of dolls atop it, keeping watch over the room.
Josephine pulled off his vambrances and set them down on a little table. They looked ridiculous sitting there, atop a lace doily, next to a vase of daffodils. He was too large, too clumsy for this room. "You've had practice," he said, if only to break the silence.
"After Haven," Josephine said, "Leliana and Cassandra needed help. One learns."
And the rest of her time, she'd spent nursing the wounded, holding the hands of the dying, a small crossbow at her side, linens and silks exchanged for an Inquisition scout's uniform. She'd balked when Cassandra presented her with a dead woman's armor, but she had not complained.
Leagues away from Haven, Josephine sat him down in the softest armchair he'd ever felt, piled him with blankets, rang the bellpull in the corner of the room to order them tea and hot broth, spread his papers out on a table inlaid with mother-of-pearl, and set to work writing Skyhold's guard rotations.
Or she tried to. "You can't let those two companies overlap," he said, leaning forward to point at her scrap paper for the mountain patrols. "Most of the men are from Gwaren, and they dawdle at shift change."
"Maker's breath," Josephine muttered, setting the sheet of paper aside and beginning anew. She chewed her quill when she was frustrated, and tucked her hair behind her ears, regardless of whether it had come loose. Cullen had not known this, and he tucked away the details for future use.
"'How difficult could it be to write a guard rotation?'" he said, in his best imitation of her accent.
She scowled, but there was no true anger in it. "I cannot understand," she said, "why they don't all have fixed postings."
"That's because you've never stood guard for hours at a stretch, Lady Ambassador," he said, sipping at his mug of broth. His stomach protested, but even his stomach was subject to Josephine's will. "There are good postings, and there are bad postings, and there are those postings where you're sure you're being punished by the Maker himself."
Josephine raised a curious eyebrow, and he nearly told her: in the Gallows, the night watch over the apprentices had been the worst. It had been objectively worse for the apprentices, of course: a hundred or more children stuffed into a long, narrow room, and a full third of them sniffling and sobbing at any given time. It made one long for the unnatural stillness of the Tranquil, who breathed in unison in their sleep. But there were things she did not need to know. Against all odds, she thought him a good man.
When he didn't respond, she said, "You try to accomodate their preferences?"
"I'd go mad," he said. "They'd become complacent—there's nothing like a bit of discomfort to focus the mind. But if you accomodate them once in a while, they'll be happier on a posting they hate."
"And you know all of them, and their preferences?" She did not sound incredulous, only curious. In his office, he had felt her brimming over with unasked questions.
How to explain it, to someone who had never led as he had? An embassy staff, a fleet of merchant vessels—they both went into danger at her command, but they were not an army. It was no small thing, to look a young woman or man in the eye and know you might one day give the orders that led to their deaths. He owed it to them all, to know as many of their names and their faces as he could. "One learns," he said, at last.
"Moving them, like your chess games with Leliana," Josephine said. "This is why I don't play."
"I could teach you, if you like."
"I do such things all day," she said, and sounded weary. "I don't want to do them in my leisure time. And besides, I would trounce you in public, as is my nature. The embarrassment would be crushing."
"You always win," he said, putting his forearm over his eyes. Again, the lightness, the sense of unreality—the mug in his hand was real, he reassured himself. It was hot, and he was holding it. He was half a fortress away from his office and that locked bottom drawer. This would pass. It always passed. "Even at cards."
"I cheat," she said. "Which is to say, we all cheat—possibly, you were the only person at the table playing honestly. And I deal, because I am the best of them."
"And everyone allows it?"
"Solas and the Iron Bull are remarkable card counters. Dorian, Sera, and Blackwall collude in the betting, to drive up the pot between them and push middling players out of the game. Varric and Vivienne prefer to mark their cards. I should teach you."
She hadn't just won, that night: she'd dismantled him. Everyone at the table had thrown perfectly good hands and sacrificed their money for the pleasure of watching his destruction. He'd found his armor on his desk the next day, with a note in her hand: There is no such thing as a 'tell,' Commander.
She'd worn his cloak around Skyhold for the next week. Do join us again, the next note said. The fur collar had still smelled, faintly, of her perfume. But he'd been busy, and still suffering jibes from his captains. Josephine had not brought it up, even when he'd passed through the Herald's Rest and seen her fleecing the Iron Bull and his Chargers.
"I don't think it would be wise," he said. Being alone in this room with her, even weak as he was, was unwise. He should not have come to begin with. He should have sent Josephine from his office, and gone straight to Cassandra to confess what he'd done. "I should leave."
"Are you aware of where you are, at this moment?" she said.
The tone of her voice made something in him snap to attention. It was, he realized, his tone of voice, when he addressed his soldiers. She had picked it up in the scant few hours she'd spent at his side, and it was a comfort. "I am," he said.
"Are you in control of your actions?"
"Good. Then you are not a danger to me."
It was optimistic of her. He didn't miss the way her hand went to her wrist when she spoke, and perhaps she meant him to see it. "Are you proving it to me, or to yourself?" he said.
"To both of us, perhaps," Josephine said, spreading her hands wide in some Orlesian gesture she and Leliana shared, which he'd never quite caught the meaning of. What will be, will be, perhaps, or Attack me, if you dare. "We cannot mince around one another forever; we've an army to supply, somehow, between us. If you begin foaming at the mouth—the lock on my bedroom door is dwarven-made, and very strong, you see. Quality workmanship pays for itself, given time."
Never mind that the lyrium still in his body meant he did not have to touch her, or be in the same room with her, to hurt her—never mind that. She kept her eyes unblinkingly on his face the whole time, and then she stood, as though to fetch more tea from the sideboard.
Instead, she went around the back of his chair and put her hands on his temples, rubbing lightly in circles. "We must trust one another implicitly. The Inquisitor—she is the Maker's chosen, a power in her own right, but we move her; and we stand together, or we do not stand at all." Cullen let his eyes drift shut. The words smacked of a rehearsal, something she would say to Leliana, later, when they were arguing over whatever they were arguing about. He did not need to concern himself. Josephine's fingers probed the side of his neck, feeling for the tension he carried there, and began to work it out. "There is no one else in all the world who can understand what we do. You, and I, and Leliana—we are a species of three."
He had been sole Knight-Captain, in a Circle that had sorely needed at least a half-dozen more, and then, all at once, he had been Knight-Commander. A species of three. He need not ever be alone again. None of them need ever be alone. It appealed—too much, perhaps. "Harder, if you would," Cullen said.
"I'm speechifying, Commander," Josephine said, but she obliged him. "It happens so rarely. You could at least sound impressed."
"I see you've been spending time around Dorian," he said, eyes still closed. Her hands, her strong hands, dug into a knot, and he grunted from the pain, and then the relief. "I'll make it up to you. Shall I enlist the Singquisition to follow you around and applaud when you speak?"
"While I appreciate your heartfelt offer," she said, "I can only imagine them practicing 'Andraste's Mabari' while I'm relieving an Orlesian dowager of her silverite mines. My reputation would be in tatters."
There was a current of pensiveness, under her good humor, and it reminded him that he, and his meetings, and his guard rotations, were her distraction for the day. She bade him lean forward, and went to work on his shoulders. It meant nothing: she was Antivan, and for ever putting her hands on his elbow, his shoulder; she did the same to Cassandra, Leliana, and the Inquisitor, the Iron Bull, even Sera, when she would sit still long enough.
"Stay here the rest of the day," she said, her voice gentle. "Catch up on your correspondence. You are not expected anywhere, barring an emergency. We will have dinner sent up."
To you I give dominion, he thought, and nodded his agreement—but it was his choice, not hers. It would not be so bad, just once. So long as he remembered: she was being shut out of something she wanted desperately to be a part of. He was something she could manage and control. She cared for him as a colleague, and cared how effectively he performed his duties. He would find out what Leliana and the Inquisitor were up to, and were so determined to keep Josephine from.
And so they worked in silence. Just as Josephine finished the guard rotations, there was a pounding at the door. Another runner—a Vashoth girl, not an inch under seven feet tall, wearing an ostentatiously large Chantry sunburst around her neck. "For the Commander," she said, handing over a stack of papers.
Before he could wonder how the runner knew where to find him, she stepped aside to reveal Leliana. Never let it be said the woman didn't know how to make an entrance. She brushed her way gracefully past Josephine and swept into the room to survey it—pieces of Cullen's armor scattered all over Josephine's dainty furniture, his sword propped against the chair. Anyone could look down their nose, but only an Orlesian could make you feel half an inch tall without speaking a single word.
"This is where you two have been hiding," Leliana said. "Commander. I see you have not descended entirely into madness."
"And I see you've subverted every runner in Skyhold," Cullen said. "Did you threaten mine until they told you where I was? Or do you already own all of them?"
"Perhaps they would not be wooed from your side so easily if you were not so charmless."
"If you two are finished exchanging barbs," Josephine said, "you will remember that the runners are a common resource, under our joint oversight, and therefore do not belong to any one of us. And, despite this, that they love me best of all."
"You cheat," Leliana said, "you feed them."
"I keep a bowl of sweets on my desk," said Josephine, with a dismissive shrug. "If they wish to indulge when they deliver my messages, surely, I could not dream of stopping them."
Josephine had rolled up her sleeves while she worked. Cullen saw it, the moment Leliana caught sight of the handprint on her forearm. Leliana's entire countenance went still and languid, the way it did before she broke a Venatori spy's kneecaps. She was not looking directly at him, but the air between them thickened, and he was in no condition to defend himself.
"Explain this," she said. Josephine opened her mouth. Leliana held up her finger. "Explain this, Commander."
"There was a vision," he said. "Of a sort. I was reminded of the Circle. In Ferelden." Leliana's eyebrows rose. "After—after the fall. I handled the Lady Ambassador—roughly."
"And you did not go directly to Cassandra?" Leliana said.
"That is hardly fair," Josephine said. Whatever game they were playing, today—he was nothing more than another convenient excuse for them to argue. "He has his wits about him. He has been fine for hours. We watch, and we wait. I will not see him dismissed on the grounds that he may be deteriorating."
"Josie, you have problems of your own," said Leliana, crossing the room to examine her bruises. Then she murmured something in Orlesian, and all Cullen could understand of Josephine's response was a vehement Mais non! Leliana was nearly of a height with Cullen, if not taller; the top of Josephine's head came up to her chin, but she was towering, when she pulled herself from Leliana's grasp and crossed her arms.
But he was not worthy of Josephine's kindness, or her defense, regardless of her motives. The man he'd once been had done monstrous things, and thought himself the Maker's own sword. You never drifted far from the core of yourself; you only added layers. What the Knight-Commander had seen in him—a frightened boy, a piece of clay that she could mold in her image—was not so different from what Cassandra had seen in him, when she'd met him in Kirkwall.
Leliana looked over her shoulder at Cullen, something not wholly on the side of the Maker in her eyes. Then she turned back to Josephine. "I will bring you a salve, tomorrow," she said. "We wait, if you're prepared to face Cassandra down when she is out of charity with us."
"As I am the only one who can, I will take on the burden," said Josephine.
"I'll handle her on my own, thank you," Cullen said. "We've all argued with her."
"And how often do you win?" said Josephine. "When she finds out, she will assume we've been working to keep your grave condition from her, and have only come to her because the situation is too dire to conceal. She will be furious, and she will break herself against me before she ever makes it to either of you."
When she put it like that, when she sounded like a military treatise, he could not find it in himself say no.
Leliana left them, after a great deal of plying in Orlesian on Josephine's part. Josephine was silent for a long while, and she moved on to writing her own letters, her quill pressed hard into the pages: whatever had passed between her and Leliana in Orlesian had upset her, more deeply than she'd already been upset. But they were only colleagues, and, surely, she would rebuff any attempt on his part to comfort her.
"Sleep here, if you wish," Josephine said, at long last, well after the sun went down. "I'm certain my armchair is more comfortable than your own bed." She felt his forehead one last time, then swept off to her bedroom, and closed the door.
A shock of red hair in the moonlight. Leliana, come visiting after dark. She paused to look at him, picked her way across the chamber to Josephine's bedroom door, leaving it partway open. He heard Josephine's sleepy murmur of recognition, and the sheets rustling as Leliana climbed into bed next to her. He strained to hear what they could be talking about, so late.
"—DuParaquettes may not be grateful enough," Leliana said. "You do not know what resentments the last century has bred in them."
"I don't care," said Josephine.
"I have been cruel. I have treated you like a green girl who does not know her own mind. Allow me to make it up to you," Leliana said.
There was the unmistakable sound of a hand being slapped away. "The Commander is n the next room, Leliana," Josephine hissed. Another murmured protest, swiftly silenced. Cullen remained motionless, eyes wide open, staring at the sliver of moon hanging outside Josephine's balcony. His mind was clear. The little gasp, the acquiescent moan, Leliana's hum of satisfaction, the creaking of the bedframe, were all absolutely real.
"This changes nothing," he heard Josephine say, when Leliana was finished with her. "You're still going quite against my wishes."
"Then I have not made it up to you well enough," said Leliana. "Let us try again. But if you think I'll leave you alone with him, after today—"
"Then stay," Josephine said. "And close the door."
"He's still sleeping," said Leliana. "I hear him breathing—I would know, if we'd woken him. You trust me, don't you?"
Cullen's breath came shallow, and the only mercy of the situation was that he was lyrium-sick, and therefore softer than a bowl of porridge. "I do," said Josephine. The muffled thud of a heavy nightgown hitting the floor. An appreciative sigh. "Close the door."
Leliana was in her mailed tabard, hood drawn back, on both her knees before Josephine. Josephine's foot rested on Leliana's thigh, and she waved away a pair of black boots Leliana offered her in favor of the little gold slippers she already wore. She was radiant, in a white dress trimmed in the same gold as her shoes, her hair loose and wild. She sat down at her vanity, and Leliana braided and pinned it back neatly, with the expertise of long practice.
They had been friends for years. They had always been close. This was a lover's closeness. Aside from a bit of stiffness in Josephine's shoulders—easily explained away by her lingering anger with Leliana—there was no sign either of them had truly thought him awake last night.
"Good morning," he said, feeling curiously vulnerable without his armor.
Josephine's bedroom was as ostentatiously nautical as her sitting room was ostentatiously golden—rumpled blue-and-white sheets patterned with anchors, the vanity done up in what looked like driftwood—but it was elegant. He felt grubby and provincial just stepping into it. Leliana ignored him in favor of finger-combing a tangle from Josephine's hair, and Josephine said, "Sit down."
The bed was wide enough for two Iron Bulls to lay abreast. He sat on the very edge and tried not to get crumbs on the stone floor.
