There was a certain irony in this situation, Cullen thought. Here he and Kate - the Inquisitor, rather - had spent two weeks shoring up Skyhold against every possible form of attack. They’d reinforced the walls with stone and spells alike. They had drafted plans for the training of their armies, spent hours studying maps and with Leliana and making lists with Josephine. They had signed an alliance with the mages, and made plans for further alliances as well.
Yet in all that time, Cullen had not spoken to the glaring weakness that he presented to the Inquisition. He dreaded speaking of it now. What was it the knight-captains had always told him? ‘Never let them see a chink in your armor.’ Well, Cullen counted his lyrium withdrawals as a chink in the Inquisition’s armor. And while he did not consider himself a prideful man, Cullen had suffered enough embarrassments in his lifetime to know that he did not care for vulnerability. But for the sake of the Inquisition, Cullen resolved to swallow his pride.
Better to swallow pride than lyrium, he mused.
At least he’d chosen a good location for the meeting. Cullen currently stood upon the ramparts of the northern walls of Skyhold. The walkway here ran wide, forming a sort of elevated stone courtyard. There were no towers or construction projects nearby, and Cullen had purposefully changed the guard rotations to maintain the privacy of this place. If anyone came this way by chance, Cullen would see them long before they got within earshot. He needn’t worry that his confession would be overheard. Furthermore, Cullen reasoned, if anyone did happen upon him and Kate, they would merely think that the commander and the Inquisitor were surveying a new building project or something. It was all very professional and aboveboard.
Best of all, Cullen had managed to get himself out of doors for the morning. If he had to announce his addiction, he figured that he might as well do so with fresh air in his lungs. Cullen took a deep breath, and gripped the wall before him.
She came, was the first thought that flew through his mind. Cullen chided himself for it a moment later. Well of course she’d come, he told himself. He’d asked her here, hadn’t he? And surely the thrill he felt was due to the fact that Kate had managed to sneak up on him. So much for spotting anyone who approached this spot. Cullen cleared his throat in an effort to compose himself.
“Inquisitor,” he said as he turned. “I’m pleased that you…”
Cullen broke off there. For first, Kate looked quite pretty this morning - short hair ruffled by the wind, cheeks pink from the chill. She wore her new traveling costume - the one that had driven Cullen to distraction just yesterday. The tight leathers were enough to make him forget what he’d meant to say.
But beyond that, Kate was carrying a rather curious burden: in one hand, she carried two large beer mugs. They were massive dwarven tankards - the kind with hinged pewter lids. In the other hand, Kate carried a smallish bundle wrapped in cloth. For a moment, Cullen thought it looked as though she was carrying ale and her morning’s laundry. But such a combination struck Cullen as highly unlikely. So he asked instead:
“What’s all this?”
Kate smiled and nodded at the tankards. “This,” she said, “Is tea.”
“Tea?” Cullen repeated.
“Rather inelegant in it’s presentation, I grant you. But portability was my objective this morning, not sophistication. These were the only cups with a lid. Your map was excellently well drawn, by the way, I wouldn’t have found this place otherwise. Here,” she added, holding out the mugs. “One has milk and sugar, the other is black. I didn’t know how you took your tea, so I made you a choice.”
“Oh,” Cullen said, looking back and forth between the identical mugs. “Whichever you prefer is fine, I’m sure.”
“I’ll take my tea however I can get it. Which would you rather?”
“Milk and sugar,” Cullen admitted.
“That’s this one, I think,” Kate said, handing him the mug in her right hand.
Cullen took the offered mug and peeked inside. Sure enough, fawn-colored liquid swirled within. A bit of steam rose off of it, along with a wonderful smell.
“Maker bless Josephine and her trade deals,” Cullen said.
“Here, here,” Kate agreed, holding up the other mug in mock toast. “Oh, and I’ve got a bit of breakfast. Because tea isn’t really tea without a snack.” She set her tankard down on the wall and set the bundle down as well. She untied the knot at the top and unfolded the cloth to reveal several more cloth-wrapped bundles.
“Let’s see,” she said. “We’ve bacon and some potato cakes. I don’t know what’s in the potato cakes, but they smell delicious. The cook said they’re a Chasind recipe.”
“You brought breakfast as well as tea?”
“I hadn’t eaten,” Kate explained. “And I know you often forget to.”
Cullen blinked in surprise. He often did forget, but he hadn’t thought that Kate had noticed. He took a look at the offered food and went straight for the bacon.
“You took all this from the kitchens?” Cullen asked around a mouthful of pork.
“Took?” Kate laughed. “I barely got away with this little. The new cook tried to send me off with an entire tea tray, complete with silver spoons and china cups and I don’t know what else.”
“That sounds bit excessive,” Cullen said, trying to imagine Kate carrying a tea tray all over Skyhold.
“You’re the cook’s new favorite, you know,” Kate said, gesturing at Cullen with one of the potato cakes. “She told me that she plans to spoil you from here on out. Thinks you’re too thin by half.” Kate took a bite, then added, “Oh, I say, that is good.”
“The new cook means to spoil me?”
“You hired her,” Kate said, covering her mouth as she spoke around another bite of potato. “And she’s quite grateful for the job. Couldn’t stop singing the praises of ‘the dear commander who gave a hedge mage a chance.’”
“A hedge mage?” Cullen nearly dropped his second slice of bacon. “I hired a hedge mage?”
“I take it that didn’t come up in the interview?”
“Not exactly, no.”
“Well, I don’t expect it was relevant, now was it?” With this, Kate polished off her potato cake and leaned her elbow on the wall beside her. With her tankard of tea in hand, Kate looked rather as if she stood at the bar of some bizarre, out-of-doors tavern. But instead of a barkeep to take orders, there was nothing on the other side of the wall but a seventy foot drop and the wind and mountains for company.
“At any rate,” Kate went on, reaching for another potato cake, “Jana has won over the entire kitchen staff, and all the servants as well. She can make sugar stretch further than anyone I’ve met - though that may be sorcery, come to think of it. Mmm…” she said, moaning as she took a bite. “Chasind magic. Who knew?”
Cullen considered the food before him. He wasn’t sure if the addition of tea and bacon made his task easier or more difficult. It was very thoughtful of Kate, but his stomach now churned. He hesitated, then began:
“I, um… I need to speak with you about something.”
Cullen winced the moment the words left his mouth. Maker’s breath, what a way to begin. He’d certainly established that over the course of the past week. To hide that wince, he opened the lid of his mug and took a gulp of tea. It was hotter than he expected, and scalded his tongue going down.
“Of course,” Kate said, gesturing wide with her tea tankard. “I’ve cleared my morning schedule, so take all the time you like.”
“You cleared your schedule for this?” Cullen wheezed, mouth still burnt from the tea.
“It seemed important,” Kate said, as she reached for a scone.
Cullen felt his chest constrict. “It is, rather,” was all he managed to say.
“Whatever it is,” Kate went on, “I’m sure we can work it out.” She gave him an encouraging smile. Scone in one hand and tankard in the other, she lifted her cup to drink.
Can we? Cullen wondered. He rather doubted that. But there was nothing else to do but get this over with. Cullen let out a breath, then announced:
“I don’t take lyrium.”
There. Done. Out in the open and impossible to take back.
She spluttered into her mug, coughing and gasping. To Cullen’s alarm, she set the tankard down on the ramparts with one hand, then whacked her chest with her free fist. Her face had gone entirely red. Cullen, alarmed, paused for just a moment, then whacked Kate on the back as well. She coughed once more - twice more, then took a deep gasping breath. She looked off at the hills, face red and tears in her eyes - and went silent. Cullen looked to her in alarm, not certain what to say or do.
