Join her for a drink sometime, she says, and it's a great line. One of the best, really, simple and classic—just the way Cadash likes them. No kind of betrothal but it lets a girl know you're interested in more than some batting of eyelashes, and—this was of particular import in her leaner years—also indicates that one of you has coin, at least enough to rub two together in the guttering lamplight of some gritty tavern. Maybe not enough to buy a room upstairs after, but cities in the Free Marches are full of dark alleyways for just this purpose.
Of course, if the tavern is especially gritty and the copper-pinching owner keeps the lamplight just guttering enough, you might not have to stumble out back together at all. Simple. Classic.
Not that light coinpurses are likely to be the issue. Clever fingers always find such interesting things, in rebel pockets and Templar caches alike, and even with what she considers to be a downright charitable amount of donation into the Inquisition's coffers, she's walking heavier than she's ever been. Walking heavier and sleeping softer than ever, too, big fluffy bed all snug as a nug in her own room, up her very own set of stairs. So sadly, no need for finding a corner dimly shadowed enough in Skyhold's only tavern to disguise the fact that the very same resting Herald of Andraste of sign's fame has a hand up her lead scout's tunic—she bets Josephine might have an opinion on that course of action anyway, and likely a horrified lecture already neatly penned and filed away in her study for the occasion. They're getting along so well now, better not to upset the ore cart with any accidental blaspheming, no matter how nice the blasphemy looks in her Inquisition leathers.
No, the issue is that Lace Harding had delivered this line with a smile, a twinkle of one merry eye, and an immediate disappearance at the sight of what turned out to be Leliana, long-legging her way across the training grounds to inform Cadash that something, somewhere was burning. Fires everywhere, and all of them fit only for an Inquisitor to piss on.
By the time she'd given things in the swamp her own particular brand of holy grace—little stabbing here, little magical hand-waving there—Lead Scout Harding was already days out from Skyhold, under the wings of another raven to some new rumor, some new patch of dirt without an Inquisition flag stuck.
Great line. Terrible timing.
"No," says Cabot, and Cadash would leave it at that, but for the fact that for once in their entire acquaintance, the man isn't done speaking. "But if you see her, thank her for her mother's recipe. Can't keep the damn stew in the pot."
"Already moved on, ser," says Charter, shifting from foot to foot on the cold stone of the keep. "She left something for you, though."
"Is it reports? I do love a good report."
It is, to her ever-glittering luck, a thick sheaf of them, hand-drawn maps and possible resources, locations of interest in the lower Emprise enough to ensure that Cadash's nose stays numb for another month, at least. Reports, yes, but tucked into the crate below them a folded letter and a bottle, pale green glass muddy but not enough to conceal the treasure within. She immediately liberates both in the name of the Inquisition and makes a retreat to the ramparts.
I hope this message finds you well. Or warm, at least. Not much chance of that, is there?
An old woman in Sahrnia gave me this wine when we moved in to resupply. I couldn't get her to take it back, so I thought you should have it, what with saving the town and all.
My mother used to make a mean mulled wine in winter, warms you right to your toes. I doubt you can requisition the spices you need, but just in case:
The recipe follows, scrawled out in Harding's painstakingly neat lettering, but Cadash has already pried the cork out of the bottle with her belt knife. Let the red do its work more directly, straight down her throat before she has a chance to taste it. Warm in the cup, warm in the belly, it's all just a matter of location and timing. She drums her heels against the frozen wall of the keep and waits for the flame to kindle.
It never got this cold back home. Not that I wish I were home. I know what I'm doing is important to the Inquisition, and I'm happy to be a part of it. Still, it's hard to see all this and not think of better winters, isn't it? That's what I think of, anyway. Snow piled against the door and my mother mending my clothes in front of a roaring fire. Not like here, people freezing to death in their own homes.
The last words are crooked, crowded against the rough end of the paper, as if in haste to get a word in edgewise.
Oh, I'm running out of room! This seems very silly now that I've read back over it all. I promise I won't waste any more parchment on this sort of thing, Your Worship.
- Yours, Scout Lace Harding
It never snowed in Ostwick, or at least never any kind Cadash could put to remembering. Wouldn't have been like the snow of the Emprise du Lion, no, not sharp and clear and cruel like the blade of a knife on your cheek. Snow in Ostwick would have been as dull and grimy as the rest of the city, slush seeping through her boots in the crooked streets of the Dwarven Quarter. She prefers Harding's snow, when she gives it a thought. Never had it herself, but she can picture it, even where she is now, perched on a bare stone cliff far, far above a cold, rocky fall.