"I feel much better today," he said. His hands were still shaking, and his mouth was still dry, but when he looked at the edges of things, the armoire, the row of vials on Josephine's vanity, they felt right, felt real, and that was a small relief. Leliana pinned the last of Josephine's hair away and daubed a bit of perfume on the side of Josephine's neck, and put the leftover on her own. "Thank you for all your help."
"It was nothing," said Josephine.
"Your hair is a disaster, Commander" Leliana said, finally meeting his eyes in the mirror.
"I didn't hear you come in, Sister," Cullen said, but he ran his fingers through his hair, reflexively.
"Better," Leliana said. It was not an answer. She put a few of Josephine's leftover hairpins on her glove, for later. "Josie, let him borrow your pomade, the servants say he's running out."
"You spy on my toilette?"
"And now I know you think of it as your 'toilette.'"
"Maker's breath, you're like children," Josephine said, standing and smacking Leliana on the shoulder. "I can have more breakfast sent up, if either of you wish to do something more productive with your mouths."
Cullen managed not to drop his toast: Josephine didn't make innuendos. She did not even acknowledge them when they were made in her presence, regardless of who they came from. Leliana remained impassive, and followed Josephine out of the bedroom.
Breakfast was—better. They spoke only of the Inquisition's business, the distribution of wool, of the housing of new recruits for the summer and the disposal of Skyhold's waste, and not at all of lyrium, or hallucinations, or whatever had happened in Val Royeaux. It was only a temporary truce, and it would break down as soon as they were not all in a room together.
Inquisitor Cadash was kind enough to not interrupt them until after they'd finished eating.
"Don't you three look cozy," the Inquisitor said, leaning against the doorframe. She walked with a cane, today, and he'd never been able to tell whether her intermittent limp was real or an affectation, to make enemies underestimate her. Bad hip, she'd claimed, when he'd plucked up the courage to ask about it. Worse, when it's about to rain. Andraste's tits, soldier, don't you have some latrines to dig? And that had been the end of that line of inquiry.
"I promised I would not say anything to Cassandra," Leliana said, setting her teacup noiselessly back on its saucer. "I said nothing of the Herald."
"Should've plugged that loophole when you kids had the chance," the Inquisitor said affably. "Ambassador Montilyet. Sister Leliana. Me and the commander here need to have a private chat."
And with that, their peace was over. "My salon is yours," Josephine said, and seized Leliana by the arm and dragged her from the room.
He'd never been alone in a room with the Inquisitor, he realized. She wasn't as actively frightening as Leliana, or as imposing as Madame Vivienne, but she had a presence well beyond her stature. In her more fearsome moments, she reminded him of the Knight-Commander—but the Inquisitor was utterly in control of herself at all times.
To his surprise, the Inquisitor only sat on a low couch and stretched her arms over her head, until her shoulder joints both made sickening pops. "I'm too damn old for this hero shit," she said, patting her left shoulder. "Dislocated it, on the way back from Val Royeaux with the Ambassador. Would've been worse if Bull hadn't knocked the guy's head clean off, and if Solas wasn't there. Viv, Dorian, they can't heal for shit. Solas can't, either, but he kept me on my feet and fighting until we could get it back in the socket."
Then she pulled out a vial of with a chunk of what Cullen knew was raw lyrium, and turned it over and over in her hands.
"See this? Dagna made it for me—so I can carry it around with going nuts from exposure. Reminds me of where I came from, now that I'm tearing my rotator cuffs for the greater good. And, look, I don't know much about its alchemical properties," she said, "or how mages use it in enchantments. Frankly, I don't care. But I know how many sovereigns an ounce of it goes for in five different cities, and I know what a strung-out runaway templar itching for a fix looks like. They're dangerous, see—you meet in broad daylight, you bring backup, and you put an arrow straight through their eye if they so much as twitch funny at you."
"Of course," he said, trying to drag his gaze from the vial in her hand. It didn't work. Here she was, speaking casually about killing men and women who may have been his former comrades, and all he could think of was the damned lyrium.
"Yeah, yeah—'Is there a point to this, Your Worship, or are you fucking with me?' Of course there is, and of course I'm not," the Inquisitor said. "I'm getting there; don't rush an old dwarf when she's reminiscing. The point is, I've seen your kind about to break, and you're nowhere near that point."
"As you say, ser." He managed to meet her eyes and nod, mechanically.
"You're not listening to me," the Inquisitor snapped. "Been feeling paranoid—any more paranoid than usual, that is? Strange blackouts? Sleepwalking? Bloody noses? No?" Cullen shook his head mutely. She put the lyrium back in her pocket, and he bit back his sigh of relief. "Good. You're fine. And you're discharged from duty when I say you're discharged, so stay off the shit, get some rest, and then get back up on your Maker-fucked feet and lead my armies."
"By your command, Inquisitor," he said. It was a relief, to have the matter settled for him, to have this taken from his hands. "And my—conduct? With the ambassador?"
"Is that what you're worried about? Getting the boot because you held her hand too hard? You two can work that out on your own." Then her expression softened, by inches. "Look at me, kid. It doesn't matter who went into the Breach. The Breach spat Malika Cadash out. Whatever we were before—"
"We are now the Inquisition," Cullen finished, by rote.
The words were dust to him, but she looked pleased with him, for the first time in their conversation. Skyhold, she'd said once to her assembled inner circle, wasn't just a fortress. It was a promise, that they could all be better than what they'd been. That all of Thedas could come together under one banner. And if we can fix up this pisshole before winter hits, we can do anything, she'd said. We all need that promise. Hell, maybe I do, more than anyone. 'Whatever we were before'— you all know the line. Burn it with me on my pyre, if there's enough of me left to burn when this is over.
"That's a lad," she said, now, laying a hand on his shoulder. "Rest up. The garrison at Caer Bronach is overdue for an inspection, don't you think? You're headed out at the end of the week. Ambassador Montilyet's going with you, to oversee the renovations."
"And keep an eye on me?"
"Sure," said the Inquisitor. "Something like that."
But the tailor didn't know anything about a Du Paraquette in the Orlesian peerage, or the merchant class, which meant he needed a real spy.
"Come on, Curly," Varric said, "we both know you didn't come here to get the latest news from Lowtown."
The Herald's Rest was mostly empty, this time of day. Varric had made an office of a corner table, and Bianca sat on the chair next to him, as a deterrent, or because he genuinely thought his crossbow deserved its own seat at the table. After a decade of crossing paths with and accepting bribes from Varric, Cullen was inclined to believe the latter.
"Right." Cullen took a sip of the ale he'd ordered for the both of them, forcing himself to lean forward, to slouch. It was what Josephine did: mimicking the posture of the person she spoke to. It did not feel natural to him, nor did it seem to have any observable effect on Varric. "I need a favor," he said. "A discreet favor."
Varric looked at his crossbow, and then back to Cullen. "Need a loan? Do you still owe Ruffles that ten sovereigns? Or was it twenty, I can never remember."
It was fifteen, and Cullen had settled the debt within a week. "No."
"Is it something illegal? Because, as we both know, I'm nothing but a humble businessman—"
"Maker, no," Cullen said. "I just need—a bit of news." They'd danced this dance before. Varric would happen to know someone who knew someone who'd robbed someone who knew the location of a truly dangerous maleficarum in Darktown; Cullen would happen to be at the Hanged Man to overhear him let it slip, and would happen to leave a sovereign behind on his table. After the Circle's fall, they'd graduated to having entire conversations. "About a family. The Du Paraquettes."
"Never heard of 'em." Varric rifled through some papers on his table, casual. "Orlesians?"
"Anything in particular in mind?"
"Just—anything you find interesting."
"All right, Curly," Varric said. "If you want me to do your legwork for you, first off, you're going to have to narrow it down, because I don't think you want to hear about the weird cousin who got caught with their pants around their ankles in a field of druffalos, because, I shit you not, every Orlesian family's got one. And then you're going to have to tell me why you're coming to me, and not to good old Nightingale."
Which was to say: Varric smelled a story, here. There was no harm in leveling with him, up to a point. "Anything you can find out," Cullen said, heart in his throat, regardless, "about the Du Paraquettes and the Montilyets."
"I see," Varric said. "Now it's interesting. And Nightingale sent you to ask me to dig in, because she thinks I work with you better than I work with her? Hell, we'd all do anything for Ruffles, but if it's you and me on this one, it's you and me." If Cullen had learned anything at all from Leliana and Josephine, it was to simply nod and allow people their assumptions when they suited his purpose. And so he nodded. Varric scratched his chin and went on, "Vendetta? Blood debt?"
"Presumably," said Cullen. "Discretion, Varric."
"Sure, sure. When have you known me to not be discreet?" At Cullen's incredulous look—all of Kirkwall had known the Champion was a mage, despite, or because of, all the coin he'd paid to the templars to keep them off her back—Varric only threw his head back and laughed. "I know someone in Val Royeaux, who knows someone—"
"Who robbed someone, who knows someone. Yes."
"Just like old times," Varric said. "Right?"
"I should hope not," Cullen said, and took his leave.
Perhaps subterfuge agreed with him, or perhaps this was the first day in a month he did not have a headache, because he left the tavern with a spring in his step. Cassandra had summoned him for a talk, before he left. The sunshine was wan, but it was warm on his face; the stairs to the chapel did not bother his aching knees half so bad as they could have.
In the chapel, Cassandra had been drafted by a half-dozen templars to sing the Chant with them. Ser Barris, back from Josephine's diversion in the valley and looking no worse for the wear, sat at her right side. Not one of the rest looked a day past twenty, and all of them gazed worshipfully up at Cassandra.
It was not for her singing voice. O Creator, see me kneel, Cassandra began, in her quavering, hesitant alto, for I walk only where You would bid me. In this, she was recruit who did not know where to put her feet. It made her human. And the templars joined, Stand only in places You have blessed—sing only the words You place in my throat. Backed by two competent sopranos and Barris, with his deep, round voice, she did not sound entirely terrible.
Cullen failed to notice Leliana, wedged between two of the broader girls, until she opened her mouth to sing.
He had been in choirs all his life. On his best days, he was even an excellent singer. In his first year as Knight-Captain in Kirkwall, he had led the singing of the Chant for Divine Beatrix herself, during a Wintersend service. It had been the greatest honor of his life—a wheelwright's son from Honnleath, standing beneath a golden statue of Andraste Victorious in the grand cathedral, looking down into the eyes of Most Holy. But Leliana's voice, when she sang, My Maker, know my heart, was transcendent. Barris tried to join her for half a line before he was firmly hushed by one of his fellows. Take me from a life of sorrow, she sang, gentle and mournful, and full of hope. Lift me from a world of pain. Judge me worthy of Your endless pride.
Leliana's pause after the verse lay heavy on the room. Her raised eyebrow: Join me, Commander, it said, if you think you can keep up.
The same lines he had spoken with Josephine, he sang now. My Creator, judge me whole. He was not warmed up, and his voice cracked on the first few words, but Leliana's steady regard did not let him falter. Would not let him falter. A certainty came over him: that they were creating something beautiful, and that their voices joined as if they had been made for one another's; but that this sparring, as surely as if she'd come down to the practice yard and drawn her twinned daggers. And that he was not a match for her—had never been a match for her.
"I should never have introduced these two," Cassandra said to the slack-jawed templars, when they were finished. "Maker's breath, look at them. A pair of show-offs."
"Seeker Pentaghast is only angry because she sings like a rusted door hinge," Leliana said. One of the braver templars dared crack a smile. "And this is at her very best. At the morning services in Val Royeaux, when the spirit of faith truly moved in her, she yowled the Chant like a hungry cat."
Cassandra rolled her eyes and shooed Leliana and Barris's templars from the room. The two of them had a history, and for all that he and Cassandra were friends, he would never achieve such easiness with her. As a fighter, he would never be her equal; as a Seeker, she was his superior officer.
"Your infant templars have attached themselves to me," Cassandra said, when they were alone. "They seem to have mistaken me for a Revered Mother, or one of their Knight-Captains. And, unfortunately, for a competent singer."
"The world has disappointed them so much already," said Cullen. Their officers had tried to turn them into monsters. The Inquisitor had dissolved the Order entirely, which he had argued bitterly against, to no avail. But after a thousand years, and what the templars had become, it was for the best. He had to believe that. "What's another?"
Cassandra's brow furrowed. "We will show them a better way," she said, as though it was that simple. And for her, it was. She set her mind to something, and she accomplished it. "That Barris—I like him. Are you well?"
"As well as can be expected," he said. The Inquisitor would have spoken with her by now. She must have known the answer.
"Bullshit. Answer the question, Cullen."
"My head feels clearer than it has in months." He bent to light a candle on the altar, and to avoid her gaze. "A side-effect of the Lady Ambassador's forcing a good meal and a solid night's rest on me, I'm sure. She enjoys playing the lioness."
"It is not play, with her," said Cassandra, far more sharply than the situation warranted, he thought. "She is not so overburdened with gentleness as she seems. Why do you think she and Sister Leliana are such good friends?"
Friends. He had tried to put the sounds of her and Josephine's lovemaking from his mind. His colleagues' affair was none of his. That Leliana had sang those particular words with him was only coincidence, he told himself, sternly. The templars had already been singing Transfigurations when he'd walked in.
"I had imagined it was their mutual love of breaking nobles over their knees," he said. "And hats. I have never heard two people talk about hats at such great length. If Dorian or Vivienne come sniffing around—unbearable."
Cassandra frowned. "This is not a joke," she said, "in Val Royeaux, too many people underestimated her. They see her standing next to Leliana at a party and say to themselves, 'How dangerous could she be? Surely, the woman with the legions of assassins waiting to cut my throat in the night must be the true threat.' And did you know—for years, when she crossed my path, I did not like her?"
"I can't imagine you disliking a diplomat," said Cullen. "Perish the thought."
The sarcasm flew past her. It generally did, when she was in a talking mood: he may as well have not been there. "She was too good, I thought. There was nothing for Leliana to see in her—she must have been an informant, an agent, selling out her country for advancement in the Game. But she is her own," Cassandra said, contemplative. "She has always been her own. And, fortunately for you, Crestwood is too small to boast a milliner's shop. You will take one of Leliana's ravens and write me the moment your condition changes for the worse."
"Of course," Cullen said. Cassandra gave him one of her probing looks. Only a year ago, before he'd fought at her side, he would have quailed before it. Void take him, there was a part of him that still wanted to, that was more comfortable with cringing in the face of authority and carrying out orders than it was with giving them. "I mean it. I will."
"Back to work with you, then," she said. "I will see you in drills, later?"
"I could never miss a chance to be trounced by the Hero of Orlais herself," he said. She made her third most disgruntled noise at his use of that old title, and punched him gently in his side. It was as good as an embrace, coming from her.
