Cassandra stopped in her tracks, her heart pounding. She slowly turned, snowflakes falling faintly around her shoulders. The young man from the tavern came striding toward her, his golden eyes fixed on her face. Cassandra’s heart began pounding even harder.
A moment ago, this man had caused a stir in the tavern. Cassandra had taken one look at him and fled.
No, not fled, she told herself. She had been startled into action. That was all. For a fleeting instant, Cassandra had looked into the man’s eyes and felt like she was falling. But in the clear light of day, she could dismiss that as a momentary fancy.
Or perhaps not, Cassandra thought. For as the young man approached, Cassandra could not help but notice how handsome he was. He was tall, broad-shouldered, dark-complexioned and golden-eyed. He looked exactly like the pirate king in the last romance tale she’d read. But what really set her skin tingling was the way that the man carried himself. He walked with a lazy athleticism and cocky grace that set him apart from all the stiff, timid recruits that Cassandra encountered on a daily basis. Just watching his hips move made her shiver.
Cassandra set her shoulders. No, she told herself. She was not shivering or tingling. But before she could quite steel herself against this man’s charms, he was standing before her, smiling down at her with perfectly even teeth.
“Thank the Maker I caught up with you,” he said, breathlessly. He had a Ferelden-like accent, and the way he drawled his words reminded Cassandra of pipe smoke, all heavy and scented. “You’re very fast. But I rather enjoy chasing after you, Seeker.”
Cassandra scowled. The way he said her title, it almost sounded like an endearment. “I have a name, you know,” she told him.
“And I’d dearly love to hear it,” the young man said, fervently.
“I…” Cassandra’s mouth dropped open. His eagerness threw her completely off guard.
“Please allow me to apologize for shouting after you just now,” he said. “It was most rude of me. May we start again? My name is Robert. And you are…?”
He held out a hand in greeting, and Cassandra relented. She took his hand, and tried not to blush when Robert squeezed it lightly.
“Cassandra,” she said. She left it at that, without adding her last name or her title. Men often withdrew when she revealed who and what she was. For some reason, Cassandra did not feel like getting into all that just now. As it was, Robert grinned as if she’d given him a gift.
“Cassandra,” he repeated. He briefly closed his eyes, as if he were tasting the word on his tongue. In his mouth, her name sounded delicate and wicked and sweet. Cassandra had never heard her name sound like that. She shivered as she yanked her hand back.
“What is it you want?” she asked, more flustered than ever.
“I want you,” Robert said, gazing at her.
Cassandra’s mouth dropped open. “I beg your pardon?”
To her astonishment, the young man just laughed.
“Oh dear,” he said, shaking his head. “I didn’t mean it quite like… Well…” He trailed off, looking sheepishly to one side. Then he looked back at her and gave her another one of those devastating half-smiles.
“Alright,” Robert said. “I’ll admit it. I want you like that, too. But only if you’re interested.”
Cassandra sputtered, but before she could reply, the young man laughed aloud.
“I’ll take that as a ‘no’. Married to your work, I assume? Too bad. All the good ones belong to the Maker, eh? You think Andraste would be enough for him.” He gave her another cheeky grin.
Cassandra nearly choked. “What? You should not…” She was so confused now, she couldn’t think of a single thing to say.
“My apologies,” Robert said, laying a hand on his broad chest. “Where are my manners?”
“Non-existent, it would seem,” Cassandra returned archly. Robert chuckled.
“True. I must have left them in my other pants,” he said, and the way he said ‘pants’ made the word take on a naughty sort of meaning.
Cassandra couldn’t help it. She giggled. She actually giggled.
She immediately smothered the sound with her gloved hand, but Robert heard it all the same. And in that moment, his eyes flashed with something more than mild flirtation. They flared with pure desire. In spite of her prior resolutions, Cassandra felt her skin go tingly.
“You’re perfect,” Robert said. His words were low and reverent, as if he didn’t even realize he was saying them aloud. “You have to take me on.”
“What?” Cassandra blinked, glaring up into his face. “I don’t take men anywhere, and certainly not strangers that I have only just met.”
“No, no!” Robert cried, holding up his hands in surrender, “I didn’t mean it that way. Andraste’s tits, I’m doing this very badly. What I meant to say is that you must help me.”
“Help you how?” she asked.
