The skies were silent now.
Silence was nice, Kate thought. Silence was a world away from the roaring the breach had made. Silence was much nicer than the howl of lyrium, the sound of ritual magic as power had coursed through her arm and filled her ears.
But right now, the town of Haven was anything but silent. Everywhere people were laughing and talking and there was even a makeshift choir singing beside the biggest bonfire. Kate stood on a small rise before the Chantry, watching people as they danced and passed around drinks. Several very sleepy children curled up on pallets, their cheeks smeared with jam. A few village teenagers and an apprentice mage ran by, wearing makeshift masks. An elven scout, seated before the fire, leaned her head on the knee of the human next to her. The fellow looked down at her with a wistful, wondering expression, then gently laid his hand upon her hair. It made Kate ache to watch them all. She wished they could enjoy celebrations like this all the time.
Lost in her thoughts as she was, Kate didn’t hear the footsteps behind her.
“Oh,” Kate said, starting. “Hello Cullen.”
For it was Cullen. As Kate turned to face him, her heart seemed to race a little. Probably from being startled like that, Kate thought. Although, her pulse had raced earlier too, when Cullen had arrived at the temple. Up there at the breach, Kate had been struck by how alive Cullen had looked, even from across the crowd. Now, however, he stood right beside Kate, and every aspect of his face stood out in vibrant detail. His curling hair looked almost reddish in the last light of the sunset. Cullen’s eyes were smudged from lack of sleep and his cheeks were chapped from the cold. He’d shaved for Satinalia, she noticed. Meanwhile, Kate remained unwashed and rumpled from camping in a burned-out temple for a week.
Kate absently rubbed her right hand over her ashy cheek. Her left hand hung at her side, well-bandaged after Solas had healed the gash left by the breach.
“Evening,” Cullen told her, nodding his head in greeting. “Good work on the breach,” he added, pointing to the slowly-revolving clouds. “You did quite well with that.”
“Oh, thank you,” Kate said, letting her right hand drop. “I wasn’t the only one doing the work, but thank you all the same.”
“No, you weren’t,” Cullen agreed. “The mages came through for us, as you knew they would. I suppose I ought to say it once and for all: You were right about them. Again, well done.”
“Oh. Thanks,” Kate smiled, feeling warmed to her toes. Though she had heard congratulations all afternoon long, Cullen’s approval meant most to her by far. Probably because of all of their disagreements about how best to get the breach shut.
“To be fair,” Kate told Cullen, “Solas deserves most of the credit. It was his glyph-work, primarily.”
“No wonder those runes looked so unfamiliar,” Cullen said. “Well, it may have been his handiwork with the symbols, but it was you who managed the upper camp and got the mages working together. No, don’t be modest and deny it. They told me so themselves. We had plenty of time to talk after Bull carried you off,” Cullen added in a mutter.
“Oh, yes,” Kate said. “I didn’t expect him to do that. Bull might have given me some warning before he lifted me onto his shoulders and paraded me down the hill.”
“He should have,” Cullen agreed, looking stern for a moment. “You seemed rather alarmed by it.”
“The cliffs appeared taller when I was clinging to his horns,” Kate admitted. “Still, I can hardly fault his enthusiasm. And he saved me the hike down, besides. I was so tired, and… Oh no!” Kate gasped, as a thought suddenly occurred to her.
“What?” Cullen asked.
“Lieutenant Lysette and all the soldiers stationed at the temple,” Kate groaned, “Maker’s breath, they’re still up there in the cold. I meant to invite them to join us for the celebrations. But after the breach was shut, I completely forgot.”
“I can’t imagine why it slipped your mind,” Cullen observed dryly, “Riding a qunari down the hill, everyone in Haven crowding around to congratulate you. I had to wait until you slipped away so that I could get near enough to speak to you myself.”
“You were waiting to talk to me?” Kate asked him, feeling flattered by the thought.
“What? Oh, um, no. I mean, it wasn’t a bother. I was just standing nearby,” Cullen coughed and cleared his throat. “Anyhow, don’t worry about Lysette. I told her that you’d granted her and all the soldiers a week’s furlough. A reward for their hard work. She sends her thanks and compliments. Or she would, if she wasn’t so busy dancing with that fellow there.” Cullen pointed at the bonfire.
“Thank you,” Kate said. “That was very kind of you.”
“Practical, more like,” Cullen replied. “After all, the soldiers aren’t going to benefit from an officer who’s too tired to make good decisions.” He paused, and looked over at Kate expectantly.
“That’s true,” Kate agreed, for it looked as though Cullen wanted an answer.
“You told me that,” Cullen said, leaning his head toward her slightly. “A week ago, do you recall?”
“I said that?”
“You did. And I took it to heart. Realized I’d been rather bad-tempered and needed the extra sleep. Oh, and I’m sorry if I snapped at you. I seem to have done so to a lot of people.”
“That’s fine,” Kate said, touched that he’d apologize for something she’d nearly forgotten about.
“But you,” Cullen said, looking over at her. “You didn’t get much rest, did you? I understand from Lysette that you scarcely slept.”
Kate didn’t answer at first. No, she had not slept much, but she didn’t like explaining why. Between analyzing the logistics of the ritual and avoiding nightmares about corpses and swirling skies, Kate had found it just as well to stay up half the night. Most nights, she’d been in her tent, holding magic light in her hand and pouring over her lists or ancient tomes. It was rather amazing she hadn’t collapsed, Kate now realized - or burst into tears at some completely inopportune time.
But to Kate’s relief, she hadn’t wept once since returning from that blighted future. That had to count as proof that she was finally growing tougher, Kate thought. Or maybe she was just growing numb to the insanity around her.
“I figured I’d rest when I was done with the breach,” Kate said, shrugging.
