Chapter 13 of Daughters of Andraste

4th of Drakonis, 9:41 Dragon, Kirkwall Barracks (or, 5 months ago)

The letter landed on the desk with a soft plop. It covered a ledger of numbers and accounts, and the guard-captain looked up with a start. Her eyes narrowed and she cocked her head to one side.

“You could have knocked, you know,” Aveline said.

On the other side of the desk, Cullen shrugged. The woman’s stern reaction was oddly comforting. Over the past few years, the city of Kirkwall had changed: for the better, for the worse, and in some cases, it had simply changed. But Guard-Captain Aveline was steady as a rock. The thought reassured Cullen.

Yes, he told himself. He was doing the right thing.

Aloud, he said: “I did knock. Twice.”

“You did?”

“Your reports must be engrossing,” Cullen observed, waving his hand at the guard-captain’s cluttered desktop.

“Never ending, more like,” Aveline replied with a sigh. “So,” she said, reaching for the letter. “What’s the catastrophe this time?”

“No catastrophe,” Cullen said. “Not to my knowledge, anyway.”

“You mean this isn’t a damage report?” Aveline asked, breaking the seal on the letter. “It makes me nervous when the templar knight-captain shows up in the barracks. Generally, I don’t hear from the Gallows unless someone’s gone missing or turned up dead.”

“Or the entire city breaks out into open war,” Cullen added, dryly.

“I was right in the thick of that,” Aveline reminded him. Cullen nodded his head to one side, conceding the point.

“Nothing so dramatic,” he told her. “This is just my letter of resignation. That’s all.”

“Your resig…” Aveline’s mouth dropped open and she blinked at Cullen in surprise.

“Is that so surprising?” he asked, his brows drawing together. He thought Aveline would have been indifferent to the news, maybe even happy to see Cullen go. But instead, she looked rather concerned.

Instead of answering, Aveline snapped the letter open and read it silently. After a moment, she looked up at Cullen, frowning.

“I don’t understand,” she said.

“I thought I explained myself clearly enough,” Cullen replied. “I’ve been offered a position elsewhere and…”

“Yes, I read that,” Aveline interrupted with an impatient wave of her hand. “Cassandra Pentaghast has been trying to recruit guardsmen as well. I’m just surprised you would join them.”

“Why?” Cullen replied. “The Divine is trying to restore order in the midst of all this chaos. It’s an admirable goal.”

“I don’t question the goals of the Divine,” Aveline replied. “It’s just, well…”

“What?” he wanted to know.

Aveline made a face and then shrugged as if to say, ‘well, you did ask.’

“You can’t exactly leave the templars, Cullen,” she said. “No one does.”

Cullen had anticipated this response. It was the most common reaction to his decision, after all. Still, it galled him to hear it once again. Cullen ran his gloved hand over his hair and turned away.

“I’m getting rather tired of people saying that,” he muttered.

“I was married to a templar, once,” Aveline said, setting the letter down. “I know how the Order works. It’s a world unto itself. Once you’re part of it, you can never walk away.”

Cullen looked at her sharply. “Well, I intend to do so,” he told her, shortly. He hoped that would be the end of it, but of course, it wasn’t.

“So the Divine will supply you with lyrium?” Aveline asked bluntly. “I hear it’s hard to come by with the war on. Though I suppose if anyone can get hold of the stuff, it’s her.”

Cullen bit back a sharp retort. Could Aveline really believe that he had joined the Divine for such a reason? Well, he thought, let her have her assumptions. He knew why he was doing this, even if he couldn’t fully explain the reasons to anyone else. Much of the Divine’s plans were still secret, and Cullen intended to keep them that way.

“You let me worry about the lyrium,” he said instead. Thankfully, Aveline let the matter drop.

“Alright,” she said. “So you’re leaving Kirkwall. But I still don’t understand why you’d give a letter of resignation to me. I’m not your employer.”

