“Feck me, but ain’t that the best tavern in all Thedas?”
Coll looked up at the building in satisfaction. Kate stood beside her, similarly impressed, though a bit more apprehensive about going inside. Judging by the noise, half of the Inquisition was packed inside that pub. The other half of the Inquisition had shown up for the party anyhow, spilling out into the upper courtyard and the lower courtyard, too. Paper lanterns floated peacefully above the crowds, enchanted to bob along as if on the surface of the sea. Enchanted banners waved from every spare wall, flickering with golden light. Guitar music wafted from the tavern windows, and a reel fiddled up from down by the stables. A few tipsy couples tried to dance to the discordant songs, but mostly ended up laughing and tripping on one another. A nearby bonfire was crowded round by people talking and laughing and roasting sausages. Over by the smithy, someone had set up games of chance: darts, horseshoes and some type of fire-breathing competition between mages. Meanwhile, a few lone couples walked about on the ramparts, their conversations private under the twilight sky.
Kate watched those lucky couples and sighed. If only her walk about the ramparts had gone so smoothly, she thought. Kate had been thinking about her conversation with Cullen all day - thinking about it, and then blushing furiously.
Because just this morning, she had nearly kissed Cullen.
Kate still wasn’t quite sure how it had happened. She remembered giving Cullen a hug - a bit forward of her, perhaps, but defensible in the name of the friendship - and then the world had gone fuzzy around the edges. Kate had looked up to find that Cullen was smiling at her. The sunlight had glinted off of his armor, and the breeze had tumbled a single golden curl across his forehead. Kate had wanted to touch that curl. She had wanted to touch him. So she’d gone up on her tip-toes and…
A horrible little voice in her head had hissed “How dare you!” And Kate had yanked herself away.
How dare she indeed, Kate thought? Cullen had come to her with a problem, and she had… what? Run her hands all over him? Lectured him about lyrium? Oh, and blathered on about her research, she couldn’t forget that. Then she’d gone and mauled the man. She still remembered his expression of shock when she’d pulled away. Cullen had seemed so angry. Well, and why not? He had told Kate something in confidence - and she’d thrown herself at him.
At least she had a chance to make things right, Kate told herself. She would behave more professionally from here on out. Cullen had agreed to join her for drinks tonight, and she fully intended to make things up to him - even though Kate had no idea how.
“Is that the name of the place then?”
Coll’s abrupt question drew Kate’s attention back to the present. Kate turned to find Coll was looking up at the side of the building. Kate looked up as well.
“The Herald’s Rest?” Kate frowned. “Well that’s unnecessarily exclusive. Surely this place isn’t just for me.”
“Bang up picture of you though,” Coll snorted.
Kate considered the sign. From an artistic perspective, it was well painted. A crowned woman in white, carried a shrouded figure on her outstretched arms. The invalid’s face could not be seen in that tangle of blankets, but the outstretched hand glowed with green flame.
“Is that supposed to be me?” Kate asked. “There in the blankets?”
“Perfect likeness,” Coll said. “Pillow-face an’ all.”
“Am I being set upon a pyre or dragged to the healers?” Kate wanted to know. “Or am I dead in this scenario? Is Andraste carrying me to the Maker’s side? What a morbid thought.”
“Sure but that’s you after two drinks. Lightweight that you are.”
“I can handle more than…” Kate trailed off when Coll raised a brow. “Fair enough. Either way, that picture hardly puts one in the drinking spirit.”
“Depends on what you’re drinkin,‘” Coll said. “But as it clear ain’t been painted by Solas, that’s good enough for me.”
Kate glanced over at Coll in curiosity. “Oh? You don’t care for Solas’ art?”
Coll said something in elvish that Kate couldn’t quite translate. She heard the words for ‘paint’ and ‘excrement,’ but not much else.
“How is Solas these days?” Kate asked instead.
Coll’s eyes narrowed. “You done talked with that elf just yesterday. Whatcha really askin’, Kate?”
A crowd of drinkers pushed their way out of the tavern and into the courtyard. Kate and Coll stepped aside to let them pass. Once the party-goers were out of earshot, Kate asked:
“What’s going on with you and Solas? I asked him if he was coming tonight and he said, ‘Let Mistress Colleen enjoy such revelries.”
Coll’s lips puckered in a frown. “Pox-bottle, that’s what he is. Dhrua is on’el em’an.“
“Thinks he’s better’n everyone.”
“I’ve found Solas to be quite humble, really.”
“Then you ain’t payin’ attention,” Coll said. “He’s got this way about him. Won’t come drinkin’ with me for one, even though I asked him.”
“Well, yeah,” Coll said, looking away as she pushed an errant braid out of her face. “He’s not so bad when he’s helpin’ a body translate a book or somethin’. An’ sometimes by late candlelight, he gets this look in his eyes that…”
Coll caught Kate’s surprised expression and scowled. “Never mind.”
“Does Krem know?” Kate asked.
“Know what?” Coll said in exasperation. “That sometimes Solas ain’t such a feckin’ feck? What does Krem care? He’s off makin’ eyes at some bard-lass. Anyhow, enough on this. What about you, Kate? What’s goin’ on with you and your lyrium-skivin’ templar?”
“Keep your voice down, Coll,” Kate said, looking around. “I told you about Cul– about that lyrium thing in confidence.”
“Yet now we’re standin’ here in the chill, waitin’ on Cullen,” Coll said, not lowering her voice in the slightest. “So what’s goin’ on, Kate? You’ve been right wary about that templar. Scarce told me nothin’ beyond that you did the protocols on him this mornin’.”
“Nothing else was relevant,” Kate returned. “Oh, did you remember to mix up some elfroot elixirs for Cullen? You said that would help with the inflammation.”
“Sure, sure. Bottled up a batch this afternoon. But that’s dodgin’ the question, Kate. Is this really ‘bout keepin’ your commander fightin’ fit, or is it somethin’ else?”
Kate supposed she could pretend that she didn’t know what Coll was driving at, but that would just inspire more awkward questions.
“Cullen is just a friend,” Kate said. “He is,” she insisted, for Coll looked unbelieving. “And I’m worried about him. The lyrium thing… It’s hard for him.”
Coll’s mouth curled in a devilish smile. “I’ll bet it is. Did you know, Kate - an’ I’m sure your boy didn’t mention it - that lyrium oft has the effect of makin’ a man…?”
Coll held her index finger out straight, then curled it to point downward at the ground. Kate felt like her throat was seizing up.
“Lyrium don’t make ‘em all like that,” Coll assured her, “But sometimes at Ostwick, the templars would visit the infirmary to stock up on some, ah, persuadin’ potions. Take a bottle or two with ‘em on leave. Tonic made of rashvine and vandal aria - same base as in rock armor potions - then you add in amarita vein. That plant looks like a willy a-poppin’ up from the earth, so’s it only makes sense, right? Thing is though, now that your boy ain’t on lyrium, he’s like to have the need somethin’ fierce. One stumbling block gone, aye?”
“N-no! Coll, no!” Kate didn’t answer so much as explode. “That’s… No!”
“What?” Coll said, tossing her braids over her shoulder. “I’m just sayin’ that your boy won’t need help gettin’ a stiffy on. No help but your own, that is.”
Kate didn’t say anything to that. She tried to ignore Coll’s words. She tried not to think about helping Cullen in that regard.
She failed miserably.
“But iffin’ the two of you ever need help with such things,” Coll went on, oblivious to Kate’s stunned fantasies. “There’s herbs for it. There’s herbs for everything.”