“Or the breach was done with you,” Cullen said, baldly. “Yes, I’ve endured similar campaigns: fight or die. Sometimes that’s a necessity. But you can’t do that forever, you know. Consider yourself on leave for the next three days.”
“I… Yes ser,” Kate said, rather taken aback.
“What? No, that’s not an order,” Cullen said, his brows drawing together. “I only meant… Sorry. Didn’t mean it to sound like that. I just meant that you ought to take some time to rest.”
“And what about everyone else who needs rest?” Kate wanted to know. “Solas worked just as hard on that ritual, and Dorian and Bull…”
“Yes, but they didn’t just have all that magic poured through them, did they?” Cullen asked, gesturing at Kate’s bandaged fist. “Watching you stand in the center of that ritual, there was a moment where… Well anyway,” he said, shaking that thought off. “That blighted future won’t show up all in a rush, now will it? We can take a few days to rest before heading out looking for the Elder One.”
Can we? Kate wondered. She wasn’t so sure they could afford to wait. Furthermore, Kate suspected Cullen would not take any rest himself. While she was napping, he’d be at his paperwork again, tracking down leads and moving the troops forward.
Then, as she was studying Cullen’s face, Kate suddenly felt a strange sense of disembodiment. This had happened so many times this week, where her vision shifted, and suddenly she was seeing memories from that blighted future. Right now, Kate saw Cullen not as he was, golden and shaven, but as a ruined corpse, impaled upon a pike. She drew in a breath, shuddering.
“Yes?” Kate said. She closed her eyes for the briefest moment, trying to will away that sight. Then she opened her eyes and tried to see Cullen as he was now.
“Are you alright?” Cullen asked her.
Not really, Kate wanted to say. But she just smiled - grimaced, rather - and said, “Fine.”
“Are you?” Cullen asked, doubtfully. “I know it’s not my business, but… Well, no, perhaps it is.” He let out a breath, then fixed Kate with a searching look.
“What?” she said, now feeling very exposed.
“I’ve been concerned about you,” Cullen told her, frowning.
“Um, okay,” Kate said, nervously.
“I read your report on Redcliffe Castle,” Cullen said. “And while I know you’ve been telling everyone you don’t want to talk about it…”
“I don’t,” Kate said at once.
“But that’s the trouble, isn’t it?” Cullen returned. “You don’t want to talk about it. Look, I’m not trying to pry - Maker knows I’m not…”
“Aren’t you?” Kate frowned. “Look, I’m fine…”
“You’re not,” Cullen said, in a decisive sort of voice. Everyone else had backed off at this point, Kate thought, but Cullen just plowed on ahead saying, “What you saw: the battles, the blood magic,” he shuddered. “That’s something to trouble even the most seasoned soldier.”
“And I’m not terribly seasoned,” Kate said with a sigh.
“No, you’re not,” Cullen agreed. “But at some point, one’s veteran status hardly helps. Visions such as that…” He broke off there, staring out at the fires.
“It wasn’t a vision,” Kate told him softly, also looking at the lights. “It was real.”
That was the trouble, Kate thought. It had been real, even if no one seemed to understand that, even if everyone treated her report as nothing more than a warning or a story.
“People died in that place,” Kate said, now speaking mostly to herself. “In a world I left behind, a world I’m about to destroy as surely as the Elder One did. People died. And you, Cullen…”
You died, too, Kate thought. But she didn’t say that. It was too awful to speak aloud for one thing, but there was another reason that Kate stopped there. At that moment, another thought occurred to her entirely:
Why had Cullen died in that blighted future anyway?
Cullen needn’t have sacrificed himself, now that Kate thought about it. He had known that Redcliffe Castle could not be taken. Tactically, the decision to lay siege to the place made no sense. It would have made far more sense if Cullen had sought out allies, to bolster his ranks and gather resources to breach the walls. The templars would have made excellent allies, Kate mused. Cullen had wanted them from the first. And with her and Leliana and Cassandra gone, there would have been no one to stop him from forming that alliance. Surely the Lord Seeker would have come to Cullen’s aid, if only for the pleasure of destroying the mage rebellion in a single stroke. Cullen might have taken control of the Inquisition itself, come to think of it. He and the templars might have found a way to close the breach without the aid of the mark, to re-establish the Order as the greatest power in Thedas. With the world in chaos, who would have blamed him? Cullen would have been hailed as a hero.
But he hadn’t done any of that. Maybe Cullen felt that the Lord Seeker couldn’t be trusted or maybe there was too little time to send for help. It wasn’t as though this present Cullen could explain his future self’s actions. But whatever the reason, that future-Cullen had stuck to his post and he’d stuck to the plan. Even when there was no one left to hold him accountable, Cullen had remained loyal to the Inquisition, to his allies, and even to Kate herself. In that darkest of futures, Cullen had proved trustworthy.
Cullen was trustworthy, Kate realized. Maker’s breath, that sounded rather unfair - as if she hadn’t entirely trusted him before now. But now that she thought about it, Kate realized that she hadn’t trusted him, not really. A part of her had been holding back, secretly fearful that Cullen remained a mage-hunter in his heart of hearts. But now Kate saw that Cullen had broken free of the Chantry’s leash in the most important of ways. He might still be taking lyrium, and he might always remain suspicious of mages, but when it came down to it, Cullen had chosen his side. Whatever his past mistakes, whatever his present attitudes, Cullen had behaved - or rather, would behave - with loyalty and honor. Kate could trust him in that.
She could trust him, Kate thought. She could trust Cullen. That meant…
Kate wasn’t sure what that meant. It didn’t change the fact that she and Cullen had argued in the past. It didn’t change the fact that they had agreed to work around their disagreements, then stumbled back into debates at every turn. But it did start shifting things inside of Kate’s head. Some ideas had gotten knocked over and other ideas were dusting themselves off and standing up for reconsideration.
