Cassandra was not avoiding Robert Trevelyan. She was strategically side-stepping him, which was an entirely different thing.
Cassandra lunged at her practice dummy. She bashed it with her shield, then slashed it with her sword. She battered the mannequin again and again, hacking the straw-stuffed burlap, the wooden-pole frame, and stupid, stupid scraps of the betting book. She should not have pinned them to the dummy. Though Cassandra had ripped the ledger to shreds, she could still imagine the words in her mind:
5 silvers says Trevelyan beds the Seeker by the end of the week.
10 silvers says the Seeker spends the night in the lad’s quarters by Thursday.
20 silvers says the Seeker gives the boy the boot. Come on you lot - you’re talking about a woman who once drove a dragon INTO another dragon.
Bah. Love is more dangerous than dragons. 5 sovereigns says the Seeker falls for the kid before the year’s out.
Cassandra snarled and slammed into the dummy once more. She attacked in a fury, sending all those little scraps of paper fluttering to the ground like fallen leaves.
Libelous nonsense, Cassandra thought. More dangerous than dragons, indeed! As if she would fall for such obvious ploys as Robert Trevelyan’s. And who said anything about love? How dare they suggest it? How dare they say it? How dare they write it down?
Bright light flashed and the dummy was gone. Nothing but a wisp of smoke rose from the ground. Cassandra stood there, panting for breath.
“Good Maker, that was impressive!”
Cassandra recognized the voice even before she whirled around to glare at the speaker. For there he was in person, looking just as calm and charming as ever. Robert Trevelyan came down the stairs behind her, then lazily strolled over to where she stood.
“Was that a Holy Smite?” Robert asked, sounding more curious than alarmed. “I thought only templars could do that. Useful trick in a fight, I’d wager.”
Cassandra said nothing. All she could do was try to catch her breath. But as she tilted her head up to look at Robert’s face, her lungs would not fill as they ought. Yet again, Robert looked as though he’d stepped straight off the cover of a Portia Plume novel. To be precise, he looked just like the prince in “Moonlight Over the Minanter River.” He had the white leather coat, the high boots, and even carried the longbow and quiver. But no picture could have captured Robert’s self-assured air. The man strutted about as though he was the handsomest man in the entire castle.
Of course, he was the handsomest man in the castle. But he didn’t have to act like it.
“Huhnnnn,” Cassandra snorted at him. The noise that came out of her sounded more like a beast than a person. Cassandra put her back to Robert, shook out her sword arm, and readied to strike the dummy once more. It was then that she remembered she had no dummy left to attack.
Before Cassandra could stop him, Robert strode over to where the spare practice dummies lay beside the wall. Without asking permission, Robert picked one up and set it into the smoking hole where the last dummy had stood.
“Beastly inconvenient that,” Robert said, dusting off his hands. “Skilled as you are, I bet you go through three of these a day.”
Cassandra regarded him warily. She had complained to Katerina just yesterday about the fragility of the practice dummies. Had the one cousin told the other? Was Robert’s interruption some kind of set up? But no, Cassandra thought. Surely Katerina would not do such a thing. Cassandra could not become suspicious of the Inquisitor simply because her cousin was a scoundrel.
Then again, there must be some reason why Robert had approached Cassandra after a week of ignoring her.
Perhaps Leliana had told Robert that Cassandra had asked about his mission. But if that was so, surely Robert would say something about it. It would be very like him to gloat over any indication of interest. Not that Cassandra was interested, of course. She was merely concerned about Robert’s suitability for scouting missions. Given how striking he was, Cassandra had doubts as to his ability to keep a low profile.
“Go on then,” Robert said, waving at the dummy before her. “Give it another smite.”
“I do not perform my skills as if I were a dancing bear,” Cassandra scowled at him.
“I only meant– Oops!” Robert lunged after the practice dummy, which had started leaning to one side. Robert caught it, then bent over to secure the thing in the ground. As he did so, Cassandra’s breath hitched. Good Maker, who had given him such tight trousers? Surely they had not been so form fitting earlier this week.
“I only meant to help,” Robert said, standing up again. “Though honestly, I don’t think this dummy will take much more abuse than the last one did. You ought to see the blacksmith about building one that lasts.”
“I had a lyrium-imbued mannequin at the Seeker compound,” Cassandra told him. “It did not break so easily.”
“Lyrium-imbued, eh? Well now I know what to get you for your birthday.” Robert chuckled.
The remark was so ridiculous that Cassandra’s lips twitched. It was not a smile, she told herself. It was an expression of irritation, a mere pursing of the lips.
“As if you would stay around long enough to see my birthday return,” Cassandra said instead.
“I missed it?” Robert frowned. He winced, then looked away. He said something that Cassandra did not quite catch, something like, “Therinfal strikes again.” But just as quickly, he recovered himself. He turned to Cassandra with a smile - a slightly less genuine one than before.
“Do you mind if I join you?” he asked her.
Cassandra instantly stood a little straighter. She could not say why, but she sensed a shift in Robert’s manner. It was subtle, but it was there all the same. He planned something. What he planned, she could not say. But Cassandra had been the target of many traps in her lifetime. She felt a familiar pricking at the back of her neck and a sinking in the pit of her stomach.
“This is no place for archery practice,” Cassandra pointed out. She watched him closely as he shrugged in concession.