“I was not asking for help with…” Kate shook her head and tried again. “I… We… I couldn’t possibly.”
“Sure you could,” Coll said. “Just take the boy off somewhere private and stick your tongue down his throat.”
Kate squeezed her eyes shut. Maker’s breath. Coll and her advice. And yet, hadn’t Kate tried something very similar just this morning? She had, until that voice in her head had reminded her how selfish that was.
How dare you?
Kate tried to make herself speak reasonably about this.
“Cullen is going through lyrium withdrawals. He’s got all sorts of aches and pains.” - And horrible memories, but Kate didn’t mention that. - “That makes for more stumbling blocks, Coll, not less. Besides, it would be entirely self-serving of me to turn our lyrium protocols into some sort of…of…”
“Seduction?” Coll suggested.
“I was going to say ‘courtship,’ but close enough.”
“Might be fun,” Coll said, waggling her brows. “An’ why ‘self-serving,’ I’d like to know? What’s so wrong with servin’ yourself anyhow?”
“Coll, I’m serious!” Kate hissed, trying to keep her voice low. “I’m the Inquisitor now. Cullen is the commander. He and I are supposed to be working together to save the world…”
”‘Savin’ the world,‘” Coll rolled her eyes. “What a shem thing to say.”
“It’s true,” Kate said. “I can’t afford to be distracted by a passing fancy. And it will pass,” she insisted.
“So you fancy the boy?” Coll said, amused. “Sweet Mythal, lass! Listen to yourself! Iffin’ you are to save the world, that’s all the more reason to get a leg over. You need to let off some steam!”
“No, I… Alright, fine. I probably do. But not like that.”
“Then how?” Coll said, folding her arms over her chest. “‘Cause the way I see it, you’re gonna burn yourself out. No, listen to me, lass,” she said, when Kate frowned and turned away. “Yes, we gotta save the world. Feck, sounds just as pretentious when I say it. But you’re right. Only we’re savin’ the world together-like and we’re doin’ it one day at a time. Not all at once. So you’ve got to take a rest now and again. That’s why we built a tavern, right?”
“That’s true,” Kate said, pausing to think about that.
“So let the Herald have her rest already,” Coll said, smacking Kate on the arm.
“I see what you did there,” Kate said, side-eying Coll. “But I still say it’s a stupid name for a tavern.”
“What’s wrong with the name of the tavern?”
Kate and Coll froze, each looking at the other with an ‘Oh shit’ expression. That was Cullen’s voice.
“How long has he been there?” Kate whispered.
“Just showed up,” Coll whispered back.
Well thank the Maker for small favors, Kate thought.
Kate turned around just in time to see Cullen walking up into the lantern light. Speaking of favors… Her jaw dropped.
“Oh wow, Cullen. You look amazing!”
Coll snorted with laughter, and Kate bit her lip in embarrassment. She hadn’t meant to blurt that out in lieu of a proper greeting. Still, it was true. Cullen did look rather amazing. He had forgone his massive armor, and wore only his leather trousers, his boots, and a leather jacket over a linen tunic. Without the imposing mantle and iron armor, Cullen looked like any other man. Any other gorgeous man, Kate amended. And she was staring like a fool.
“You look nice as well,” Cullen said, though he wasn’t really looking at her. Kate thought he might be looking at her… chest? Surely not. The bobbing lanterns in the courtyard made it hard to read his expression properly. All the same, Kate was certain that Coll had smothered a fit of giggles behind her tattooed hand.
Kate said, “Thank you, Cullen,” for that was expected, but she didn’t really believe his compliment. She hadn’t had time to do anything more than change out of her sweaty tunic, and the only clean shirt on hand had been far too big for her. She had tied the tails around her waist and rolled the sleeves up to her elbows, but it was no use. Coll had said Kate looked ‘Mighty fine,’ but Kate suspected she looked like she’d draped herself in a ship’s mainsail.
Oh Andraste curse her vanity. What was she worrying about? It was just Cullen. He’d seen her in nothing but her corset the other day in the smithy. And if he hadn’t cared then, he wouldn’t care now.
“Sure don’t no one have a compliment for me?” Coll asked. Kate turned to Coll, grateful for the distraction.
“Stunning as always,” Kate said. “That’s the new armor you had commissioned, isn’t it?”
“Robes befittin’ a Dalish keeper,” Coll said, twirling in place. “Gonna show that boy Krem what he’s missing. Ready to get plastered?” With this, she hiked a thumb at the tavern doors. Cullen drew back.
“Oh, um… I wasn’t planning to get plastered, per se.”
“She doesn’t really mean ‘plastered,’” Kate told him. “For reference, Coll would say that before study hall.”
“Oh, but I mean it tonight,” Coll said. She turned toward the tavern with a grin.
“So how are you, Cullen?” Kate asked, falling into step beside him. “I mean, I know I saw you just this morning, but…”
Kate didn’t get any further than that. For just then, Cullen strode ahead and opened the tavern door. He stood aside, making room for the ladies to pass. Coll said, ‘Ta, templar’ and walked in at once. But Kate came to a sudden stop, nearly tripping over her own feet.
“Inquisitor?” Cullen called, looking at Kate expectantly. Kate gave herself a little shake.
Oh, for the love of Golden City, she chided herself. It’s just a door. But then again, she mused, when was the last time she’d seen a man open a door for a Dalish elf? Exactly never, that’s when. And people rarely opened doors for Kate, either. She found it rather remarkable.
But as Kate didn’t know how to say that - or if she should say that - she simply said, “I, uh, thank you,” and slipped past Cullen and into the tavern.
It was like walking from darkness to daytime. Lantern light and fire light flooded the room, so bright that it seemed the sun had been smuggled inside. A roar met Kate’s ears: the laughter and conversation of hundreds of voices, threaded through with a golden strand of guitar music. The bard, Maryden, strummed by the fire, largely ignored by the crowds. There were three stories open to the center of the room, and people had packed every floor. A group of dwarves stood along one of the balconies, their heads scarcely reaching the railing. Two massive Tal-Vashoth mercenaries stood laughing by the bar. Humans and elves filled every table and chair, a small legion of servers slid back and forth through the crowd with drinks in their hands, and over all this, Kate heard a small voice say:
Kate looked up. Cole sat on the balcony above her, his feet dangling down over the crowd. None of the other patrons seemed to notice him.
“Hello, Cole,” Kate said.
“They’re waiting for you over there,” Cole said, pointing. For a moment, Kate thought he was pointing at the fire. But then she saw that there was a space behind the stairway, a kind of alcove opposite the entry door. A booming laugh echoed from that space, and Kate spied a large set of horns. Krem stood at the edge of the stairs, a bottle of wine in his fist. He watched Maryden strum her guitar, oblivious to the crowd behind him. Coll’s eyes narrowed at once.
“There we are,” Coll said.
“I thought you weren’t…” Kate began, but Coll was already elbowing her way through the crowd.
“This way, it seems,” Kate said over her shoulder to Cullen.
Cullen followed Kate, as Kate followed Coll. The three of them came up alongside Krem, only to find a group of people had packed themselves into the space under the stairs. Morris and Sera sat at the far table, eating a stack of meat pies. Dorian and Vivienne stood at a tall table, with a flight of wine goblets between them. Varric, Iron Bull, and Robert were playing at cards. With them were two other humans: a dark-skinned, green-eyed young man, and a tanned, blue-eyed woman who seemed to have lost interest in the game. She looked up at Cullen with wide eyes. As the woman stared, Robert dropped a card on the low table between them and said:
“I swear, it’s true. The woman had the biggest…” He held his hands out in front of his chest, but when he saw Kate, he finished with: “Hands.”