Next chapter: Leliana disappears to parts unknown, Cullen and Josephine take a road trip, and Dorian and Sera set some people on fire.
Chapter 2: Though Stung With a Hundred Arrows
Josephine is very disappointed in everyone’s handling of the House of Repose situation, gets bundled off to the ass-end of nowhere with Cullen, solves one problem, and picks up at least three new ones along the way. At least. Probably more like four.
This took forever. Thanks to klickitats for listening to my infinite whinging, and her invaluable beta services.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
In Orlais, Josephine Montilyet's voice had been respected.
If there was an attempt on her life, it could be foiled by simply finding the the person who had ordered it, and speaking with them. Orlesians were petty children when it came to such things, and their killers were never so implacable as Crows. Anyone could be made to see their foolishness. One could not reason with a hundred-year-old slip of paper, and never in her life had she been explicitly barred from taking action to save herself.
Leliana knew full well Josephine was furious, and came to her bed, regardless. And why should she not still make love to Leliana, even if she was angry? Why should she deny herself the pleasure of someone who knew her as well as she knew herself, someone who could play her body like a lute?
Because it was wrong. Josephine punished them both, withheld her affections in the face of Leliana's insincere apologies, her fervent kisses, just because she could, as though either of them would be moved.
"I want you to have something," Leliana said, the night before she left Skyhold.
She had not said she was going away—yet—but Josephine had been left behind often enough to know the urgency, the sense of finality, with which Leliana made love to her before she went into danger. If this is to be the last time, let us make it count. Josephine sat up, sweeping her hair over her shoulder, just to see Leliana's gaze follow its course.
"If it's a promise to go to the Inquisitor and have her call off your people, I'll take it," Josephine said.
"Cadash chose to go to the House of Repose directly, not me," Leliana said. "She would rather risk your anger than your death, as would I. We needn't go through this tonight." She didn't sound as scornful as she might have, only a little weary. Bullshit, Josephine thought to say, as though she were Cassandra. If she were Cassandra, if she wielded a sword, and not a pen, perhaps Leliana and the Inquisitor would listen to her on this.
Then Leliana leaned over the side of the bed—her back was so lean and well-muscled, the weaker part of Josephine's nature observed—to pull something from her clothes. A small dagger. She pressed it into Josephine's slack fingers and closed them around it. This was not a surprise. This was entirely typical of her.
"I won't use it," said Josephine. The hilt was worn from years of use, and the blade, when she unsheathed it an inch, had a black groove running through it. She set it aside. "No matter what happens. You know that."
"I do," said Leliana. "But I will feel better if you have it with you. Did you know—the qunari of the Antaam consider their weapons parts of their souls? To be parted from one's weapon is to no longer be a whole person, if a person at all." Trust Leliana to make a pretty story of asking Josephine to betray her principles. "I've learned not to become attached to my bows," she went on. "I've had dozens. They break. They're stolen. But this dagger has been at my side through a great many trials, and I would like you to hold onto it for me, when I'm gone."
Trust Leliana to make it a grand romantic gesture. A piece of her soul. Maker preserve them both. Josephine nodded mutely, then turned onto her stomach and pressed her face into a pillow, so that she would not have to look at her. Leliana ran a rough hand down Josephine's bare back and rested it, possessively, on the place where Josephine's behind met the tops of her thighs.
She lay, passive, as Leliana straddled her and slid a hand between her legs, coaxed her hips upward. As she took a fistful of Josephine's unbound hair and wound it around her hand, dragging her head back so that she could press open-mouthed kisses to her neck—but never bite, never leave a mark where someone might see and question.
Just once, Josephine thought, in a moment of madness, moving against Leliana's touch—just once, she wished Leliana would not be so careful. But she was a paragon of control, and Josephine did not bruise easily, besides. The thought, the hand in her hair sliding around the front of her neck, to press fingers into the point of her jaw, made her hold her breath, made her dizzy as she struggled to find the rhythm that would let her come.
"What do you need?" Leliana asked, slacking off, for a moment.
Josephine heard herself make an inarticulate noise, a wordless complaint. She wanted the ledger in her brain wiped clean by Leliana's skillful hands, not to speak. "I don't know—"
"You know," Leliana said, as calmly as she'd ask an agent to make her report. Her hand tightened on Josephine's jaw. "Tell me."
Josephine rocked her body to the side as though she was trying to escape, but she could not have broken Leliana's hold even if she'd truly wanted to. She'd had lovers before Leliana—a captain in the Orlesian army, a long, lean giant of a man, who could catch both her wrists in one big hand. A young Mortalitasi, elegant in her grey robes, who'd wielded lightning once in Josephine's defense, and again, in Josephine's bedchamber. But it had taken a full year to coax Leliana into treating her like she was made of flesh, not glass.
She did not speak. Even when Leliana released her, plied her with soft kisses to her shoulders, the back of her neck, turned her onto her back and worked her way down Josephine's body with a renewed, feverish urgency, Josephine did not speak. When she came, it was wholly unsatisfying,
She turned onto her side, away from Leliana, and felt for the dagger under her pillow. Leliana stroked her hair until she fell asleep, and in the morning, she was gone—as she always was.
The maid was not her usual girl. This, in itself, was not enough to give Josephine pause; there had been a time when she could gauge how many attempts there were planned on her life at any given time by the number of new servants she found she'd 'hired.' And she had had seen this woman in the rookery, dressed as a messenger, delivering a report to Leliana. She was human, for a start, impossibly tall, and broad-shouldered, though she dressed to hide it. Her accent was Orlesian, despite her dark skin and tightly curled hair, and she moved with the quiet, unobtrusive grace of a well-bred servant, or of an assassin.
At least she was a competent hairdresser.
"What's your name?" she said, in Orlesian, once she was dressed. Dusky purple silks—as though dressing in Leliana's colors could summon her back to Skyhold. To what end? For Josephine to glare at her across the war table? Better that she was gone, she thought, with a renewed surge of anger.
The assassin bobbed a flawless curtsey. "Ellarie, my lady."
"I see," Josephine said. "Let us level with one another. You have calluses on your hands from—swordwork? Knifework. Your nose was broken once. Your code-name?"
And with that, Ellarie's entire demeanor changed. Her neutral smile faded, her posture straightened, her eyes grew harder and colder. The transformation was not unfamiliar to Josephine. Such a short distance to be traversed, from Leliana to Nightingale. "I am called Ripper," she said.
'Ripper.' How comforting. Perhaps 'Butcher' and 'Slayer' were out on assignment. Never let it be said that Leliana was overburdened with imagination when it came to naming her people. "I suppose you know where your mistress has gone off to."
"Need-to-know only, my lady," Ellarie said.
"Are you saying," Josephine said, leaning forward to take one of Ellarie's hands, "that you do not know, or that I am not meant to know?"
It was an entirely innocent gesture. Turning the whole of one's attention on a person and simply asking was enough, in most cases; the trick of it was to ask the correct question. "I am not meant to tell you." Ellarie sounded unimpressed.
"I understand," Josephine said, turning with deliberate abruptness to examine herself in her mirror, withdrawing that attention, and her hand. "I would not ask you to."
A silence. "You could order me, yes?" Ellarie said, and she sounded almost shy. "She is your dear friend; you're very worried about her."
Perceptive—good. Josephine could use that. She said, in the weariest voice she was possessed of, "In times like these, loyalty is to be valued," and applied a bit of perfume to her wrists and neck. "I would not subvert one of Leliana's people any more than I would expect her to subvert one of mine." (She had spent years subverting Leliana's people, whenever Leliana became overbearing.)
Ellarie hesitated, and then put an excessively familiar hand on Josephine's shoulder. "I can't tell you what she is doing," she said, "but her last raven, it was from Jader. Not so far from Skyhold, my lady."
Jader, where the House of Repose had its headquarters. "I—thank you. Thank you," Josephine said, and the quaver in her voice was unfeigned.
She had grown up in a country where assassinations were as common as the summer rainstorms, and it had left her weary of death; and yet, to have someone willing to kill for her, to send her agents to guard her with their lives, had been exciting, once. Years ago, when she was a young attaché, it had been wildly romantic to have a woman nearly a decade her senior wrapped around her little finger, to have Most Holy's own spymaster slip into her little rooms in the embassy under the cover of darkness and make love to her.
It had been Josephine who had not wanted to acknowledge the affair in public, for reasons that were still entirely sound: she would have been regarded as nothing more than a pawn in the Chantry's games, her triumphs no longer her own, her every move subject to suspicion. We knew a mere Antivan could not be so clever! She has been the Nightingale's puppet all along, the Orlesians would say, behind her back. And they would joke about the entire Left Hand of the Divine inside of her, turning her this way and that.
Knocks at the door to her salon. It was only her morning meeting. She sat back while Ellarie answered it, and she composed herself.
Here, now, she could not be a woman who was furious with her lover, and still terrified for her well-being. She was not a woman who wished nothing more than to return to her bed and run her hands over the hilt of a knife. She was ambassador and chief diplomat, leaving on a mission, giving marching orders to her people.
Half her embassy staff had defected to follow her from Val Royeaux to Haven, and new diplomats had shown up weekly, eager to make their reputations under the famed Ambassador Montilyet: somber Nevarrans, bored Free Marchers looking for intrigue, more than a few of her countrymen, loudly-dressed and flinty-eyed—even the daughter of a Tevinter magister, fleeing her duties as an undersecretary in the Magisterium. Josephine had taken them all. Nothing and no one had gone to waste.
The six who filed into the salon now and took their places on her low couches were were her lieutenants, the best, the brightest, and the hungriest of those had survived Haven's destruction. With their rapt gazes on her, it was easy to fall into the role.
Cassandra was unusually attentive, that day, and insisted on sitting in on a meeting between Josephine and a pair of Nevarran merchants, and then sitting in on all the rest of Josephine's meetings, too. She cleared her throat whenever a person's insults, or innuendos, became too blatant for Josephine to turn aside, and suddenly, they were all politeness, and quite willing to give the Inquisition whatever it needed. It was gallant, in its own way, but dreadful for Josephine's reputation, and after the third such incident she stood in front of Cassandra and cleared her throat until Cassandra looked up from her novel.
"Did Leliana put you up to this?" she asked, keeping her posture relaxed. If Cassandra thought it would come to a contest of wills, she would become implacable.
"The Herald did," Cassandra said. "I was made aware of your circumstances. It is the least I can do."
An adamant frown. Warriors were not all cut from the same cloth—she was no Cullen, who had wanted so desperately to be overmastered—but Cassandra had spent enough time around Leliana that she would realize she was being manipulated sooner, rather than later, if Josephine was not very careful.
Better to not make the attempt. Let it become a contest of wills, then. Josephine would best her. Cassandra did not know what to do when she could not cow someone.
"Leave," Josephine said.
"No," said Cassandra, just as simply.
"That was not a request, Lady Pentaghast. Leliana's agent is stationed outside my office; she will be sufficient."
A muscle worked in Cassandra's jaw at the use of her proper title. It galled. She had no idea how lucky she was to have the weight of the Pentaghast name to smooth her life's path. "You have no authority over me, ambassador." She said ambassador like an insult. Josephine knew exactly how to make her sort furious, but she had never been so petty as to make a game of it. It was only a tool, to be used at the most appropriate moment.
"Perhaps I have no authority," said Josephine, in her most obnoxiously patient voice, "but you have no right."
Cassandra stood as though to loom over Josephine and argue the point, but a stillness came over her. She turned and picked her book up, tucked it under her arm like a schoolgirl. "You think that because I have a short temper, I will give you the fight you want," she said. She patted Josephine's shoulder, then pulled her hand back as though she'd been burned. The gesture was endearingly awkward, and took most of the wind out of Josephine's sails. "Leliana does the same, when her hands are tied. The number of times I have given in and let it come to blows—but somehow, I don't think you'll take a swing at me, Lady Josephine. Take it up with the Inquisitor. You know where to find her."
Ellarie had brought needlework with her. She, at least, sat quietly for the rest of the day, silent as a statue.
When Josephine came down the last flight of stairs, the Inquisitor was sweeping up metal shavings. Dagna was making something—a very short sword, or a very long dagger. Impossible to tell, when it was red hot, and when one didn't care.
"The Cadash were Smith Caste before we became a house, you know," the Inquisitor said, before Josephine had a chance to speak. "Maybe it's in the blood, or maybe this is the only place in all of fucking Skyhold people won't think to bother me. Now, if one of Dagna's weird experiments blows, I'm nug steaks, but I think that's an acceptable risk."
"Actually! There won't be enough left of you to make steaks," Dagna said, in-between hammer blows.
"See, that's why I like her," said the Inquisitor. "Not a lying bone in her body. This about me telling Cassandra to stay glued to your side? Out with it."
She had a thick scar down her left cheek, stark white against her dark skin, and it twisted disturbingly when she smiled. One became used to it, and learned to appreciate its effect on unsuspecting petitioners.
"I don't mind her company," Josephine said, gathering her wits. She could not be angry, now, though it was well within her rights. The Inquisitor could not be pushed. "One of Leliana's people, I can tolerate, and I have tolerated more than enough of them in my life. But to send Seeker Pentaghast to ride herd on me, like a sheepdog, is... unendurable."
The Inquisitor led her over to the rail, to look out at the waterfall. Josephine put her hands on the cold stone, folded them neatly, and the Inquisitor scoffed. "'Unendurable,' my blocky ass.You're pissed," she said.
"I am not—"
"Just say it," said the Inquisitor. "You're mad as hell, at me, at Leliana, at whoever. People get angry, and you're people, as far as I can tell. Let it out—no one can hear you down here except me and Dagna, and Dagna doesn't give a shit."
She slapped at the wet stone with her bare palms as hard as she could, and felt silly for it. She did so again, and refused to look at the Inquisitor. Once more, with all the strength she possessed.
The pain clarified, but her anger swelled in her chest like a black wave: the unfairness of it all, Leliana and the Inquisitor's refusal to let her handle this matter herself, Cassandra's refusal to allow her to pick her petty fight, that she should be targeted for something so utterly trivial, that all of her power and connections could not shield her from—from a scrap of parchment. She kept hitting the stone, until she thought she would bruise her hands, and shouted her complaints into the waterfall's roar until she was wordless and hoarse. Behind her, Dagna's hammer-blows fell steadily, a perfect counterpoint.
The Inquisitor had the audacity to grin, after Josephine's tantrum, as though it had not been a ludicrous, childish display, never to be repeated. But her smile made it seem almost reasonable, and a part of Josephine's embarrassment melted away. "Damn," she said, reaching up to chuck Josephine on the shoulder, like a fond elder sister. "I had no idea you hated Leliana's nugs that much."