“True, but it’s a long hike down to the war camp. Figured I’d save myself the trek, seeing as how I have a mission beginning tomorrow and all that.”
Cassandra said nothing. She just searched his face. His request was reasonable. Why then did she feel so uneasy?
“I’m thinking that’s a no,” Robert said, when Cassandra did not speak. “Will you reconsider? I’ve got a day to waste before they have a horse ready for me. I had hoped to spend it, um, practicing.”
Ah! There it was again! At the end of that sentence, Robert did not quite meet her eyes. Instead, he looked over his shoulder and back at the keep. But now he did not seem so sly. Instead, he looked tired. And lonely.
Cassandra frowned at that. Lonely? Surely not. She was making up layers to Robert’s character where there were none. And yet, clearly something was going on here. She had never mistrusted Robert like this before. Certainly she mistrusted the rumors about him. But Cassandra’s gut instinct had always told her that Robert was honest. Now, she was not sure. Perhaps she had allowed rumor to convince her of Robert’s deceit? Or was he truly deceptive and she was just now realizing it?
Maker, she did not like this uncertainty, Cassandra thought with a scowl. Mystery and intrigue were fine plot points in books, but in real life, Cassandra preferred people to be exactly what they seemed. She did not wish to spend her time sifting through reports and rumors and instincts to get at the truth.
Liar, her mind whispered at her. You love a good mystery. It calls to your Seeker soul.
Cassandra decided to ignore that part of her mind.
“Look,” Robert said with a sigh, “If you want me to shove off, I’ll shove off. It’s just that I’ve been told… That is, I thought…” He trailed off there.
“Practice where you will.”
Cassandra tried to sound imperious and indifferent. She was not certain that she succeeded.
“If you’re sure…” Robert began, but Cassandra did not let him finish. She went and grabbed a second dummy from the pile against the wall. She carried it past him, and set it up a short distance from her own. When Cassandra stood, it was to find Robert staring at her with raised eyebrows and a slight smile.
“What?” she snapped.
“Nothing,” he said, but he was clearly fighting a grin. “Nothing at all.”
Cassandra stomped away from him. How very like Robert to act as though she’d shown him some special favor by setting up another dummy. She was merely returning the courtesy he’d shown her. She would have done the same for any other soldier. Cassandra considered telling Robert this. Then she decided it would be best to keep conversation to a minimum. She was here to train, not chit-chat.
So Cassandra ignored Robert as he walked several paces away and strung his bow. She ignored him as he began plucking arrows from his quiver and firing them at the target. She ignored him even more deliberately as he struck the target with devastating precision. And she was still ignoring him when she overheard him say:
“Ah, there you are. Been waiting on you.”
Cassandra started, then glanced over her shoulder. A woman was passing by in the courtyard, and Cassandra could only assume that Robert was trying to flirt with that woman.
That ridiculous rogue…
That ridiculous rogue was not her problem, Cassandra told herself. All the better for her if he did flirt with some other woman while Cassandra stood within earshot. Everyone in Skyhold would hear of it. Then the betting books would change their ledgers and Cassandra would be freed from the gossip. She ought to encourage Robert, in fact.
Instead, Cassandra felt her teeth click. She turned around and slammed her shield into her dummy. Unfortunately, she hit the thing with enough force to knock it to the ground.
“Maker’s breath,” Cassandra grumbled. She yanked the dummy upright once again, but the moment she let go of it, the form started leaning to the other side. Really, Cassandra thought with a scowl, maybe she should see about getting a stronger dummy built for her. She would anchor it to the very stones of Skyhold.
“Yes, I know exactly what you mean,” Cassandra heard Robert say. He sounded amused, and Cassandra could only imagine that the woman was now flirting back. But then, Cassandra was not listening to this conversation.
“But really now,” Robert laughed. “Surely it doesn’t work with a bow as well as a dagger.”
Cassandra didn’t know what that meant, nor did she care. She tried to secure the practice dummy in the ground, but it was no use. She’d blasted the ground so badly that the pole had no proper hole to fit into. When Cassandra let go of the dummy, it leaned over like slow-falling tree, then crashed to the ground. Maker’s breath, how had Robert gotten this thing to stand upright in the first place?
“Rrrrrrgh…” Cassandra growled. In her fury, she glared up at Trevelyan, as if he was the one who’d caused her dummy to tip over. But instead of standing with some woman, Robert stood alone, conversing with the empty air.
“But how can you stand being forgotten?” Robert asked the space before him. “Horrible thing, being ignored.”
Cassandra blinked in surprise. What on earth was he doing?
“Alright then, I’ll try,” Robert said, nodding. He turned back toward the target and drew his bow. He took a moment to line up his shot, then let the arrow fly. There was a sound like wish and then thunk. The arrow punched through the dummy’s face.
Good Maker, Cassandra thought. She was no archer, but she knew a hit when she saw one.
“Still off,” Robert said, flexing his fingers. “Hairline fracture, my arse. Must have been worse than that, if I’m still listing left after a proper healing…” He paused as he reached for his quiver, then frowned.
“Of course I’m not nervous,” Robert said. “I’m perfectly…” He paused as he took out another arrow, put it to the string, and let it fly. The arrow hit the dummy just to the left of its painted heart.
“Calm,” Robert said, dully. To Robert’s right, something flickered slightly. It looked like a person - or the smoky outline of a person.
Suddenly Cassandra understood. Cole.