“Apologies,” Cullen said, and Kate realized she’d entirely lost track of their conversation. The light around them had grown cooler as the sun slipped below the horizon. “I did not mean to make light of what happened to you.”
“What?” Kate blinked at him.
“You’re right,” Cullen told her. “You’re absolutely right. Blades only cut so deep. Sometimes what you see in battle leaves the greater scar. Visions are no less a source of injury, no less a form of tort– Cullen coughed here, then said, quite sharply:
“A form of torture. And it’s no less painful when there’s no visible wound.”
Cullen said nothing more than that, but he didn’t have to. His hunched posture and haunted eyes spoke for him. Sympathy welled in Kate, much stronger now than ever before.
“I’m so sorry, Cullen,” she whispered. “I keep forgetting that Kirkwall… It must have been awful.”
“What? Kirkwall wasn’t…” Cullen made a frustrated sound and shook his head. “I didn’t mean that. I didn’t mean me.”
“Didn’t you?” Kate wanted to know.
Cullen seemed to wrestle with that thought before folding his arms over his chest.
“Alright, yes,” he admitted, irritably. “I’ve seen similar things, but I wasn’t asking for pity.”
“I didn’t think you were,” Kate replied. “It sounded like you were trying to offer understanding.”
“Yes, exactly,” Cullen said, his expression relieved. “That’s exactly what I was trying to do. I was concerned about you this past week. It’s not like you to be so alone.”
“Alone?” Kate said, taken aback. “What do you mean, alone? I’ve been surrounded by people all week.”
“True, but according to Lysette, you withdrew from company every chance that you got,” Cullen said. “Scarcely spoke a word if you didn’t have to.”
“Lysette told you that?” Kate asked, astonished.
“Well, yes,” Cullen said, looking a bit uncomfortable now. “It is my job to get a full report on things. And your isolation troubled me. I’ve noticed that when you’re alright, you spend time chatting with people. When you’re not, you wander off and fall silent.”
Kate’s mouth dropped open. She tried to speak, but only managed to gape at Cullen like a fish.
“That’s what I’ve seen anyhow,” Cullen said, not meeting her eyes.
“I didn’t realize I was so transparent,” Kate said, unable to deny it.
“You’re not,” Cullen said at once. “You have no idea how confusing… No. All I meant was, I understand. Well, as near as anyone can understand such a thing. It’s hard when damage is done. It’s harder still when it happens inside, where no one bothers to look. I mean… Maker’s breath, what am I saying? I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to go on like this. I only meant to comfort you – er… Blast, I’m making a hash of this.”
The night was falling swiftly now, and Cullen’s face was half-illuminated by the red light of the nearest bonfire, half in shadow. He looked deeply troubled, so troubled that Kate found she could not leave Cullen alone with such thoughts. After all, he had not abandoned her in that dark future. She could not abandon him to his dark past.
“You’re not making a hash of this,” Kate said, reaching out with her voice, because she did not trust to touch. “Quite the opposite, really. You’re being very kind.”
Cullen glanced over at her, his expression considering - perhaps even hopeful.
“And I’m sorry about Kirkwall,” Kate went on. “Not just that it happened, but for the way I attacked you about it in the Mire. If your memories are even half as painful as mine about Redcliffe…” Kate stopped there. “Maker’s breath,” she muttered. “As if you could compare the two.”
“You can’t,” Cullen said, flatly. “That’s the trouble, really. Two soldiers can go through the same battle and remember two entirely difference campaigns. Or two people from a world away might be intimately acquainted with the same nightmares. You can’t compare it, Kate. If you suffer at all, then you suffer enough.”
Kate swallowed hard. “Then I’m sorry for what you suffered, Cullen,” she said. “And if you ever want to talk about it - not that you must, but if you want to - then I’d be honored to hear you out. I can’t pretend I’ve been through all the things you have, but I’m a good listener, or so Coll says.”
Cullen’s chin went up, and he took a sharp breath. Kate wondered if she had startled him by saying this. Or perhaps he was simply finding her offer a bit odd, considering that Kate had been unwilling to speak to anyone this past week. Yet now that Kate thought about it, who was she, to offer the Commander of the Inquisition a listening ear? Cullen had any number of other people to confide in - like Rylen or Cassandra or all the dozens of soldiers who knew the world of battles far better than she. How could a soft, cloistered mage possibly hope to understand a hardened, worldly templar? More to the point, Kate wondered, why was she so eager to?
“Thank you, Kate,” Cullen said after a moment.
“Well, you’ve listened to me talk about my troubles often enough,” Kate said, feeling a bit flustered now.
“Yes, I have,” Cullen agreed. “And you’ve heard plenty of mine as well. So um, you know. Likewise.” He shrugged his furred shoulders.
“Likewise?” Kate repeated.
“As in, likewise, I’m offering to listen to you as well.”
“You are?” Kate blinked. Cullen was inviting her to confide in him? Was she even allowed to do that? Surely the commander of the troops had far more important requirements on his time.
“Yes well, Maker knows I’m not the best listener,” Cullen admitted. “I’m rubbish at comforting people and I despise small talk. Not that conversation with you ever feels like small talk. Quite the opposite, actually. But I’m willing to listen,” he went on. “You can talk to me any time you like.”
“Oh,” Kate said. Even though they were a good distance from the nearest fire, her toes now felt quite warm. Beside her, Cullen had flinched and now looked sharply away.
“Any time you like,” he muttered. “Maker.”
“Thank you,” Kate told him, but Cullen did not seem to have heard her.