“Why, help me join the Seekers, of course.”
It was a brilliant solution, Robert thought to himself. It would solve all his problems in one go. Now all he had to do was convince Seeker Cassandra.
Unfortunately, Robert wasn’t doing a very good job of convincing anyone. He was usually a lot more charming than this. But the woman before him was so very beautiful, and when she looked at him…
Well, right now she looked as if she was trying to figure out how best to remove his head from his shoulders. But earlier, Cassandra had looked at him in a very different way. For a few moments there, she had gazed at him like she wanted to throw herself into his arms.
And Robert was more than willing to catch her. That was what had him stammering like a fool, he thought. That was why his proposition came out backward. He meant to ask for a position with the Seekers. Instead, he found himself wanting a position with this Seeker. Maybe several positions, actually.
Well, and why not? Robert thought. He was willing if she was. He had never met a woman quite like this before.
In Robert’s experience, the world of nobility was all false smiles and insincere flirtations. The worlds of smugglers and servants were the same, only the people wore heavier-soled shoes. Robert knew how to play those games. He knew how to calculate his associations and affairs to maintain his freedom, and to have a little fun in the process. But he had never met anyone who was free of that game entirely. He had never met anyone so utterly honest - in her voice, in her manners. It was refreshing. No, more than refreshing - it was intoxicating. And the fact that she was so lovely, well, that just made it all the more enticing.
“Join the Seekers?” Cassandra repeated his words.
Oh, right, Robert thought. That’s what he was out here for. He had to secure a job for himself. Cassandra’s beauty was most distracting.
“Yes, that’s right,” Robert said. He took a breath, and resolved to explain himself as best he could.
“The thing is, my family wants me to become a templar. But the Order doesn’t suit me at all. Nor I the Order, come to that. But I have to do something. It’s time, you know? And the Seekers, they’re more than templars. My family can’t object if I join the Seekers instead. That way, I won’t have to guard mages. And I hear that you Seekers don’t use lyrium. You see? It’s the perfect solution.”
Cassandra shook her head a few times before she finally found her voice.
“I…That’s…No!” Her lovely mouth pursed in a frown. “Joining the Seekers is a holy calling. We are not a charity for templar cast-offs.” Her shoulders were now so stiff that Robert wondered how she wasn’t breaking.
“No, of course not,” he said, quickly, realizing he’d offended her. “I didn’t mean to imply that the Seekers will take just anyone. You’re one of them, and I imagine you know how to fight.”
“You imagine that, do you?” Cassandra said.
“I’m making this worse, aren’t I?” Robert said, sheepishly.
“Much worse,” Cassandra replied, but she looked like she was fighting another smile.
“If we ever dueled, you’d have begging for mercy within a minute, wouldn’t you?” Robert pressed. He now had that image in his mind, and it was growing on him.
“At the very least,” Cassandra replied. The corner of her mouth finally curled ever so slightly. Robert answered her barely-there smile with a goofy grin.
“You’re delightful,” he said, unable to keep himself from saying so. “Did you know that?”
“Flattery will not get you into the Seekers,” Cassandra said, her smile vanishing and her eyes narrowing.
“I should hope not,” Robert laughed. He then realized he was flirting like an idiot again and he cleared his throat. “Anyhow, I’m the best archer in the Free Marches, so that shouldn’t be a problem.”
“Oh are you?” Cassandra did not look like she believed him. Robert shrugged.
“I won the Grand Tourney six years running,” he told her. “I’m sure I’ll pass muster, if you’ll give me a chance. You will give me a chance, won’t you?”
“I cannot,” Cassandra said, shaking her head.
“But you must,” Robert said, taking a step toward her. She held her ground. Her chin lifted in the air as she stared up into his face.
“Please,” Robert went on, now feeling somewhat desperate. “If I become a Seeker, that’ll get my uncle off of my back. There will be no lyrium, no vows of chastity…”
“Vows of chastity?” Cassandra blinked at him.
“Oh,” Robert said, realizing that he may have made a mistake. “You have vows of chastity after all? Blast.” He looked to one side, then leaned forward and quietly asked, “Um, just how strictly are they enforced?”
Cassandra’s mouth opened and closed a few times before words finally came out.
“There are no vows of chastity,” she managed at last. “Neither for templars nor Seekers.”