"What sort of terrible name is 'Schmooples'?" said Josephine, through heaving breaths. She swallowed hard, wiped her damp palms on her skirts. "That—is the least of my complaints, Your Worship."
"At least you're complaining, and not walking around Skyhold doing that thing you do where you're very disappointed in all of us. Screaming, I can work with. Sit down, don't be shy, I just swept."
It was not a request. Josephine felt hollowed out, entirely, and slumped down against the rails. The Inquisitor crossed the room to get her a worn blanket for her shoulders; Josephine had not even noticed the chill, until now. "Yesterday, Cullen found some changes in the posted guard rotations—the ones you wrote out. Turns out our would-be killer could do his handwriting, but not yours. You know how amateurs are. Actually, maybe you don't."
"I'm sure I don't," Josephine said.
"Right. You leave that to the professionals, just like we leave to you, I don't know, picking the right fork to make some Marcher with more sovereigns than sense hand over all his veridium."
"There's... more to it than choosing the right fork."
"Shit, what do I know? I'm useless without you. We're useless without you. Anyway, we'd been waiting to tell our good Commander until Leliana's people were in place, but it turns out he'd already figured it out on his own. Him and Varric, together. Fast work. He looked so damn smug when he came to me with the schedule. So I stuck Cassandra on you, because there's no safer place in Thedas than behind her when the shit hits the fan, and then I rolled up my sleeves and got down to business."
"You could have told me," Josephine said. "Rather than presuming—"
"What would you have done?" the Inquisitor cut in, before Josephine could finish. "If I'd told you there was someone coming to cut your throat. You would've been distracted, and you had deals to close today. I need you at your best."
Cassandra was steel, and with the correct application of force, steel could be bent. The Inquisitor was stone. She would not yield; it would take centuries to wear away at her. Perhaps it was for the best that Josephine was being sent away from Skyhold for a time. Perhaps when she returned, she would be able to look the Inquisitor in the eye. Josephine drew her knees up to her chest and rested her forehead on them. The Inquisitor shrugged, took up her broom, and returned to her task.
It was peaceful. Dagna finished her dagger, moved onto tinkering with some mechanism. The Inquisitor paused in her tidying, once in a while, to ask her a question. Harritt came stomping down, grumbling about shitehead elves stealing his tools, and the Inquisitor made some remark that made him laugh, and leave. A skill Josephine envied: to defuse any situation with a joke, to exude an air of authority so powerful that there was no question of acquiescence to it, but whose absence was enough to calm onlookers.
And yet she claimed to have been a mere bookkeeper. The Montilyets had long-standing contacts in the Carta—there were, regrettably, some things that could not be done without them—and none of them would speak to her of a Malika Cadash. No idle gossip, no anecdotes. If Leliana knew anything more of substance, she would not say, either. But this was a problem for another day.
Josephine had work to do. She had kept Ellarie waiting at the top of the stairs long enough, but before she could push herself to her feet, someone came rushing down the stairs.
"Herald," Cullen said, "our man is ready to talk—" Then he saw Josephine sitting on the floor, and stopped short. "Lady Ambassador."
"No, keep going," the Inquisitor said. "He was going to put a knife in her belly. She's got the right to know."
In truth, Josephine did not want to know anything about this man. It was a shameful cowardice. Years spent under the aegis of Leliana's quiet, thorough protection had inculcated it in her. But she was far more now than she had been, and to leave them to do as they wished with him would end in a death, and to back down would be to allow them to stuff her further into the cage of their protection. Cullen cleared his throat. "One of ours, longbowman. He says he'll speak to Ambassador Montilyet, and her alone."
"He's not in any position to make demands." The Inquisitor set her broom aside. Dagna, still supremely oblivious, or at least pretending to be so, took it from her without looking. "Does he think she'll be any more merciful than the rest of us?"
Josephine pushed herself to her feet. They spoke of her as though she wasn't there, despite Cullen's uncomfortable glances at her, and her calm evaporated. "Commander, if you will take me to the dungeons? I would speak to this man: if he came to put a knife in my belly, his fate is mine to decide."
The Inquisitor looked proud of her, and nodded her agreement. Whether it was at Josephine's initiative, or at some newly-perceived bloodlust—she took Cullen's proferred arm, and swore she would spare this man, if there was anything to be redeemed.
She had only visited Skyhold's cells once, when the fortress was new to them. The smell was not as bad as she'd been expecting. The Inquisitor was not one to keep prisoners overlong.
"They had my family," the man said, on his knees, hands clutching at the bars. "I was—I was forced, milady, I swear it."
"He hasn't got any family," Cullen said, rapping the bars above the man's hands with his sword. The man scrabbled back. "Village in the Bannorn, wiped out in the Blight. Spent ten years years wandering the Free Marches and Orlais, hopping from mercenary company to company—yes, soldier, I remember you. You were with me when we found the Herald in the snow. You told me your life's story."
A templar-trained memory was formidible. The man looked down at his feet. "Is this true? All of it?" Josephine said. The man hung his head, and nodded. "So you were paid handsomely."
"Found a fat bag of royals in his quarters," the Inquisitor said.
Josephine waved both of them away, and crouched down to the man's level. "Why?" she asked. "Why do this?"
Their eyes met. She had not known what she'd expected to see—a broken man in need of her aid, or defiance, or anger. But there was only contempt, so powerful it struck her like a physical blow. "I had a half-brother," the man spat. "Last of my family. Didn't know he existed until I came to you people. Stonemason. And then I watched him get eaten by a demon at Haven."
And Josephine had watched it, too. Their workers had been the first to take up arms, and then fall. The man's tone left no doubt that he considered it her fault, somehow. The contempt. The utter disregard for everything she stood for. She was too practiced to recoil physically from the cell. To this man, she was nothing but a pampered noble in her tower, and not the only thing that gave this Inquisition its legitimacy.
Josephine looked into herself, and saw herself entirely willing to say, Do as you will. It doesn't matter to me.
But it did matter. It had to matter. Even the life of her would-be killer. Half of Josephine's staff had been killed in their sleep by the Venatori, people who had been with her for years and years. They had not been swift or kind deaths. Loss excused nothing.
She rose smoothly to her feet and faced down Cullen and the Inquisitor. Cullen looked concerned, in his soft-eyed, hangdog way; the Inquisitor looked oddly expectant. If she'd declared this man's life hers to dispose of—dispose of, as though he was trash, because he'd fallen prey to simple, common greed, and misplaced rage—they wanted a decision now.
"Send him back to Haven," Josephine said. "Put him to work in the crews excavating the ruins. Keep him too exhausted to cause mischief." To dismiss this as minor troublemaking--it showed she was not frightened.
"All right," the Inquisitor said. "I'll make the arrangements."
"And, your worship," said Josephine, "when he arrives, make sure all know why he's been sent there."
The prisoner peered up at her again. There was no contempt in his eyes, now. There wasn't much of anything. Perhaps the tale would precede the man to Haven, mutate, so that he'd been found in her bedchambers with a knife, or that he'd tried to strangle the lovely ambassador in her office—the workers at Haven were, overwhelmingly, volunteers, the faithful.
And the Inquisitor's smile was indulgent, fond. Whatever she had wanted Josephine to prove had been proven in spades.
Such tiresome melodrama—it was the evening, and the shadows were long. That was all.
The familiar gold of her salon, lit rose and purple by the sunset, was not a comfort. "I need a word with the ambassador about our travel arrangements," Cullen said, in a tone that must have cleared a room, with persons trained to hear orders. Ellarie stared blankly at him. "In private," he added, when she did not so much as move. "Alone."
"It's fine," Josephine said, and then, and only then, did Ellarie nod curtly and leave the room.
They had not been truly alone together since the day of the incident. She'd suffered worse bruises from presumptous dukes and duchesses trying to lure her off to dark corners of ballrooms. He looked uncomfortably around at her salon, and at the chair he'd slept in.
In truth, they rarely had reason to seek one another out, unless Cullen needed help ordering his ledgers before the Inquisitor barrelled into his office to check his numbers against her master copy—there was nothing more terrifying for the uninitiated than an audit—or Josephine had a question about materiel. He all but shifted from foot to foot, now, and Josephine took pity on him: "I'm quite all right," she said. "I'm sure the hunt for one of your own soldiers set you back on your work, Commander—I won't keep you."
"I have an entire staff to take care of my work," he said, throwing her words from that day back at her, "all of whom are overjoyed to drill soldiers on my behalf."
Those words. She'd nearly had to sit on his lap to get him to stay in his chair. His bowed head—his hand, heavy on her waist. His self-conscious flinch away from her. It was maddening, how southerners refused to touch one another, so that they starved for it their whole lives, without ever knowing what they needed.
"I just thought"—Cullen cleared his throat—"you might like to know that we found a scout's uniform in your size, and that your trunks are well on their way, along with the shipment of arms."
"I know all of this," Josephine said. His ears went pink—Maker, she'd met loaves of bread with more guile than Cullen. He had something he wanted to say. Before she could tell him, Out with it, you silly man, she caught sight of a bundle of flowers sitting on her table—wilted, as though they'd been there for days, and somehow escaped her notice. Cullen followed her gaze, moved to pick them up (as if a bouquet would leap up and cut her throat), but she reached them first. A spray of Andraste's Grace, wrapped in a scrap of blue cloth, the precise shade of Leliana's eyes. She untied the cloth, and a note fell out.
"One of Cole's gifts," Cullen said, not without affection. "Andraste's Grace only grows in the lowlands." He took up the paper, while Josephine turned the piece of cloth over. In a child's messy embroidery, in thick white thread, was a name: LELI. It smelled of her perfume, which had been her mother's scent before her, and which Josephine wore now. A first sewing sampler—some lost piece of Leliana's childhood.
Cullen read, "'I am with her. I will not let her fall. Please do not be afraid.'" A chuckle. "I wonder how hard he had to try, to be that direct."
Josephine clutched the cloth to her chest. Her shoulders were trembling; there was a knot in the throat that she could not seem to swallow around. Control yourself, she ordered her treacherous body. Turn around. Bid the Commander a pleasant evening. But she was rooted to the spot.
It was Cullen who moved—his shin bumped audibly against her table, and he bit back a curse—to stand at her side. "You're allowed to be a bit overset, you know," he said. "She's your best friend."
What a refreshing lack of insinuation. He'd been sound asleep, that night; Leliana would not have lied, or risked their affair on a whim. And yet—"If one more person tells me how I ought to be feeling today, I may scream," Josephine said. Her voice sounded ragged, but she was not sobbing.
His hand, his warm, gloved hand, slid into hers, and Josephine squeezed it with all the strength she could muster. She still saw his tremors, from time to time; forcing a day of rest on him wouldn't cure that. But unless he brought it up, she left him to it. Their imminent trip was as much a minor reprimand for him as it was to keep Josephine safe. "I think," he said, "that the Inquisitor appreciates your work, deeply, but she doesn't understand you. What you are—what you do."
"Oh? Tell me what I am."
"Someone who comes from a world where a convenient death can be bought as easily a—a bolt of silk. Wherever you buy a bolt of silk. She can't comprehend that you'll indulge in one, but not the other."
"You mean to say she wanted me to have that man executed." She withdrew her hand, not entirely, just enough to trace the leather on his palm with her thumb. It was worn and cheap, with frayed stitching, wholly unbefitting a man of his station. "These are a disgrace. I'll have them replaced for you, when we're back from Crestwood," she said.
Cullen ignored her. "We've had a raven from Leliana—I saw the missive on Her Worship's desk. She's arrived safely in Jader, and her people in the area have ferreted out the assassins' headquarters."
Her stomach twisted. There would not have been a note for her. Any personal communication was a risk—know that I will come home to you, Josie, Leliana would admonish her, years ago, when Josephine had fretted far more. Know it, with everything that you are. Your faith will be my beacon, and my shield.
It had all been tremendously romantic. Josephine tamped down the fond feeling in her chest. "I'm glad to hear it," she said. "I thank you, Commander."
Cullen squeezed her hand again. She turned to him, rested her forehead against his shoulder, felt his entire body go still and tense.
You can have him, if you wish, Leliana had said, the night Cullen had slept in Josephine's salon. I won't mind. He's mad for you. He is clay in your hands. You'll be alone together for weeks.
The son of a tradesman, from some nameless town in Ferelden, Cassandra had said, when she'd brought him from Kirkwall to Haven. An able swordsman, Cassandra said (high praise, from the greatest fighter of an age); a strong and well-beloved leader, a man of as much integrity as could be expected, when his character had been formed in the charnel house that had been the Gallows. A man who put a cautious arm around Josephine's shoulders and rested his chin atop her head, now, staring sternly into the middle distance, waiting to be told he had overstepped his bounds.
She would not use him as a distraction. She had done terrible things in the Game, but never had she brought intrigue into her bedroom, for all that she could picture him on his knees, his golden head between her thighs, looking up at her with the same satisfied smile he had when he checkmated Dorian or Leliana in one of their interminably dull chess games. Or when he thought he'd figured out her tells, that long night.
"I'll see you tomorrow," Josephine said. She extracted herself from his embrace, with all the grace she possessed. "First light?"
"First light," said Cullen.
The half-dozen soldiers accompanying them—Ser Barris, a knight-enchanter, an Orlesian chevalier, three master marksmen—no one could accuse Cullen of underpreparing—thought it great fun, to see Josephine in armor, to teach her how to skin rabbits and deer. Cullen was unfailingly solicitous, but he was busy being the Commander, not her fellow advisor. Ellarie didn't leave her side for a moment, waking or sleeping.
It was irritating, and would have been more irritating, if not for the way Ellarie melted into the company of soldiers: she became, once more, the messenger Josephine had seen delivering reports to Leliana, with a satchel of letters for Caer Bronach. If anyone suspected otherwise, they knew to keep their mouths shut.
"You seem happier," Cullen said, in one of the rare moments Ellarie was away—sharing a fire with that chevalier, Ser Alana.
Happier—not remotely. When she woke with her thighs aching from the saddle, there was no stewing over what she'd say to Leliana when she returned from Jader, no endless drafting and revising of speeches. She did not have to be ambassador and chief diplomat, currying the soldiers' horses, praising their dreadful stews. "I'm unburdened," said Josephine. "Despite all the armor. It's heavier than I thought it would be."
Never mind that she'd already worn a set similar to this, after Haven. That one had been worn-in, well loved, hastily cleaned of another woman's blood; this was new and stiff. She fingered at the scrap of blue cloth she'd tied around her wrist, as though Leliana was the lady, and Josephine, the knight wearing her favor. It had come loose. Josephine fumbled with the knot, until Cullen took her hand to re-tie it for her.
His temple brushed hers. He'd stopped pomading his hair for the trip.