Kate snorted. She’d heard this story before.
“Katie!” Robert said, grinning. “There you are! And you, Coll! And the… templar?”
Robert cast Cullen a curious look. In fact, several people cast Cullen a curious look - especially the blue-eyed woman there. Cullen nervously rubbed his neck, then held up his hand in greeting.
“Evening,” he said.
Kate did not know the proper form of greeting for a tavern-party, so she took a cue from Cullen and gave everyone an all-purpose wave:
“Hello,” she said.
“Howya,” Coll said, nodding at the crowd. “Aneth ara, Krem.”
“Oh, hey Coll,” Krem said, barely bothering to look over. Coll gave a disdainful sniff and perched herself on the table right beside Krem.
“Oi, here Kate,” Coll said, waving Kate over. Coll kicked out a chair and placed it beside the table. “Here’s for you, templar,” she added. Kate took a seat on the table beside Coll, and Cullen took the offered chair on Kate’s left. The blue eyed woman continued to stare at them both.
“Captain Ruvena,” Kate said, suddenly remembering the woman’s name. “Congratulations on your promotion.”
Ruvena flinched, as if she hadn’t expected Kate to speak to her. But she said, “Thank you,” all the same and turned hastily back to her cards. Robert looked up from his game and waved a hand wide.
“Oh, right,” he said. “Introductions. So that’s Katie, my cousin. Herald of Somebody. Wait. What I am doing? You know these people better than me.”
From the slur in his words, Kate guessed that her cousin had several pints in him. In fact, everyone under the stairs had that wine-loosened look. Dorian and Ruvena were visibly flushed, and Krem’s wine bottle was half gone. Iron Bull’s legs were spread wide as he sat splayed in his chair. Even Vivienne looked more relaxed than usual.
“Kate, dearest,” the enchanter said, “Good to see you! But I must ask, what exactly was the thinking behind this, um…” Vivienne pointed at Kate with her pinky finger, her hand still clasping her wine glass. Kate looked down at herself, then she realized what the enchanter was on about.
“Oh, this?” Kate grimaced and tugged at her tunic. “Everything else was packed. I know, it’s um… Not exactly the thing, is it?”
“It’s a look,” Dorian said. Rather unhelpfully in Kate’s opinion.
“So, um, I think I know everyone here,” Kate said, turning her attention away from her clothes. “Except for messere, um… I’m so sorry. I’ve forgotten your name.” Kate addressed this to the green-eyed man.
“Ser Barris,” he said, rising to shake Kate’s hand. As Barris did so, Robert rather shamefully tried to sneak a peek at Barris’ cards. Kate stood to shake Barris’ hand, then sat back down. Coll shouted out to a passing waitress: “Oi! Couple pints? Ta!”
“Oh, no drinks for me,” Cullen said.
“Here you are,” a voice said beside Cullen. It was Cole - there and gone. A mug had appeared in Cullen’s hands. Inside was a white liquid. Milk, Kate supposed. And here she’d hoped to buy Cullen a drink.
At least Cullen looked more comfortable, Kate thought. Maybe now was a good time to engage him in some small talk. Try and smooth over what had happened this morning, perhaps? Or simply ask Cullen about his afternoon? But no, Kate realized, as she looked around. Small talk was quite out of the question here. This tavern was nothing like the edges of a ballroom, where two people might have a civilized and somewhat private tête-à-tête. The conversations here were either very public - or very private, judging by that couple in the corner. It seemed that Kate had entirely mistaken the venue.
Before Kate could think of anything to say, Varric looked up from his cards and called out:
“So Curly, I gotta ask. What pulled you away from your desk? I had it on good authority that you weren’t coming.” Varric’s gaze slid over to Ruvena, who studied her cards with great interest.
“I’m wasn’t planning to come, no,” Cullen replied. “But the Inquisitor convinced me to make an appearance. Opening night of the tavern. Morale and all that.” He inclined his head to Kate as he said this.
“Is that why you came?” Ruvena asked, looking up from the game.
“With all the noise outside of my office, I realized I wasn’t going to get anything done this evening, anyway.”
“Now that’s more in-character for you,” Varric said. Beside him, Ruvena relaxed.
“Want to join us for the next game, commander?” Ruvena asked Cullen.
“Uh…” Cullen had been about to take a sip of milk, and looked up from his mug. “What’s the game?”
“Wicked Grace,” Robert said, rearranging his cards.
“Never played it,” Cullen said.
Iron Bull, Varric, and Robert exchanged sly glances before looking back to their cards.
“We’ll teach you,” Varric said.
“They’ve promised to teach me as well,” Dorian put in. “Not sure it’s a favor.”
“Hey,” Varric said. “Everyone ought to know how to play Wicked Grace. And don’t worry. I’m not the kind that’ll take you for your small clothes.”
“Who plays for small clothes?” Robert wanted to know. From his tone, Kate wasn’t certain if her cousin wanted to avoid this player, or perhaps learn some pointers.
“Just you wait, Ostwick,” Varric said, waving a finger at Robert. “I’ll introduce you. As for you, Curly, I’ll deal you into the next round. You too, Sparkler. Soon as I take these suckers.” Varric hiked a thumb at Robert and the others, who all protested this statement. Iron Bull just snorted and said, “You wish.”
Just then, a server appeared, her hands full of mugs. She leaned over Cullen to hand Kate and Coll their drinks. In doing so, the woman shoved her breasts right under Cullen’s nose. Cullen jerked his head back. The server straightened, winked at Cullen, and sashayed away. Cullen’s head swiveled around to follow. But then, Kate noticed that Iron Bull, Coll, Krem, and Sera all turned to stare after that server as well.
Kate frowned. Then she caught herself. It was none of her business who they stared at. Kate turned her attention to her drink. The mug held an amber liquid that smelled strongly of paint. Kate said, “Cheers” to no one in particular, and took a swig.
Her throat caught fire. Or at least, that’s what it felt like. Kate’s eyes watered, and she barely managed to keep herself from spitting the drink into Cullen’s lap. Maker’s breath! How did they manage to put an inferno into a mug? Kate swallowed it down. The heat settled into her belly, and she came up coughing.
“What is that?” she gasped.
“Maraas-Lok. Had the barkeep set it aside for you.” Iron Bull held up his own mug, his eyes still on the busty server as she made her way around the room.
“Aw, chief,” Krem said, turning around to glare at his employer. “That’s cruel.”
“Take another swig of it, boss,” Iron Bull said. “The first drink kills all your taste buds. But the second one goes down smooth. It’ll hit you in about a quarter hour though, so you gotta time the second glass just right.”
At this, Cullen finally turned around. “You’re not going to keep drinking that, are you?” he asked Kate.
Kate had been about to set the drink aside. But because she didn’t like the censure in Cullen’s voice, she said: “It’s… interesting,” and took another sip.
She came up wheezing this time. Her lips felt numb.
“Give off,” Coll said, turning to Kate with a frown. “You wanna be sleepin’ under the table before the night’s begun? Here lass, trade me.”
Coll handed Kate a drink - a mug full of something similarly amber-colored. Kate eyed it warily. Meanwhile, Coll took a long pull of the maraas-lok.