In her head it's almost soft. Fat white blossoms melting on her cheeks, warm woolen cloak stoutly patched against the damp. A mug of warm mulled wine, made warmer still by the strong hands wrapped around it and the smile that curves above the rim.
"How do you know I didn't come here looking for you?" she asks, and the Iron Bull shrugs, a movement that's frankly ridiculous rolling off of shoulders that large. She almost believes he believes her, too, until the first bars of the Charger's raucous song slam into her back as she leaves the tavern.
"Scout Lace Harding, swift and cunning—"
"How long was it really?"
"Hmm?" Cadash pulls herself away from the stars above her head, blinking into the light of the fire. Lower than she remembers last, she notices with a start. She's getting soft, must be, able to be lulled into blind eyes over her back just by the presence of a few soldiers on guard around her.
Harding leans closer, cheeks pinked and eyes steady, the intense attention of the not-quite-soused. At some point, they've shifted, drawn together unthinking before the warmth of the fire, thigh to thigh, closing out the rest of the drowsing camp. A little pocket of quiet, the kind two can make together with the help of cold night and nips of brandy from the flask the scout had pulled from some hidden pocket to share.
"The desert is immeasurably more precious with you in it," she repeats, "If that's what you come up with on your feet... Well, let's just say I may be a little out of my depth."
"I had some inspiration," she says, and her smile feels unfamiliar on her own face, her cheeks hot.
With the fire of course. And the brandy.
In truth, it hadn't been her line at all. Not that such sweet words lay outside her ability—Cadash has always been a silver-tongue, a skill that's done much for her fortunes over the years—but it was a long ride to the Forbidden Oasis. A month at best without stopping, and the business of inquisition meant a lot of stopping. There's only so much meat to chew on the road once the usual topics of weather, geography and battle have been gnawed to the barest bones, and after that, boredom breaks the silence of close quarters in any way it can. Fashion and politics. Old songs, tall tales, fine literature and whatever gangue it is that Cassandra reads.
"'Her verdant orbs glistened like precious stones. To him, an uncountable fortune, worth more than emeralds or gold.' Oh," Cassandra sighed, "It's perfect."
The measure mark of the journey's endlessness had been well met by then; Cassandra rode unblushing as she read Varric's latest chapter and they rode along beside her, unmocking. For some reason, Cadash thought of spring grass, sprouted seeds. The green glass of empty bottles.
"Eh, that'll work," said the Iron Bull, one massive hand scratching contemplatively at his chin, "But the way I see it, you want to really get 'em going, start with—"
"So, uh... immeasurably precious, huh? Don't think I've ever gotten that one before. It's usually just something like, 'how's the weather down there?'"
"Don't get used to it, Harding. I've far worse."
"Lace." She sharpens that one a bit, to tease, but there's a smile underneath. A warmth in the pit of her stomach that isn't just the brandy. Nice way to be, on a chilly night, the solid weight of another person pressed against your side, stars above like little diamonds. Precious stones.
Thank it all she hadn't used the Iron Bull's suggestion about caves full of dwarven treasures.
It's Ambassador Montilyet's brilliant plan, substituting one dwarf for another at the Empress' ball, and Cadash goes along with it mostly for the assurance she won't have to wear the utterly ridiculous dress she's certain the role requires.
Still, she thinks, looking at the daring swoops of fabric that stand in the corner of her office, almost under their own power—it might have been worth it to at least attend the fitting.
Play to your strengths. Leliana didn't have to tell her that, Cadash already knows where hers lie. Quick hands, quicker mouth. The kind of face that lends itself to debt collection and skulking in corners.
She's practicing the latter now, old Carta leathers invisible in the murky shadows of an alcove of the Winter Palace, heavy velvet curtains framing a handsome gilded panel no one will ever really see in the painfully artful gloom.
Lace Harding, to her credit, doesn't even flinch as the tray of cordial glasses appears suddenly at her elbow.