Hoots from the other side of camp. Ser Barris and the knight-enchanter, a deceptively small elven woman, were stripping out of their breastplates and shirts and being helped up onto a tree branch by two of the archers--a contest of strength. "Maker," Cullen said, pulling away from her. "I should go break that up."
"We should go judge their form," Josephine said. "I'd find it very instructive."
Cullen sighed, but even Ellarie and Ser Alana craned their heads to watch the competition. Alana. Alana. The name sounded familiar.
"Commander," she said, beneath the sound of the archers' counting. Ser Barris and the knight-enchanter, Sybille, pulled themselves up over and over again, clearly competing to be the one who looked the most unstrained by the effort. "That captain of yours. Where does she come from?"
"The south of Orlais, I believe," said Cullen. "She was a member of the Celene's personal guard, for a time; now she trains recruits. She heard you were one of the empress's favorites, and wanted to come along."
A member of the 'personal guard,' indeed. Alana de Verchiel had been Celene's first champion, and had served for the tumultuous year after the empress's coronation, fought some of the most famous duels in recent memory, then fallen out of favor and faded out to happy obscurity. Only in the Inquisition could one find a living legend showing farmgirls and merchants' sons how to hold their swords.
She looked upon the rest of the soldiers with new eyes. Ser Barris was the presumptive leader of the Inquisition's former templars. Ser Sybille was Vivienne's brightest protégé, and a power to be reckoned with in herself.
"The archers held a grand tourney and presented me with their three best, when it got out that you were traveling with me," Cullen said. "You're loved by the troops, you know. You take walks through the valley with your people—you listen to them, and see to it that your soldiers have what they truly need."
They're hardly my soldiers, Josephine wished to say. But there was something earnest to his tone that she could not bring herself to quash. He was only one, two years older than her, at the outmost, and in the firelight his face looked more apple-cheeked and boyish than usual—would look still boyish when he was seventy and attempting to be grizzled.
Sybille won the competition handily. A mage and a templar, an elf and a human, laughing together. A simple moment. A hopeful one. Josephine put another stick on her fire.
"I see we rate the lavish welcome," Ser Alana said, shifting in her saddle. If the woman hadn't glanced up at the battlements, Josephine would not have known to search for the archers lying in wait. She counted three figures, bows nocked and ready. Clearly, their newly-appointed seneschal's paranoia was equal to Leliana's own.
Charter alone strode forth from the gate to meet them. "Commander Cullen," she said, and saluted him. "Ambassador Montilyet. Welcome to Caer Bronach." Then she spotted Ellarie, riding at Josephine's side, and stopped short. Made some obscure sign with her hands, which Ellarie returned—and only then did she turn on her heel and lead their party into the courtyard.
This was Leliana's world. The soldiers lined up for Cullen's inspection were there to keep peace in the region, and distract from the flocks of messenger birds that flew to and from Skyhold daily. Making it into a waystation for nobles—another distraction, the jewel on the poniard.
Charter's slender back was perfectly straight as she led Cullen and Josephine and Ellarie through the keep, to the improbably clean rookery, past rooms full of code-breakers and translators poring over texts, mages dismantling Venatori artifacts. A show of power, of how well she was doing in her command. Cullen asked the questions; the words slid past Josephine's ears like water on stone.
"Lady Montilyet will go to her rooms, now," Ellarie said, before they came to the barracks, her tone as officious and haughty as any upstairs servant's. Josephine fought the exhausted sway in her steps. "I trust they're prepared for her?"
"Yes—yes, of course, ser, right away," Charter said, and snapped her fingers for an agent to lead them across the keep.
Josephine's chambers were sparse: nothing but an anteroom, where she might hold dinners, were there any society to speak of in Crestwood, a salon, where she might work and hold private audiences, and a musty bedchamber.
Of course, ser.
Ellarie peeled Josephine's armor from her. She ordered a bath drawn, and more people than were strictly necessary came to carry out her orders—to pay their respects. The woman spent her days running messages from one end of Skyhold to the other, but the agents' deference to her slightest word bordered on obsequiousness. Leliana had not set a simple guard dog on her, then.
And here she was, patiently working the tangles from Josephine's hair, laying out a clean dress from the trunk of clothing. Josephine had brought clothes in the Ferelden style for the trip. Rich fabrics, cut very plainly. Creams, light yellows, pale moss greens. The damnably long skirts and elaborate undergarments were Orlais's impact. In Antiva, women were free to move.
"Charter wishes to speak with you and the Commander over supper," Ellarie said, tying Josephine's sash around her waist. "The anteroom?"
"No, my salon," Josephine said, playing with the end of her plait. "An informal meal, for the first night. Has my post been found?"
Ellarie frowned, disapproving. "You should rest, my lady."
She would not have disagreed with Josephine so nakedly at Skyhold, but, then, her persona as lady's maid had been parchment-thin to start. This always happened, when she'd done too good a job at subverting a bodyguard. They became attached. If she didn't nip it in the bud, it would become insufferable. "I don't seem to recall," Josephine said, putting Leliana's ice into her voice, "having asked your opinion. Please find my letters."
It worked. Ellarie bowed stiffly and left, and Josephine went to the bedchamber to lay down—truly alone. For the first time in weeks. Never mind the agents stationed outside her door. Never mind the soldiers drilling beneath her window. Never mind the fresh, cold bite of fear, at the thought that there might not be word from Leliana, and her anger with herself, for wanting it.
There was nothing to be done for it. She rolled onto her back scrubbed at her face with her hands. Nothing to be done. All she could do was stand and face down her own work. General renovations would go faster with two advisors to sign off on expenditures, and Queen Anora's import tariffs had become exceedingly reasonable since the Inquisition's foiling of an attempt on her life. It would be easy.
The Inquisitor had not even seen fit to give her challenging make-work. She let her irritation carry her through her papers, through her correspondence, to supper. Ellarie must have sensed the change in Josephine's mood, and made herself scarce in the bedchamber, ironing Josephine's gowns and hanging them in the battered armoire.
But she resolved to be more pleasant for the meal. She hardly knew Charter, and Cullen had done little wrong except do absolutely nothing, which was a more general fault in his character. Cullen, who looked as haggard as Josephine felt, brightened visibly when he saw her, though it couldn't have been more than two hours since she'd left his side. He's mad for you, Leliana had said, and her insinuations could go to the Void.
"You've something to tell us," Ellarie said to Charter, over the pea-studded brown stew the kitchens had managed to put together. The bread, at least, was exceptional. "It's urgent. You've been putting it off. Spit it out."
"Ser," Charter said, and cleared her throat. "Ser. Ambassador. Commander. Months ago, when the mages at Redcliffe disappeared, we put out word that anyone who'd been coerced into joining up with the Venatori would find safe haven with the Inquisition, no questioned asked. Well, some questions asked, but not the thumbscrews kind. Mostly. And we've had some get out and join us, but it's been stragglers. Two here, three there."
"They know all of this," said Ellarie.
"Right, well. Yesterday evening, we spotted a group of mages, traveling openly on the road to Caer Bronach. Coming from the north, ser. Three of them were in Venatori robes."
Josephine remained quiet, helped herself to another roll. This was well outside her realm of expertise.
"You didn't send your soldiers to bring them in immediately?" Cullen asked, frowning.
"They're—how do I explain this." Charter ran a hand through her hair. "They're children, Commander. It's a bunch of little kids. There's a couple of older ones watching over them, but the scouts say the youngest ones are barely toddlers."
"Not old enough to have manifested any magical potential, then," said Cullen.
Charter shrugged. "If you say so. I've got people tailing them, and they haven't caused any trouble so far. I've got mages under me who could ride out and bring them in—they're scholars, though, not fighters, and their brains are too expensive to send out there. Who knows what the 'Vints did to those kids?"
"We'll send Barris, then," Ellarie said.
"The last thing any mage in these times wants to see is a templar," Josephine cut in. Leliana would have already thought of that. Leliana would not have let them sit here dithering while there were infants on the road. "Send Ser Sybille; she's more than a match for a group of frightened children."
Leliana would have divined there was something Charter was keeping back, and not bothered to bring the matter before Josephine and Cullen until the mages were safe within their walls.
Ellarie, at least, looked relieved to have the matter taken from her hands. A ranking officer, yes, but one unused to assuming direct command. "I'll accompany her," she said, when Cullen nodded his approval. "Come, Charter."
Once they were gone, a servant came into take their dirty dishes. "I don't suppose," Cullen said, when they were alone, "that there's any chance you'll sleep until they're brought in. Wait until morning to deal with it, even."
"None whatsoever," Josephine said. "We don't know why they've come, yet. I need to be there from the start." A few more hours of rest lost was nothing, compared to having a fresh problem to mull over.
"Charter's had word from Sister Leliana," he said. "I heard her whispering with Ellarie—Ripper—whoever she is—while you were busy talking to the baker."
"I can't see that her operations are any of my concern," Josephine said. The edge in her voice was unseemly, but Cullen snorted, and it was so much like one of Cassandra's dismissive noises that Josephine had no choice but to smile.
With a full meal in her stomach and a few hours' relaxation, she could better appreciate Caer Bronach's charms, as they walked. The glass in the windows was smooth and clear, and had clearly been expensive at the time of the keep's building, and the upper bailey, with its wide steps, was beautiful, in a rough-hewn way. The stables in the lower bailey were an unpleasant sight--and smell--when one first entered the keep, but she supposed their location was practical. What did she know of fortresses? f She took her seat on the low wall at the foot of the stairs, as primly as she could, and wrapped her cloak about her shoulders, settling in for the wait.
The moon hung low and fat in the sky by the time Ellarie and Ser Sybille returned, Ellarie riding at the front, Sybille on foot, bringing up the rear, guiding the children into the courtyard. Nine in total, lined up two-by-two, paired and holding hands so that no one became lost. The eldest of them, a black-skinned girl with a plain wooden staff on her back, stood at the head of the column, carrying a baby in her arms. Charter and her people swept in with food and blankets, but the children did not stop holding one another's hands.
"Thank the Maker you're already here, Ambassador," Sybille said. Her barrier manifested itself as a constant, audible hum. It caused the most curious tic in Cullen's cheek, whenever she came near. "The leader will only speak Rivaini, and the rest aren't saying a bleeding thing. You can translate?"
Not can speak only Rivaini. Would speak only Rivaini. "I speak it well enough," Josephine said, accepting Cullen's help off the wall. Of the five languages she'd needed to be conversant in as ambassador to Orlais, it was certainly her weakest, but none of the assembled needed to know that.
The eldest girl—she could not have been more than seventeen years old. No older than Yvette, certainly. "Hello," Josephine said. Rivaini was a complicated, sing-song tongue. She kept her words simple: "I am Ambassador Josephine Montilyet, of the Inquisition. Have you come to us for aid?"
"My name is Vala, of the Circle at Dairsmuid," the eldest said, in equally simple Rivaini, and Josephine translated. She was a tall and gawky girl, with a proud chin and close-cropped hair. "We've come seeking sanctuary from the Venatori. The Nightingale sent us here." Then she spoke some code-phrase that set Charter and Ellarie to nodding.
"The baby," said Josephine, still in Rivaini, "it's not—"
"She is mine," Vala said, hitching the little bundle higher up on her shoulder. The possessive she used implied ownership, not parentage, and she added, "My sister."
"Ser Sybille says they don't have demons in them that she can spot, but you'll forgive me if I want another eye on the morrow, my lady," Charter said, sotto voce. Then, louder, "Tell the girl we've got food and quarters for her and hers."
"I speak your tongue," Vala said, without turning to look at Charter, "but not so well. I understand. Thank you, messere." Her eyes flicked nervously to Cullen, and she continued, once more in Rivaini,"The man with the"—the term she used translated literally as spoiled milk face, but it was infinitely more insulting in Rivaini and Antivan—"he's a templar, isn't he."
"Once, he was, but there are no templars anymore," Josephine said. "The Herald of Andraste did away with the Order. Entirely."
"The Herald!" said Vala, the dull exhaustion gone from her gaze for a moment. "Is it true, that she's a dwarf? Can I see her?"
"I'm sure she'll want to meet the brave girl who saved so many from the Venatori," Josephine said. In truth, the Inquisitor hadn't the faintest idea what to do around children, but she would manage. "Come. Sleep. You've been so strong." And—here was the test—she held her arms out for the baby.
Vala frowned, but she handed her sister over. Maker, Josephine didn't know what to do with children, either. She and her brothers were all a year or less apart, and she'd been away at school for the first three years of Yvette's life. It was Cullen who leaned in to murmur, "Support the head, rock her back and forth. You won't break her, I promise."
"Her name?" Josephine asked, adjusting the baby in her arms.
The child's name was Alya, after some famous seeress. Vala's mother had died in childbirth. Josephine was glad to hand the babe over, to watch the childrens' straight, unnaturally poised backs file in a straight line up the stairs. This would be a diplomatic incident. She could feel it in her bones.
"The senior enchanters at the Gallows had extensive plans to get the apprentices and the youngest of the mages to safety, if they ever faced annulment," Cullen said. "It took nine months after—the Knight-Commander—before we heard so much as a whisper of any of the enchanters in charge of the children. The mages of Dairsmuid must have had similar ones. It makes sense, that there would be survivors."
His voice was tight with guilt. She was not here to give him absolution, no matter how badly he wanted to kneel. All she could do was give him a task—"Ellarie and Charter will be in conference all night," Josephine said, and slid her arm around his waist, underneath their cloaks. She ignored his sudden flinch, the way he relaxed into her touch. The night was cold, and she needed the warmth, and that was all. This was Leliana's world. No one on the bailey noticed them. "Escort me back to my rooms, Commander."
"Do continue, if you wish," Josephine said, and helped herself to a plate of eggs and heavy Ferelden sausages. "I'm Antivan. We invented the assassination, I'm afraid."
Then she took her seat next to Cullen, and Charter introduced the dwarf, and the other two, humans both: a scout, a mage, and a code-breaker. Her own trio of advisors, all of whom were visibly mortified, and took the first opportunity to skulk from the room. Josephine would have soothed their ruffled feathers, but she was no diplomat before breakfast.
"The children are resting peacefully," Charter said, once they were alone. "Five of them are mages, and the rest are too young to tell, as you said, Commander. Begging your pardon, ser"—this was addressed to Ellarie—"but I don't like this one bit. Bunch of kids, out of nowhere, wanting sanctuary? Sounds like just the kind of thing to get under our defenses."
"Vala had the Nightingale's most recent pass-phrase, yes?" said Ellarie. "It could only have come from her. She would not have sent the girl along if she had not gone through this exact train of thought, but." She poured Josephine a cup of, not tea, but the strong Tevinter coffee she vastly preferred. Caer Bronach would not have had it at hand; Ellarie must have packed it for her, and had it prepared this morning. Still playing the lady's maid, even armored and armed as she was. "I cannot say I disagree with you."