“Oooch!” Coll said, licking her lips. “That’s brilliant, that is.”
“Told ya,” Bull replied. He downed the rest of his mug and called for another. Coll went back for another dram. Meanwhile, Kate tried a sip of Coll’s drink - a very tentative one. This time, she didn’t bother to hide her reaction.
“Ugh,” Kate said, holding the mug away from her. “What is that? It’s like drinking bread.”
Robert sighed. “‘Like drinking bread?’ Maker, Katie. Have you no appreciation for the finer things? That’s a Highever bitter you’ve got there.”
“I’m getting the bitter,” Kate said.
“Absolutely no appreciation…” Robert began, but Varric cut him off with, “Hey, Ostwick. Your play.”
“I know, I know. I just don’t have anything.”
“So fold already and lose your coin to me,” Iron Bull suggested.
“No chance, Bull.” Robert threw another marker on the pile. “I never give up.”
“Would you prefer some wine, Kate-darling?” Vivienne asked. “Krem there took the liberty of raiding the Skyhold cellars. Found an Antivan red - ancient vintage, you couldn’t ask for better. Or there’s a Rivani Riesling, if that’s more to your taste.”
“Oooh, I’ll take ‘em!” Sera said, though she already had a mug beside her and half a meat pie in her fist. “Give it here, Viv!”
Madame Vivienne curled a lip as Sera launched herself across the space and swiped two bottles right off of the table.
“Really,” Vivienne said. She turned to the remaining bottle - the one she’d grabbed hold of in Sera’s assault - and regally poured out a single glass. This she handed to Kate.
“There you are, my dear,” Vivienne said, with a pointed look in Sera’s direction. “For those of us who don’t chug straight from the bottle. No offense, Krem dear.”
“None taken,” Krem replied, saluting her with his flagon.
“Er, thank you, Vivienne,” Kate said. She set her mug of ale aside, and took a sip of the wine.
“Ohh,” Kate said, nodding at the glass. “That’s much better.” Vivienne toasted Kate. The rings on the enchanter’s fingers winked in the lantern light.
“So Curly,” Varric said, playing another card. “I heard that you’re comin’ with us to Crestwood tomorrow.”
Kate had been about to take another sip of wine, but instead sputtered her drink all over her trousers. Coll whacked Kate on the back, and Cullen looked from Varric to Kate and then back again, as if he wasn’t sure whom he was supposed to speak to.
“That’s not exactly common…” Cullen began.
“What?” Kate said, looking down at Cullen from her seat on the table.
“Hey, Varric,” Robert said, sharply. He jerked his head back, and Kate now noticed a couple of people she’d missed before. Cassandra and Leliana stood nearby, their backs turned toward the card-players.
“Oh shit,” Varric hissed. He put his cards over his mouth in a child-like gesture. “Good catch, Ostwick.”
“You’re coming with us?” Kate said, turning to Cullen. She tried to sound neutral, but the maraas-lok must have numbed her tongue. The words came out lisping. The qunari drink must have affected her stomach as well, for the thought of traveling with Cullen again made Kate feel oddly fluttery.
“I… Um, yes.” Cullen glanced around as if he wasn’t certain he should be talking about this in a pub. Ruvena, in particular, watched him closely.
“Since when?” Kate said, lowering her voice.
“Since this afternoon,” Cullen told her, his reply equally low. “Leliana and I discussed it. Those smuggler’s caves are a labyrinth. You’ll need a guide to find… you know.”
“Yes, but you?” Kate could not help but ask.
“Why not me?” Cullen said, sounding offended. “I know the area well. I was born in Honnleath, the next village over.”
“You were?” Kate blinked.
“Didn’t I mention that this morning?”
“No,” Kate said. “Of all the things you said…” Kate almost said something about lyrium, but she caught herself.
“Do you not want me to join you?” Cullen’s brows drew together.
“No! I mean yes. I mean, that’s fine. I just…” Kate glanced over at Leliana and Cassandra. Had anyone told the Seeker about the reason that they were going to Crestwood? Kate didn’t know, and she wasn’t about shout Hawke’s name to a crowded tavern. So instead she whispered:
“Considering the company we’ll be keeping, do you want to?”
“Considering the company,” Cullen returned. “I don’t want you going alone.”
Kate blushed and ducked her head, telling herself that Cullen didn’t mean anything by that. He was just thinking of the mission - as he should. As she should.
It was then that Kate realized she had spit wine all over her shirt. She tried to wipe the splotches away, but it was no use. Red wine on white cotton was hopeless. Kate also realized that she was feeling rather buzzed now. The tavern had taken on a slightly blurry glow.
A new voice interrupted:
“You are going to Crestwood, Cullen?”
It was Cassandra. Either mention of Crestwood had drawn her into the conversation, or else she’d been listening all along. Kate saw Robert flinch. Varric went quite still. At Cassandra’s side, Leliana turned around lazily, inspecting the tips of her gloves.
“Commander Cullen and I spoke about it this afternoon,” Leliana told Cassandra. “The fortress of Caer Bronach has fallen to bandits. It would enhance our standing in Ferelden if we were to recapture it.”
Ah, Kate thought. Well that made sense. And that was probably the real reason that Cullen was going to Crestwood - not because he wanted to protect Kate in some knight-like way.
“Exactly,” Cullen said, nodding at Leliana’s words. “We need to secure the roads eastward if we’re to establish ties with Denerim.”
“And I hope to use the fortress as a base of operations,” Leliana added. “I’m sending Charter along, as well as Varric.”
“What about me now?” Varric looked up from his cards as if he hadn’t the foggiest idea what was going on.
“Ah,” Cassandra said, and her expression eased. “So that is why… I see.”
“Wait,” Sera snorted from over in the corner. “You lot are going to Crestwood just because the Nightingale wants a castle?”
“I want a castle,” Morris put in.
“Morris, we talked about this,” Cullen said.
“Seems a poor choice of priorities, Ser Cullen,” Ruvena put in. “We only just got Skyhold sorted out, and now you’re headed into the field? The recruits need more training.”
Kate blinked in surprise. What was Ruvena on about, questioning Leliana and Cullen like that? Evidently Cullen thought the same thing.
“I’m sure you can handle the recruits, Ruvena,” he said, managing to sound both complimentary and stern at the same time. “Our borders must be secured and capturing the keep will be good practice for our soldiers. Our ASSes need the exercise. Er…” Cullen flushed as several people around the circle chuckled.
“Hear, hear,” Dorian said, holding up his glass in mock toast.
“Stupid name,” Cullen grumbled.
“You’re welcome,” Bull grinned. He held his mug high, then took another drink.
“Very good, ser,” Ruvena muttered, and she looked back to her cards. Cassandra continued to stare at Cullen with a thoughtful expression, her eyes narrowing once again.
“Still,” Cassandra said. “Perhaps if I came along…”
“What, and leave me high and dry?” Robert said. “Come on now, Cassie. You and I will have plenty of our own adventures in the Emerald Graves. I promise to show you a good time.” He looked over his shoulder and gave her a roguish wink.
Cassandra turned a deep shade of purple and whirled back around. Varric’s eyes went huge, as if he was thinking, “Ohhhh shiiiit!” And it might have been Kate’s imagination, but it seemed that Leliana smiled at Robert before turning around as well.
“So… You two are cousins?”
It was Barris who asked this. He looked at Robert - then up at Cassandra - then over at Kate. Kate opened her mouth to answer, but Robert beat her to it.