“Inquisitor?” he asked, hesitantly.
There was a long pause, and then Kate said:
It was half-gasp, half cough. Kate turned her face to Cullen, eyes still watery and face quite red. One tear leaked down her cheek.
“Are you alright?” Cullen asked.
“Perfectly fine,” Kate wheezed. “Though I dropped my scone,” she added, looking at her now-empty hand. She glanced over the wall, then coughed once more.
“I do beg your pardon,” she said and thumped her chest.
“No, I beg yours,” Cullen said. “I should have waited until you were finished drinking.”
“I think I would have choked regardless,” Kate replied. Her eyes were watery now. “Did I hear you right? You do not take lyrium? Or did I make that up in my head?”
“No, that’s what I said.”
“But I thought all templars…” Kate broke off, and her eyes went wide. “Wait. You mean to say that you’ve quit?”
“Since when?” she demanded.
Kate’s mouth dropped open. “But that’s been months!”
“Eight months, yes.”
“Eight months!” Kate cried. “Do you mean to say that you’ve been weaning yourself off of lyrium for eight months?”
“There was no weaning about it,” Cullen replied. “I quit stone cold.”
Kate’s eyes grew more watery, not less. Her face, however, paled considerably.
“Andraste save you,” she gasped. “Won’t that kill you?”
The question jarred him. Cullen didn’t know why he found it jarring. He’d heard the rumors, after all. He knew that he risked death with this choice. But somehow, it sounded much worse on Kate’s lips. Maybe it was because she looked so distressed by the thought - as if she saw him as a walking corpse already.
“It hasn’t killed me yet,” Cullen said, gruffly. Kate made a small sound - not quite a gasp. It was more like a sharp intake of breath.
“Cullen, I’m serious.”
“As am I,” he said. “But as I’ve survived this long, I can only assume that the Chantry overstated the risk.”
“Or you’re very lucky.”
“That is also possible, yes.”
Kate swallowed. For a moment, it looked like she might not speak - or she might start crying.
“Maker’s breath,” she said at last. “This wasn’t at all what I expected you to say.”
“What did you expect me to say?” Cullen could not help but wonder.
“I hardly know. But I suppose that’s not important, is it? You don’t take lyrium anymore, and I… Maker’s breath. Lyrium.“
“What did you think I would say?” Cullen pressed.
“Not this,” Kate said. “I thought you wanted to meet about something work related. Something about the mage alliance, perhaps. Or give me an update on your ASS. I mean our ASS. I mean…” She blushed and ducked her head. “That name is impossible.”
“It is, rather,” Cullen chuckled.
“Or discuss my upcoming journey to find Hawke,” Kate went on. “I figured if anyone had advice about that…”
“Wait, Hawke?” Cullen interrupted sharply. He felt a sudden chill creep over him. “You’re going to find Hawke?”
Kate looked confused by his question. “She has information on Corypheus. I had quite forgotten about it, but when we spoke with Varric last night… Oh, I forgot. You did not join me and Leliana for that midnight conference.”
“No, I did not,” Cullen said, tightly.
Maker’s breath, he might have known. Of course Varric had known where Hawke was all this while. And of course Leliana had played cloak-and-dagger with that information. Andraste save him from self-appointed spymasters. At least Kate had seen fit to tell her commander the truth of it.
“I didn’t mean to leave you in the dark,” Kate told him. “Or anyone, really. But considering Hawke’s popularity, we thought discretion was advisable.”
“Notoriety, more like,” Cullen snorted.
“I do beg your pardon,” Kate said. “All of this is completely beside the point. You were talking about lyrium, and…”
“Where has Varric been hiding Hawke all this while?” Cullen interrupted again.
“I’m not certain he was hiding Hawke, exactly,” Kate hedged. “But she plans to meet us in a place called ‘Crestwood.’”
“Crestwood?” Cullen repeated, frowning. “That fishing village near Honnleath?”
“I trust you have a proper guide?” Cullen pressed.
“We have a bird?” Kate shrugged one shoulder in a ‘Will that do?’ sort of gesture. Cullen was not reassured.
“Have you told Cassandra?” he asked.
“I have not. Leliana wanted to do it. Something about the Left Hand letting the Right Hand know what she’s doing. I think I’m mangling that verse.”
“I thought the canticles said that the Right Hand doesn’t know what the Left Hand is doing.”
“Oh, yes, that’s right. Leliana must have been referencing something else. Anyhow, I agreed to let Leliana handle the situation. I certainly did not want to be the person to tell Cassandra.”
“Nor would I,” Cullen agreed. “When do you set out?”
“Tomorrow morning? As in tomorrow tomorrow morning?”
“That is the tomorrow I was thinking of, yes,” Kate said, a smile curling at the corner of her mouth.
Cullen did not return the smile. He did not like the idea of Kate setting out from Skyhold, and certainly not so soon. Though really, that was a foolish notion. Kate was the Inquisitor. Of course she would return to the field as soon as possible. Cullen just felt worried because Hawke was a menace and Crestwood was a deathtrap. It was enough to make any commander nervous.
“I do beg your pardon,” Kate said, waving a hand as if to push all these words aside. “I believe I’ve driven us quite off topic. You wanted to tell me about lyrium and I… Holy Maker. Lyrium. You do not take lyrium.”
And with that, Kate looked up at him with a pitying sort of look. Cullen did not like it at all. To avoid meeting her eyes, Cullen snatched up the last piece of bacon, shoved it into his mouth and chewed. As he did so, Cullen could feel Kate staring at him.
“I find I have a great many questions,” Kate said.
“I am not surprised,” Cullen said, his mouth full. He took a swig of tea to wash the bacon down.
“And yet, I hardly know where to begin,” she added. From the corner of his eye, Cullen saw that Kate’s eyes had gone unfocused. She stared at a spot just above her tea tankard.
“Come to think of it, I know very little about lyrium withdrawals. Of all the treatises on the subject…” Kate broke off there. “Well, there aren’t any, not that I know of. Everything I’ve read is all hearsay and rumor. Even Brother Genetivi’s account is third-hand. Has the Order published any scholarly works on the subject?”
Cullen let out a bitter laugh. “The Chantry publish a work on how to recover from a lyrium addiction?”
“Oh,” Kate said, frowning. “Yes, I suppose that would require admitting that addiction to lyrium is a bad thing in first place.”
“And they could never do that,” Cullen said, dryly. He spoke into his mug, then took another sip of his tea. As he drank, Kate’s gaze shifted to him, and her brows furrowed in thought.
“So basically,” Kate said after a moment, “You’ve taken on the dangerous task of lyrium withdrawals, without any prior accounts to guide you, nor any hope that you might succeed in this endeavor?”
Cullen nearly choked on his tea at her frank assessment.
“That’s about right,” he managed after a moment.
“Well then,” Kate said. “We’ve got our work cut out for us, haven’t we?”
She punctuated that statement by taking a swig of her tea.
“We?” Cullen asked.
“Of course I plan to help you,” Kate said, setting her mug back down.
“I do not need your help,” Cullen said. He regretted the words at once, for Kate flinched as if he’d splashed water over her. “I mean,” he amended. “I did not intend to make this your problem.”
“Then why did you ask me out here to talk about this?” Kate wanted to know. “Surely you didn’t intend to inform me of your decision and then pursue it alone?”
“You did?” Kate looked equal parts astonished and hurt. “You thought I would simply stand by without attempting to assist you?”
Kate frowned. “Surely you know me better that that.”
“I actually wasn’t even certain if you’d approve,” Cullen admitted. “And if you did not,” he went on, though Kate blinked in surprise, “If you did not I would respect… That is to say, I would consider resuming…”
Now Kate was gaping at him. “Resume what? Taking lyrium?”