"Have you contacted Sister Leliana?" Josephine said.
"She's off on some business," Charter said, "and this isn't an emergency we need to involve her in, especially if she sent them in the first place. Commander, Ambassador, I trust Ser Sybille's assessment, but none one here has the right expertise. For this sort of thing. I want a second opinion—from one of the Herald's personal mages."
She looked uncomfortable, requesting something so directly from the two of them, and next to her Ellarie gave her a subtle nod. They wanted a second opinion, then.
"Lord Dorian, of course," Josephine said, at the moment Cullen said, "We'll send for Madame Vivienne."
Charter cleared her throat, looked back and forth between them. Ellarie busied herself clearing their plates. Cullen ran a hand through his hair and said, "Madame Vivienne will know how to handle young mages."
"Lord Dorian knows far more of Tevinter magics—blood magic, as well, even if he disdains its use. If they've been altered or corrupted in some way, he is most likely to be the one to notice." Mortifying, to be seen disagreeing in public, especially in front of the ranking officers of the keep. This was why they had interludes, despite Cullen and Leliana's initial resistance to the idea—to save face, at times like these.
"I would prefer a Circle mage's experience on this—you cannot possibly think to put another Tevinter mage before them and say, no, he is different, he's one of ours. And Madame Vivienne is Rivaini—"
"Lady Vivienne is a Free Marcher, and an Orlesian in every way that matters, just as your Ser Barris is as Ferelden as a mabari kennel, and Ellarie could not more plainly be from--Val Chevin, from your accent?--if she'd tried." (Ellarie nodded, and looked both impressed and uncomfortable.)
"Be that as it may," said Cullen. He became mulish, when bested. There would be no moving him now. This was the sort of fight she'd wanted with Cassandra, writ very small. She saw now how petty and silly it had been.
What would Leliana do, in this situation? Make a joke to lighten the mood, and then attempt to browbeat Cullen into doing what she wished, until they became snappish with one another and Josephine was forced to intercede. As Cullen was the one to speak plainly of problems when Leliana and Josephine circled endlessly, tediously, around an issue neither of them wished to broach, and Leliana, who had experience in both their worlds, broke Josephine and Cullen's impasses.
Cullen broke the silence. "They did came from the Venatori," he said. "I suppose we can't ignore that. Dorian, then—but if Lady Vivienne is willing, she'll have charge of them when we return to Skyhold."
A relatively small concession he hoped Josephine would see as a large one, no doubt. He was bargaining with her. "I can't see Master Solas taking a particular interest in Circle mages," she said. "Very well." His triumphant smile sent a shameful, secret thrill through her: that he had studied her well enough to use her tactics against her. A species of three, she'd called them, and he'd taken it to heart.
"Then it is settled. A day and a half for your summons," Ellarie said, and only then did Josephine realize she'd been gazing up at Cullen, and turn to look at her and Charter—"Less than a week for him to get here."
"Them," Josephine said. "Less than a week for them to get here."
Ellarie raised an eyebrow. "Pardon, my lady?"
"You'll see," Cullen said, and took a sip of Josephine's coffee, wrinkled his nose in distaste, and handed it back to her.
Drunk on their gratitude to the Inquisition, eager to do business with their new neighbors, the tradesmen of Crestwood did not even bother to haggle with Josephine over her most ridiculously low offers. Her contacts in Denerim assured her they had the means to import whatever she should need for this frivolous project, even with a war on. No word from Leliana, despite her attempts to charm Charter. No attempts on her life. No news from her people at Skyhold of furious Tevinters with Venatori sympathies, demanding the return of stolen children—and maybe this wouldn't turn into an incident after all.
"I understand Vala's taking the young mages with her," Josephine said, over their nightly meeting (it was not an interlude, if there were not three of them), adjusting Cullen's cloak about her shoulders. He'd asked her to teach him to cheat; it had been going quite badly for him. "The very small ones, however...."
Cullen had brought wine, tonight. Orlesian, excessively sweet, not at all to Josephine's taste. He drained his glass in a fast gulp before he spoke. "Dairsmuid was annulled a year and a half ago," he said. "It's not unlikely that there were infants in the Tower at the time."
Of course. Dairsmuid had been beyond permissive, as Circles went, so far as Josephine understood such things. "You don't know much about it, do you."
"It was very foreign," he said—all those years in the Free Marches, and he had not shaken off that particular, Ferelden, disdainful grimace on the word foreign—"and I had enough to worry about in Kirkwall."
They turned back to their papers, at that. Death on such a scale as an annulment was unimaginable to Josephine, but Dairsmuid was entirely too close to home for her not to feel ill when they spoke of it, to say nothing of Cullen, who had nearly participated in one. What he had done as Knight-Captain was his burden to bear, not Josephine's; hers was to make it into a pretty story, that their allies might take a lowborn templar seriously, and that was all.
Young Vala wouldn't speak of her Circle or her homeland, except to correct Josephine's grammar and accent. What she must have been like, before the annulment—it peeked around the edges, in her sudden enthusiasms and her brilliant smiles, a light she could not hide in its entirety. She'd taken to following Ser Sybille around, instead of the dozen other mages at the keep willing to take on such a bright girl as an apprentice.
"Maker," Josephine muttered, riffling through her stack of letters. She'd gotten through all her important correspondence, and now had only the personal to deal with. "Lady Aemiliana and Lady Marguerite are having another 'professional disagreement,' which means 'lover's quarrel,' and have written to me separately to complain of it. Lady Buttlefort"—and her entourage, which was more a traveling circus than a noble lady's retinue—"is back from spreading our tale in the Free Marches, and is very distraught that I wasn't there to greet her. Lord and Lady de Morreau wish my guidance on matters they are more than equipped to handle themselves."
"They miss you," Cullen said, refilling his glass. He, at least, seemed delighted with the wine. He'd looked so proud, when he'd produced the bottle and Josephine had confirmed it as an expensive vintage. A gift from some dowager, upon the loan of his tallest and most strapping soldiers as a personal guard.
"They are the very best in all Thedas at what they do, but they can be such geese," said Josephine. Cullen snorted, but in the King's Tongue, the word did not convey the precise degree of flightiness, the propensity to squawk at trifles, that she wished it to. "I only hope the Inquisitor is managing, while we three are away."
"The Inquisitor is always all right," Cullen grumbled. "Ser Alana gets a suspicious amount of correspondence. Not, of course, that there's much time for her to write letters, with all the time she's been spending at Ellarie's side."
"Commander," she said, pressing her hand to her mouth to hide her smile, "are we gossiping about our subordinates' love lives?"
"No more than they're likely gossiping about our evenings together." He rolled his eyes skyward, as though praying to the Maker for patience, and lent his signature to some contract.
"What else would they do? Of course they gossip about us," Josephine said. "Either I'm your lover, or Leliana's, or the two of you are sharing me." Cullen's ears turned furiously red. Was he horrified by the idea, or did it appeal? She inhaled deeply, and went on, "I've been seen on good terms with Lord Dorian, and so we're carrying on a torrid affair, naturally. Lady Vivienne is said to harbor a burning tendresse for me, and let us not forget, I am also carrying the Iron Bull's illegitimate child, regardless of whether humans and qunari can interbreed."
"Is there to be a joyous occasion? I thought you'd been glowing lately," Cullen said. "Ah—more so than usual. How do you bear knowing all of this?"
Flirtations from nobles were to be put down as fast as possible. Flirtations from colleagues, no matter how clumsy, were to be ignored. "What's said of me is nothing, next to what they say of Lady Cadash. There is an art, to... turning the blade. 'Only a dull mind would be concerned with what the Inquisition does in its leisure time. A person of substance would devote herself to finding ways to undermine the Venatori'—never so bluntly, of course."
"Of course," he said. "You wouldn't want to hurt the feelings of the people making rude insinuations."
Only if it benefited her. The satisfaction that being truly scathing brought on was temporary, at best. Better to cultivate a reputation for mercy and graciousness. "It is incredibly difficult to slander me," Josephine said, rather than attempt to explain this to Cullen, "and anyone of true consequence will know such rumors to be false, and once I've retired to take my place as the head of my family, people would look askance if I hadn't sown my wild oats somewhere."
"Is this what you call sowing your wild oats?"
The question took her aback. "I've spent the past year living in the mountains, trying to legitimize a group of armed heretics led by a lyrium smuggler, a mad Seeker, the Divine's probable lover, and some nameless templar, in the eyes of the people who control the purse-strings of Thedas. What else would you call it?"
Cullen winced. "Is that how we're seen?"
"Once," said Josephine, and the hour was too late for her to keep the pride from her voice. "No longer."
He shifted uncomfortably in his seat. "Was Leliana—was she Most Holy's lover?"
Josephine signed her name to the end of a letter with such force that her quill snapped. If only he knew. Cullen started, then began rearranging his papers as though he was planning a swift retreat. "No, no, don't be bashful," Josephine said, setting aside her ruined paper and topping off his glass. "Justinia saved her—gave her a cause. A reason to live. What Leliana felt for her went well beyond 'love,' as you or I understand it."
Cullen nodded solemnly. To one raised as a sword-arm of the Chantry, the Divine would always be a Maker-touched figure, and never a flesh-and-blood woman. It was only right that such a figure should inspire loyalty well beyond what a mere mortal ought to demand. If Josephine had been a better person, or a more devout one, she would never have been jealous of Justinia's claim on Leliana's time and attention.
Perhaps he sensed her sudden pensiveness, because he asked, "How did you and Leliana meet?"
"We met in the last few years of my schooling," Josephine said. The standard explanation. Not untrue, but far from the entire story. She didn't particularly wish to speak of it. "It wasn't until I became ambassador that we called one another friends."
"Lady Ambassador," said Cullen, "I know by now when you're being deliberately vague."
There was no harm in telling him. She took a fortifying sip of his dreadful wine.
"The Antivan embassy paid my way through the University, in exchange for a work placement, and my promise to stay in their employ for a certain number of years after I graduated." The whisper of scholarship girl had haunted her for years. "I was a minor functionary with badly hidden ambitions, and Leliana tried to recruit me as an informant," she said. "There was a whole... what Varric would call a song-and-dance. A mysterious masked woman whirling me around the dancefloor at an embassy ball, enlisting me to help her break into someone's office. A mad chase through the alleys, pursued by men with swords. A meeting with criminal elements. 'We found a better party,' she will say.
"The danger was all manufactured, of course. At some point, I figured out her identity, and refused her 'patronage' in no uncertain terms. A girl from a near-destitute family, turning her nose up at the Nightingale of the Imperial Court on principle alone—it must have impressed her. She followed my career, after that."
Cullen nodded his understanding. And still, it wasn't the whole story.
Their next meeting: Leliana had staggered through the window into Josephine's room at the embassy, bleeding profusely: My Lady Montilyet, you may just be the only good woman in Val Royeaux, and I haven't any bolt-holes nearby, except for the one in my shoulder. Would you do me the kindness of patching me up? In the dim candlelight, Josephine had, not for the first time since that long night, admired Leliana's height, her elegant profile, the way she gazed stoically ahead as Josephine sent for brandy and bandaged her wounds.
They had curled up together in Josephine's narrow bed, and Leliana had whispered to her of the operation she'd been wounded on. Information as payment. Chantry intrigues at the highest level, not meant for an insignificant attache's ears—Leliana had been gone when Josephine awoke, and left in her place a strange ache, a longing for something she wasn't yet equipped to understand.
She understood it now. Too well. She tried to recall her recent complaints against Leliana, anything, just to remind her to be angry, but she felt empty.
"I never expected her to be funny," Cullen said, after the silence had stretched too long for comfort.
"Leliana," he said. "She visited Kirkwall once, and the Knight-Commander came out of their meeting frightened for her life. The stories they tell of the Left Hand of the Divine—that she turns up in your city, and your Circle's most monstrous templars vanish, and are never spoken of again. And then I meet the woman, and she's in the middle of infuriating Cassandra with a string of terrible puns."
"They are dreadful," Josephine murmured, and attempted to look back to her letters. She knew that Leliana had been Justinia's knife in the dark. That didn't mean she wished to have it shoved in her face.
"I'm expressing myself badly," Cullen said. "I mean to say—she doesn't like me very much. I know she doesn't. But I worry for her, too. Not as much as you, certainly. I can't imagine doing any of this"—the wave of his hand encompassed all the Inquisition's works, alliances forged, rifts closed, demons slain, bridges built—"without her."
You can have him, if you wish. I won't mind. Josephine caught herself clenching her jaw, and forced herself to relax. Surely, Leliana planned to come back from this (what was a house of assassins against the Nightingale?); it hadn't been a contingency, but a sop to Josephine's wounded ego. "She doesn't dislike you," Josephine said. "She wouldn't needle at you so, if she disliked you. It's only when she becomes perfectly pleasant that you should be worried."
"I'll keep that in mind," he said, with mock grimness. A cool breeze blew in through the window, and Josephine wrapped his cloak more closely about herself. "We haven't been interrupted twelve times this evening," he added. "I think they've figured out we aren't doing anything scandalous in here."
"Still," said Josephine, though she was not the least bit tired, "I ought to turn in."
"With no Ellarie to attend you?"
"I believe she's out breaking someone's arms this evening, or whatever she does in the field," she said. "One isn't assigned the code-name 'Ripper' at random. I'm capable of taking my hair down myself, at least, unless you'd like to help."
"I wouldn't mind—as a professional courtesy," Cullen said.
Oh, no. No. It would be impossibly foolish to say yes to this. "To reconnect as friends and colleagues, naturally," Josephine heard herself say, regardless.
He stood, walked around the table to stand behind her. Josephine's shoulders tensed when she felt him pull out the first pin. A tendril of her hair fell down to tickle the back of her neck, and then another, and then he pulled out enough to send her hair cascading down her back. He picked her braids apart with careful, clumsy hands, and he did not touch her once, not even the barest brush of his fingertips.
That, more than anything, set her heart to pounding. The control. "You mustn't rush," she said softly, "be sure to get all of them."
She ought to have refused his offer. Only servants and lovers saw her with her hair loose. Cullen was neither, despite Leliana's shoving her toward him. But he made a noise of assent—possibly he did not trust his voice any more than Josephine trusted hers—and divided her hair into three even sections to run his fingers through it in earnest. Now, rather than tentative, he was thorough, starting at the very ends, working his way up, through every knot and tangle he found, with an infinite patience.