As soon as Cassandra thought of Cole, she could see him. Cole stood beside Robert, suddenly solid in the sunlight. His large hat shielded his face and he carried a dagger in each hand. So that’s who Robert was talking to. Cassandra could not believe she’d forgotten all about the demon. Here she’d been living in a castle with a spirit on the loose, and she’d done nothing. Some Seeker she was.
“They know they have to die,” Cole said. His voice was soft when he spoke to Robert, and yet Cassandra heard it clearly. “Deep down, the red templars know they’re already dead. But they don’t want to suffer.”
“I can help them with the death part,” Robert said, flexing his fingers before reaching for another arrow. “One shot one kill. That’s the goal, right?”
“Yes?” Cole said. To Cassandra’s ears, that word sounded like a question. “It’s kinder if they go quickly. They are here, then they go to wherever it is that they go.”
They go to the Maker’s side, Cassandra thought. But Robert, being less devout, said:
“And where do they go, Cole? I’ve often wondered that. As a Fade spirit, I assume you know.”
“They go out,” Cole said, vaguely.
“Out?” Robert repeated. “Is that a metaphor, or…?”
“Everyone is ‘in’ here,” Cole mused, looking around Skyhold with concern. “There’s a safety to in, but when you’re ready to grow up, you go out.”
“So more metaphor,” Robert said, lining up his shot. “A pity. I thought you might be able to enlighten me. ‘But all we mortals do is speculate/From womb to world to whate’er lies in Fate…‘”
Cassandra’s mouth fell open just as Robert’s arrow struck. That had been from Verses of Dreams. She was certain of it. It was a very obscure book of poetry, and yet Robert had just quoted from it. How curious.
“Maker’s ass,” Robert grumbled in a less poetic way. “Still with the tingling in the tips of my fingers. I really ought to talk to that healer.”
“You can hit the target harder if you go invisible,” Cole said.
Cassandra blinked at that. Invisible?
Robert made a face - as if he’d heard this suggestion before and did not like it. He looked down at his body - all six and a half feet of of it, and then looked up at Cole with a wry expression. The spirit stared back. Cassandra, however, found her throat had gone dry.
“Cole, I’m not a ghost,” Robert said.
“Neither am I,” Cole said.
“But I can’t disappear like you do.”
“No,” Cole agreed. “But you can disappear.”
Robert opened his mouth, but then looked up and looked over at Cassandra. He seemed to realize that she’d been staring at him all this time, for his face darkened with a flush.
“Ah, sorry,” Robert said, waving a hand at Cole. “Cole’s here. He’s been training me. I think half the people in Skyhold think I’m mad, talking to him all the time, but…”
“I see him,” Cassandra said.
“Oh,” Robert said. He looked from Seeker to spirit. “Well then.”
“But I do not approve of this,” Cassandra told Robert. “You cannot allow a demon to teach you archery.”
“Cole’s not teaching me how to be an archer,” Robert replied. “He’s teaching me how to be an assassin.”
Cassandra’s eyes widened.
“Hmm,” Robert mused. “That sounded worse, didn’t it?”
“He’s teaching you what?”
“Assassination,” Robert repeated. “Or more efficient killing, I should say. But apparently I have to become invisible. And as that’s not happening…”
“You’ll turn invisible if you stand still,” Cole told Robert. “Quiet things are often overlooked.”
“That’s very insightful, Cole, but you’ll find I’m not a very still sort of person.”
“I know,” Cole nodded. “Drinking, dancing, joking, jesting. Gilded doorways, mirrored hallways, a corridor of cages. Always looking for a window out - a bed softer than the cold marble of the ballroom floor.”
“Er…yes,” Robert said, glancing over at Cassandra.
Cassandra pressed her lips together and said nothing. On the one hand, what Cole described did not sound like a comfortable life of a lazy nobleman. It sounded like a prison. That made her feel sorry for Robert. But on the other hand, even the demon confirmed that Robert was a rogue. Trevelyan’s behavior demonstrated a complete lack of morals, a total disregard for rules, as well as irreverance and vivacity and vigor and passion…
No, not passion, Cassandra told herself sharply. It was only in stories that roguish men turned out to be misunderstood poets. In real life, a rogue was a rogue. And Cassandra did not like rogues. She valued steadiness, solemnity, and sobriety.
Sounds boring, that second-guessing voice whispered in her head. What you really want is vivacity and vigor and passion.
Shut up, Cassandra whispered back.
“You had to keep moving in that life,” Cole said to Robert, still not looking in Cassandra’s direction. “You never existed in your father’s eyes unless you were loud and lawless. But you can be quiet here. You won’t fade away if you fade away.”
Cassandra blinked as Robert flushed. What was this about his father? And just like that, Cassandra felt a stab of sympathy. She, too, had spent time as an unwanted child.
“Too small in the shadow, faded from sight,” Cole murmured. “Dark-haired child with deep eyes. The house lay quiet, old, and dead. ‘Maker hasten the day when a wedding gets that troublesome brat off our hands.’ But the child was right there, hiding behind the door. Overheard everything, wondered why the Maker makes children so small.”
“Yes, thank you Cole,” Robert said, with a sidelong glance to Cassandra. “But surely we don’t need to get into my childhood just now.”
But from the way Cole looked over at Cassandra, Cassandra wondered which person Cole had really been speaking about. Robert did not ask for clarification, however. Instead, he took out his bow and knocked an arrow.