“I’d rather not,” Cullen managed after a moment. Now that was an understatement. The very thought made his blood run cold. “But I’m sure Josephine can find enough to spare.”
Cullen realized he’d said that last bit through gritted teeth.
“No!” Kate cried, stretching out a hand toward him. “Maker’s breath, I would never… No! Make you take lyrium? One of the most awful poisons that the Chantry ever conceived of? I hate taking the stuff and I’m a mage! I can’t imagine… Oh, for the Maker’s sake, Cullen! Just a month ago you were telling me how they used the draught against you in Kirkwall! You can’t honestly think I’d encourage you to take it.”
“You remember what I said about Kirkwall?” Cullen said, feeling both relieved and confounded by her reaction.
“I remember almost everything you say,” Kate said. “And speaking of what people say,” she added, before Cullen could fully react to that surprising statement, “That reminds me of something Cole said about you. It didn’t make sense to me at the time, but now I understand his meaning.”
“Oh?” Cullen asked. He could only imagine the things that the spirit might have said about him.
“The other day,” Kate said, “Cole told me that you were ‘testing the chains.’ At the time I had no idea what he meant. I assumed you were outfitting the cells in Skyhold’s dungeons. But this is what he was talking about, wasn’t it?”
“Lyrium often feels like a chain,” Cullen admitted. And how odd that the spirit would have such insight into a templar’s struggles.
“Can we break that chain?” Kate asked. “Can it be done?” She sounded quite eager at the prospect.
Cullen drew up short at that. He did not know why the question startled him so much. It was certainly a question that he’d asked himself in the worst of his withdrawals. But to hear Kate ask it in that way - that rather shocked him.
“I have no idea,” he said.
“Obviously the primary concern is that you don’t die in the process,” Kate mused, half to herself.
Cullen sputtered at that. “A reasonable concern,” he managed.
“I wasn’t being facetious,” Kate told him.
“Neither was I,” Cullen replied, dryly. “Not dying is an excellent objective.” He picked up the remaining scone and bit off the end.
“You’re being sarcastic,” Kate said, pursing her lips. “But I’m serious, Cullen. The things they say about lyrium… Well, I’m sure I don’t need to repeat them. But you seem quite healthy and sound of mind. So surely the rumors are mistaken.”
“Leliana and Josephine might disagree with you there,” Cullen said.
“The fact that you can jest about your sanity proves that you’re in no immediate danger,” Kate said.
Does it? Cullen wondered. He chewed thoughtfully. But something in his face must have betrayed his thoughts, for Kate said:
“Oh. It’s not that easy, is it? I’m sorry, you just seem so fit, I would never have known this if you hadn’t said something.”
Cullen supposed that was kindly meant. Still, it rather implied that he was weaker than he looked. He felt his face heating.
“It is rather uncomfortable to have you discuss me in this manner,” Cullen said, irritably. He took another large bite of scone.
“Oh,” Kate’s face fell. “I do beg your pardon.”
“I can endure it,” Cullen added, mouth full. “All of it.”
“And so you have,” Kate said. She gave him another kindly smile, and that was almost worse than her brisk assessment of before.
“Well there you have it,” Cullen said. His tongue felt dry and sticky-sweet. “Of all the things that were supposed to happen: crippling pain, insanity, memory loss and death, I suffer from nothing more than the occasional migraine or thrown back. Now you may quit your worrying and we can resume our duties for the day. Surely you have other things to do, Inquisitor.”
“If I’ve offended…”
“You haven’t,” Cullen lied, washing the scone down with tea. “Not at all.”
“But I have,” Kate sighed. “I’m so sorry, Cullen. I should not have said it like that. You’re not a problem to be solved.”
“Aren’t I?” Cullen said, setting his mug down with a hard clank.
“No!” Kate insisted. “I’m not trying to fix your or save you or anything like that. Anyhow, saving another person can’t be done. I know that better than anyone.”
Cullen paused at that. Something in her words did not quite sound right, but Kate had went on so quickly that Cullen could not figure out what it was.
“But you can cheer someone on as they save themselves,” she said. “You’re saving yourself, Cullen. And I want to help with the cheering.” Kate looked so earnest now that Cullen found himself re-assessing his annoyance.
“I’ve managed this so far,” he told her.
“Of course,” Kate agreed. “You’ve managed so far and I… Oh, I’ve made a hash of this. Look, you caught me off guard with this… revelation? Confession? Whatever it is. It startled me and it’s frightened me and I tend to get quite clinical when I’m afraid. It’s easier to treat everything like a puzzle. Then at least, there’s the hope of solving it.”
“What are you afraid of?” Cullen wanted to know.
“Of you dying, of course!” Kate said. “If you were to leave me – us, I mean…” Kate’s eyes filled with tears. Cullen found his stomach clenched at the sight.
“I’m not going to die,” he told her. Though really, he couldn’t make that promise. “I’m not,” he said again, when a tear overflowed Kate’s eye and tracked down her cheek.
“But Cullen, you did die,” Kate said. She wiped at her eyes with the heel of her palm. “In that future in Redcliffe. You died, and I…”
“That wasn’t real.”
“It was real enough,” Kate said. The tears had stopped, but she still looked stricken. “And I fought my way back from that awful place. But if I come back here and you die anyhow…”
Kate took a shuddering breath. “All week I’ve been running around like a complete fraud,” she said. “I’ve no idea how host a party, much less lead this Inquisition and run a castle. There are only two things keeping me going. The first is knowing that we can’t fail. A terrible form of motivation, but motivating nonetheless. But the second thing, keeping me going,” Kate said, raising her reddened eyes to Cullen’s face, “is knowing that you’ve got my back.”
Cullen felt something twist and tangle inside his chest. Still, he managed to say: “All of us do, Inquisitor. Your advisors and your companions all…”
“It’s not the same,” Kate said, shaking her head. “Cullen, you fill a space that no one else does. No, don’t brush it aside. That’s not a compliment. It’s the truth. Josephine knows the nobility better than I, but I could manage some of her job myself. Leliana - well, she’s in a class by herself, but even so, every mage knows something of secrets. I could stumble my way along with another spymaster and another diplomat, but you…”
Cullen swallowed, unsure if he wanted to hear this.
“You could manage with another commander,” he insisted. “I’ve made arrangements for Captain Rylen to take my post if anything should happen to me.”
Kate shook her head, the tears crowding her eyes again. They did not fall, but her voice was thick when she said:
“It would not be quite the same. I’ve no doubt that Rylen would make an excellent commander, but you’ve seen and studied so much. And the way you teach me as we go along… Cullen, I don’t know anything about soldiers or armies or military…stuff. I don’t even know what to call military stuff.”
“Protocols?” Cullen suggested. “Tactics?”
“Yes, you see?” Kate chuckled, though her laughter wobbled. “Yours is the viewpoint I need most of all.”
The words sent a thrill through Cullen, but he knew better than to trust it. Clearly she didn’t mean it like… Well, whatever meaning had made his heart leap into triple-time. She simply trusted him as an advisor. And that thought sent another thrill through him - one of pride.
“I will not leave you to deal with Corypheus alone,” he told her. “You have my word, Inquisitor.”
Kate looked up at Cullen with reddened eyes.
“Kate,” she said, scowling.
“I beg your pardon?”
“All this week you’ve been calling me by that ridiculous title. Please stop.”
“Cullen, what I’m trying to say is that I need your help. And if you want to help me, then you have to help yourself. And I’ll help you in return. You’ll soon learn that I don’t give up on my friends easily. When I find someone who’s willing to put up with my oddities, I fight for them.”