You won't find any hairpins down there, Josephine thought to say, but her words caught in her throat. His breathing became choppy, labored, when his fingers made it to her scalp. She tipped her head forward, obligingly, and his strong hand runneled through her hair, stroking her at the base of her skull.
It sent a lazy spark of pleasure through the core of her. His grip tightened for the barest second, the very start of a tug, and the feeling was exquisite—but then Cullen released her, quickly, as though he'd lost his nerve. "I didn't tell you to stop," Josephine said, turning around to look up at him.
His face. His slightly-parted lips, his wide, stricken eyes. If the feel of a woman's hair could excite him so—it must have years since he'd last touched anyone but himself. She'd never found chastity exciting, but the thought was compelling; certainly, judging by the heaving of his chest, he did not want for interest. Time, then? Opportunity? Josephine rose from her chair and set his cloak aside. "I've just remembered," she said, "the buttons on this gown—I can't reach them all. Would you send for a maid?"
The words came out all in a rush. Maker. She'd meant to sound coy. She was no seductress. She did not take casual lovers. Val Royeaux had been a banquet of temptations for a young person of means, but she had hardly been of means, and the brothels had never been one of her few indulgences. He's not some whore, she reproached herself, walking past him, into her salon, he's the commander of your forces, and you'll do well to remember that.
Cullen stood at the door, his face—she would have preferred it to be unreadable, but his yearning was as plain to her as her own nose. "Ambassador," he said, "what would you have of me?"
He was poised, ready to leave. Hers to command. The thought made something inside her unfurl, and Leliana had said yes. She'd always been good at finding loopholes, even in her promises to herself.
She presented her back to him, and felt, more than heard, Cullen's approach. Her hair, she put over her shoulder, so that he wouldn't be distracted. "Have a care," Josephine said, feeling him pluck at the first button, "they're mother-of-pearl."
"Of course," he said dryly.
"And if you're to be my servant tonight, you mustn't touch me," she went on, as he bared her back and shoulderblades, and his hands accidentally brushed her skin. Very suddenly, she wanted them all over her. But he withdrew, did not argue, did not press whatever case he thought he may have had. "You mustn't pin any hopes on me, either. I'm not—for you."
"You are your own," said Cullen, his voice solemn. "You've always been your own."
Before she could ponder the statement, Josephine caught a glimpse of them in her mirror. Cullen, bent to his task, his forehead almost touching the slope of her shoulder. Her own expression, absolutely helpless. He looked up, met her gaze for a moment, then went back to work. Ferelden fashions necessitated the wearing of a full shift and long stays, in any event; she would not be naked when he removed her dress. But she needed to say something, anything, or her resolve would crack: "Your wine—do you know how it's made?"
She marshaled her wits. "The grapes rot on the vine. Pourriture noble, the Orlesians call it. It partially dries them—concentrates the flavor."
"You hated it." A low, strained chuckle. It made her shiver, as surely as if his mouth was on her, and she was sure he felt it.
"It's a lovely shade of gold," said Josephine. "Besides, the last time I drank too much in your presence, it ended badly for you."
Her dress buttoned to her lower back. She slid her arms free of the sleeves, so that it fell to the ground, pooling around her ankles. Her stays could be undone from either the front or the back; she could get at them herself. She turned, and Cullen looked as lost as she did, dazed and awed by the sight of her. If she sat down in her chair and gestured at the ground between her legs, he would be on his knees in an instant. But as she searched his face, there was an odd guilt in his eyes.
And still, he reached out for her, not to touch—they were people of principle, for tonight, at least—but to pick at the knot at the bottom of her laces, to undo them. He drew the ribbons out through each eyelet, slowly and deliberately, and it was nearly as good as a caress. Josephine shut her eyes and tilted her head back at the feel of it, and raised her arms when the thick fabric sagged, to allow Cullen to pull it away from her.
"I should go," he said. His voice was steadier than he looked.
"Of course," said Josephine. "It's—quite late."
"I need to go into the town tomorrow—the local blacksmith wants to meet me. Charter says she's been overcharging for her services."
Restoring the boundaries. This, she could appreciate. "Of course," she said. "Consider them lowered. First light, Commander."
The blacksmith's position was reasonable: if she relied too much on the Inquisition's business, she'd be in trouble when they left. It was the first real challenge Josephine had had in weeks. After an hour of cajoling, haggling, a solemn promise to carry news of her fine wares to the military set in Denerim, and Cullen and Ser Barris being persuaded to buy a new shield by the blacksmith's pretty wife, the prices were lowered.
On the street, Josephine fell into step beside Cullen. "You could have told me I was to be your battering ram," she said. They'd sealed their arrangement with a handshake, with spit in the palms. When in Qunandar, do as the qunari do. She scrubbed at her fingers with a handkerchief.
"If anyone can manage the impossible, it's always you," said Cullen, testing the weight of his new shield, with the slightly guilty look of one whose coin purse had just been significantly lightened. "After a week of picking out bedsheets, I thought you'd enjoy the exercise."
It was only an innuendo by the barest margin. He still looked mortified. Josephine didn't find it as charming as she once would have, with the memory of his breath on the side of her neck still fresh in her mind. But she was saved from further contemplation by Ser Barris (whose new shield was significantly less grand) pointing down the road, at the figures of two riders in Inquisition livery approaching, and a third, on foot.
A mage and an elf. Dorian and Sera, badly disguised as couriers, and—who?
Oh, Maker. No. They had not. One of the soldiers chanced a snicker, and the sheer force of Josephine's and Cullen's combined glares shut him up.
"I see it's exactly as dingy as I remember it," Dorian said companionably to Sera, as though the two of them did not have a man gagged, bound, and stumbling behind their horses. "Do you think the ale will taste better, now that the rain has stopped? I suppose it won't. That's rather the point of Ferelden ale, I think. Lady Montilyet!" he dismounted, awkward, a man unused to being in the saddle for a long period of time. "You are a vision, as always."
Sera got out of the saddle with far more ease. "Look at them, they're going to explode if we don't tell her what we've got this bloke tied up for. Go on, then."
"No, no, you do the honors, I insist," said Dorian.
"All right." Sera took a deep breath. Ser Barris gestured another soldier forward, to secure the prisoner. "So, Dorian's complaining about how his armor is chafing up his tender arse, and how many of my quivers he's got on his saddle, when someone passes us on the road. And I say, 'I wonder what an assassin is doing headed out this way,' at the same time what he says, 'I wonder what brings an Orlesian to this backwater, ho ho"—this, in a distressingly good imitation of Dorian's accent—"and the two of us look at each other, yeah? Only one thing to be done."
"The two of you did not mug this man like a pair of common thieves."
"Uncommon," Dorian corrected her. "Look," he said, framing Sera's face with his hands, "I even trimmed her fringe for the occasion."
Sera scowled and elbowed him away. (Her hair did look quite nice.) "Orlesian, moves like an assassin, not one of ours, headed out toward where Inky's got you all stuffed away? What are we supposed to think? Turns out, he had a letter on him. For you, Lady Josie."
She reached down the front of her trousers—of course—and pulled out an envelope. Cullen winced. Josephine, however, refused to be distressed by this juvenile turn, and took it without hesitation. There were townspeople around, watching the spectacle of a man shouting in Orlesian and struggling against Ser Barris.
Never mind them. Josephine turned the note over in her hands. It bore the wax seal of the House of Repose, and was addressed to Josephine Cherette Montilyet, Viscontessa di—the title was worthless, ceremonial, attached to a parcel of land on the Rivaini border no larger than a Ferelden freehold. She'd never even seen it, and only a few people outside the family knew it existed.
Leliana did not have a singular, recognizable handwriting. It was a talent of hers. But this was from her. Josephine was sure of it. She had to be.
"We'll read this at the keep," Josephine said, turning sharply on her heel.
"Ambassador, we have other errands," Cullen began, but she looked up at him, and whatever expression was on her face stopped up his words immediately.
"Lady Josephine, you say you have mages who need examining," Dorian said, placing himself and his considerable height between her and Cullen's people, so that they didn't see her distress. Sera, behind him, sauntered up to Cullen's tallest, broadest female soldier and struck up a loud conversation, a further distraction. "Tell me about their leader."
—House of Repose is pledged to Josephine Montilyet's service in perpetuity—
Leliana had promised not to shed any blood if she could avoid it. It was a solution only she could have come up with: hire the assassins, rather than destroy them. In brief, the House of Repose would tear up the Du Paraquettes' contract, and do Josephine's bidding for so long as she chose to employ them. Their revenues would go to her coffers, or the Inquisition's coffers, or wherever she wished; in return, she could do whatever she wished with them, short of dissolving the House.
It was not a terribly well-done contract. A cursory reading found at least three significant loopholes ("in perpetuity" was far too vague for her liking); further examination would find more, she was sure of it. Josephine would need to rewrite it from the bottom up before she put her name to it. There was no question of her signing. It was the simplest, most permanent way out of her problem.
"Ambassador," Charter said. "What do you think?"
Josephine set the papers down on Charter's desk and pinched the bridge of her nose. "I think," she said, "that Sister Leliana is very creative."
"You could send them them off to build houses," said Charter. "Put them to work spying for us. They don't have to kill."
"Serah Charter, are you angling for first rights to them?"
Charter shrugged. "They're small-time players—how they bribed one of our soldiers without anyone noticing is beyond me. But up in the Marches, it's fashionable to hire Orlesian assassins, so they've got a presence there, ma'am. Could be useful."
"I'll consider it."
"We've finished with him," Cullen said, following Ellarie into the room. "He was more than happy to talk." Josephine caught the barest glimpse of Ser Alana and her broadsword taking up a place outside the door before it shut. A deterrent, for eavesdroppers.
"He says Sister Nightingale came into their leader's bedchamber one night, and walked out with his name on a piece of paper," Ellarie said. "It sounds like her, yes? A smile and a long knife at your bedside." Charter forgot herself and snorted, which earned her a flat look. "No casualties," Ellarie continued. "Fletcher and Cooper broke not a few arms and noses, and 'some boy' appeared out nowhere to help them."
"Cole," said Cullen. "Of course."
The two of them went on, almost affably—there was nothing like a spot of good-guard-bad-guard to unite the most disparate temperaments—but Josephine was not interested in the rest of the details. No casualties. Not a drop of blood spilled in Josephine Montilyet's name. Such incredible restraint, just to make Josephine happy. She swallowed around sudden a lump in her throat, and gathered herself. Leliana was whole, hale, and on her way to Caer Bronach. What Josephine would say to her when she arrived was another matter entirely.
None of this made Leliana's actions forgiveable. This did not make her and the Inquisitor overriding Josephine's will simply vanish. But it did make it more bearable to think about.
"Is this man authorized to negotiate?" Josephine asked, turning her mind from Leliana.
All eyes turned to her. "From his prevarication alone, I would guess he is the leader himself," Ellarie said. "Had I been taken for all I was worth by the Nightingale, I would be embarrassed, as well." Her tone was too casual. Josephine would wager her best shoes that this was how Ellarie had come into Leliana's employ.
"I'll see him tomorrow, I think," said Josephine. Letting him contemplate his fate in the dungeons would only improve her bargaining position. "If that is all—"
A muffled argument, from the hall. Dorian and Ser Barris, and Ser Alana, standing firm against them. Josephine pushed up from her seat, threw open the door, crossed her arms. "Stop," she said. They all turned to stare down at her. She was, she realized, the shortest person in the room, aside from Charter. "Explain."
"Lady Josephine—" Dorian began.
"Ser Barris, explain," Alana said, and at the sound of the command in her tone, Barris straightened. Even Dorian raised an eyebrow. Josephine had very little to do with her, but she was grateful for her intercession.
"As I was saying, Ambassador, the girl won't see him," Barris said. She was aware of Cullen hovering at her shoulder, but Ser Barris's attention was firmly on her, as was Ser Alana's, and Ellarie's, and Charter's, and Dorian's. She did her best work at the center of a crowd, but now, she did not want their needs. Their expectations—that she would make the peace, always, no matter what the personal cost.
"Go on," she said.
"She hurled a fireball at us and began shouting in Rivaini," Dorian said acidly. "Not my best language, I'm afraid. I take it she thought I was Venatori, come to take her and hers back—"
"And she's not letting anyone in, ma'am," Barris finished.
"Are they an immediate danger to the keep?" asked Charter, shouldering her way to stand between Josephine and Dorian.
"If they were," Josephine cut in, before they could dissolve into bickering, "we've a templar, a knight-enchanter, and the Commander. Barris, get Ser Sybille. Commander, Ser Alana, with me. Charter, Ellarie"—she wracked her mind for something for them to do, as everyone seemed bent on obeying her orders, here, where she had no real authority—"seal the exits. I don't want them leaving, regardless of what happens. Dorian, find the wine cellar; I'll send for you when you're needed."
Dorian bowed elaborately and headed in the opposite direction.
Caer Bronach was calm—purposefully calm. To an outside observer, nothing would have appeared out of the ordinary. No one rushed from one place to another. The groups of mages assembling in the hallways at regular intervals carried on casual conversations, as though they weren't prepared to contain a young, healthy, potentially dangerous one of their number.
"Begging your very indulgent pardon, my lady," Ser Alana said, in the most needlessly ornate Orlesian possible, before they reached the children's quarters, "but I'm no templar. Chevaliers don't kill children, mage or otherwise."
"I know," Josephine replied. "That's why I chose you." Cullen raised an eyebrow; she did not provide a translation. He was conspicuously silent the rest of the walk, until Josephine asked, "Can you still strip a mage of her powers, if need be?"
"To an extent," he said. His voice was somber. "Without lyrium, it won't hold for long. But if anyone can convince her to let us in...."
"I can," Josephine said.
And how she wearied of hearing so, sometimes! The impossible as stock-in-trade. She pressed her ear to the door and said, in her clearest Rivaini, "Vala, the children must be terrified—speak to me? I can explain."
Then, heart in her throat, she rapped at the door. It was neither locked nor barricaded, and swung inward slowly—to reveal twelve children seated in a rough semicircle at Sera's feet, gnawing at pieces of what looked like peanut brittle, listening to her speak.
"And then I launch myself off Bull's shoulders, do a backflip, and stick two arrows in the dragon's eye before I land again, and it goes"—she made a noise. A horrible noise, like two cats dying in a bag. Vala, dandling her sister on her hip, and the two eldest mages stood in the back of the room, smiling.
"Sera," Josephine said. Cullen breathed an audible sigh of relief. Ser Alana returned her broadsword to her back.
"Those two in the back don't understand a bleeding word of what I'm saying, I think," Sera said. "Got in through the window, started handing out candy to the little ones, explained to the one with the sprog over there that Dorian's the Inquisitor's, and not some evil magister, no matter what the mustache is trying to say. And then I guess it was story time, yeah?"