“Thank you, Cullen,” she said again. “That’s very kind of you.”
“What? Oh. Of course,” he said, gruffly.
Then he said nothing more. Silence fell between them, stretching out for a minute or more. The quiet mirrored the sky, thick and swirling as each of them stood lost in thought. Night fell in earnest now, and the moon began to rise behind the clouds. Kate glanced over at Cullen and nervously chewed her lower lip.
Well this was fitting, Kate thought. How like the two of them to offer to listen to one another, and then run out of things to say.
“Well, I suppose I ought to get back to my duties,” Cullen said after a moment.
Kate felt a sudden spurt of disappointment. “Must you?” she asked. “On Satinalia?”
“Oh,” Cullen said. “I just assumed our conversation was over. But if my company… Er, that is, if you’d like to talk about something else…”
“I would,” Kate said, eagerly. Cullen seemed to smile at that, or at least Kate thought he did. Then again, in the dim light of the fires, it was hard to tell.
“Alright then,” he said. “What should we talk about? Not that we need a plan or anything,” he added. “Although we could talk about plans. Plans for tracking down this Elder One fellow, for example.”
”‘Fellow’?” Kate mused. “Are we certain the Elder One is a man?”
Cullen chuckled. “I guess we don’t know that, do we? But with a name like ‘Elder One,’ I assumed we were dealing with a male. Most women of my acquaintance aren’t keen on advertising their age.”
“Good point,” Kate laughed.
It was just a short laugh, there and then done, but it felt good - a warm answer to Cullen’s warm smile. It suddenly occurred to Kate that she hadn’t laughed since that day in the Hinterlands, when she’d spoken to Cullen about Brother Genetivi. She might not have cried all week, but she hadn’t laughed, either. Suddenly, Kate wanted to laugh some more.
“Oh, we should tell jokes!” she said, excitedly.
Cullen made a sort of sputtering noise. “I’m sorry. What?”
“Well, it is Satinalia.”
“Um…” Cullen looked at her as though this connection made no sense to him at all.
“Go on,” Kate said, chuckling, if only in practice for the laughter to come. “Senior students first.”
“Senior?” Cullen frowned.
“You know what I mean,” Kate said. Or maybe he didn’t, Kate now thought.
“Don’t Fereldens tell jokes on Satinalia?” she asked him.
“No,” Cullen said. “No they don’t.”
“Oh,” Kate said, frowning as well. “I thought that was a Thedas-wide tradition. Ostwick is mad for riddles, you see, and Satinalia is the best time for collecting them. Our Circle was especially keen on it. Mages don’t often exchange presents, so we made up for it with words. We shared jokes, riddles, funny stories…”
Cullen continued to frown.
“Or maybe we could just talk about something funny?” Kate asked, hopefully. “Something other than the Elder One, at least.”
“Something funny,” Cullen repeated, in a thoughtful voice. “Something funny…”
He trailed off there, looking so serious in his pursuit of humor that Kate had to bite her lip to keep from laughing.
“Now, when you say ‘something funny,’” Cullen began.
“Or we can speak of something else,” Kate told him, “I didn’t mean to put you on the spot.”
Being put on the spot wasn’t what had thrown him, Cullen thought. Rather, their earlier conversation had been more difficult than he wanted to admit. He had tried to reach out to Kate, and only ended up bringing up his own troubles. Skirting around the issue of Kinloch Hold had left him feeling a bit shaky, as had that slip up about talking anytime Kate liked. As soon as he’d realized that was exactly what he’d said to another woman years ago, he’d been left momentarily speechless. Then, when Kate asked him to stay and talk, Cullen had felt a very unexpected jolt of delight. So really, after that head-spinning conversation just now, humor sounded wonderful. A good joke was just the thing to change the subject entirely.
Now if only he could think of one.
The jokes Cullen remembered all seemed stale or silly. And while he did occasionally mutter some wry sentiment to amuse himself, those observations were more spur-of-the-moment. Cullen had never been asked to come up with witticisms on demand.
“Really,” Kate said, when Cullen remained silent, “We needn’t do this. I’m sure I can share jokes with Coll later. Though Coll’s jokes are usually pretty inappropriate,” she added.
“I’m afraid most of the jokes I know are similarly unsuitable,” Cullen admitted. “Soldiers, barracks. You can imagine.”
“Templars tell dirty jokes?”
“Not usually, no. Although you’d be surprised some of the things my roommate in Kirkwall… Well anyway.” Cullen frowned at the memory.
“I’m so sorry,” Kate said at once. “Look, we can talk about something else. Like the Elder One, I suppose.”
But she clearly did not want that, Cullen thought. Kate didn’t want to talk about the Elder One any more than she had wanted to talk about…
The Redcliffe report. Now there was something funny. Cullen’s lips curled in a smile.
“Now that you mention it,” he said, “I do have something funny to tell you.”
“Oh?” Kate said, brightening a little.
“This last week,” Cullen began, “I tried to get hold of your report on Redcliffe Castle. It seemed everyone in the Inquisition managed to read it before me, all passing it on before I could have it.”
“Oh,” Kate said, her smile fading. “Yes, I’d heard that.”
Evidently, she didn’t find that as funny as Cullen did. No matter. That wasn’t the punchline anyway.
“When I found that report,” Cullen went on, “After an entire week of sending notes and messengers after it, mind you - I found it in the latrine.”
Cullen paused to let that sink in. Kate’s worried expression thawed as she wrinkled her nose.
“You mean people were reading my report as they…?”
“It would seem so,” Cullen said. “But what really got me was what I found tucked inside the report.”
Kate cringed. “Something sanitary, I hope.”
“Depends on your definition of ‘sanitary,’” Cullen said. “It was another piece of reading material. Something called ‘The Randy Dowager Quarterly’?”