“Not seeing the family resemblance?” Robert asked, playing another card.
“Er, no,” Barris said. “Either in looks or manners.”
“Family resemblance is a myth,” Varric said, playing a card that had Ruvena groaning.
“Eh,” Bull said. “Humans all look the same to me.” He made his play and shuffled his cards around.
“Well I see the difference,” Dorian said. “You Trevelyans don’t look a thing alike.”
“It’s true,” Robert said. “Everyone says that I have the better breasts.” He cupped his cards over his chest.
Kate rolled her eyes as Coll snorted into her ale. Cassandra turned around with a sputter - evidently she had never stopped listening in - and Cullen said, emphatically:
“Not a chance.”
The laughter trailed off.
“Oh?” Robert said, raising an eyebrow at Cullen.
“Well, no,” Cullen blanched. “I mean, not that I…” He stuck his nose into his mug. Robert eyed Cullen for the briefest moment, then laughed and shrugged.
“I dunno,” he said. “Maybe that mark has improved your figure, Katie. Shall we compare?” Robert made as if to stand and unbutton his shirt. Cassandra turned beet red and whirled back around. Dorian looked up from his wine glass with interest.
“Stop, Robert,” Kate told him. “Really, that’s enough.”
“Oh no, please continue,” Dorian said, his mustache going as lopsided as his grin. “I was rather hoping for a demonstration.”
“Don’t encourage him,” Kate said to Dorian. “And don’t encourage him,” she added, looking at Robert and pointing at Dorian.
“Well, if no one is going to disrobe,” Robert said, “I think I shall get myself another ale. Excuse me! Barkeep? I… Oh, thank you,” he said, as Flissa came by and handed him another mug. “What excellent service you have in this establishment.” Flissa giggled, Cassandra looked over her shoulder with a scowl, and Kate shook her head.
“Is this what a tavern is like?” Kate asked. “Robert, this is no different than when you hold court in the drawing room at one of mother’s parties.”
“I tried to tell you so,” Robert said. “But you insisted on romanticizing the whole thing. It’s nothing but people drinking and talking over each other and bragging about their sexual conquests.”
“Don’t hear you bragging much,” Varric said, looking at Robert thoughtfully.
“Er…” Robert cringed, made as if to turn around, then stopped himself. “I can be discrete.” Kate heard a ‘tsking’ sound from Cassandra.
“Yeah,” Bull said. “This tavern’s not bad.” He placed a massive hand on the back of Robert’s chair, and leaned back in tipsy satisfaction. “Not bad at all for a rush job. Good work, Cullen.”
“Uh, thanks,” Cullen said, looking up from his milk. “Though my men were the ones who…”
“Still,” Bull said, putting his other hand on the back of Ruvena’s chair, “It’s missing something. Tamassran,” he snapped his large fingers. “That’s what it is. Ah well. Guess you Chantry folk don’t go for that sort of thing.”
“Don’t go for what now?” Kate asked. Coll gave a short laugh and turned to Kate as if to explain, but Bull got there first:
“Sex workers. Ya know.”
Kate had not known. Her face heated, but she willed herself not to sound embarrassed as she said: “I suppose that’s something each person can work out for themselves.”
“That’s the problem though,” Bull said. “Hard to take care of stuff like that in a place like this. Everyone packed into tents and bunks. Training hard, pent up. No good place for ‘em to have sex. Or masturbate. Either one.”
Beside Kate, Cullen made a sort of choking sound into his milk. Kate stilled as she remembered what Cullen had said to her just that morning - and what Coll had said to her just a little while ago. Kate picked up her wine glass and took a sip. She was careful not to glance either to her right or her left.
“Too true, Bull dear,” Vivienne said, sadly. “Even the Orlesians deal with such things better than Fereldens do.”
“Hey, we Fereldens take care of ourselves just fine, Viv,” Sera said, looking up in annoyance. “I mean, I dunno about them,” she waved a hand at the others, “But I get mine often enough.” She cocked her head, then added:
“Speakin’ of which, when was the last time you lot had sex?”
That question brought every eye swinging around in Sera’s direction. Even Cassandra and Leliana turned around. The rest of the tavern continued to rumble with conversation and the bard continued to sing, but everyone under the stairs had gone quiet. They looked to Sera first - then to one another. No one said a thing.
“Come on then,” Sera snorted. “You’re not all such prudes.”
That got people talking again.
“Surely not,” Vivienne replied. “But it’s no secret who my paramour is.” She sipped her wine with a regal air.
“Me? Last had sex about an hour ago,” Bull said with a shrug. “What about you guys?”
“Who?” Dorian asked, as Krem turned around to say: “Way to put that out there, chief.” Coll opened her mouth as if to ask Krem when it had last been for him, but he’d already turned back to Maryden’s song. Coll snapped her mouth shut and took another swing of the maraas-lok. On Kate’s other side, Cullen stared at the others as if they’d sprouted extra heads.
“Is this a common subject of conversation in a tavern?” Kate asked him, for she did not know.
“Maker, I hope not,” Cullen replied. But unfortunately, their side conversation drew Sera’s attention. She turned to them and said, loudly:
“So, Inquisitor. What about you?”
Cullen froze like a startled deer, but Kate, numbed by both wine and ale, just said:
“What about me?”
“When’s the last time you…?” Sera made a series of hand gestures, each growing increasingly more lewd.
“Care to translate that?” Coll snorted.
“Sex,” Sera said, ignoring Coll’s sarcasm. “Rollin’ in the hay. Two-backed and up against a door. When’d you do it last, Quizzy?”
“Oh come now, Sera,” Kate said, lisping a little as she spoke. “You can’t just ask people things like that.”
“You can’t, all Heraldry of Andrastry. I can.”
“What’s the point in asking?” Robert said, playing another card. “Most people would rather believe rumor. Just make your best guess like everyone else.” Behind him, Cassandra stiffened.
“Ooh!” Sera said, brightening. “I like guessing games! I’m thinkin’…” She tapped her chin. “Cassandra? Never.” Sera hiked a thumb at the Seeker, who sputtered. “With the crossbow, that’s kinky, right?” This, of course, was directed at Varric.
“Maker,” Kate groaned. “Robert, I think you made it worse.”
“Or more fun,” Bull grinned.
“Bull, you told us,” Sera went on. “Viv, you told us. Solas? Ew. He’s not here. But somethin’ in the Fade, really elfy like.” Coll stiffened at that, and her eyes narrowed.
“Dorian? Prostitute. Had a bad leg.” Dorian cocked his head. “What? Why…?” he began, but Sera had already moved on.
“Barris, never. Ruvena, never. All you templar lot, never,” Sera waved at hand at Morris and the rest. “Krem…” She pursed her lips, then shrugged. “No idear. Cullen? Templar. Still never. Inquisitor…” She paused here, squinting her eyes at Kate.
“You were a mage, right? Orgy or somethin’. You an’ Coll both.”
There was a moment of silence, and then everyone burst out talking at once.
“Can we please change the subject?” Kate asked, as Coll shouted over her, “You think I’d feck the whole Ostwick Circle? I had my pick o’ the lot, I’ll have you know.”
Krem turned around at that and raised a brow, Maryden momentarily forgotten.
“That’s your guess for me?” Dorian glared, as Ruvena said, “Not all templars are blushing virgins, you know.” Barris glanced sideways at Ruvena at that, and Varric said, “Prostitute with a bad leg. I’ll have to remember that one.”