“What oddities?” Cullen asked.
Kate snorted. “You’re sweet.”
Now Cullen was certain that he hadn’t heard her right. “What oddities?” he asked again.
“Crying, for one,” Kate said, pointing at her face. “Ugh,” she added, dabbing at her eyes with her thumb. “Exhausting as this week has been, it was only a matter of time before I burst into tears over something.”
“I’m sorry that I gave you occasion for grief,” Cullen said.
“It wasn’t you,” Kate said, shaking her head. “I mean it was, but not… You know what I mean.”
Cullen wasn’t certain that he did.
“I have good reason to do this, you know,” he felt he needed to say. “I would not want you to think I took this risk on a lark.”
Kate laughed, short and disbelieving. “Cullen, I would never think that. You’re the most cautious person I know, aside from me, perhaps. Surely you’ve got a hundred reasons why.”
“Not a hundred,” Cullen said, “But some good ones, I hope.”
“Of course you do,” Kate said, as if she never expected differently. And just like that, Cullen felt the need to explain. For if Kate would support him without knowing all of his reasons, then it seemed to him that he owed her least some of his reasons. That must have been why the words came tumbling out before he could quite consider them:
“I made the decision in Kirkwall,” Cullen said. “The Gallows had fallen. The rebels had fled. The city was in chaos, and the so-called ‘Champion’ ran off with her terrorist boyfriend…”
“Hawke didn’t run off with Anders,” Kate interrupted. “She left him alone in the streets of Kirkwall.”
“Did she?” Cullen said in surprise. “I did not know that.”
If that was the case, then Hawke had more sense than he’d thought. A little bit more, anyway.
“This was all in Varric’s book,” Kate pointed out.
“Never read it,” Cullen shrugged.
“You didn’t?” Kate seemed taken aback to hear it.
“I was too busy living that story to bother with Varric’s novelization of it,” Cullen said, dryly. “As for us templars, we were left in a state. There were only a few dozen mages left - all of them apprentices and the elderly. Any adult with ability ran off at the first opportunity. Rylen was with me then - and Ruvena and Keran and Morris and a few others. It was madness trying to keep order, because we kept being attacked every day. Citizens from Kirkwall kept sailing over in whatever boat they could get their hands on, ready to lay siege to the Gallows. They wanted to finish off the last of the mages - or the last of the templars, depending upon their politics.”
Kate nodded, as though she’d expected this part. Cullen paused.
“Was that in the book, too?” he asked.
“I’m surprised Varric included it,” Cullen said.
How curious. Maybe Cullen would have to reassess his judgment of Varric’s judgment of him.
“Anyhow,” Cullen went on, “We were running low on supplies of lyrium. We were low on supplies of everything, really, but especially lyrium. The Chantry sort of ‘forgot’ to send their rebel Circle it’s allotted supply for nearly a month.”
“How awful!” Kate exclaimed.
“Yes, well, when Lady Cassandra arrived, she marched into town with a full battalion of Seekers and a mountain’s worth of aid. Didn’t quite make up for the neglect, but it was something. But in that month prior, I quietly gave my own lyrium rations to the other templars. Seemed the commanderly thing to do. And I’d gotten used to irregular rations when Meredith was in power.”
“You were punished that often?” Kate’s brows furrowed in concern.
“In the beginning of my tenure in Kirkwall, I’d enjoyed a double dose,” Cullen said, trying not to remember those days. “It got whittled down soon enough. Though really,” he added, “It was probably a blessing in disguise. All those years of punishment gave me plenty of practice for what I’m doing now.”
Kate said nothing, but her eyes looked watery once again. Cullen lifted his mug and polished off his tea.
“In those first weeks,” he went on, “I was far too busy fending off attacks to think about the lyrium, other than to give it to my officers. It’s hard to deal with supply runs or even burials for the bodies rotting in the corridors when you’re fighting an active battle on your doorstep. But when things settled down a bit…”
“Bodies in the corridors?” Kate looked appalled.
“It was a mess,” Cullen said.
“Sounds like more than a mess,” Kate said.
Cullen considered that.
“A fucking mess,” he corrected.
Kate gave a startled laugh.
“But once Cassandra arrived,” Cullen said, “I finally had a chance to go through Meredith’s files. We broke down the door to her office - she had it warded and enchanted and double-bolted as well. I set myself up at her desk for the day, started sorting out reports, trying to make sense of her ledgers and notes. It was a mess.”
“A fu… I mean, that other kind of mess?”
Cullen might have laughed at the way Kate had so properly side-stepped cursing. But it was hard to see humor in what he had to say next. At his serious expression, Kate’s face fell.
“What then?” she asked, her voice soft and strained.
“I only wish that it had been a mess,” Cullen said. “But it was not. It was methodical and precise and…”
He shook his head, as if to shake the memories away.
“Meredith kept records on on all of it,” Cullen said. “Every tranquil branded, every punishment given. Taken one at a time, her decisions almost made sense. Each report had a reason - a cruel reason, perhaps, but a reason. But taken together? They painted a monstrous portrait of abuse and madness.”
Kate said nothing, but her lips pressed together in an expression of unease.
“But the worst of it,” Cullen said, forcing himself to go on, “The worst of it was that I had written dozens of those reports. I wrote more than reports, really. I’d filed complaints, inquiries, requests for an audience to meet with Meredith, even a request to meet with the grand cleric. They were all in my handwriting. But I didn’t remember writing them. Not until I saw them.”
Kate cocked her head at him, and Cullen saw that she did not understand.
“I wrote those reports,” Cullen explained. “And once I saw them, I remembered writing of them. I might have recited them precisely without reading them. But until the moment, I did not remember that I remembered them. My memories had been dulled by lyrium.”
“Dulled by lyrium?” Kate repeated. “But you… You mean you do not remember your time as a templar? But… But in the Mire!” she sputtered. “In the Mire, you said that you didn’t hurt anyone. You said that you weren’t one of the templars who… But now you’re saying that you don’t remember?”
“No, I do remember,” Cullen said, quickly, holding up a hand to stop her. “That’s the trouble.”
Kate drew back ever so slightly. “What do you mean?”
“They say that lyrium makes a templar forget over time. They say it makes you forget. But that’s not quite true. Lyrium makes you to forget, because lyrium makes it so that you cannot feel. It dulls the emotion associated with a memory. While taking lyrium, you experience things, and you can remember them later with perfect clarity. But it’s hard to feel the importance of the memory.”
“I don’t understand.”
“It’s like remembering what you had for breakfast,” Cullen said. “I would remember this,” he waved a hand at the crumb-covered handkerchief upon the wall. “But it would be hard to remember the meal I wolfed down yesterday. It would be harder still to remember some supper I had a year ago. Without emotional weight, memories tend to slip away.”
“Do you mean to say,” Kate said, slowly and precisely, “That you do not feel anything at all?”
Cullen gave a dark, humorless laugh and shook his head. “No, I definitely feel things. Make no mistake about that.”
“But you said that lyrium dulls feeling.”
“So it does. Over time, and with constant use, lyrium will shore a templar up against emotion. As a result, it fades a templar’s memories. But as for me, my use of lyrium was irregular, and my memories were rather, um, intense…”
But there he faltered. For in searching for the right words to say, Cullen stepped too near to his darkest memories. The scene flashed suddenly before his mind, real as the ramparts surrounding them:
The crackle of lightning. Screams. Blood. A woman wept, and Cullen could not reach her. A man retched, and Cullen could not help him either. Clawed hands reached for him, a voice whispered in his ear: ‘Just a taste, templar.’ The voice was honey and thorns together. ‘Give us just a taste of the love you feel for her. You won’t hurt once you give in…’
Cullen sucked in a breath as he jolted back to the present. Here he was safe, he reminded himself. Here, was no desire demon, angling for his soul. There was no blood, no one he’d failed to save. And standing before him was Kate - just Kate - with her eyes full of worry.