Kate turned pink. “How interesting,” she said.
“Very,” Cullen agreed.
“Er, right,” Kate said. “But you don’t read the Dowager… I mean, do you? Did you?” She looked both intrigued and appalled by the thought.
“Never read it before,” Cullen said, “but as the thing was all shuffled in with your report, I took it with me. And when I was sorting out the pages, I discovered the most curious thing…”
Kate was now listening to him with rapt attention, and Cullen found himself enjoying this very much.
“It turns out that our Fallow Mire rescue mission was based on the plot of a romance novel. Did you know that? Something by… Oh, what was that historian’s name again? Portia Plume?”
Kate’s expression was everything Cullen had hoped for. She looked completely dumbstruck, her lovely mouth dropped open in a perfect ‘O’. Cullen could not help but grin.
“And here’s the really funny thing,” Cullen went on. “It seems that everyone else in the mire: the Seeker, the Herald, Scout Harding - probably all the soldiers, too - were in on the joke. They all knew where they plan came from. Except their commander, who was blissfully unaware that he was taking marching orders from a romance novel.”
He fixed her with a pointed look. Kate’s eyes went huge.
“I’m so sorry!” she blurted out, waving her hands before her. “I only suggested that plan because I thought it was the best course of action - truly I did! Please believe me when I say that I took the mission very seriously and I would never endanger our people for a joke. Regardless of where the idea came from, it worked out in the end and you’re… You’re…” Kate broke off, frowning.
“You’re laughing at me.”
He was. Cullen hadn’t meant to start laughing, but Kate just looked so earnest that he couldn’t help it. Her brows unknitted.
“You’re not angry with me,” Kate said, almost wonderingly. But Cullen was laughing too hard to answer. Kate’s lips started to curl in a smile.
“You had me worried,” she said. “I thought you were taking me to task for breaking protocol or endangering our people… Oh, stop, Cullen,” she said, letting her hands drop. “You’re making me blush.”
“You were managing that perfectly well on your own,” Cullen said, finding his voice at last.
“I was not!” Kate sputtered in protest.
“You were,” Cullen told her. “And I wish you could have been there when I finally made the connection. Just a few weeks ago, I was explaining the Mire mission reports to my officers. I told them how you’d come up with this brilliant plan based off of the writings of ‘noted Avvar historian Portia Plume.’”
“You didn’t!” Kate exclaimed.
“Of course I did,” Cullen replied. “You certainly didn’t tell me what the woman really wrote. Ruvena turned a very strange color of purple and burst into a fit of giggles. I thought she was going to hurt herself for a moment there. Keran simply looked appalled.”
“They’ve read it?” Kate asked, amazed.
“I would hazard a guess that Keran is merely familiar with the author,” Cullen replied. “But then, I could be wrong. His off-duty exploits… Well, anyhow. Rylen seemed as confused as I was, and Morris - Well, you can imagine. Morris stood there, chewing his fingernails. Completely oblivious, as always. Thank the Maker that Ruvena and Keran are discreet. They could have teased me about it endlessly. Instead they just let me continue in my ignorance, as you and Cassandra did.”
“I’m so sorry…” Kate began.
“It’s quite alright,” Cullen cut her off. “As you said, the plan was a good one, regardless of where it came from. Though I can understand now why you misled me regarding the source. Clearly, you didn’t want to expose your taste in literature.”
Kate let out a little cry of indignation. “What does that mean?” she wanted to know.
“I only meant that romance novels aren’t considered very cultured reading,” Cullen explained.
“Cultured reading?” Kate repeated, looking affronted. “I’ll have you know that just because I read Plume for fun doesn’t mean I can’t also follow a four-inch tome on the relative resonance of the Veil in key spots throughout Thedas.”
“I didn’t suggest it did,” Cullen replied. “But you don’t advertise your preference in fiction the way you share your Veil-studies, now do you? Or was there some other reason you didn’t tell me who Plume really was?”
Cullen knew he’d made his point when Kate glanced sharply away.
“She’s is a very popular author,” she said, defensively.
“Yes, I gathered that,” Cullen replied, dryly. “Because when I went looking for more information on this ‘noted historian’ of yours, I found her. The entire collected works are in the Haven library.”
“Every last volume,” Cullen said. “All sitting there on the bottom shelves in the war room. Probably castoffs from noble pilgrims coming to the village.”
Kate coughed into her fist and looked sharply at the ground. Cullen glanced over at her.
“Don’t you think?” he asked her.
“Oh undoubtedly,” she said, quickly.
“Of course they must be,” Cullen agreed. “I can’t imagine Justinia packing such stories into the Chantry. Though they’ve seen a surprising amount of use. Most of the collection was checked out, along with back issues of the Randy Dowager for the past two years. I noticed that Dorian, of all people, left his name on the inventory list. Took some book called ‘Harrowings and Furrowings,’ as I recall.”
Kate looked up sharply and made a choking sound.
“You’re familiar with it?” Cullen asked.
“Um, sort of?” Kate said, wincing.
“Ah,” Cullen said. “Then I assume it’s not a treatise on southern Circle history?”
“Not at all,” Kate said. “It’s a very fanciful account of mages and their, um…proclivities. Maker save me. No wonder he was quizzing me about life in the Circle.”
“Just how many of these books have you read?” Cullen asked her.
“Oddly enough, Cullen,” Kate said, her voice turning quite lofty as she lifted her head. “There’s not very much to do in a Circle once classes are over. And when you’re a teenager, you get rather bored. And, well, curious.”