"I did not believe her," Vala said, "and then she told me of the time she found him with his trousers around his ankles on a parapet. She does not lie. The 'Vints we knew were never so ridiculous."
She couldn't help herself. It seized her, did not let go, but had the decency to subside to a silent shaking of the shoulders by the time Barris and Sybille arrived. Cullen steered her out of view, against the wall directly inside of the door. "All clear," Cullen said, gesturing to the children and Sera, who had by now moved on to the tale of Red Jenny and the Bereskarn, with Ser Alana reluctantly playing the part of the bereskarn in question. "If you'll excuse us," he said, "Charter can handle the rest. We have a contract to re-write."
Her abdomen hurt from laughter. "I'm—I'm fine," she said. "Go to the bottom drawer of the desk; there's a bottle of brandy there."
"There are two bottles. Where on earth did you find two bottles, all the way out here?"
"I have my ways. The 8:99 Rialto, if you would," she said. An attempted bribe from a bricklayer. One sip had been enough to tell her that it wasn't authentic, and she'd told the man so, and kept the bottle anyway. The sacrifices one made, in the line of duty.
She was still holding Leliana's contract. She set the papers down on the table, spread them out one by one, while Cullen poured. "You were magnificent," he said. "Are you sure you didn't miss your calling as a sergeant?"
Josephine finished her brandy in two hard swallows. "The Antivan embassy was one long crisis," she said. "A young mage prepared to set us all on fire—nothing, compared to my flock of geese. I never thought I'd say this, but thank the Maker for Sera."
He sat next to her on the chaise and took a distrustful sip from his own glass. "This is dreadful."
"I feel the same way about the tea I serve at our interludes, I assure you," she said. He kept a rigorously correct distance from her. In this room, she had told him not to touch, and he wasn't touching. "We shouldn't have left," she added, rather than think on this, and took his glass from him to finish it on his behalf.
"You were, ah—"
"—under pressure," Cullen said. "There's no shame in needing a reprieve."
"Unless that person requiring one should happen to be you, naturally, and then the Herald of Andraste herself has to remove you from your work."
"Or an ambassador?"
"Such a person would be of a rank equal to yours, Commander," Josephine said, "and could only order you about if you wished it."
"I imagine I couldn't think of any compelling reason not to yield," he said, staring past her.
The same recklessness that had gripped her earlier at the blacksmith's reared its head now. She had spent years resisting all temptation, because she knew: if she gave in, she would not stop. It was true with chocolates, and coffee. It was true with allowing Leliana into her bed. She fingered at the blue cloth at her wrist, plotted out the miles and hours until Leliana came back, and her little idyll with Cullen would be over.
"And here I thought I'd been taking advantage of your weakened state," she said, as casually as she could manage. Better than her last attempt at coyness, certainly.
A man who had spent a significant portion of his life standing guard had an entire vocabulary of stillnesses to decipher. This one was anticipatory.
They were a hundred miles away from anything that mattered. She put her hand on his jaw and turned his face toward her. Such a simple gesture, executed too hastily. She couldn't blame him for being skittish, flinching away from her. Josephine followed him with only her one hand, gentling him—the stubble on his jaw was rough, unfamiliar to the touch, so many years had it been since she'd touched a man. Touched anyone other than Leliana, for that matter. Cullen's eyes fluttered closed, and she leaned up, brushing her lips over his.
Gently. Gently. He made a faint, desperate noise at the back of his throat; his pulse, under her thumb, went mad. Josephine withdrew, ran a finger slowly over the scar on his upper lip. "Can you think of any compelling reason not to yield, now?" she asked, even as she glanced downward and saw his hands fist in his lap. "Tell me, and I'll stop."
She took his hand and uncurled his fingers, placed them on her waist, just as he'd touched her that morning in his office. He'd looked appalled at his conduct then. He was not appalled now, leaning forward, his nose and cheek brushing against hers, his eyes fluttering shut when his forehead rested against hers.
A little turn of Josephine's head, and she kissed him. He did not shy away when she did so again, but opened to her, sweetly. Something in her stirred, hot and lazy, at the feel of that hand, their only point of contact, tightening on her waist, and she cupped the back of his neck, drawing him closer to her.
It was a simple, easy, slow kiss, as though they had all the time in the world to learn one another. The tiny sound Cullen made when she caught his lower lip in between her teeth—a little lost, a little wanting. She'd never heard its like from a man's mouth, and she nipped at him again, just to hear it once more. Perhaps he'd never done anything like this before: been at leisure to explore another's body. He did not know what to do with his hands, and only circled his thumb, maddeningly, on her ribs. She would have to do it for both of them, then; but his breastplate was in the way.
He'd left off the pauldrons, and—whatever the armor on his forearms was called. Her hands felt as heavy and clumsy as her mind, when she pulled up her absurd Ferelden skirts (were she in her own, sensible clothing, this would not be a problem), broke the kiss only long enough to straddle his lap. A change in position, a change in the angle, seemed to embolden him, and she felt both of his hands settle on her hips, then slide onto her lower back, holding her as close to him as he could manage, so that his face pressed into the crook of her neck.
"Remove this," Josephine said, knocking on his breastplate and pushing his cloak off his shoulders. She rested her chin atop his head, willing herself not to shift her hips that last fraction forward and discover whether he was hard. To make a blatantly sexual move would be to break the trance of his hands, moving steadily and methodically over her back, as though trying to memorize her. Of course he was. This couldn't happen again, and they both knew it. The rhythm set up an answering pulse between her legs nonetheless. "Cullen," she said, softly now, the armor forgotten,"kiss—"
—her neck, and he did so before she could finish the sentence. She drove her hands through his hair and hissed when she felt his teeth on the fine tendons of her throat, but she did not bid him stop. The sensation was bright, heady, as he gripped the backs of her thighs.
Then he stopped.
She was dizzy. There would be a mark, like they were youths, and not adults who would have to face down their subordinates on the morrow.
"Josephine," he said. The bleak look on his face stopped her in her tracks. "You should know. That night—I was awake."
Her head was a fog. She couldn't have possibly imagined what he meant, with his big hands still roaming over her back—until she could. Her ardor could not have vanished faster if he'd poured a glass of water down her neck. Leliana had left the door open, briefly. He'd heard the two of them going about their business, and said nothing. Surely, he couldn't have heard Leliana directing her toward him; the words had been spoken directly into her ear.
And now, here they were.
"Oh, Maker," she said, pressing the cool backs of her hands into her flaming cheeks. He removed his hands, but she didn't yet have the strength to slide off of his lap. "Maker, Cullen, I'm sorry—"
"No," Cullen cut in, "I'm sorry. I presumed too much."
"I had you undress me. I'm the one crawling over you like some—feral cat."
"You told me not to pin hopes on you, and I haven't." His tone was stubborn. Josephine felt ill. He ran a hand through his hair, fixing what she'd mussed. "I've known this was only a dalliance, for you."
A man who had been used as a tool his entire life would come to expect such treatment from everyone. Every move in the game—save his arm around her shoulders, at Skyhold—had been hers, after all. From the start, she'd had no plans for Cullen save the one Leliana had put into her head: have him.
Josephine gathered herself. There was only one thing to do in a situation like this. "I've been unprofessional, Commander," she said, "and I do hope we can move past this—regrettable lapse in judgement, on my part."
"I wouldn't dream of holding it against you," said Cullen, as calmly as if she'd knocked over one of his pieces at the War Table.
Because she would choose Leliana every time. It was hardly a question, and she could see in his face, in his stillness that was so complete he nearly disappeared before her eyes, that they both knew it. Josephine had been choosing Leliana for years, every time Leliana came to the ambassador's residence with freshly scrubbed hands and the news of an assassination at her heels. A port in the storm. What had started as a cautious sense of obligation had ended as devotion.
And she would still choose Leliana, even after this—what a peculiar, dreadful, anticlimactic time to find it in her heart to forgive her some of her trespasses. One burden lifted, another one added.
"Good," Josephine said, and her words rang hollow in her ears, "I'm—relieved."
It was there that Dorian met her, the evening that Cullen left. Dorian glanced pointedly at the silk scarf around Josephine's neck, either to say, Gracious, I wonder why you could possibly be hiding with that, or to say With that neckline, Lady Josephine?
"You've misplaced Sera, I see," Josephine said, before he could make an insinuation.
"She's with Ser Alana, making up for having her play the bereskarn, and the ogre, and then the bronto. I've acquired another, far less charming shadow, unfortunately." Ser Barris, when he wasn't acting as Ser Alana's personal training dummy before Caer Bronach's unseasoned troops, had taken to following Dorian around. The two of them made quite a sight: the young templar, dogging the heels of the Tevinter, suspicious and curious all at once.
"Tell me about Vala," said Josephine.
"Ah, business. I spoke with her, during Red Jenny and the Ogre. Some Venatori hack tried a spot of magical tampering on her—blood magic, naturally. It didn't take."
"How can you tell?"
"I have a passing familiarity with such rituals," said Dorian, in tones that did not invite further questioning.
Josephine knew little of magic, and did not care to know much beyond the fact that it could heal the wounded, light candles, and stop her monthly courses, but she had to know this. "Elaborate."
Dorian sighed, then stretched his long legs out indolently. "It's a particularly nasty and effective sort of magic, meant to... influence the mind. In a permanent fashion. One can imagine the cost. In short: the girl was valued enough for someone to kill a slave trying to do something to her, and it failed; failure, as we both know, leaves its marks. If the Venatori cell she escaped from isn't after her for the secrets she no doubt possesses, or the children she brought with her, they'll be after her out of wounded pride."
With that discomfiting piece of news, the next few days passed as quietly as could be expected. Sera and Dorian inflicted themselves on the town of Crestwood, and ferreted out and single-handedly destroyed a nascent group of bandits by 'shitting fire up their arses.' Improbable on several levels, but wonderful for the Inquisition's reputation. Ellarie's and Charter's tongues suddenly loosened about Leliana's whereabouts.
On the day of Cullen's return, Josephine took Ellarie and absented herself to the Rusty Horn, to hear the complaints of the townspeople.
She would have done it the day she arrived, had she not been wallowing in self-pity over Leliana. She had anticipated their rude stares at the color of her skin, but not their enthusiasm. Saving a town from the undead would have that effect on its people. Was the Inquisitor well? Yes, and she thought fondly of Crestwood. How was it that a dwarf got to be Andraste's chosen? Surely, that was a question for their Revered Mother (whose doctrinal squeamishness had been taken care of months ago by a long, stern talk with Cassandra, and new windows for the town's Chantry). Could they send a few of their lads and lasses to help an old woman mend the fences on her farm? It would be done.
After hours of quietly passing Ellarie the endless snifters of its wretched brandy she was bought—Antivan!!!, the menu had the audacity to claim—and writing letters to the court in Denerim with one hand while admiring their children and goats with the other, the provincial charm wore off.
Josie, you are an unbearable snob. We're rusticating. Enjoy it, Leliana would be saying, as relaxed as Josephine could never be, throwing back the swill like it was water. Cullen would have some cogent remark to make about each farm animal paraded in front of them. Their mabari would lick his hands, instead of slavering their approval all over hers.
At the thought of his hands, she tightened her scarf about her throat. "This weather," she said to Ellarie, on their walk back to the keep. "It's uncommonly damp, don't you think?"
"I'm sure I wouldn't know, my lady," Ellarie said. Her usual flair for conversation was even further diminished by the number of Josephine's gifts she was carrying. Homemade preserves. Hand-knitted hats and scarves for the soldiers. No less than four loaves of bread.
It was evening. The setting sun painted Caer Bronach a dingy gold. She waved Ellarie and the two scouts who'd been following at a distance away on her walk through the keep.
While she'd been away, someone had gone through her papers. She saw it the instant she entered her salon. More precisely: the pages of Leliana's contract had been stacked tidily and weighed down with a piece of quartz-studded dawnstone the size of her fist. The door to her bedroom was slightly ajar. She contemplated turning, catching the nearest person with a sword, and sending them in, but—she had collected pieces of dawnstone as a child.
Josephine toed her door open. It creaked on its hinges. Leliana sat on the edge of Josephine's bed, still wearing her traveling cloak, her pack and her bow and quiver at her feet.
"Send me away, if you must," Leliana said, "I only wanted to see you."
Josephine's throat caught—how she'd thought of what to say when she saw Leliana again, and how it all deserted her now. She swallowed hard. Relief, and leftover anger, and affection, conspired to make her knees feel weak and watery as she walked to stand before Leliana. To undo the catch on the front of her cloak, slide it off her shoulders. To step in-between her legs and throw her arms around her neck, holding her close, breathing in the scent of horse and road-dust.
"Say something, Josie." Leliana's voice was muffled by Josephine's bosom, and her scarf.
"Thank you," Josephine said, and now the words wanted to come tumbling out—"You were—an ass, and I will never forgive you for it, but no one died. No one was hurt. I missed you. I missed you," she babbled, "and if you ever go so long without sending word to me, Andraste preserve me, I will—"
"I know," said Leliana, extracting herself gently from Josephine's vise-grip.
"I do. Destroy me to the last penny. See all my ill-gotten estates seized, including the one in Val Chevin, which you've known about for years. Have a new pair of nug-skin boots made. Shall I continue?" She was smiling, as though the sort of utter ruination Josephine could visit upon a deserving person was the most darling, loveable thing in the whole of the world. She ran the back of a finger down Josephine's cheek, and Josephine followed the touch with her entire body, before she could restrain herself.
Here was the beauty of it: with Leliana, she did not have to. There was one more outstanding matter. Josephine loosed her scarf and bared her throat to Leliana.
"I see," Leliana breathed, reaching out to touch it the half-faded mark, just the barest brush of her forefinger. "Did you enjoy him?"
"I didn't get so far," Josephine said. "He, ah, tabled the proceedings. He knows about us."
Leliana touched the mark again. Thoughtfully, now. Her face was carefully blank: not angry, no, because she herself had set Josephine down this path, but genuinely unreadable. Josephine was spared further travel down this line of thought by Leliana pulling her close and pressing her mouth directly to the center of Josephine's throat, and—her teeth, tracing the same lines Cullen had.
"And then there's the issue of the children, of course," Josephine began, trying to gather her wits, even as she cradled Leliana's head to her, as Leliana's hand got up under her skirts and cupped her between her legs, boldly and firmly. "Maker's breath, Leliana, you've hired the House of Repose on my behalf--"
"I'm a madwoman," Leliana said, drawing back just enough beam up at Josephine, as though she hadn't just made both of their lives infinitely more complicated, "I know. Please, do feel free to tell me about it. Tomorrow."
Next chapter: just what was Leliana doing in Jader, anyway?