Robert let out a sigh of relief and then smiled wickedly. “Better and better.”
Cassandra could not believe the conversation she was having. This young man was so flirtatious, so completely inappropriate. And strangely, she found herself enjoying this banter far more than any in recent memory.
“Look,” Robert said to her, still smiling that hopeful smile, “I know I’m doing a shite job of asking for your help, but I really do want to join the Seekers.”
“Only to avoid joining the templars,” Cassandra pointed out.
“True,” Robert replied.
Cassandra was both impressed by his honesty, and annoyed at his flippancy. Just then, another thought occurred to her.
“If you’re not with the templars, then why are you here?” Cassandra asked. “You’re clearly not a mage.”
“Ah, well, no.” Robert gave her a wry smile. “My circumstances are a bit…” He sighed, then gave a small one-shouldered shrug.
“Alright,” he said. “The truth is, I only have one friend in the world. And since that friend is up there…” He waved a hand in the direction of the Pilgrim’s Path.
“Oh,” Cassandra said.
Suddenly, in spite of all the odd and outrageous things that Robert had said, Cassandra felt a spark of respect for him. His loyalty to his friend called out to Cassandra’s own sense of duty. And that note of loneliness in his voice called out to her, too.
But who was this friend he spoke of? Was this truly a friend, or was he referring to a lover? And why, Cassandra wondered, did she feel a stab of jealousy at that thought?
“Ridiculous,” she muttered to herself.
“I beg your pardon?” Robert blinked.
“Nothing,” Cassandra said. “As it happens, I cannot help you.”
“I am not with the Seekers anymore,” Cassandra said, cutting off Robert’s objections. “In case you had not heard, the Seekers split from the Chantry several months ago. They no longer answer to the Divine. And so I no longer answer to them.”
“Oh.” Robert blinked. “Well. Damn.”
Robert now looked so disappointed that Cassandra had the strange desire to comfort him. She clenched her fists at her sides instead.
“Seems that’s the way of things these days, doesn’t it?” Robert muttered. “Everything falling apart, just when it’s most needed.”
He looked up at Cassandra with a sad expression. Cassandra felt her heart twist strangely in her chest. But she did not say anything. She didn’t trust herself to.
“So if you’re not with the Seekers,” Robert asked her after a moment, “then what are you doing here?”
Cassandra hesitated before giving an answer. It had been nice pretending that she was just another soldier, at least for a minute or two. But she was not one for deception, so Cassandra replied:
“I am Divine Justinia’s Right Hand.”
“Wait,” Robert drew his head back an inch. “You’re her bodyguard? Oh, Maker’s balls. You’re Cassandra Pentaghast. I’ve heard of you.”
Cassandra felt a flare of frustration. He was just like all the others, she thought. She braced for the impact, for the way his gaze would cool, for the way he would subtly draw away. All men did at this point.
But to Cassandra’s surprise, Robert’s warm smile grew even warmer.
“The Right Hand of the Divine!” he chortled, more laughing the words than speaking them. “Oh, my aunt Evelyn goes on about you all the time. You and the other one - the Left Hand. Lilly, is it? Aunt Evie’s always talking about how wonderful you two are. Devoted servants of the Chantry and all that. Piety is her sort of thing.”
“Curious that she’s related to you,” Cassandra replied dryly.
“Isn’t it though?” Robert agreed. “But wait. If you’re the Right Hand of the Divine, then why aren’t you up at the temple?”
“I…” Cassandra almost told him, but she caught herself. “No reason that concerns you.”
“Ah,” Robert tapped his nose with his forefinger. “I understand. Secret missions and such. You know, I can do the whole cloak-and-dagger thing, too. I’m rather good at it. You might not be with the Seekers anymore, but you could still take me on.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I still haven’t given up on you,” Robert said. “You’ve got a job with the Divine and you don’t take lyrium. That’s good enough for me. Tell you what: I’ll become your squire.”
“I am not taking on apprentices just now,” Cassandra told him.
“Just a trial, then,” Robert replied. “A week to prove myself.”
“I have other duties…”
“Let me buy you a drink,” he urged, waving a hand at the tavern. “We’ll discuss the details.”
Robert looked so eager that Cassandra was almost inclined to say yes. But instead, Cassandra forced herself to say: “I cannot.”