“You’re terrible!” Bull cried, drowning out the protests. “Sera, you can’t read people for shit!”
“You think you can do better?” Sera snorted.
“I know I can,” Bull slurred.
“Please don’t,” Kate begged, but Bull started in at once:
“Cassandra - long time back. You were in your what, your twenties? Mage. Your first and last.”
Cassandra’s mouth dropped open, and Robert whirled around to stare at her. She went stiff as a poker, but she did not deny it. Bull moved on:
“Krem? Nah, that’s too easy.” Coll opened her mouth like she might ask, but shook her head and stuck her nose back in her drink.
“Dorian? Friend of yours. Half a year back. But they forced him to get married to some girl he hated. Tried to do the same to you, right?”
“I…” Dorian blanched. “That’s…Bloody flames.”
“Varric? Three years, or there about.” The dwarf inclined his head. “Alright, the templars,” Bull pointed at Barris and Ruvena in turn: “Five years, four months. Really Barris? Five years? Damn.”
“Are you a mind reader?” Barris asked, flushing. Beside him, Ruvena just stared.
Bull shrugged. “Ben Hassrath,” he said.
“Wait,” Kate said, as Cullen sucked in a breath beside her, “What do you mean, ‘Ben Hassrath?’ Are you saying that the qunari have some kind of file on each of us in this regard?”
Every eye swung to Bull at that.
“Yeah?” Bull said. He took a swig of his drink.
Cullen sputtered. “Qunari spies search out that sort of information?”
“Why not?” Bull asked. “Leliana does.”
The Nightingale said nothing. She just stood there with a smile, her hood casting shadows on her face.
“Yes, but…” Cullen’s gaze swing from Leliana to Bull and back again. “That’s preposterous.”
“It’s all part of the business of knowin’ people,” Bull shrugged.
“Oooh, ooh, what about me?” Sera said, sticking her hand in the air.
“You got laid the week before you joined us,” Bull told her.
“Yes I did,” she grinned proudly.
“Now Morris,” Bull continued. Morris looked up as Bull called his name. “Escort service. Every year on his birthday. Present to himself.”
“Is it my birthday?” Morris asked, delighted by the prospect.
“Not yet, kid,” Bull told him.
“Blast.” Morris deflated, and turned back to his meal with a sigh.
“On me birthday,” Coll muttered, nodding to herself. “Gonna have to remember that one.” Cullen just stared at Morris, stunned.
“Now Robert here,” Bull said, hiking a thumb to his right, “Got a full report on him.”
Varric snorted. “I think we’ve all heard more about Ostwick than we wanted to.”
“Indeed.” This came from Cassandra.
Robert flushed. “I’m sure we don’t…”
“Been keepin’ tabs on the Free Marchers for ages,” Bull went on. “‘Specially the nobility.”
“There are Ben Hassrath in Ostwick?” Robert asked. “They must file down the horns to keep a low profile.”
“Nah, not horned ones,” Bull said. “Converted ones. Your maid Beth, at Trevelyan Manor? She’s one.”
“She is?” Kate said, eyes wide. “Well,” she added, mostly to herself, “That does explain a few things.”
Robert, however, went quite still. Kate groaned.
“Oh Robert,” she said. “Please tell me you didn’t.”
“It was after your father kicked me out, obviously. I don’t pester the help. Conflict of interest and all that.”
“Didn’t conflict with her interest in the least,” Bull told Robert. Cassandra’s face now looked like a thundercloud. Robert cringed, as if he could feel the Seeker’s disapproval from behind his back.
“Now Cullen there,” Bull said, pointing across the circle. “I’ve got almost nothin’ on him. Just that one orgy.”
Kate squeaked. Several voices around the circle cried out, “Orgy??” and a few nearby tables stopped their conversations to stare. Cullen looked at Bull in horror.
“What?! I never…”
“Oh, no, my bad,” Bull said, slapping his leg. “Sera said that word and it got stuck in my head. Not an orgy. Orgy’s everyone all at once, right?” Bull placed his hands together, meshing all his fingers. “What do you call it when it’s a different woman every night?” Bull fanned his fingers out.
“A different woman every night?” This came from Coll. It certainly didn’t come from Kate. She was too stunned to speak. A different woman every night? That didn’t sound like Cullen at all.
“No!” Cullen said. “It wasn’t… Just a misspent furlough in Denerim. Nothing more.”
“Mis-spendin’ all over the place, sounds like,” Sera snickered.
Coll burst out laughing into her drink, and Varric said, “Bah. Orgy makes for a better story.” Ruvena just stared.
“Ah,” Robert said, nodding knowingly. “The Pearl?”
“No,” Cullen said, tightly. He didn’t elaborate, and there was no mistaking his embarrassment. Kate opened her mouth to say something - she hadn’t planned what - when Bull cut in with:
“Whatever it was, it musta been good. Held ya ten years, didn’t it?”
That exploded from Robert.
And Kate found she was speechless again.
Ten years? Cullen hadn’t had a lover in ten years? Was that because of lyrium-related impotence, Kate wondered wildly? Or had Cullen taken those ‘extra’ vows that pious templars favored? Had he regretted that misspent furlough in Denerim? Or was there some other reason he’d gone from feast to famine? Or maybe Bull was mistaken, and Cullen had had some lover that the Ben Hassrath knew nothing about? But no, judging by Cullen’s silence, he really had been celibate for a decade.
Well, that answered one question, Kate supposed. She’d been wondering if he was single.
No! Kate told herself. What a horrible thing to think at a time like this! She was not wondering…
Alright fine, she wondered. Kate wondered a lot right now. But Cullen’s fingers had curled tightly around his mug, and his face had gone completely red. Kate felt her stomach drop in sympathy. Surely that was why she snapped:
“Alright, that’s enough!”
“Oh sure,” Ruvena said, glaring at Kate from across the circle. “Stop the conversation before it gets to you.”
“I’ll tell you anything want to know,” Kate shot back. “Just leave off Cullen, alright?”
Everyone looked at Kate in surprise, no one more so than Cullen.
“Oh well I like that,” Robert said, after a beat. “You didn’t stop them from talking about me.”
“We all knew about you anyhow,” Cassandra said, glaring at Robert.
“You don’t know bollocks about me, Cass,” Robert returned. Cassandra blinked as if he’d slapped her. Kate blinked too. Robert rarely showed temper like that.
“Oh, stop it!” Kate cried, glaring at the lot of them. “Stop it all of you. I thought that the point of this evening was to enjoy each other’s company. And this…”
Kate felt her face go hot, and she didn’t know what else to say. She wasn’t sure if it was drink or anger that drove her words now. But she felt furious. And hurt. And mortified. Here she’d wanted to spend time with Cullen, and had only exposed him to ridicule.
“I’m sorry Cullen,” Kate said. “And you, too, Robert.”
“Why are you apologizing?” Cassandra wanted to know. “Sera and Bull started it.”
“Started what?” Bull said, pausing with his mug to his lips. “What’s the problem? I was just talkin’.”
“You’re embarrassin’ the shems,” Coll told him.
“Was I?” Bull sounded genuinely surprised to hear it. “Well shit, guys. Why didn’t you say so?”
“Humans, chief,” Krem said, shooting him a look.
“Huh? Guess so.”
“It’s fine,” Cullen said, though it didn’t sound like he thought it was fine at all.
“Yeah, you heard ‘im,” Sera said. “It’s fine. So I wanna hear about Cullen’s orgy. And her… Whatever.” Sera pointed a finger at Kate.