“Alright then,” he said. “Going still and hoping for the best.” He drew back the string took a long breath. Then, for one moment, Robert Trevelyan disappeared.
No, not quite. But even as Cassandra watched him, Robert flickered out of her vision. It was as though Cassandra forgot to see Robert for a moment - as though her attention had been called elsewhere. Then…
Cassandra blinked. She looked from Robert - who still stood there with his bow outstretched - to the target. Robert had shattered the dummy to pieces.
“Maker’s breath!” Cassandra exclaimed.
“Like that,” Cole said, mildly.
“Ah-ha-HA!” Robert whooped. “Andraste’s tits! Did you see that shot? Cole, did you…? Did you Cassie?” He grinned widely, all his teeth showing. “My God what a shot! If I’d done that at the Grand Tourney, I’d… Well, I’d probably have been carted off by the templars. They would have assumed I was a mage, but that…” He turned to Cole. “That was almost like magic.”
“It’s not mage magic,” Cole said.
“So it might be some other kind of magic? Whatever it is, I’ll take it. Talk about break-throughs,” Robert laughed, looking impossibly cocky. Cassandra had to admit it was good look for him. “Well, if I can do that in the Emerald Graves…”
“You’ll be the terror of Thedas,” Cassandra put in, dryly.
And now that she’d gotten over her initial shock, Cassandra was trying to process what she’d just seen. It had looked like magic - just a little. Was that Cole’s influence, she wondered? Or did magic flow in the Trevelyan bloodline? Perhaps Robert had some of his cousin’s gifts after all?
“I already am the terror of Thedas,” Robert told her, winking. “But now I’ll be stealthy. And I’ll… ouch.” Robert winced, rubbing his arm just above the elbow. “I’ll also be quite sore, I imagine. Still I’m making my way back. And thank you, Cole. Never thought to learn from a spirit before. You’re a damn fine teacher.” Robert clapped Cole on the back, and Cole offered Robert a sheepish, childlike smile.
Why is he so easy and friendly with a demon and not with me? Cassandra wondered. The thought hit her out of nowhere. But she could answer that question easily enough. Cassandra knew that she did not exactly invite friendliness or ease.
“Morning, Lady Cassandra. Trevelyan.”
Cassandra blinked and looked over as a flash of red and gold went striding by. It was Commander Cullen, she realized. He had come walking out of the store rooms with that odd fellow, Morris, at his heels. Cullen didn’t wait for a reply to his greeting, but continued on through the courtyard.
As she watched Cullen walk away, a question rose in Cassandra’s mind: Why didn’t she find Cullen as attractive as she found Robert? Cullen embodied all the things that Cassandra had once believed that she wanted in a romantic partner. Cullen was steady, solemn and sober. Definitely sober. Cassandra could testify to his sobriety. And he was handsome as well. Cassandra knew this as an objective fact. Yet when Cassandra looked at Cullen, she felt nothing. There was no flutter in her stomach, no desperate racing of her heart. Looking at Cullen was like looking at a golden-haired version of Anthony.
Yes, that was it, Cassandra thought. Cullen reminded Cassandra of her late brother. Both of them were focused and forthright and honest to a fault. Cassandra understood that sort of personality, and felt no need to delve into the deeper hows and whys of Cullen’s life. Cassandra knew Cullen as well as she wished to.
But with Robert, Cassandra did not understand. Trevelyan baffled her. Yet some part of her was wild enough to want to know everything about him. Robert was nothing like an older brother, what with his boyish grin, his rakish smile, and his…
“How old are you?” Cassandra demanded.
Robert blinked, Cassandra blinked as well. She had not meant to ask that. But now all those words from the betting book came flitting back:
1 sovereign says the Seeker spends the night in the lad’s quarters by Thursday…2 sovereigns says the Seeker gives the boy the boot…5 sovereigns says the Seeker falls for the kid….
Lad. Boy. Kid. As though all those soldiers knew something Cassandra did not.
“Uhh,” Robert hesitated. “Are you asking me or Cole?”
“She’s asking you,” Cole answered for Cassandra. “She’s curious about you.”
“Are you?” Robert sounded quite pleased about it.
“I simply am curious how much older you are than your cousin,” Cassandra insisted, but Robert clearly didn’t need Cole to tell him that wasn’t true.
“That’s the illusion of height, I’m afraid,” Robert said with a smile. “Katie is older than me by a year.”
Cassandra cringed as she asked: “And how old is Katerina?”
“She’s twenty… Let me think. Twenty-nine on Wintersend. And I’m a year younger. My birthday’s on the 20th of Guardian, just a few weeks after Kate’s. For future reference,” he added, “I can always use new bowstrings and I like silk shirts. Hard to find clothing in my size, but if you can manage it, I’d be most grateful.”
Cassandra’s mouth dropped open.
“You are only twenty-seven?”
“Only? I’ll have you know I worked hard for each of those years.”
“I am thirty-seven,” Cassandra announced.
If Robert was impressed or dismayed, he didn’t show it. “But I missed your birthday, didn’t I? Next time then.”
“It bothers her,” Cole said, softly. Cassandra glared at the spirit.