“Forget drinks then,” Robert pressed. “Come down to the archery range. Watch me shoot and I’m sure you’ll agree.”
“You have a very high opinion of yourself,” she said.
“So do you,” Robert replied. “You think you’re too good to teach me, and I know I’m too good to be taught by anyone else. That makes a pair of us, don’t you think?”
He winked at her, and Cassandra felt as if the sun had just grown hotter. But the prayer bells were ringing, and Cassandra’s duty had always come first. Reluctantly, she shook her head.
“I have things to do and…” She drew herself up to her full height, which was still quite a bit shorter than Robert.
“Good day, Robert,” she said. And before she could change her mind, she turned on her heel and marched away.
“Consider it, Cassandra,” he called after her.
And Cassandra feared that she would consider it, even though she knew she should not.
Robert watched as Seeker Cassandra walked away. He had half a mind to run after her, but he’d clearly reached the end of his luck for one morning. At least she’d spoken to him. And she hadn’t exactly said, ‘no.’
Of course, she hadn’t exactly said, ‘yes,’ either. This whole Seekers-no-longer-recognizing-the-Chantry business was a definite stumbling block to his plans.
But that was alright, Robert told himself. Surely there were other jobs he could do for the Divine. He just had to consider all the angles, line up the shot, and fire. And if he got to impress a pretty Seeker in the process, well, that would be good, too.
Robert turned back toward the tavern, whistling a bawdy tune. Haven didn’t seem nearly so bleak and small when he knew that someone like Cassandra Pentaghast was in it. Robert reached the tavern door, but then, just as he was about to go inside, he spotted a familiar face. A pale young templar was walking in the opposite direction, muttering to himself as he went.
“Freddy!” Robert cried out. At the sound, the templar jumped back a step, and placed his hand over his heart.
“Oh!” he said, stammering. “Tr-trevelyan. You startled me.”
“Sorry about that,” Robert said, striding over and holding out a hand. “I seem to have that effect on people today.”
When Freddy didn’t shake his hand, Robert frowned and took a closer look at the templar’s face.
“You alright, Freddy?” he asked. “You look a bit off.”
“Y-yes, fine,” Freddy replied.
“You sure?” Robert pressed. “I’ve never seen you look so peaked. Walk up didn’t agree with you, did it?”
Freddy swallowed, then shook his head. “No, no,” he said, a bit distractedly. “It’s the lyrium. The new kinds always hit me hard.”
“Oh,” Robert made a face. “That sounds…” It sounded dreadful, really.
And this would be why Robert was going to avoid the templars if he possibly could. Freddy’s once-fat cheeks had grown quite hollow, and the veins on his neck stood out dark and reddish against his pale skin.
“Huh,” Robert said. “I’m sorry to hear it. I take it that templar training isn’t going as well as you hoped?”
“It’s just different is all,” Freddy said, looking away. “But what about you? I heard you were going to join us soon.”
“Eh, I’m working on it,” Robert said, vaguely. “But in the meantime, join me for a pint. You look like you could use a drink.”
“N-no!” Freddy said. “I was just here to… to go. I need to go.”
“Bound for the temple are you?” Robert asked. “Say ‘hi’ to Kate up there. Tell her I’m staying out of trouble just fine.”
“Kate?” Freddy’s repeated. “She’s here? At the Conclave?”
Robert rolled his eyes. So Freddy still had a crush on Kate, it seemed. Good to know that some things never changed.
“I need to go,” Freddy said again. “But good to see you, Trevelyan. Take care of yourself.”
“You too,” Robert replied, but Freddy didn’t stick around to hear him. Robert regarded his friend’s departure with a frown.
Behold the legacy of the templars, Robert thought, grimly. The Order took perfectly normal individuals and then turned them into the most socially awkward and sexually repressed people in Thedas. Robert had long feared that the Order would do the same to him.
But now, Robert thought, happily, now he had another opportunity. And that opportunity had lovely brown eyes, a fierce scowl, and her name was Cassandra.
Cassandra, Robert thought, wistfully. It was a beautiful name, and it suited her. It was a little formal, come to think of it. Would she ever let him call her by a nickname, he wondered? Cass, maybe, or Cassie?
With that thought in his mind, Robert grinned to himself and headed back in to the tavern.