Cullen let out a weary sigh. “You’d think that without a superior officer, I wouldn’t have to inform anyone of my decision to leave,” he said. “But instead, it makes everything more complicated. I had to write to every Knight-Commander in the Free Marches to inform them of the change in leadership, file a report with the Grand Cathedral, argue for an hour with Seneschal Bran…” He rolled his eyes at that. “And then, for good measure, I figured I should tell you. After all, you are the unofficial ruler of this city.”

“Don’t say that,” Aveline said, cringing. “I am the Captain of the Guard. Nothing more.”

“You say that as if it’s a small thing,” Cullen said with a shake of his head. “Keeping order in this city is no small feat.”

“Really?” Aveline asked, dryly. “There was a time when you took issue with my leadership.”

“Not me,” Cullen replied. “I looked into accusations against you, nothing more. Anyhow, you and Hawke proved the gossips wrong on that score. It’s because I trust your leadership that I know Kirkwall will be in capable hands when I leave.”

“Well then,” Aveline said, leaning back and folding her hands on her desk. “And here I thought you still were watching our every move, waiting to take over the guard.”

“Why would I do that?” Cullen frowned. “You had things well in hand.”

“I’m glad to hear it,” Aveline replied. “I would have liked to have heard it a few years back, but better late than never, I suppose.”

“Oh,” Cullen said, feeling a bit chagrined. “I thought that went without saying.”

“Not exactly,” Aveline replied. “But it hardly matters now. And as we’re in the business of exchanging compliments, I must say that I’ll be sorry to see you go, Knight-Captain. You kept the templars in check over the past months - the mages, too. Quite fair to everyone involved, actually. I’m impressed.”

Cullen was surprised to hear this. He had always gotten the impression that Aveline liked him as much as her associate Varric did - which is to say, not at all.

“Oh,” he said, a bit taken aback. “Well, thank you. But you’re one of the few who thinks so. My defense of the remaining mages has not endeared me to the people of Kirkwall. There have been several requests for the Rite of Annulment.”

Even as Cullen said that, he felt an inward flash of shame. There had been a time when he, too, had believed the Rite an excellent solution to the dangers of blood magic. It was astonishing how close he’d come to turning into a monster like Meredith, Cullen thought with a shudder. Across the desk, Aveline just waved off his mention of the Rite of Annulment with a snort.

“It was only a handful of aristocrats who wanted that,” she told him. “You shouldn’t let the them push you around, knight-captain. They’re just worried that their fancy parties will be interrupted. Would do them some good to realize their world isn’t so removed from that of the common folk.”

“True,” Cullen agreed. “But you know the nobility. They’ll never acknowledge anything unless it shows up on their doorstep wearing lace and smelling of Orlesian perfume.”

“So ignore them back,” Aveline suggested.

“Easier said than done,” Cullen told her. “The nobility is where our money comes from. We operate on tithes, not taxes like you guards. And half of my recruits are related to some high-born family or other. Not that I have a lot of recruits these days,” he added, “not with the rebellion dragging on.”

“Getting a bit thin on the ground, are you?” Aveline asked him.

“I am,” Cullen sighed. “And it’s not just the numbers, either. Your guards would follow you into the Void to see your orders carried out. But the templars…” He broke off when he realized he was blathering on about the Order to someone who was not a part of it. Feeling a bit disloyal, Cullen cleared his throat and shook his head.

“Never mind,” he said.

“Are you having problems with the templars?” Aveline asked him, warily. “If you are, I should know about it.”

How to answer that, Cullen wondered? Yes, he was, but not in the way that Aveline meant. The problem wasn’t that the men under his command lacked obedience. It was that the Order lacked vision. Lately, the entire Chantry seemed to have lost its way. Or maybe it had been traveling in the wilderness for years. Either way, Cullen grew tired of following blindly as the world fell into chaos.

But he hardly knew how to explain all this, especially to someone so no-nonsense as the guard-captain. The two of them respected one another, but they weren’t exactly close. Of course, Cullen thought, he wasn’t close to anyone here in Kirkwall. Little wonder, really. The Order had kept him too busy to do anything but work.