“Cullen is almost thirty,” Cole added, speaking to no one in particular. “He thinks nobody will remember his birthday. He doesn’t know that Josephine plans to send him a sugar cake. He likes shortbread better. Leliana is forty-two. She sounds younger but feels older. She wants a pair of slippers she saw in in a shop window in Val Royeaux. She knows no one will buy them for her. Iron Bull is…”
Cole continued to rattle on birthdays and ages, but Cassandra ignored him. Instead, she glared at Robert. Robert, for his part, smiled back.
“I didn’t realize it bothered you,” he said.
“It’s doesn’t,” Cassandra insisted.
And it did not. Cassandra was not embarrassed of her years. She trained daily and remained as strong as ever. Every battle taught her something new and she’d been proud of that - proud of her experience and her veteran seniority among the Seekers.
But even as she thought that, a hint of doubt snaked into her mind. There was a rumor going around that Robert Trevelyan preferred older women. And if that was so, then everything began to make sense. Why else would Robert chase after Cassandra when there were so many younger, giggly sort of girls pining after him? Clearly, Robert had a type - an older type - and Cassandra fit it most closely. He’d singled her out for seduction because of his own preferences. It had nothing to do with her at all. Or perhaps he just wanted to bed a famous Seeker. He wouldn’t be the first idiot to have that idea.
He’d just be the first person since Galen who made you want to say ‘yes.’ Cassandra bristled at her inner voice’s uncanny insight.
“Of course it doesn’t matter to me,” she said, sharply. “Does it matter to you?”
“Maker yes,” Robert breathed. “Means you’ve reached your sexual prime.”
Cassandra’s jaw dropped. Her heart seemed to fall as well, and her stomach, too. If she hadn’t been so well trained, she might have stumbled back a step - or killed Robert on the spot.
“You… You… You!” Cassandra spluttered. “Who says things like that?
“He does,” Cole said, pointing a finger at Robert. It seemed the spirit had given up his birthday recitation at last.
“Sorry,” Robert winced. “Probably should have kept that one to myself.”
“Yes, you should have!”
“He keeps most of his thoughts to himself,” Cold said. “Especially the ones where you’re naked.”
“I-Ah-huh-um…” Robert seemed to cough and choke all at once.
“What?” Cassandra cried.
“All that golden skin,” Cole murmured. “Breasts full, bound in that platemail. Wish I could set them free. Wonder what the areola looks like. Pink? Dark? I bet she has a mole right under one of the curves…”
Cassandra’s jaw dropped open. “This what you think about?”
“Er, sometimes?” Robert winced.
“All the time,” Cole corrected. “Blush on her cheeks. Wonder if she blushes when she comes. Wonder what it takes to get her there…”
“Stop that!” Cassandra snapped at Robert.
“He’s the one talking” Robert said, pointing at Cole.
“You’re the one thinking!”
“I… Yes, well. Can’t help it, honestly. This is how my mind operates. But I usually have the luxury of keeping it private.”
“Private?” Cassandra repeated.
“Privates?” Cole murmured. “Wonder if they’re smooth. Hair? Likely. Dark. Perhaps trimmed.”
“Shut. UP!” Cassandra shouted.
“Cole, please stop,” Robert said. He sounded weary and embarrassed, as if Cassandra had just found him in bed with…
With her. Cassandra blinked, for in that moment, an image flashed through Cassandra’s mind. She saw twining limbs and desperate kisses and tangled bedclothes…
“Armor gone, arrows gone. Silk and skin and tongues tangling,” Cole said. “Hand on my hips, guiding me forward…”
“Cole, stop,” Robert said. “I asked you to get out of my head, please.”
But that was my fantasy, Cassandra thought in shock. That had been her fantasy, but Robert thought Cole was speaking of what was in Robert’s mind. Did she and Robert share the same desires? Did they like the same kind of bedplay? If they did, then…
No. She was not going to think of this.
“Your mind is very loud,” Cole said. He looked down at last, staring right at Cassandra. But Robert answered as though the statement had been made to him.
“Yes, but you’re making people uncomfortable,” Robert said, wearily. “I do apologize, Cole.”
“Why are you apologizing to him?” Cassandra wanted to know.
“Because I didn’t mean to give him an education quite like that, now did I?” Now Robert sounded irritated as well as embarrassed. “I figure you know about such things, but I’m not certain that he did.”
“Her breasts are bigger in your mind,” Cole informed Robert.
Cassandra snarled, and Robert hid the demon behind him - actually shoved Cole behind him and hid the boy, as if to keep the demon from Cassandra’s wrath.
“It’s not his fault,” Robert said.
“You’re a terrible influence on him,” Cassandra snarled.
“And here I thought the point was to keep mortals from falling prey to demons,” Robert replied. “Are you saving the poor demon from the human now, Seeker? I didn’t know you cared for Cole.”
“She doesn’t,” Cole said.
“I don’t… That’s not…” Cassandra now felt badly, as if she had hurt the feelings of a teenager. She cast about, hoping to change the subject.
“How in the Maker’s name do you plan to find the red lyrium smugglers if you are both so careless?”
There, Cassandra thought. That sounded like a reasonable question. Apparently Robert did not think so. He blinked from the sudden change in subject.
“Smugglers? I don’t typically fantasize about smugglers, so I think I’ll be alright.”
“There was that one smuggler woman at the tavern…” Cole began.
“Yes, thank you Cole,” Robert waved that comment aside, “But I didn’t do anything about it,” he added, looking pointedly at Cassandra.