“Did I lose you?” she asked, warily. She did not say ‘to a memory,’ but Cullen heard the unspoken words all the same.
Cullen felt as though his lungs had still not caught up with the rest of him. Kate always saw too much, he thought wildly. He never knew what to make of that. No one else watched him so closely. He found it both addicting and unnerving to be seen so well.
“What was I saying?” he asked on a shuddering breath. His voice was hoarse.
“Something about lyrium and memories,” Kate said, though her brows furrowed further. “Truly Cullen, you look pale.”
“I’m fine,” he said, eager to put the memory behind him. He felt as though he was running away from it with his words. “That’s right,” he pressed on, “I was saying that lyrium dulls feeling, and so also memory.”
“Cullen…” Kate said with a frown, still looking at him in concern.
“And when you combine lyrium with our training,” he continued ruthlessly, “The templar’s mental and physical training, that is, it renders a soldier nearly impervious. I imagine it’s different for each recruit, but over the years, I taught myself to remember everything.”
“Everything?” that surprised Kate such that she stopped looking quite so worried. “You mean have a perfect memory? Well,” she added, half to herself. “That would explain your indifferent filing system.”
“I built a sort of filing system in my mind, instead,” Cullen told her. “I used to think of my experiences as books, all neatly lined up on shelves in my memory. When I was on lyrium, the books stayed put on their shelves, quiet and bound, unless I had need of them.”
“But when you are not on lyrium…” Kate began.
Cullen looked quickly away.
“There are many reasons that lyrium is addicting,” he said, heading off her question. “And the pains of withdrawals are not merely physical. Without lyrium, my mind - a templar’s mind, I should say - becomes a jot more untidy. Books everywhere. Memories springing up all over the place. Hard to keep order, harder to keep your composure.”
“In other words,” Kate frowned, “Taking lyrium keeps a templar from having a normal emotional reaction to anything.”
“Normal is relative,” Cullen hedged, “And emotion is a liability. Well it is,” he said, when Kate made a small sound of protest. “The Chantry would not risk it. Too many ways it could go wrong, when you’re trying to grow perfect holy soldiers.”
Hmm, he thought. That last bit had come out quite bitter indeed.
“So the templars have no shame to haunt them?” Kate asked, sounding quite bitter herself. “No burning, ‘What if I’d done that differently?’ to keep you up at night? No sense or remorse or fear or desire for something more.”
“Not if you’ve been taking lyrium,” Cullen said. But the words crept too near to the edge of that blood-stained memory. Cullen quickly stepped back.
“When I was on a regular diet of the stuff,” he said instead, “I’d remember what I’d done, but I would feel rather distant about it. It was like a story that had happened to someone else. But if I was off the lyrium for a week or so, the feeling came rushing back. It was better to stay drunk on it,” he said, softly. “At least, I thought so at the time.”
“And so the templars fulfill their duty,” Kate said, her words deceptively soft. “March your patrol. Brand your tranquil. Strike some mages in the face, and feel nothing about it. But you remember it all.”
“Down to the day and time and place and the mage’s name,” Cullen muttered.
Kate’s mouth dropped open. She looked horrified, and Cullen cursed his unthinking words.
“I did not mean…”
“Who?” she gaped at him.
“I did not brand tranquils,” he said, quickly. “But you knew that. I marched on patrol quite regularly, but…”
Cullen groaned. “Please don’t ask me that.”
But Cullen realized he could not avoid the question. Why had he told Kate all this, Cullen wondered to himself? He should never have tried to explain his reasons for quitting lyrium. He’d let his guard down around Kate, only to reveal some of the ugliest parts of himself. And Kate, with her searching eyes, did not miss a single blemish. Yet here he went again, making it even worse:
“A mage named Grace,” he said, and the words felt like they’d been pulled from him. “She attacked an apprentice and I was not gentle in breaking up the fight. Benn. No other name than ‘Benn.’ He tried to run from the Harrowing Chamber and again, I was not gentle. A mage name Thomas - similar story. Bennet - similar story. Tahroni - she attacked a templar. And Jowan.”
Cullen scowled to remember that one. “Jowan was a blood mage and an fool. They made him tranquil, but I took a swing at him first. I did so on principle, for he’d betrayed a friend. No, not a friend. She was… It does not matter. Jowan deserved it. And then there was the old woman. But that one was a mistake.”
“Good Maker,” Kate whispered, covering her face with her hands, as if she couldn’t stand to look at him. Cullen felt his temper flare.
“I was a templar, Kate, what the Void did you expect me to say?”
Kate stared at him his shock, her hands coming defensively before her chest. Cullen ran a hand through his hair with a curse, feeling like the lowest sort of vermin. He hazarded a glance at Kate, only to find her standing with her head bowed, her arms crossed over her belly.
Just like that, Cullen wanted to take it back. He wanted to take all of it back: his past angry, those errant blows, the vows to the Order, the lyrium addiction, and most of all, this extemporaneous confession.
No, Cullen realized. He didn’t want to take these words back. They were true, and he did not want to lie to Kate. He just wished he’d been flawless back then. That was all.
“A templar hit me once,” Kate said, startling Cullen from his thoughts.
It took Cullen a moment to register what she’d said. When he did, he felt as though ice had slid into his gut.
“I…” he began. But he did not know at all what to say. His throat had frozen, just like his limbs.
“That’s how I got this,” Kate said, reaching her left hand to trace a small scar by her left eye. As she did so, the mark cast its eerie green glow on her skin. “And if it had been you…” Kate went on.
“It wouldn’t have been me,” Cullen said automatically.
Kate just looked up at him, looked at him as though he was a stranger. Because the words were a lie. Kate knew it and Cullen knew it, too. He would not have cared. With the lyrium in him, he most certainly would not have cared. And because he would not have cared then, Cullen now cared very much. Perhaps too much, he thought.
“This is why,” he said, though the words seemed to stick in his throat. “This is why I don’t… This is why I can’t…”
Blast it all, was he giving her an excuse or a confession or what? And for the Maker’s sake, she’d just told him that a templar had given her that faint scar. Cullen tried again:
“Are you alright?” he asked Kate. “I mean, obviously you were injured at the time. But later, did the templar…”
He couldn’t think how to ask her what had happened. But Kate seemed to understand his halting question all the same.
“My parents found out and had him sacked,” she said. “Trevelyan tithes accounted for nearly a fourth of the Ostwick Chantry’s operating budget, so my family had a great deal of leverage. No one dared touch me after that. They all whispered about me though: ‘the Trevelyan brat.’ But I never got hurt again. No mage ever got hurt when I was around. But I often wondered what happened when I was not there. It made it hard to go home. But I knew that if I didn’t go home from time to time to visit my parents, the templars might have started hitting people again. It was difficult to know how best to protect everyone. I knew I couldn’t,” she added sadly. “But I wanted to. I always wanted to protect everyone.”
Cullen could understand that. And yet, that desire to protect had driven him to become a templar.
“I heard that the templar who struck me died of a lyrium overdose,” Kate went on. “He bought a bad draught from a smuggler. Robert told me about it. He thought it would make me happy. But it didn’t.” She took a breath, then said: “It didn’t make me happy at all.”
“That templar did not deserve your pity,” Cullen said, his voice thick.
“And you do?”
Cullen drew in a breath, for the words were like a blow.
“I’m sorry,” Kate said. “I should not have said that.”