Curious? She surely didn’t mean…? Now it was Cullen’s turn to look away, blushing. The thought of a curious, teenage Kate made his mind go rather blank. He recalled only too well being a curious, teenage templar recruit. Only he had applied himself to study and training exercises, the better to stave off other impulses. But what had Kate done with her curiosity, he wondered?
An image rose unbidden in his mind: Kate, reading such stories, her cheeks as pink as they were now. And then, Kate, lying in a quiet bed in a quiet room, reaching her hands down into her quilts, drawing up the hem of her nightgown, sliding her fingers into secret places. In his mind, he saw her gasp into the night, her eyes closed, her expression one of ecstasy, the sheets twisted around her slender legs…
The alarm-bells of prudence rang in Cullen’s mind. With a start, he ripped himself away from the fantasy and came snapping back to the present.
“Don’t you think?” Kate asked him.
No, he didn’t think. Or at least, Cullen wasn’t thinking of anything he wanted to share. He couldn’t believe that fantasy had crept up on him out of nowhere. He now found himself in the cold, lightly dusted in snow, while a fully-clothed Kate stood before him with an argumentative expression upon her face. Cullen felt entirely disoriented.
“I’m sorry, what?”
Kate’s lips thinned. “I was saying that Plume’s stories are quite thrilling. You needn’t be such a snob about them.”
“A snob?” Cullen blinked at her. “Was I being a snob?”
“Well… no,” Kate admitted. “But most people are. Most people think romance novels are nothing but little bits of fluff and nonsense wrapped up in chapter-long sexual escapades.”
Cullen choked. The phrase ‘sexual escapades’ seemed to have gotten stuck in his throat.
“But the stories themselves are quite good,” Kate went on, “One can simply skip the sensual parts, if one finds them too salacious.”
Did Kate skip over the sensual parts, Cullen wondered? Or did she read them and enjoy them?
No, Cullen told himself sharply. With mysteries such as this, it was best not to ask.
“I wasn’t questioning the content of the books,” he said instead. “Nor your right to, um, enjoy them.”
“And what’s so wrong with romance anyhow?” Kate wanted to know, though Cullen suspected she was arguing with popular opinion now, and not Cullen himself. “Until today, the sky was torn open. We’ve had nothing but war all year. When the whole world reads like a horror novel, what do you expect people to pluck off the shelves? Stories of gloom? Histories where we all know how bad and blighted things became? Or wouldn’t you rather read something that makes you smile? Something that reminds you that the world is full of love and friendship and things worth fighting for?”
Cullen drew up short at that. Because when Kate was looking at him with such fire in her eyes, he found himself unable to speak. The tangled-up something in his chest suddenly began to ache.
“They’re wonderful stories,” Kate continued passionately. “And yet you don’t consider them ‘cultured reading.’”
“I don’t consider most popular books to be cultured reading,” Cullen returned. “Most of them aren’t,” he said, in reply to Kate’s short cry of indignation. “They’re formulaic to a fault. Oh come now, you know they are. Even those Plume novels fall prey to it. If the woman didn’t begin with the leading couple apart and bring them together by the end, her readers would riot in the streets.”
Kate opened her mouth to protest that, then tipped her head to one side. “Rioting, yes, but not in the streets. Plume’s readers would simply pen angry letters to her and demand a reprint. However, romances are not all the same. They’re not!” she insisted when Cullen gave her a skeptical look.
“Near enough,” Cullen said. “As soon as you pick one up you’re guaranteed a certain progression of events and a happy ending. Not much room for suspense when you know how everything will turn out in the end.”
“Well then, that’s life, isn’t it?” Kate shot back. “Every life reads roughly the same way: we’re born. Then someday, we die. It’s the bit in the middle that makes it interesting. That’s where the mystery is: the people you meet, how you live, how life changes you. So no, I don’t mind reading the same type of story over and over again, Cullen. Because in the end, those stories are the most real.”
“Romance novels are realistic?” Cullen asked her, raising a brow. “You honestly believe that?”
“Well, no. I just meant… Alright, there’s nothing realistic about the lovers, no.”
Cullen couldn’t tell if he was amused or somewhat saddened to hear her admit that.
“But even if they’re not very believable they still point to the most important things in life.”
“One of the things I find most important in life is clarity in communication,” Cullen informed her. “Proper words must be used to convey the proper meaning. And on that score, Plume’s prose simply will not do.”
“What?” Kate said.
“You know what I mean,” Cullen told her. “All those tense changes, the dropped commas and the completely out-of-character internal monologues. No self-respecting Avvar chieftain would ever act like that what’s-his-name did. The Avvar don’t think like that in their heads, much less speak like that to their tribes.”
Kate’s mouth dropped open and her eyes went wide.
“Wait a minute,” she said, holding up her bandaged hand. “You read it? You read ‘Chief and Challenger’?”
Kate stared as Cullen. He hadn’t actually read it, had he?
“It was right there in the war room,” Cullen said, now sounding as defensive as Kate had a moment ago. “After spotting the plot summary in the Randy Dowager, I wanted to know how our mire plan compared to the original work. I figured that if you remembered the details of the plot after so many years, it must have been a very good book indeed.”
“I re-read ‘Chief and Challenger’ just last year,” Kate told him.
Cullen spluttered, and Kate waved aside his astonishment. “Oh, for the Maker’s sake,” she said. “I’ve re-read all of Plume’s novels half a dozen times. I already told you, I was bored in the Circle. But you read it? You? Yesterday after you found it?”
“I, um, yes.”
“But not all of it,” Kate pressed. “Just the opening part. And then you were disgusted by the writing style and you stopped. Right?”
Please let him have stopped, Kate thought.
“I, uh, took the liberty of finishing it,” Cullen said. “See a thing through. Give the book a fair shake and all that.”
“You read all of it?”