“Are the Kirkwall templars insubordinate?” Aveline pressed. “If they are, and if you’re leaving…”

“No, no,” Cullen said, shaking his head. “It’s not anything like that. It’s just time for me to move on.”

“If you say so,” Aveline replied. “So, what will you be doing for the Divine?”

“I can’t say,” Cullen told her, a bit apologetically. “I must leave it at that.”

“Fair enough,” Aveline said. “And you’re taking a few templars with you into this new…job.”

“Just four,” Cullen said. “Keran, Rylen, Ruvena…Morris.”

Aveline winced. “Morris?”

Cullen sighed. “I know. But what else was I to do with him?”

“He’ll keep you on your toes,” Aveline said, as if he didn’t already know it. “So who will take over your duties?”

Cullen had expected this. Of course, that would be Aveline’s ultimate worry. She likely feared that some dull-witted, over-zealous recruit would be taking over his position and make life difficult for her. Cullen could hardly blame her. The guards and the templars hadn’t exactly gotten along over the past decade, after all.

“Knight-Templar Margitte will be taking command,” Cullen told her.

“Margitte is it?” Aveline nodded her approval. “A sensible girl. A bit stricter with the mages than I would like, perhaps.”

“We spoke on that score,” Cullen assured her. “She acts out of caution, not cruelty. I hope as she gets used to command, she’ll come around. But she might do well with your guidance.”

“I’ll stop by the Gallows later to speak with her,” Aveline said, folding up Cullen’s letter and setting it into a drawer on her desk. “Well then, off to Ferelden, are you?”

“That’s right,” Cullen said. He hadn’t really thought much about it, not with all the preparations that needed doing. But in the end, he was actually…excited about this change.

No, he thought, ‘excited’ was not the right word for it. ‘Hopeful’, maybe. He was looking forward to it, rather. And he hadn’t looked forward to anything in a very long time.

“It’s pleasant this time of year,” Aveline said, conversationally. “Those winter storms make you grateful for the spring.”

“Yes,” Cullen said, his lips curving into a half-smile. “Maker knows, I haven’t seen a Ferelden spring since the Blight…”

He stopped there, and Aveline also looked a bit uncomfortable. No one who had fled north after the Blight spoke much about that time. Cullen certainly didn’t.

He stood there stiffly for a moment, trying to think if he ought to say anything more. Joining the Order as young as he had, Cullen had been trained to give and take orders, and to give quick, efficient reports. He had never gotten the hang of greetings and goodbyes and all the small talk in between. So, trying for politeness, Cullen said the first thing that popped into his mind:

“I want to thank you, guard-captain. I know I didn’t endear myself to many people here, but you were painless enough to work with.”

“Thank you,” Aveline said, dryly.

“Oh,” Cullen blinked. “I guess that did come out a bit, um…”

Aveline snorted. “It did.”

“Ah,” he cringed.

“It’s alright,” Aveline said, “You were in a strange world over there in the Gallows. Probably best that you are getting out.” She held out a hand and added: “I hope you make some friends in Ferelden, Knight-Captain. It would do you some good.”

Cullen frowned at that bit of motherly advice. What did Aveline know about it, he wondered in annoyance? Alright, so Cullen ended his days alone. But he had his work. He had a roof over his head and books on his bedside table. It seemed selfish to ask for anything more.

But then, Aveline was a captain as well, and she had friends. She even had a husband to go home to each night. At the thought, an odd feeling crept over Cullen. It felt a bit like jealousy, really. He shook it off at once.

“Friends,” he repeated, shaking Aveline’s hand and then letting it drop. “Right.”

And because he had nothing more to add, Cullen turned on his heel and left.

19th of Drakonis, 9:41 Dragon, Trevelyan Manor (or, 2 weeks later)

“Did you hear?” Lady Teague said, her eyes sparkling with the excitement that comes from passing on gossip. “They say that the Knight-Commander of Kirkwall has resigned.”