Cullen couldn’t find words to reply. He shrugged instead.
“I keep thinking,” Kate said, speaking to a spot on the ground between her boots. “That we’ve gotten past this. I keep thinking that I’ve got the blame all lined up and accounted for. And I keep thinking,” she said, her voice nearly breaking, “that you won’t say something that will anger me or hurt me or shock me. And then you do. And it makes me so…”
She shook her head, her hands clutching her elbows tightly.
“I’m sorry,” Cullen offered. It was all he could say, really.
“I know you are,” Kate said. “And that makes me angry, too.”
Kate raised her hands to her mouth, then to her face, then ran her hands through her hair and clasped them across her belly again.
“Fucking. Mess,” she whispered.
Cullen stood there in silence, feeling far too cold. He was on the other end of his confession now, and things had not at all turned out like he’d wanted. For now that Kate had looked at him with fear - had looked at him with fear again, Cullen thought with a curse - he found himself desperate to banish that look of distrust from her eyes. And yet, what could he possibly say except the truth?
“I feel it now,” he said, as if that made any difference.
“Good,” Kate shot back. “You should.” But then she shook her head.
“No, that’s cruel. No one should feel pain. But neither should they feel nothing at all.”
“I can’t speak for all templars,” Cullen ventured. “But speaking for myself, I grew to hate the lyrium. When I was on it, I felt like my head was sealed in stone. When I was off it, my temper grew shorter, and my memories less manageable.”
“Since when are memories manageable?” Kate wanted to know.
“They are for templars,” Cullen said. “That’s the whole point of lyrium.”
“It sounds like the Chantry made you half-tranquil.”
“I hadn’t thought of it like that. But there does seem to be a parallel.”
“Quite likely, if lyrium is involved,” Kate said, looking both angry and thoughtful all at once, “And so the Order builds itself an army without fear or regret, completely dependent upon the Chantry for their addiction.”
Cullen pressed his lips together. Kate’s words rang true, but it still galled him to hear it. Because even now, Cullen felt strangely disloyal to speak this way. It had been ingrained in him never to question his training, especially before mages. Every word Cullen said felt like poison spewing from his mouth. But still, he forced himself to go on:
“Those outside of the Chantry don’t know the half of it,” he told Kate. “I was a member of the Order, and even I did not realize the full dangers of lyrium until that day in Meredith’s office. But then I saw the truth of it. All of her records ended the same way: ‘Templar reassigned and given a healing draught.’ Every one of them ended like that: ‘Mage confined. Templar given healing draught.’ ‘Mage branded. Templar given healing draught.’ ‘Mage executed…”
He didn’t have to finish that one. Kate closed her eyes and whispered:
“It’s a fine euphemism,” Cullen said, though the words came out like a growl. “Take the lyrium from the templars who are being punished and give it to the ones who toes the line. Kept order exceptionally well, I must say. I didn’t realize how much until I saw all those reports, all lined up in a row. There’s a reason that templars take a double-draught before Harrowings, you know. The templars need to recall everything that goes on - down the the letter. But no one wants to feel the horror of it. Hence, the lyrium. You keep the memories, but no templar need fear waking up in a cold sweat after.”
Kate’s mouth dropped open. “Maker’s breath,” she breathed. “Forget the templars’ memories of Harrowings! Did anyone stop to think what happened to the mages? We have nightmares for years after! Or we are made tranquil and wake up with no feelings at all. And that’s assuming that we lived to talk about it!”
“And that’s why the Order does it,” Cullen said. “No templar wants to endure the horror and guilt of a Harrowing - either in the moment, or in the recollection of it.”
“Cowards,” Kate hissed, her voice thick with passionate anger. “They act so stoic and calm. But how is it courage if you haven’t got any fear to begin with? It’s hardly a fair fight.”
“The Order did not want a fair fight. The whole point was to keep the mages from fighting at all.”
“It’s awful!” Kate cried. “Golden City above, how on earth does the Divine allow for this? How could anyone allow it? How could you allow it?”
Cullen had expected the accusation, but it still stung. “It’s not like I could change the entire system myself,” he said. “That’s how things were done. Efficient and practical.”
“Practical?” Kate gaped at him.
“Think of all our troops after Haven,” Cullen said. “Even now, they are traumatized, struggling to sleep at night. If you could hide that memory away from them, if you could give them courage in a vial, wouldn’t you?”
“No!” Kate cried. “I mean…” She paused, then said again: “No! At least, I would not do that with lyrium. And you wouldn’t either! Would you?” She sounded appalled by the idea.
“Of course I wouldn’t,” Cullen said. “I know better than anyone what it’s like to live that lie. And that’s what lyrium is: it’s a lie. I was made into something less than human for years. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone else.”
“Made into something less than human so that you could treat mages less than human,” Kate returned. “But really, I find I’m not surprised to hear any of this. It explains why templars are such indifferent mage-hunters. You lot are remarkably unperceptive. And why not, if you’ve grown hearts and heads of stone. You’re basically human-shaped golems. With lyrium to wash it down, I imagine Chantry propaganda becomes quite easy to swallow. You can’t even taste the lies.”
“No,” Cullen said, scrubbing a hand over his face. “I mean, yes. I mean, it’s not like that.”
“Templars don’t want this. I did not want this.”
Kate pursed her lips, as if she did not quite believe him. But all she said was: “All strength and no feeling? Sounds ideal for a soldier.”
“It’s a living hell,” Cullen said, angrily. “I don’t know what diabolical cleric dreamed up this madness, but no decent person would wish to be made so indecent.”
“Not at all,” Cullen said. “And most templars don’t know. They join the Order with dreams of protecting the innocent - or simply making a respectable living. They have no idea what they are in for, not until it’s too late. No truly, Kate,” he said, when she looked like she would argue with him. “They don’t know. Yes, there were bastards like Ser Alric, who joined the order because they were already sick and twisted inside. But most of them are not like that. They joined not knowing the cost. Think of your cousins, Kate, or your friend Lysette. Think of Rylen and Ruvena and Barris. They signed up for a sacred calling. They didn’t expect to be made dead inside. They didn’t ask to be addicted to their own chains.”
“Then why do templars keep taking it?” Kate demanded.
“Because this is what happens when you stop!” Cullen exclaimed, pointing at himself. “Headaches and muscle spasms and nightmares. Every horrible memory you’d forgotten flying off of the shelf and staring you in the face. You saw what happened to me just minutes ago: a memory returns and suddenly you’re lost to the world. There are days when I find myself hiding in my office, trying to gather up the courage to open the door. Very commanderly behavior that,” he added with a scowl, “When the general of Skyhold is so weak he can scarcely face his past.”
Cullen realized what he’d said when Kate went silent. She stared up at him, all wide eyes and trembling lips.
“I… Oh my Maker. Cullen, I’m so sorry.”
“I’m fine,” he said, feeling shame crash into him. “It’s fine. Really, it’s fine.”
“It’s not fine,” Kate insisted. “And…” she paused, as if she was caught between two thoughts, unsure which one to voice aloud.
“This shouldn’t have happened,” she said after a moment. “None of it should have happened. Not to you, not to the mages. Nor even to those templars - if they did mean well.”
“They did,” Cullen assured her.
“Then that makes the Chantry’s actions so much worse, doesn’t it? Don’t pretend that any of that was alright.”
Her fierce words make Cullen sigh. She was right, he thought. And he was tired of defending the Chantry’s mistakes.