“It wasn’t…” Cullen said, through gritted teeth. And Kate, rather stupidly, threw herself into the conversation like a shield:
“You want to know about me? Fine. I only ever had one lover, and it ended rather suddenly when he introduced me to his wife.”
This came from Coll - and half a dozen other voices besides. Robert’s brows raised in astonishment, and Ruvena’s eyes went wide.
“Kate-lass, you were ridin’ on a married man?” Coll punched Kate hard on the arm.
“Ow!” Kate said, rubbing her shoulder. “No! He got married. That’s why it ended.”
“Ah,” Coll said, drawing back. “Good then. Was thinkin’ I’d have to drag you out behind the tavern and beat some sense inta you.”
“No, Coll. I’d never… No.”
“Alright, Duchess,” Varric said, folding his arms over his chest. “You can’t just throw out an opener like that and not tell us the story.”
Of course she couldn’t, Kate thought. And that had been her reasoning, right? She’d begun this tale as a way to keep the others from pestering Cullen. Only now, that seemed like a very stupid idea. For Cullen was staring at her in astonishment, and so was everyone else.
“So, this was some mage, right?” Robert asked. “I mean, you never kept company with any of the nobility.”
“Nah,” Coll shook her head. “Musta been someone outside o’ the Circle. ‘Tweren’t no one in it allowed to marry. Exceptin’ the templars,” she added, sliding a suspicious glance over at Cullen.
“Must’ve been a templar then,” Robert said. “Right, Kate?”
Kate’s face grew even hotter. She found it difficult to form words. Having kept the secret for so long, it seemed strange to say anything now. But then, Kate reasoned, Ostwick was miles away and this had happened years ago. She supposed there was no reason for secrecy now.
“Come on, Duchess,” Varric pressed. “Give us a story.”
Kate took a sip of wine - to wet her throat as well as for courage - and began:
“Um, well, I was nineteen. We started, uh… Courting, I guess you’d say? No, not courting. Anyhow, it all started on…”
“Wintersend,” Bull put in.
“Oh.” Kate drew back. “Well, if you’d like to tell my story for me…”
“Nah, that’s all I had on you. Unconfirmed, too. Didn’t mean to interrupt. Carry on.”
“Wintersend is your birthday, Katie,” Robert put in.
“There is something special about birthdays,” Morris sighed.
“Let her talk!” Cassandra glared at all of them. Robert held up his hands in surrender. Kate swallowed and began again:
“So, um, yes. So I’d just turned nineteen, and there was a boy - man, I should say. Nobleman. I’d known him since I was young. He…”
“Ha! ‘Twas a nobleman!” Coll pointed a finger at Robert.
“But I kept the affair secret,” Kate continued, “Because he… Because we didn’t want any trouble.”
“Ah, see,” Robert said, pointing right back at Coll. “That’s why I never knew. Hang on. A nobleman? Why didn’t you tell me, Katie?”
“That’s sort of the point of a secret affair, Robert,” Kate said. “You don’t tell people about them.”
“Who was it?” Robert wanted to know. “It wasn’t Freddy Stanhope, was it? Dear Maker, please tell me it wasn’t Freddy Stanhope.”
“Ew, no.” Kate said, wrinkling her nose.
“Good,” Robert breathed a sigh. “Was it Samuel Islington?”
“Hey, let her tell her own story, Ostwick,” Varric put in.
“Oh sweet Creator,” Robert said, his eyes going wide. “Alan Tilney. The teryn’s son.”
Kate squeezed her eyes shut. She couldn’t deny it. “Yes?” she said weakly, cracking one eye open.
“Maker’s breath!” Robert gaped at her. “How’d you land Alan? Every girl in Ostwick was after him.”
“I’m sorry,” Dorian interrupted. “What’s a… How did you say it? ‘Tern?’ ‘Tay-ern?’” Dorian looked from one cousin to the other.
“It’s a Ferelden title,” Varric explained. “Kirkwall has a Viscount. Wycombe has a duke. Starkhaven has a prince, and Ostwick has a teryn.”
“Your lover was a prince?” Dorian asked, brows raised.
“Er, no,” Kate said. “Not a prince.”
“Nobles only go for nobles, is that it?” This came from Sera.
“No,” Kate said, frowning. “I didn’t care about…”
“Well done, dear,” Vivienne said, holding her goblet up as if in toast. “If your Alan is anything like his uncle in Val Royeaux, he must be quite the catch.”
“I thought so at the time,” Kate muttered.
“Wait, wait,” Robert said. “If you and Alan were together since your nineteenth birthday then…” His eyes went wide.
Kate sighed. No way to avoid that question, she supposed.
“I broke things off at Great-Aunt Lucy’s Feast Day ball. The one where Uncle Connell fell down drunk and broke the gift table.”
“Seven years?” Robert gaped at her. “You had an affair with Alan Tilney for seven years?”
“You needn’t to say it like that, Robert.”
”‘Seven Years with a Prince,’” Varric said. “Sounds like the title of a bad romance.”
“He wasn’t a prince,” Kate said, but no one seemed to care about that detail.
“Quite the catch,” Vivienne said, murmuring over her glass. “But really dear, if you’d made a conquest like that, why keep it secret?”
“Wasn’t my idea,” Kate said, unable to keep from grumbling. She realized everyone was waiting for her to elaborate, so she added: “It was bound to cause trouble. Alan’s family had the title, but they also had a habit of spending a lot more than they could afford and, well…”
“Precarious situation when blackmailers are about,” Vivienne said, sympathetically.
“You and Alan,” Robert said, shaking his head. “I would never have guessed.”
“Yes, well, that was the goal,” Kate said. “No one was supposed to know.”
No one was every supposed to know about any of this, Kate thought. And yet it was far too late to stop. Not that it mattered anymore, she supposed.
“Alan and I had known each other for years,” Kate went on, letting a sip of wine ease her way. “He wasn’t afraid of my magic - well, not too much, anyhow. We got to talking on my birthday and then slipped off to…” Kate caught herself there.
“That’s when it began,” she said instead. Beside her, Cullen had been openly staring. Now he looked sharply away.
“And it lasted for seven years,” Robert pressed.
“Yes,” Kate said. “But we saw one another very rarely. Worked out to only a handful of, um… meetings.”
“Dont’ bother bein’ vague, Kate-lass,” Coll said. “I know you’ve got all that time added up in your head.”
“Fine,” Kate said. “Two weeks, four days and five hours together if you must know.”
A murmur went up from around the circle. Cullen made a sort of choking sound.
“The point is,” Kate went on. “It’s quite difficult to have a long-distance secret affair. Especially when you’re a mage and live under lock and key most months of the year.” Kate punctuated this with another sip of wine.
“Hear, hear,” Vivienne said. “Though as a lord’s son, your Alan ought to have had the influence to make you his mistress-in-residence.”
“Er, maybe he did,” Kate said, and her face grew even hotter. “I don’t know. I never thought to ask him about it.”
“Not all of us poke around for a way outta the Circle, Vivs,” Coll said, raising a brow.
“I did not ‘poke around’, dear,” Vivienne said. Her tone was polite, yet sharp as steel. “I merely recognize something of my own situation in the Inquisitor’s. Love is difficult when stretched across shifting social sands.”
Kate didn’t deny it, either the difficulty or the love. She simply said: “Well there you are. That’s it.” She took another sip of wine.
“That’s not it,” Varric said, leaning forward in his chair. “You didn’t get to the good part. You said things ended when your teyrnling introduced you to his wife.”