Resigned, Kate thought. Resignation sounded lovely. In fact, she would love to resign from present company and go read a book instead. The ball had begun so well, too. There had been music and dancing and tasty little cakes. It was a pleasant change of pace from the quiet of the Circle tower. But then great-aunt Lucy had maneuvered Kate into a conversation with some acquaintances that needed ‘entertaining.’ It was a nicer way of saying that they wanted an audience for their venomous gossip.

Truly, Kate thought, it never ceased to amaze her how the nobility of Ostwick could spend an entire dance party discussing politics. It made her wonder if the Arl’s council talked about music and gowns when court was in session, just to balance things out.

“The Knight-Commander resigned?” Arlessa Penrose asked. She leaned over, pressing a hand to her jeweled necklace and rather obviously displaying her massive bosoms. Beside her, Major Hemmitt looked down the woman’s cleavage with a grin.

“It was the Knight-Captain,” the major said, speaking to the arlessa’s chest. “They never replaced the Knight-Commander. Not since she got, um…”

“Petrified?” Kate suggested.

The major blinked up at her. “Er, quite,” he said. He made a blustering, coughing sort of sound. “Beastly business,” he added, after a moment.

“World’s gone insane,” Arlessa Penrose sniffed. “Mages, templars. Those wild raiders with the big hats.”

Kate pressed her lips together to keep from laughing out loud. She would hardly lump all these groups together, but judging by their knowing ‘harumphs,’ this crowd would.

“One hardly blames the fellow for leaving,” Bann Teague said, nodding to his wife as he sipped his champagne. “Beastly place, Kirkwall. Makes you wish that Chantry explosion of theirs had wiped out the whole city. It would serve them right for all the debauchery that goes on there.”

“Quite, dear,” Lady Teague agreed. She leaned over and in a loud whisper said, “I understand that their templars regularly visit the brothel there. In groups.”

A series of gasps went up at this announcement. Only Kate remained quiet. After a moment, she asked:

“Is there really only one brothel in Kirkwall? For so large a city, you’d think there would be more.”

The others turned and stared at her.

“It’s a question of economics…” she said, trailing off. Clearly her academic interest was going to be misconstrued by this crowd. She pressed her lips together and resolved to say no more.

“The coterie shut all the others down,” Major Hemmitt said. “But the Rose is big enough to manage…um…”

He realized that everyone was now staring at him, and cleared his throat loudly.

“Anyhow,” the major went on, stuffing his hands into his waistcoat pockets, “About that templar knight-captain. He’ll make a bad end, mark my words. You see ‘em by the docks, sometimes, the washed-up ones who left the Order. Begging coin for their lyrium.”

“Shameful,” Arlessa Penrose sniffed. She sounded perfectly delighted by the prospect.

Kate decided she’d had enough of this. She glanced at the clock on the mantle, trying to determine if she’d been standing here long enough to satisfy Aunt Lucy. A minute or two more, she thought. Then she could excuse herself.

“So, Lady Katerina,” Major Hemmitt said. “You’re a mage. What do you think of all this?” The man turned to stare at Kate’s cleavage for a change. He grinned, as if he very much liked the view.

Kate inwardly sighed. She should have run when she had the chance. This was always how these conversations went - both with the staring at the breasts and the general subject matter. Whenever the conversation turned to magic, Kate was expected speak for every mage everywhere, from hedge wizards to Tevinter magisters.

On the other hand, the members of the Ostwick Circle treated Kate as if she were the spokesperson for every aristocrat in the Free Marches. Why were the nobility of Kirkwall calling for an annulment of the Circles, they’d ask Kate? Could the Circle count on the city of Ostwick to remain calm as the war went on around them?

Frankly, Kate detested it. She did not like trading in rumors, and she could speak to no one’s experience but her own.