She felt glad to hear it. And why should she care anyway? She wasn’t going with Robert on his mission, after all.
But what is his game in going to the Emerald Graves? Cassandra wondered. There was nothing to be gained by it. The journey would not be fun. The mission would not be pleasurable. It would put Robert in danger for the sake of a cause he did not seem to believe in. And why would he do that? It did not fit the rumors surrounding him at all. It suggested layers beneath the veneer of laziness and selfishness.
And now she was confused and doubting again, Cassandra realized. Maybe she should just investigate this puzzle for herself, instead of avoiding it.
“Cassandra wants to go with you to the Emerald Graves,” Cole informed Robert. He pointed at Cassandra as he said this.
“You do?” Robert brightened. He looked as though Cassandra had given him a gift - or as if she’d given him a glimpse into her earlier fantasy.
“Not that,” Cole said. “He’d be smiling more if you’d given him that.”
“Given me what now?” Robert asked.
“Nothing,” Cassandra said through gritted teeth. “I only worry about you getting the job done. Your mission will be of great import to the Inquisition.”
“And you don’t think I can manage a bit of spy work?” Robert sounded affronted.
“It is not that,” Cassandra said. “I am concerned because spy work requires…” She paused there, scowling.
“Requires what?” Robert wanted to know.
“Compromise,” Cassandra ground out, eyes narrowing.
Robert frowned. For a moment, he looked almost nervous. “I’m not sure what you mean.”
“Of course you do,” Cassandra said, nearly sneering now. “You think I do not know what spies do to achieve their ends? They… They…”
Robert raised a brow.
“They seduce people,” Cassandra told him.
Robert’s lips curled in smile.
“Do they?” he asked, eyes twinkling.
“Do not look at me like that!” Cassandra frowned at him. “I know how it is. They are like bards in that way.”
“I see,” Robert said. “And does this disapproval of spies and bards extend to your opinion of Sister Nightengale? I thought you respected her.”
“Ah, so it’s merely the low-ranking scouts whom you dislike.”
“I do not dislike them…”
“So it’s only me you dislike if I…How did you put it? Seduce people to achieve my ends?”
“But I promise you, Cassandra,” Robert said, inclining his head slightly, “When I achieve my ends, the lady does as well.”
Cassandra found herself speechless once again. She could do nothing but blush.
“And what about you?” Robert asked, leaning away as if he hadn’t just said something so outrageous. “You worked as a Seeker. Did you sleep with anyone to find apostates or rogue templars?”
“No!” she fairly exploded. “I would never…”
“So you managed your job without seduction?” he interrupted. “Yet you don’t think I can manage the same. Because I’m a fool, perhaps?”
“I didn’t say that. But you will - or you must…”
“Must I? You seem to have given this a lot of thought, Cassandra.”
“She has,” Cole informed Robert.
Robert’s smile grew positively devilish, and Cassandra resisted the urge to throttle the demon.
“Well then,” Robert said. “I suppose there’s only one thing to be done.”
“And what is that?” Cassandra wasn’t sure if she wanted to know.
“You ought to come with me to the Emerald Graves and keep an eye on me.”
Cassandra opened her mouth. Then she shut it. She’d stepped right into that trap all on her own. The more she thought about it, it really did seem like a trap. That was that ambush she’d sensed right from the beginning, wasn’t it? Cassandra shook her head. She ought to have trusted her instincts and turned away from the first. But with Robert, she found it very hard to do that.
“I think not,” Cassandra said. “From all the rumors I’ve heard, you will take me with you into the wilds, then leave with another woman entirely.”
Cassandra regretted the words the moment they left her lips. First, they sounded jealous and bitter. And secondly, Robert was looking at her in a strange way now. It was as if he’d heard far more than she’d wished to say.
But “Oh,” was all that Robert said in reply. His lips tightened slightly, and he began fidgeting with the end of his bow. He seemed caught for a moment, then settled on:
“Don’t place too much stock in rumor, alright?”
“Why would I listen to rumor?” Cassandra asked, archly.
Robert looked up at once, searching her face.
“Why indeed?” he said, grimly. He let out a sigh. “Look, it’s not all true.”
“But some of it is?” Cassandra hadn’t meant to ask, but the question slipped out all the same.
“About… half?” Robert said, squinting one eye shut and wrinkling his nose. It was an expression that Cassandra had seen his cousin make upon occasion. But what was cute and girlish on Katerina looked sinfully charming on Robert. Cassandra flushed and looked away.
“You have to understand,” Robert said, taking a step closer. “I never thought it would be a problem. Because if I’d known it would bother you - if I’d known there would be a you…” Robert stopped there, looking down at the pavement uncertainly.
“Be a me?” Cassandra repeated. Robert did not answer. He had gone quite still.
“I do not understand your meaning,” Cassandra said.
“I… It’s nothing,” Robert shook himself. “I didn’t think it through at the time,” he added, half to himself. “I don’t think most things through, really. Story of my life.” He shook his head and ran a hand over his short-cropped hair.
“Maker’s breath, what am I doing?” he muttered.
“I don’t know,” Cassandra said, a bit waspishly. “What are you doing?”
“Trying to invite you to come with me to the Graves and failing miserably, it seems,” Robert looked up then, giving her another winning smile. This one was not so false as before, but it still was not entirely genuine.
“You only desire my company for the sake of your ego,” Cassandra said.