“I wouldn’t critique a book I hadn’t read, now would I?”
“Doesn’t stop plenty of other people from doing so,” Kate pointed out. “My word, Cullen. When did you find the time for that?”
“I sometimes have trouble sleeping,” Cullen said, stiffly. “I found it was just as well to pass the time with a book.”
“You stayed up all last night?” Kate’s jaw dropped open again. She couldn’t tell whether she should laugh, or simply faint from mortification. Cullen had read that novel. The entire novel. That meant he’d read the parts where…
“Sweet Andraste save me,” Kate murmured.
“That’s was my reaction as well,” Cullen said, his voice sounding a bit strangled. “But, um, no. To answer your question. Yes, I did read it. All of it. I read quickly, and it wasn’t terribly difficult to follow. I was done around midnight. So yes, I did read it, and thus I think it’s fair to say there were problems with Plume’s writing. Now true, I haven’t read all her collected works…”
“Oh, please don’t,” Kate begged.
“At any rate,” Cullen said, his voice taking on his usual, more precise tones, “If that one novel may be taken as an accurate sample of her offerings, I must say the writing style could use some work. I see how you might like the, um, story…”
Kate gave a small groan.
”…but the way in which it is delivered nearly ruined the narrative. Sentence fragments everywhere - utterly drove me to distraction. The opening lines were the worst: ‘He was a he,’ and all that.”
“That’s not a sentence fragment,” Kate pointed out. “A tautology, perhaps, but not a fragment.”
“No, but what followed after was all chopped to bits. Oh, how did Plume put it? Something like: ‘He was a He. Looking for a Her. Looking for the True Her - the only Her he would ever need.’ - I mean, really. Not a paragraph in and she’s missing two complete sentences out of three.”
“It got better,” Kate muttered.
“Now, I gather that Plume was trying to hint at some fated connection between the leads,” Cullen went on, “but if so, the lover’s interactions completely failed to prove Plume’s point. The challenger had more of a connection with the handmaiden assigned to her. Seeing as how that woman was always listening to her talk and bathing her - er, well…” He cleared his throat. “Anyhow, the battle scenes were alright - some truly first-rate action there. You can see Plume did her research for those sections at least, but all the good fighting bits were interspersed with so much nonsense that it was hard to enjoy them.”
Kate had been watching Cullen with appraising look, which now warmed into a delighted smile.
“You liked it,” she accused.
“What? I most certainly did not.”
“Oh really?” Kate asked, feeling almost giddy in her amusement. “Because you have awfully strong opinions about this poorly-written prose that you stayed up until midnight to finish.”
“Yes, well,” Cullen blustered and turned away, “I have strong opinions about everything.”
“I know,” Kate grinned. “That’s why I like you so much.”
Kate froze, her smile turning rather sickly in her shock.
What did I just say?
“I, uh…” Cullen looked just as startled as Kate did. “What was that?”
“Just that it’s one of the things I like about you,” Kate said quickly, backtracking at once. “That you have strong opinions, I mean. It’s a good quality to have. Opinions. Strong ones. Opinions in general. And strength, too. You’re very, um, strong…”
And now she was descending into babbling, Kate thought. She flashed Cullen a brittle smile.
“Opinions are good,” she told him. She forced herself to stop there.
“Ah,” Cullen said, his brows drawing together. “Sorry, I thought you said… Nothing. Never mind.”
Oh, I did, Cullen, Kate thought. She most definitely did say something more than that. But she wasn’t about to admit it. Right now, one part of her mind was holding desperately to reason and rationality and the other part was descending into a completely unreasonable panic.
Oh, no, no, no, no, no, wailed the panicky part of Kate. She liked Cullen. She liked Cullen. This was a terrible development. This…
But then the more rational part of Kate’s mind swooped in to control the damage.
This really wasn’t that bad, the reasoning part informed the hysterical part. Alright, so she liked Cullen. That shouldn’t come as a great shock. These feelings had been creeping up on her for a while now, and Kate had simply succumbed to the fever. Consider it a sort of infatuational flu, the reasoning part said soothingly. Kate would probably endure some discomfort for a while: awkward stuttering in Cullen’s presence and foolish heart-thumping whenever the man walked by. But give it a few weeks, a month or so at the most, and she ought to get over this illness. Then she’d build up an immunity to Cullen and regard him as nothing more than a colleague once more. That would be the end of that.
Oh really? the hysterical part of her brain shot back sarcastically. Since when had Kate ever managed to corral her feelings simply by wishing? And the worst thing was - the absolute worst thing - was that Cullen clearly didn’t like Kate in the same way she liked him. He was kind to her, certainly, but in a gruff, overworked, sleep-deprived commanderly sort of way. Kate could never hope to be anything more to him than an under-qualified civilian set in the midst of his military campaign. She could never hope to impress him, to make him like her. She was a mage, for the Maker’s sake! He had been a templar. He would never think of her in that way. And so, Maker help her, this was going to be awful, that panicking part cried. At worst, Kate was going to betray her feelings and make things very awkward for everyone. At best, she’d manage to hide her fancy, suffering a simmering awareness of Cullen from now until Maker only knew when.
And what was so awful about hiding her feelings, Kate’s rational mind had to ask? She’d learned quite well how to hide her feelings over the course of her aristocratic life. This wouldn’t be a difficult secret to conceal. And really, concealment seemed the most logical course of action, given the circumstances. Kate had endured fancies before - even heartaches - and she’d survived. So what if Cullen did not return her feelings? Kate didn’t expect him to. He was a commander, and did not think of his fellow officers that way. That was to his credit. If he’d been sniffing around a mage and flirting outrageously, she would have been leery of him from the start.