"Val Firmin is looking for a marriage, Lady Ombeline thinks I'm too pretty to be the Inquisitor and the Marquise of Val Foret thought we might meet to discuss backing Gaspard," she says, fingers only slightly trembling at the thin stem of her goblet. "If you ask me, they aren't sold on Celene at all."
The cordial is in tiny glasses, cut crystal sugar-sweet on her tongue. Harding lifts one to her lips, barely taking a sip as she scans the whirling crowd. Oh, but she's something, alright, laced up tight in that fancy dress. A year ago, this woman herded sheep along a dirt footpath in the hills of Ferelden, and look at her now. Curves on curves over crashing waves of brocade and lace, a blessed year's work for both of them in coin wasted on one frilly ballgown.
"Too pretty to be the Inquisitor? I don't see how that's possible."
It isn't that bare sip of cordial that makes her brave enough to run her fingers across Lace's palm as she hands her another glass, feeling the rough archer's calluses as she draws one gloved hand up, up, so very slowly, from hand to to wrist to the soft crook of an elbow. It can't really be blamed on the liquor at all, the way her breath swells and catches at the soft, candlelit arch of those rose petal lips, those exquisitely captured breasts.
Shit, she has been spending far too much time in Cassandra's company. This is ridiculous.
"I mean, do you think..." Lace wavers a little, but barely, beyond even the hungriest Orlesian predator's notice. An iron spine and a steady gaze across the dance floor, never meeting Cadash's own. "Do you think they're buying it?"
I would buy mining shares in Kirkwall from you, she thinks, but in the end she settles on a soft hand at the small of her back, rubbing encouraging little circles there with her thumb. Then Sera beckons from the corridor to the servants' quarters and she fades away, without a backwards glance.
It was a peck, a sting, a kiss quite literally in passing. Cadash marching fresh-faced through the gates on her way to the stony deeps, Harding worn and soft, returning to Skyhold's safety. Barely a kiss at all, nothing to mean anything to a woman that's lived a life much as hers.
Still, she finds herself rubbing her cheek in the spot where it landed for hours down the road, ignoring the comments of her companions. Assholes, all of them.
"Scout Lace Harding, swift and cunning—"
"Oh no," she says, sinking lower on the stool, "Not again."
If you'd asked her before this night, Cadash wouldn't have guessed there was a single tavern left in Southern Thedas where she wasn't the most famous woman in the room by virtue of entry. That was, of course, before this brief visit to Redcliffe, a simple stop to resupply on the way back to Skyhold. No one had accounted for the presence of a certain local celebrity, one extremely notable dwarf who at the moment seemed intent on drowning her notoriety in as deep a mug of ale as could be provided.
It is, without question, the funniest shit Cadash has ever witnessed with her own two eyes.
Not that she isn't sympathetic—if the last few years have given her anything, it's a very complete understanding of just what exactly it means to be a household name, shared across rough tavern tables same as stew and stout brown bread.
"Good to see you too, Henrik." A red-faced young man finishes pumping her hand, and Lace withdraws it with as much good grace as she's got left as he fades back into the crowd, discovering a new level of noise, above the already unbearable din, with which to signal his return to the herd.
"I've pretended to be you," she mutters, barely audible. She's tipped forward, her forehead planted squarely on the sticky wood of the bar. "Can't you pretend to be me for once?"
"Don't think it works like that," Cadash says, a little softened around the edges by the ale. "You're the only one that matters here." She moves a fond thumb over her freckled temple, just enough to flick a stray curl out of the way of her upturned face. Lace catches her hand, eyes suddenly hard enough for worry. That's a plan brewing behind the glass, and if there's anything else these years have given her, it's a natural aversion to other people's plans.
"You know, there's… there's something I've always wanted to do."
A strong hand tugging at her wrist, bright hair bobbing in the crowd as she's pulled, led unfailingly through the whorls and eddies of farmhands and riverfolk. She's a few heads below the thick cloud of pipe smoke and lantern smudge, but the air outside still hits her in one sharp lungful as her guide steers her away from the light, toward what she only recognizes as the far wall of the tavern when her back is pressed up against it.
It's almost a perfect move, but in the dark, Lace hesitates, mouth open on a question even as her hand clutches hard at the cloth over her hip.
"I, uh, is this... are you okay with—"
Cadash answers with her lips and her hands and the curve of her body, rising off the wall to meet the eagerness of the woman above her, clearer than any reply.
They can work on her lines.