“Oh, I assure you, my ego has nothing to do with it,” Robert said.
“His other parts, rather,” Cole put in.
“And you’d been doing such a good job of being quiet, Cole,” Robert murmured.
“Sorry,” Cole said.
“It’s alright,” Robert said, glancing over at the boy. “But if I’m going to shock Lady Cassandra, I’d like to do so myself. Feels more proper and civil that way.”
“Alright,” Cole agreed.
It was such a ridiculous thing to say that Cassandra couldn’t help but snort. Honestly, the man was incorrigible. And Cassandra almost… liked it?
No, surely not.
“So will you?” Robert asked, giving her a hopeful smile. “Come with me on my mission, I mean.”
“You do not need me,” Cassandra told him. “You have the demon to join you.”
“Actually, I don’t,” Robert said, glancing over at Cole. “Cole will be going elsewhere, or so I understand.”
“They need me in Crestwood,” Cole said absently, looking up at the clear sky. “Undead, rain, lightning in her hand. Waiting on a raven. ‘How long is Varric going to make me wait?’”
“Varric?” Cassandra frowned. Anything involving that dwarf made Cassandra suspicious.
“He’s telling stories in the great hall,” Robert said, glacing over his shoulder. “Or maybe fleecing folks out of their coin at Wicked Grace. Don’t know where he finds time to write books.”
“Varric does not sleep, I find,” Cassandra replied.
“Really?” Robert asked, his eyes narrowing.
“Varric asked me to go to Crestwood with him,” Cole announced, looking down at Cassandra. “He needs me to support his morals.”
“Moral support,” Robert whispered. “Not quite the same thing, Cole.”
“Oh,” Cole said. “I see now. Yes. That makes more sense.”
“Varric is going to Crestwood?” Cassandra asked. The suspicion in her mind grew larger.
“I gather there are caves there,” Robert shrugged. “And you know how dwarves love exploring caves.”
“Varric hates caves,” Cassandra said.
“Does he now?” Robert asked. “And how do you know so much about Varric’s preferences and sleeping habits? Are you lovers, or do you just fancy him?”
“I-who-wha-me-VARRIC?” Cassandra said all this as one explosive shout.
“Is that a ‘no’?” Robert asked.
“That is a ‘don’t ever ask me that question again, Robert Trevelyan’!”
“You’re quite insistent about your dislike of Varric Tethras,” Robert said. “It makes me wonder.”
“If you haven’t a secret fondness for the fellow.”
“I do not,” Cassandra insisted.
“Well, I don’t know. I can only assume that’s why you want to follow him to Crestwood…”
“I do not want to follow him to Crestwood.”
”…rather than coming with me to the Emerald Graves.”
“I don’t…” Cassandra drew up short. “I…” She shook her head. “You haven’t even asked me to.”
“Ah, so I haven’t. Please excuse my manners,” Robert said, placing a hand over his heart. “Cassandra Pentaghast, would you do me the honor of accompanying me to the Emerald Graves? I would be most grateful to have your assistance on my mission.”
With this, Robert bent into a ridiculous, courtly bow. Cassandra stared at him, feeling her temper rise to the boiling point.
“Now you’re asking me?”
“Begging you, more like,” he said, straightening. “After all, I haven’t the foggiest idea where to begin. Cole did most of the navigating on the last mission. And while Scout Harding said she’d set me as far as the Orlesian border, she can’t help me any further than that. She’s got to go check on something in the Salted Plains.”
“That’s what I said.”
“How on earth did you get to be a scout with no sense of geography?” Cassandra wanted to know. “Left to your own devices, you’ll end up in Par Vollen, not the Dales.”
“I might,” Robert agreed. “I hear they’re both green and leafy.”
“I’m quite possible,” Robert said, gamely. “You should try me sometime.”
Cassandra drew back, both from the invitation, and from how much she wanted to take him up on it.
“That’s the other reason I should not come with you,” Cassandra said, angrily. “You’re just trying to get me into your bed.”
“No!” Robert said, holding up his hands. “I mean, yes. But not really.”
Cassandra folded her arms over her chest. Robert seemed a bit caught for a moment. Cassandra suspected it was because he was torn between lying to achieve his objective, or telling the truth to achieve the same outcome.
“I need your help,” Robert said, after a moment. “Or someone’s help.”
“If you cannot do this mission on your own, then Leliana should not have given it to you.”
“It’s not that,” Robert said. “I mean, yes, I’m not good at reading maps. Or camping. Or making travel arrangements…”
“All of these are things that scouts must do,” Cassandra pointed out.
“I’ll manage,” Robert told her. “Honestly, the truth is… er.” He grimaced.
“What?” she demanded.
Robert winced. “Look,” he said, rubbing a hand over the back of his neck. “If you don’t want to sleep with me, that’s… Well, it’s disappointing, but it’s alright. If you don’t want to sleep near me, I understand. Bring your own bedroll, your own tent, even. I don’t care how you join me if you’ll just join me. I’d like your company. I don’t like to be alone.” He blinked then, as if surprised he’d made that last admission.
“You don’t like to be alone,” Cassandra repeated.
Robert looked like he might deny it, but instead he sighed and shrugged.
“I hate it,” he said, simply.