Furthermore, Kate reasoned - and her hysterical mind seemed to calm a little at the thought - furthermore, the fact that Kate liked Cullen showed a certain improvement in her judgments about men. Cullen wasn’t just handsome, but kind. Kate liked him for good reasons, not just superficial ones. Kate liked his passionate defense of good grammar, for a start. She liked that he read Chantry history for fun. She liked the way he’d read an entire romance novel in one sitting and even enjoyed it. But most of all, Kate liked that she could trust Cullen, that he’d treated her with respect.
And now that Kate thought of it, she even liked the way Cullen argued with her, and sometimes gave her that look that said she’d confused him. It proved that Cullen was a real person with real ideas and opinions of his own. He was not some figment of her romance-novel-saturated imagination, but her friend.
Friend, Kate thought, and both the rational and emotional parts of her mind contemplated the word. Well, yes, Cullen was her friend, wasn’t he? After these past few months and a number of battles together, she supposed he must be. And that made Kate feel a great deal better about liking Cullen. Friends were supposed to like each other, after all. And if Cullen meant far more to Kate than she did to him, well that was alright. She needn’t reveal her true feelings. In fact, Kate decided, she needn’t even think on this ever again.
So Kate resolved not to think about how much she liked Cullen. She also resolved not to think about what a romantic scene Haven made just now, what with the moon rising silvery behind the clouds and all the fires in the distance. Beside Kate, Cullen stood stiffly, his arms folded over his chest. Kate mimicked his stance, her fingers stuffed in her armpits for warmth.
Then, by degrees, Kate noticed something. Her eyes had gone rather unfocused as she’d been thinking, and she thought she saw more lights than before. Kate blinked.
She did see more lights. Small lights, and many of them. Curiously, they were not up in the sky, but down on the horizon - in the east.
That couldn’t be right, Kate thought. It couldn’t be later than supper time. The dawn was still a long way off.
“Cullen,” she said. Do you see…?”
“Yes,” he said, stiffening at once. “Torches.”
Cullen reached for his sword, and just like that, Kate came crashing back to the present moment. All thought of fantasy was gone now.
Then, loudly, the Chantry bells started clanging the alarm.
“What in the Maker’s name…?”
“Come on,” Cullen said to her. He stepped off the embankment before them, headed for the village gates. Kate chased after him. The firelight now seemed redder, and cast sinister shadows all through the town. Songs of revelry gave way to shouts of alarm all about them. Kate called out above the chaos:
“Calm down, everyone. Calm down and prepare yourself for further orders.”
“They appeared out of nowhere, your worship,” a scout said, running up to them and addressing Kate instead of Cullen. “A whole bunch of them.”
“Who are they?” Kate wanted to know.
“They must have climbed the cliffs,” a voice said at Kate’s elbow. It was Leliana, now striding up behind them.
“Are they more refugees?” Kate asked. One could hope right?
“Refugees don’t march in formation,” Cullen said.
Then they were dealing with a hostile force. Maker help them.
“Apostates from the Hinterlands?” she suggested. “The last of the Tevinter cultists?”
“We can’t tell at this distance,” Leliana answered. “They’re gathering as if they’re ready to charge across the lake, though.”
“Not mages then,” Cullen said, frowning. “They’d hit us from afar. Spread out to maximize their bombardment.”
Kate didn’t like the sound of bombardment, but at least with mages, she knew how to raise a spell-shield. But against an army…
Whose army, she wondered absently?
“Right,” Kate said tightly, as they reached the village wall. “Bar the gates. Archers up on the ramparts. Soldiers behind. Mages among them. Everyone else to the Chantry.”
She shouted all this loudly, and heard her orders echoed back into the ranks. Why she’d spoken as if she was in charge of this mess, Kate had no idea. She was even more confused when everyone had deferred to her commands. Probably because Cullen was standing right beside her and hadn’t contradicted her, Kate thought. But that was surely the least strange part of this night.
Cullen drew his sword and Kate readied her staff as Bull had taught her to. Some day this was shaping up to be, Kate thought absently. From closing the breach to a celebration, and from celebration to battle. Yet, it was strangely fitting. Her recent life had been nothing but chaos followed by tentative victory followed by chaos. Hopefully this chaos would be over quickly, and they could get back to the wine and cakes.
“People approachin’!” an archer on the walls called.
“A messenger come to parlay, no doubt,” Leliana said.
“Or the vanguard,” Cullen muttered.
“Maybe we can reason with them?” Kate asked hopefully.
Up on the walls, another archer cried: “Halt! Who goes there!”
With that, the strange night grew even stranger. For the voice that answered that hail was as familiar to Kate as her own childhood, and carried all the same memories:
”‘Who goes there’?” a clipped, Ostwick accent called back. “Who actually says that? I mean, really. No, no! Don’t shoot. I’m not with them over the lake. We tried to get here as fast as we could, but that’s a bloody long climb…. Oh, for the Maker’s sake! Stop pointing that thing at me. Look, see? This is Ser Barris, er, Devlin Barris. Darrin Barris. Duh…something. Maker, he’s done in. And this is Cole… Oh, bugger it all, you can’t see Cole. Never mind him. Look, I’m here to bring you the most last-minute warning in the history of last minute warnings. Those are crazy - I mean completely crazy bastards over there. They’re about to attack you. Fairly obvious at this point, I should say. Oh, and I’m Robert Trevelyan, Katie’s cousin. You know, your Andraste-herald-priestess or whatever? Katie. I’m with her. So let me in already!”
“Robert?” Kate cried. She realized she wasn’t the only one who’d said that. Cassandra stood beside Kate, having also said that name. The Seeker looked just as amazed and delighted as Kate felt - maybe even more so.
“Let him in!” Cassandra shouted a moment later. “Let. Him. In!”