And yet, Kate could never entirely get away from these kinds of questions, nor could she completely avoid the role of representative. In fact, just last week, Kate and her mentor, Lydia, had been speaking about this very thing:

“I don’t know,” Kate had asked, waving a hand at the invitations on her bed. “It seems wrong, somehow. I’m going to spend a week drinking tea in salons, dancing the alamonde, and getting fitted for new gowns that I don’t even need. And all the while, the Circles are falling apart. Mages and templars are fighting. Innocent people are trapped in the middle.”

“All the more reason that you should visit home,” Lydia had replied. “You show up at those parties, you act polite, and you say a good word for us. No trust me, Kate,” she insisted when Kate had looked doubtful. “That does more to help our cause than you realize. What we need now is for the citizens of Thedas to remember that mages are people first. They need to trust that we can be calm and civil. Your dance parties do us a world of good, my dear.”

And so, here Kate was, standing in a new gown, being as charming as she could manage, and her feet were aching from the past hour of dancing. So because it was the best way to help the Circle, and because Major Hemmitt’s question did require an answer, Kate politely replied:

“I think the entire affair is very unfortunate. One wishes there was a simple answer to the problem.”

There, she thought. That was vague enough to mean anything. Four heads nodded at her bland statement.

“Too true, too true,” Major Hemmitt muttered. “You’re a wise girl, and at such a young age, too.”

He addressed this compliment to her nipples, and Kate fought the urge to put her arms over her chest. Instead, she cleared her throat meaningfully and kept her head high. The hint was entirely lost on the man. But just then, Kate spotted a familiar face in the crowd. She sighed with relief. She was saved - at least for a while.

“What did I miss?” Robert asked, striding up behind Major Hemmitt and speaking over the top of the man’s balding head. “Any duels fought? Reputations ruined?”

“You delight in the misfortune of others, do you, Lord Robert?” Lady Teague said, severely.

“What, don’t you?” Robert returned. “That’s all you ever talk about.”

Lady Teague just stammered and stared, while the bann sputtered: “Shocking. You’re absolutely shocking, lad.”

“Why thank you,” Robert grinned easily.

Kate bit back a laugh. She could never get away with saying the things that Robert said, but she did love his way of confusing the nobility with his frankness.

“We were speaking of Kirkwall,” Major Hemmitt said, scowling. “Not that a green boy like you understands the importance of such things.”

“Kirkwall’s important?” Robert said, disbelieving. “If you say so.”

With this flippant statement, Robert held up the two glasses of champagne that he carried. One of these he raised in a mock toast. The other he shoved at Kate. Kate took it at once.

Thank you, she mouthed to him. Robert just winked at her.

“Should you be drinking, Lady Katerina?” Arlessa Penrose frowned and looked down her nose at Kate. “As a mage it would be most unwise…”

“Isn’t that Ser Goran speaking to your daughter over there?” Robert said, pointing at the other end of the room with his pinky finger. He grinned and took a sip of champagne as the arlessa gasped.

“Where?” she demanded. “If that blackguard…”

Before she could finish, Robert grabbed for Kate with his free hand. “If you’ll excuse me, I need to borrow my cousin,” he said.

He dragged Kate away. Kate barely kept a hold of her glass as he led her out of a nearby doorway and onto the terrace. Kate breathed a sigh of relief the moment that the door swung shut behind them.

“Ahhh,” Robert said, in a booming voice. “Freedom!”

“Hush!” Kate laughed. “Do you want mother to hear you? They’ll drag us back in by our ears.”

“Yes,” Robert said, turning to Kate, “and that would be a tragedy. So,” he said, taking a sip of his champagne. “How fare the finest biddies and lechers of Ostwick?”

“They’re much the same as my last visit,” Kate said dryly, taking a sip of the champagne. She decided to savor it, since it would likely be the only taste she’d get for a long while.

“Aunt Lucy left you to placate them, did she?” Robert asked. “How come she never talks to the obnoxious ones?”

“Because she talks to the important ones,” Kate replied, evenly. “I’m tasked with being pleasant to the difficult ones that our family can’t afford to snub.”