“I hate it,” he admitted. “Everything was easier with the lyrium, but, it’s become so much harder. Back in the Gallows, I took beatings like you would not believe. I got this scar,” he pointed to his lip, “in the week after Hawke left Kirkwall. I’ve no idea how I got it - from the board or the wine bottle or the Mabari or a sword. It could have been any of them. I don’t remember. Face bleeding all day and I didn’t flinch. And yet Morris made contact with me in a practice bout just yesterday. I’m still aching from it.”
“Hmmm,” Kate wrinkled her nose. “Forgive me if I don’t feel a great deal of sympathy for your bruises,” she said. “Considering the treatment I regularly get from Bull.”
“He’s hurt you?” Cullen’s brows snapped together.
“It’s called training,” Kate returned. “But I’m sorry, you were saying?”
“I was saying that the lack of lyrium has left me feeling rather fragile. Imagine if you wore armor every day of your life, and then one day, someone took it off of you by degrees. You’d feel weak, exposed.”
“You’d be human,” Kate said.
“I… Well, yes.”
Cullen hadn’t thought of it like that. The very idea made him stop short.
“Human hurts,” Kate added. “I can see why you’d avoid it.”
Cullen didn’t like to think that he was avoiding the task of being human, but there was truth to her words.
“It certainly makes things uncomfortable,” he hedged.
“And all of this,” Kate said, thoughtfully, “is why you left the templars. You truly left it all behind when you left it all behind.”
She understood. The thought rushed through him, sweet and staggering in it’s relief. Cullen let out a breath he didn’t realize he’d been holding.
“That’s right,” he managed.
“So you quit the lyrium in Kirkwall?” Kate went on. “Or when you left the city?”
“No, I quit that same day,” Cullen told her. “After going through Meredith’s papers, I grabbed my lyrium kit from my room. Threw the damned box into the Kirkwall harbor. It took longer than you’d think to sink.”
“One more wreck beneath the waves,” Kate said.
“Just so,” Cullen said. “Lyrium was the rope that bound me. It was the lash set to my back to drive me on when I might have questioned my orders. I’m not trying to excuse myself,” he added, when Kate’s brows flickered together with a frown. “Maker knows I made my mistakes. I joined the Order. I took the lyrium. I knew I was on the wrong side of that fight. On some level, I must have known.”
“Must you?” Kate asked as she searched his face. “How many of your choices were made by the lyrium, and how many of them were your own?”
“That,” Cullen said, bitterly, “sums up my dilemma perfectly.”
The corners of Kate’s mouth tightened, and her eyes narrowed. She looked as if she expected to see right through Cullen’s skin and all the way down to nerve and bone. He hastily looked away from that expression of judgment and added:
“When I look back on all those years. I can’t recall if it was choice or reaction that drove me. That lack of agency terrifies me. It’s why I mean to maintain self-control now. Because I often wonder if I would have been a different sort of man - a better sort of man…”
“Without the lyrium?” Kate asked.
Cullen nodded. In retrospect, none of this was what he’d intended to say - nothing beyond the initial confession. Yet, nothing he’d said was a lie. It was all truth and more truth. And so he could not regret it, even if it drove Kate away.
Cullen sincerely hoped that it would not drive Kate away.
“If you could take it back, would you?” Kate’s sudden question startled him.
“The lyrium, you mean?” Cullen asked.
“All of it: Joining the Order. Striking those mages.”
“I should not have harmed those mages,” Cullen said with a shake of his head. “There should have been another way. Jowan though? I’d still flatten him in a heartbeat. But I would gladly un-take the lyrium if I could.”
“And un-join the Order?” Kate wanted to know.
Cullen hesitated, and Kate frowned. Clearly, she thought that hesitation was the wrong answer.
“It’s not that simple,” Cullen told her. “I can’t undo the past. And it would make me mad to think like that. I can only go forward. And for all the Order took from me, it gave me the skills that I now use to lead the Inquisition’s armies. My mistakes led me here. If they hadn’t, I would not have met…”
I would not have met you, Cullen thought. But he stopped himself from saying so, lest he present himself as sentimental or unprofessional. As it was, Kate looked away, blushing. Maybe she’d guessed his intent anyway.
“What about you?” Cullen asked, trying to cover for his slip. “Would you do things differently if you could?”
“Wouldn’t we all?” Kate sighed. Cullen didn’t know quite what to say to that.
“But then,” she added, “I never had much choice in the first place. That’s probably why it’s hard for me to feel sorry for anyone who used their choices so…” She broke off there.
“Poorly?” Cullen suggested.
“Yes, but I was trying to come up with a nicer way to say it.”
Cullen chuckled at that. “Fair enough. Still, I hope you might forgive me my poor choices,” he said. “I hope you might forgive me in general, actually.”
As soon as the words were out, Cullen stopped short. That was certainly not what he meant to say. Asking for forgiveness from a mage? That was weak, by templar standards. An apology made for a gaping hole in his armor. And yet, Cullen found he did not care. He only cared that Kate might see fit to look past what he’d done.
“I don’t know that forgiveness is mine to offer,” Kate said.
“You do not think that I deserve it,” Cullen said. His chest felt quite hollow at the thought.
“Well, no one deserves forgiveness, do they?” Kate pointed out. “If you deserved to be forgiven it wouldn’t be forgiveness.”
“Very philosophical of you,” Cullen said, a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. Then he frowned. “But would you, if you could? Forgive me, that is.”
“Do you need my forgiveness?” Kate asked.
“I suppose not,” Cullen said. “But I should like it all the same.”
Kate pursed her lips as she considered him. “Well, I… I suppose I should, shouldn’t I? And in a way, I do. But then…” Cullen’s stomach churned as she shook her head.
“How can I forgive you when the blame is so unclear?” Kate asked him. “I forgive the man who joined the Order with good intentions. I forgive the man who’s standing here before me, fighting his way back from a lyrium addiction. But the man that you were under the Chantry? The man who struck those mages, who might have struck me? I don’t care for him, Cullen. I can’t.”
Cullen felt as if something had gotten stuck in his throat. “I don’t care for him either,” he admitted thickly. “Thus,” he added, “I quit the lyrium. Better to risk death and madness, than to be that man again.”
Kate said nothing to that. She just continued to look at him with that searching, yet unsearchable look.
“Would you at least believe me when I say that I regret it?” Cullen asked, when he could stand her silence no longer. “That I did not intend to be cruel? That I wanted to do right? And I will do right, if I can.”
Kate smiled then, and it felt like fresh air from over the mountains. “That,” she said. “I most definitely believe.”
“Good,” Cullen breathed.
“Good,” Kate nodded. Then, to Cullen’s surprise, her eyes welled with tears.
“What?” he asked in sudden alarm. Blast it all, he thought they’d gotten through the worst of it, so what was this?
“Just tell me you have a plan to survive this,” Kate said, her voice strained.
“Survive what?” Cullen said, now completely thrown off his guard. “Our arguments?”
“No,” Kate said, laughing as she sniffed and wiped at her eyes. “Though now that you mention it, I might need a plan for dealing with that, too.”
“Surely it’s not that bad,” Cullen frowned.
“It’s bad,” Kate replied. “But I suppose I shouldn’t expect that we could get past all the ugliness of the Circles with just a conversation or two. If only it were that easy. Forgive me for my outburst. It was aimed mostly at the Chantry.”
“Alright, it was aimed at you as well,” Kate admitted. “But I will remain your adamant friend, in spite of our differences.”
Cullen didn’t know quite what to say to that. He felt as though something had shifted inside of him during this conversation - a door unlatching, maybe, or perhaps he just felt a breath of fresh air from the mountains. He and Kate had spoken of friendship before. And yet, this moment felt like friendship. Or rather, Cullen imagined this was what friendship felt like. He had nothing but soldierly camaraderie and familial tolerance to compare it to. He’d never felt this much gratitude for someone’s understanding before. He’d never felt so understood, either. Oddly enough, that just made him feel all the more exposed.