Just like that, Cassandra felt herself soften toward him again. And likewise, two things became perfectly clear in her mind: this was why Robert threw himself at women. He hated to be alone. And this was why women threw themselves at Robert. They hated leaving him alone. That vulnerable expression on that handsome face was almost as powerful a draw as his easy swagger. He was such a strange mix of assured and alone, that Cassandra suddenly felt the need to settle him.
Ugh, Cassandra thought, drawing back from that thought. That sounded like something out of an Everly Epic novel. Cassandra read Epic’s books from time to time - when there were no Portia Plume novels on hand. But Cassandra disliked the Epic’s heroines intensely. They were much stupider than Plume heroines, and yet they still got the man in the end. Cassandra always disliked that. It struck her as unearned somehow.
Cassandra took a breath, trying to decide if Robert’s admission made her more or less angry. Cassandra found she did not know. She never knew what to think with Robert. She only knew that in the course of this conversation, she had felt suspicious, flattered, aroused, and off-balance in turns. None of these were typical sensations for her. Cassandra looked up at Robert to find him waiting on her answer.
“I do not want to be your joke,” Cassandra told him. “And I will not bed you. I will only travel with you to make certain you do it properly.”
“Oh I’ll prove you wrong in that, Lady Seeker,” Robert said, and a slight smile curled his lips. His tone was so confident that Cassandra felt her heart flip over.
“Prove me wrong in which part?” she demanded. “In bedding me, or…”
“In doing it properly of course,” Robert replied.
Cassandra found herself frozen. Was he referring to bedding her or his mission? Why would he not give her a straight answer?
“What are you saying?” she asked, very slowly.
“Just that I always defer to my lady’s wishes,” Robert said, smiling. “In all things.”
“I would wish you to be sensible,” Cassandra said, trying to quell the fluttering in her stomach.
“Ah,” Robert said, drawing back ever so slightly. “Then I will sensibly remove myself to the supply room and pack an extra tent for you and some additional rations as well.”
“I can carry my own weight,” Cassandra told him.
“Of course you can,” Robert agreed. “Well then, I’ll allow you to pack your own things. I shall simply let Leliana know of the change in the plans.”
Cassandra cringed. She could only imagine what Leliana would have to say about that.
“And I will see you in the morning,” Robert went on. “Unless you plan to join me at the tavern for the opening night.” He looked at her hopefully.
“I will be there, but not with you.”
“Then rest well, Lady Cassandra. I’ll see you in the morning.”
And before Cassandra could say anything more, Robert walked away.
Robert had to bite the inside of his lip to keep from whistling to himself. Now that had been more like it. That had gone very well indeed. He took the steps two at a time, grinning all the way.
“But you lied to her,” Cole said beside him.
“I did not,” Robert said, affronted. “I would never seduce a woman who isn’t interested. If Cassandra doesn’t want anything to happen, it won’t happen.”
But Maker please let her want something to happen, Robert added silently. He was resolved to bide his time until Cassandra made the first move. He hoped that she didn’t keep him waiting long.
“But you lied about Varric,” Cole said. “You lied about Hawke.”
“I didn’t lie,” Robert hedged.
“You didn’t tell her the whole truth,” Cole said.
“That’s not the same thing as lying.”
“Cassandra thinks it is.”
Robert cringed. He suspected that Cole was right, but what else was he to do?
“Leliana was clear about this,” Robert said, speaking in a near whisper. “Certain parties are going east, and so a certain Seeker needs to go west. Leliana told me Cassandra wanted to go with me anyway, but couldn’t bring herself to ask. So all I did was make sure everyone got turned in the right direction.”
“But you didn’t tell Cassandra about the other direction,” Cole pointed out. “You made her think there was only one road.”
“Yes well, I couldn’t let Cassandra find out about Varric’s letter and everything, now could I? Sister Leliana would have my head.”
“Leliana doesn’t need your head. She already has one of her own. Hers is prettier.”
“That is true. Also, that is not what I meant.”
“You told Cassandra things to make her forget.”
“I did,” Robert said, feeling a bit annoyed now. “But that’s not a crime, is it? You make people forget things all the time.”
“But I don’t make them angry.”
“You make Vivienne angry.”
“I don’t make her angry,” Cole said. “She was already angry because she can’t hold all the threads at once. I just remind her of it.”
“There you are then,” Robert said, ready to be done with this conversation.
“But if you care for Cassandra, you should be careful with her,” Cole went on. “If you lie to her…”
“I didn’t lie,” Robert snapped, more loudly than he meant to. “I’m just not worrying about every last consequence of everything. Maybe you should try it sometime.”
Robert regretted his outburst at once. Cole just looked at Robert sadly. Then the boy disappeared.
Robert sighed. Well that hadn’t gone well. And Robert had been feeling so cheerful, too. Now he felt rather uneasy.
Still, his orders were clear: keep Cassandra from finding out about Hawke until they’d secured Hawke’s information or Hawke’s help or whatever it was they wanted from the Champion. An autograph, maybe. Robert didn’t care either way. And he couldn’t see any harm in taking Cassandra on a little vacation. Leliana and Hawke and Varric would meet in secret, and Robert would enjoy his time with the beautiful Seeker.
And maybe, if I’m lucky, she’ll enjoy her time with me as well.
It gave him something to look forward to, anyhow. Much better than nightmares of dungeons and red templars and… Yes, best not to think on that.
Robert shrugged his shoulders, flexed his tingling fingers, and headed toward the tower to tell Leliana the good news.