“That’s bollocks,” Robert said.

“Yes, well, I don’t see you volunteering,” Kate replied.

“Why would I? You do a bang-up job of flattering all these gits.”

Kate just shrugged and took another sip from her glass. “I do try,” she replied.

“Why bother?” Robert asked her. “The only reason I attend is because you do.”

“Well,” Kate said easily. “It’s part of the deal, you see. The family brings me home, I put up with the social nonsense for the first half of the ball, and then I sneak away and enjoy this excellent champagne.”

“Pity you can’t handle more than two glasses of it,” Robert told her.

“True,” Kate agreed. “But I enjoy those two glasses very much.” She smiled and took a sip of her drink.

“One would think you’re a drunk the way you go on after the stuff,” Robert snorted.

“As this is the only thing I drink besides water and tea all year long, I do look forward to it.”

“I can’t even imagine how you endure it,” Robert said with a shudder. “I’d go mad without a good ale at the end of the day. So,” he added, sipping his glass. “What did the old birds have to say to you? Going on about how lovely you are for staying locked up in the tower like a good girl?”

“Something like that,” Kate sighed. “They were blathering on about that Knight-Commander - or Captain rather - from Kirkwall. The one who resigned.”

“You’d think Ostwickers would have something better to natter on about than what the other Free Marchers are doing. Makes us sound like we aren’t interesting enough to have our own news.”

“Well, we aren’t,” Kate pointed out.

“We aren’t,” Robert agreed, tipping his glass in her direction. “But we should have the grace to pretend.”

Kate smiled, but then her smile faded as she let out a long sigh. “You know,” she said at last. “I envy the man.”

“Envy who?” Robert asked her. “Major Hemmitt? He does have an eye for the female form - and on the female form. I appreciate his focus, but not his style. No points for subtlety.”

“No, not him,” Kate rolled her eyes. “The Knight-Com…Captain… fellow.” Kate waved her hand as the bubbles from her drink tickled her nose.

“What’s to envy about him?” Robert wanted to know.

“He left, Robert,” Kate said. “He told everyone in the Gallows to go hang and he left.”

Robert burst out laughing. “Go hang!” he chortled. “Oh, Katie, that’s a good one.”

When Kate looked confused, Robert waved his hand. “Gallows? Hang?”

“Oh!” Kate laughed. “Right. Oh, that is good. Wish I’d thought of it.”

She smirked, then looked out into the gardens and sighed again. “No, but I mean it, Robert. I envy him.”

“The templar?” Robert cringed. “I don’t. Now he’s got to find his own lyrium. Not much to envy there.”

“True,” Kate nodded. “But still…” She turned and looked at the Orlesian doors behind them. The drawing room was aglow, and through the glass, Kate saw people in fine silks, wearing feathers in their hair and carrying laced handkerchiefs and fans. But through the leaded panes, their faces looked distended their smiles a bit crooked. Kate frowned.

“But he still left,” Kate said. “I mean, the mages and templars - here they are, locked in this bitter war. And before that, they were at odds for centuries. But then one of them up and walks away. I wish I could do the same.”

“Do then,” Robert shrugged.

“You know I can’t,” Kate said. “They have my phylactery. I’m a mage for life. As much as I might like to, I can’t ever resign.”

“Well, and it’s not like you chose the job in the first place,” Robert added. “Not the way templars do.”

Kate nodded. “Hence my envy for the Kirkwall Knight-Whatever,” she agreed.

“But you could resign from the nobility, you know,” Robert said, pointing to the doors behind them.

“Resign from them?”

“Resign from being so polite. Tell them all to sod off,” Robert said.

“Oh,” Kate sighed. “That would be nice.”

“I’d dearly love to see it,” Robert said. “Mmm,” he said, taking a sip of his drink, “I know. Start with the major.”

“Yes,” Kate nodded. “I wouldn’t say a thing. I’d just grab his tits the next time he stares at mine.”

Robert spit out his drink, laughing.