“So how do we keep you alive?” Kate asked. The words startled Cullen, and not just because they sounded both businesslike and tearful at the same time.
“I beg your pardon?”
“What’s our plan?” Kate said. “For helping you with the withdrawals, I mean. Obviously you’ve got a good head start, but how do I help?”
“Oh,” Cullen said. Right. Kate had promised to help him. Cullen still wasn’t sure what to make of that promise.
“Surely you’ve figured out a thing or two if you’ve survived this long,” Kate went on, sounding more controlled now, and less wavering. “Diet, exercises, supplements…”
“Not really,” Cullen said, thinking it over. “Fortitude, mostly.”
“What, just grin and bear it?”
“What else am I to do?” Cullen shrugged.
“You must be doing something more than toughing it out.”
“Not really. I mean, work helps. It’s good to have a meaningful challenge for my mind and steady exercise.”
“That makes sense.”
“I do better on a schedule as well,” Cullen added.
“Schedule, exercise, work,” Kate repeated, as though filing these items away in her head. “And when those things go away, it’s worse? You had more headaches on the journey up from Haven, didn’t you?”
“Oh, but the battle itself, without lyrium to aid with the memories…” Kate broke off, then winced. “I’m sorry. That was rather tactless.”
Cullen had flushed as soon as she’d mentioned Haven. “It’s quite alright,” he said, tightly. “Really,” he added, lest she prod. “It’s not a problem.”
“Is there a pattern to the memories and the pains and such?” Kate asked.
“Erratic as the Void, but I make do. Work helps. And prayer helps. Prayer has always helped,” Cullen added thoughtfully.
“Prayer helps with the headaches?” Kate asked. She did not sound disbelieving - only curious. “What does your healer think of all this?”
Cullen realized his mistake at once, for Kate’s eyes went wide.
“You do have a healer watching over this process, don’t you?”
“Cullen,” Kate said. Now she sounded angry again. No, not angry - exasperated. And worried.
“Do you mean to tell me that you quit lyrium - quit it ‘stone cold’ as you say - and never thought to have someone observe the process?” Her voice rose considerably at the end of that sentence.
“I told Seeker Cassandra,” Cullen told her, lest she think him completely foolhardy.
“Seeker Cassandra?” Kate repeated, making a face. “Why her? I mean,” she added. “I don’t mean to be rude. But really. Cassandra?”
“Yes, well obviously I did not consult her for medical advice.”
“Obviously,” Kate agreed.
“I made it a condition of my joining the Inquisition,” Cullen explained. “When I took up the post of commander, I told Cassandra that I had given up lyrium and would not take it again. I wanted to serve out of loyalty, not blind obedience.”
“And what did she say?”
“She said she approved. But you know Cassandra. Her response was quite perfunctory. She told me that if my abilities were compromised in any way, she would relieve me of duty.”
Kate’s lips twisted wryly. “That hardly counts as observation,” she said. “Who is keeping an eye on you?”
Cullen cringed. “I didn’t want to be fussed over,” he said.
“That I can well believe,” Kate said. “So who else knows about it? Leliana, Josephine? Your officers?”
“They might have guessed,” Cullen said. They probably had, but he didn’t want to think about that.
“But you’re the only person I’ve told since Cassandra,” he added.
“I am?” Kate sounded pleased to hear it.
“Of course,” Cullen said. “I mean, you’re the Inquisitor.”
Kate’s face fell. “Oh,” she said. “Right.”
Cullen realized at once that he’d made a misstep. “That’s not the only reason why I told you,” he said.
“No.” Cullen said. “I told you because I felt you ought to know. But I certainly didn’t intend for this to become your problem.”
“It’s my problem regardless,” Kate returned.
“Yes, but I don’t mean for it to be.”
“Of course you don’t,” Kate said. “Just as I don’t mean for this” - here she held up her left hand - “To be your problem.”
For a moment, Cullen did not understand her, but then the mark upon Kate’s hand glowed an eerie green.
“That’s different,” he said at once.
“How?” Kate asked, raising a brow.
“That’s Fade-magic, for one.”
“Isn’t lyrium a form of Fade-magic?”
Cullen shook his head. “My addiction to lyrium and your possession of the Mark of Andraste are worlds apart.”
“We don’t know that this is a mark of our prophet,” Kate replied. “Given what Corypheus said about it, it’s probably a spell of some sort.”
“Yes, but it’s necessary for our mission.”
“And the health of the Inquisition general is not necessary for our mission?” Kate asked, placing a hand on her hip.
Cullen tried to think of a reply to that. Maker help him. He found Kate quite attractive when she resorted to logic.
“You are far more essential to the Inquisition than I am,” Cullen said. There, that was a sound rejoinder.
“I beg to differ,” Kate replied. “The Inquisition could make do without me far more easily than it could make do without you.”
“Don’t say that,” Cullen said. His chest seemed to constrict at the very thought.
“You’re right,” Kate agreed. “The truth is that all of us are necessary to the Inquisition. From the newest recruits to the gardeners to those of us who putter around the war table each morning. Even the ravens have their part to play. And that’s why,” she added, before Cullen could get a word in edgewise, “If one of your former templar officers wanted to quit lyrium, you’d surely help them in any way that you could. And certainly you’d want them to consult a healer.”
Cullen realized she had a point. “Well yes, but…”
Cullen frowned. “I don’t much care for healers,” he admitted.
“Why?” Kate returned. And with that, her tone shifted: less argumentative, and more concerned. Maybe she’d caught the tension in his voice. Blast. He’d been trying to hide it, too.
“I find… I’ve had indifferent aid at the hands of healers,” Cullen said. He hoped Kate would not press him for details. Thankfully, she didn’t. Instead she said:
Cullen worried that she might.
“So surely there’s no need…” he began.
“Will you allow me to examine you?” Kate asked.
Cullen was so surprised, he forgot the excuse he’d come up with. He just stared at her.
“I do beg your pardon,” Kate said, and if Cullen didn’t know any better, he would have said that she was blushing. “I only meant that I should offer myself - my help. As a healer, that is.”
The hair on the back of Cullen’s neck stood on end.
“Surely there’s no need for that,” he said.
“All mages are trained in the basics of lyrium protocols,” Kate reasoned. “We must keep our jailers fighting fit, after all.”
She caught herself there with a wince.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I should not do that.”
“Do what?” Cullen wanted to know.
“Resort to the bitterness. It will turn to poison in me as surely as lyrium was a poison in you.”
“No, it’s not,” Kate sighed. “And I’m sorry. Just let me check you. Or I suppose we could go and find Coll. She might be the better option. Only she was out rather late and I wouldn’t want to wake her. She’s a trifle cranky in the mornings.”
Cullen did not like the sound of that. And between submitting himself to the examination of Skyhold’s sleep-deprived rebel archivist or dealing with Kate here and now, Cullen knew which one he’d choose:
“You’ll do fine,” Cullen said.
Kate’s brows shot up.
“I mean,” he corrected. “If you please, I’d rather… Um, you do know what you’re doing, don’t you?”
Kate’s lips curled in a small, knowing smile. Cullen had no idea what that meant, but the sight sent his mind racing.
“I do, actually,” Kate said, sounding like her usual, scholarly self. “In theory,” she added.
“In theory?” Cullen scowled.
“Oh, it will be alright,” Kate said, more to herself than to Cullen. “A field-test, as it were.”
“Field test?” Cullen didn’t like the sound of that either, but feigning confidence, he made himself stand a bit straighter as he said:
“Alright then. Check me.”