“Ohhh,” he said, when he’d recovered the power of speech. “Do it. You must. Truly Kate, I’ll pay you to.”

“With my luck, he’d just grab me back,” Kate sighed.

“Shock him in the arse. Just a little spell,” Robert suggested, holding his fingers an inch apart. “Just a tiny one. For me?”

“If I shocked anyone, it would be Bann Teague,” Kate said. “Any time he goes on about the ‘heathen elves,’ I want to stick him with a hairpin.”

“You should, too,” Robert nodded. “He’s a self-righteous arse. But really, Kate, you should tell them off. I know, just go in there and make your way through the ballroom. Give them a salon they’d never forget. By the by, I’d suggest an anti-clockwise direction,” he added, circling his finger in the air. “You’d end by the back door that way. Could make a quick exit to the stables.”

Kate chuckled and shook her head. “A good plan,” she sighed. “But I won’t.”

“You’re too polite.” Robert frowned.

“It’s nothing to do with polite,” Kate returned. “It’s because I’m a mage.”

“What, mages can’t be impolite? I think the current war would prove you wrong on that score. Unless they ask permission before they blast people with fire.”

“No, Robert,” Kate shook her head and looked into her glass. “It doesn’t work that way for a mage.”

Robert was quiet for a while, then said: “Well, I still think you should still go grab the major’s tits.”

“It wouldn’t do any good,” Kate shook her head. “The truly nasty ones will never change.”

“All the more reason to teach them a lesson.”

“Honestly, I pity them,” Kate said. “They’re horrible little people. And at the end of the ball, they’ll go home and sit in their big houses and still be horrible little people.”

Robert snorted. “And now I know the drink’s hitting you. You can’t possibly pity the likes of Major Hemmitt, not when you have to go home to the tower.”

“It could be worse,” Kate muttered. “It could be a lot worse. And as it is,” she said, trying to brighten her tone, “I get to come home. These parties may not be your favorite thing, Robert, but for a mage from the tower, they’re a chance to see the world.”

“Trevelyan House is hardly ‘the world,’” Robert said, casting a dubious glance at the darkened gardens.

“But it’s family, Robert,” Kate said with a tip of her head. “It’s not perfect, but I’d do just about anything to hang onto it.”

“Even stand about and talk with the old guard?” Robert asked, frowning.

“Even that,” Kate nodded. “Even talk with Lady Sammara…” Robert winced, “even dance the Montsimmard Reel with Ser Freddy Stanhope, at Aunt Lucy’s request. Oh yes,” she nodded. “Even that.”

“Oh,” Robert groaned. “You didn’t.”

“I did,” Kate grimaced.

“You can’t do that dance properly, Kate. You’re too big.”

“Maybe it’s the gentlemen who are too small,” Kate said, taking another sip of her champagne.

“That dance was meant for Orlesians,” Robert told her. “They’re all weird little people who are the same weird little size. It wasn’t meant for big folks like us strapping Trevelyans.”

“I suppose not,” Kate laughed.

“Well, you shouldn’t care what they think of you, Katie,” Robert told her. “You’re just fine as you are.”

Kate looked up with a tipsy smile.

“Thank you, Robert,” she said. “I do appreciate that. And you know,” she added, with a little hiccup, “I don’t care what they think of me any more than you do. I’m not really part of this world, so it’s not like I really care about it.”

“Right,” Robert said, nodding at her. Then he looked a bit thoughtful and stared into his now-empty glass.

“Right,” he said, again.

Kate looked to her own glass, then realized she’d finished her champagne without even meaning to. Well, that was unfortunate. When would she get another one, she wondered?

“Want another drink?” Robert asked her, guessing the direction of her thoughts.

“I probably shouldn’t,” Kate said, grimly. “This will hit me in about five minutes.”

“Well then,” Robert said, laughing, “I suppose that means we have exactly five minutes to break into the wine cellar.”

He and Kate exchanged a glance, and then, with wild grins, they took off for the cellars at a run.

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