Oh yes, Kate thought. Of course the storyteller would want to hear about that.
“It wasn’t as exciting as you’d think,” Kate told him.
“No, it wasn’t,” Robert agreed. “Because I was at that party. And I don’t recall any catfights or fireballs.”
“Do you really think I’d resort to such dramatics?” Kate said, a flash of annoyance rising in her. From the corner of her eye, Kate saw Vivienne lift her chin with a look of satisfaction.
“Who was it that Alan married?” Robert asked. “I can picture her face, but can’t recall the name. Doll-like thing. Ruffled dress. Bitch, as I recall…”
“Olivia Olgethorpe,” Kate said, flatly.
“That’s the one,” Robert snapped his fingers.
“Ah,” Leliana said, her voice quiet, yet somehow audible all the same. “That explains it.”
“Explains what?” Dorian asked. “Do edify those of us who don’t know the ins and outs of the Ostwick nobility.”
“They’ve got ties to the coterie,” Leliana said. “It’s wise you didn’t get on their bad side, Inquisitor.” She looked almost impressed under that hood.
Kate looked down at the floor, staring at the stones below her dangling feet. She could still remember that evening perfectly. Moments that shattered one’s world tended to stick in one’s mind.
“The wedding happened rather hastily, as I understand.” Kate heard her own voice speaking as if from far away, telling a tale that had happened to someone else. “I hadn’t heard anything before that night. News came slowly to the Ostwick Circle, when it came at all. I’d just arrived at Great-Aunt Lucy’s that morning - hadn’t seen the papers. And Alan and I had kept our affair secret, so no one thought to warn me. Alan walked into the ball with Olivia on his arm. I didn’t think anything of it at first. As a teryn’s son, he often escorted ladies around. But then Olivia dragged Alan right up to me and waved her wedding ring under my nose. That’s how I found out.”
Varric’s drawn-out curse made Kate’s stomach drop. Huh, she thought. This story sounded rather maudlin when she said it out loud.
“He did what?” Cassandra gasped. It occurred to Kate that the Seeker had been hanging on her every word.
“Not such a princely way to break things off,” Dorian observed.
“Olivia said something to you, though,” Robert said, his brows furrowing. “I didn’t quite catch it at the time. Something about a harp?”
Kate flushed. Oh, right. That.
“Not a harp,” she said. “The conservatory.”
Robert whistled low.
“I don’t get it,” Sera said. “That noble-code or somethin’?”
“Conservatory is a little music room where aristocrats keep their pianos and shit,” Bull said. “Also where they go to bang each other during fancy parties.”
Several eyes swung round to him. Bull just shrugged. “What? By all reports that’s where they usually end up shaggin’.”
“Doesn’t that get noisy with all the instruments?” Morris wanted to know.
“Not unless you get creative,” Dorian chuckled.
“You don’t play the instruments,” Robert explained. “There are settees and couches set up for a daytime audience that make for very soft midnight, er…” He realized Cassandra was glaring at him and stopped there.
“Never mind that,” Robert said. “So anyhow, what was it Olivia said?”
It was a deliberate attempt to keep Cassandra from glaring at him and Kate knew it. And though she frowned at the memory, Kate answered her cousin’s question all the same:
”‘Sorry mage. You’ll have to find another place to spread your lips and sing’.”
“Oooh,” Dorian and Varric winced in unison.
“Yeowch,” Sera cringed. “Hate to say it, but that’s a good one. Your Olge-bitch probably practiced that for a week.”
Kate didn’t doubt it. But curiously enough, Olivia’s words had had the opposite effect of what the woman intended. Seeing that wedding ring had felt like a slap in the face. But the venom in Olivia’s voice had plunged Kate underwater. And Kate had an affinity for water. In that moment, she had floated within her own body, looking out at the party as if from a distant sea.
“What did you do next?” Cassandra asked breathlessly.
“You tore that Ogle-wench’s wig off, right?” Sera said, fiercely. “Kicked your Alan-boy in the balls, yeah?”
“No,” Kate said. “I took a deep breath to keep the room from spinning, and then I wished them joy.”
Everyone was gaping now. Everyone except Morris, who nodded as if Kate’s calm reaction was to be expected. Vivienne and Leliana looked surprised, but smug. Sera shook her head in disappointment.
“That’s not near as good as the Oogly-witch,” she said. “We need to work on your comebacks, Inquisitor.”
“My dear Sera, that was a comeback,” Vivienne said.
“A dumb one,” Sera grumbled.
“I wished them joy,” Kate said again. “Then I asked after Alan’s uncle, or maybe I commented upon the weather. I don’t quite recall. I’m babbled a lot of polite nonsense and then I excused myself. It was all very civilized.” Kate paused, then added, “It had to be.”
“Why had to be?” Sera wanted to know. “I’dve punched ‘em in the face.”
“That would have accomplished nothing,” Vivienne said, with a withering look in the elf’s direction.
“Might’ve made the party more fun,” Sera said.
“No, it wouldn’t,” Kate told him. “It would have been disastrous.”
“Why disastrous?” Sera wanted to know. “Just ‘cause a few noble pissers would have pissed themselves?”
“Because Alan’s family owed the Oglethorpes a great deal of money,” Kate told her. “And Olivia was always a conniving bi… er, young lady. I saw at once that Alan had agreed to the marriage as a way of settling his family’s debt. I wasn’t about to make things worse for him by antagonizing her. And I certainly wasn’t about to ruin his reputation by making a scene. Or my reputation, for that matter. My family would never have let me come home from the Circle again if I’d caused a fuss. My freedom hung in the balance - such as it was.”
Kate found her hands were shaking and she took another sip of wine. Beside her, Cullen stared into his mug, grimacing as if the milk had gone sour.
“So I went back to dancing,” Kate said. “Went back to handing out gifts. By the end of the evening, everyone who’d ever speculated about me and Alan was convinced we’d never been together at all.”
“Ah, see,” Bull waggled a finger at Kate. “That was why I didn’t have shit on you. Did you have anything on her?” he asked Leliana. The Nightingale shook her head.
“So you let him go?” Cassandra asked, eyes wide and watery.
“I had to,” Kate said.
“Then your young gentleman was a fool,” Vivienne said, looking rather put out. “Any man of standing would have kept you as his mistress regardless. You’d clearly proven your discretion a thousand times over.”
“Oh, Alan did offer to keep me,” Kate said. Beside her, Cullen looked up sharply. “I just…” Kate stopped there. Her insides felt strangely hollow.
Kate could still remember that night perfectly: the way the dancers kept dancing, the way the music kept playing. She’d felt her world was crumbling, and yet, somehow, the party had gone on. Yet she’d smiled and joked and even laughed aloud - and no one knew how numb she felt inside. At long last, Kate had made her escape. She’d slipped out into the hallway, headed for her guest room.
Then Alan had stepped out of the shadows…
Alan’s whisper sent a shiver down her spine, and Kate turned at once.
“Alan,” she said. “What do you…?”
Alan closed the distance and kissed her. And for one moment, Kate allowed herself to melt into him. She allowed herself to imagine what had happened back there in the ballroom was some awful dream. But then sense and decency returned to her, and she pushed him away.
“Alan, don’t,” Kate said. “You’re…” She hadn’t been able to say ‘you’re married.’ The words hurt too much.
“Olivia’s a snake,” Alan replied. “You know she is. I wanted to tell you myself, but I couldn’t find a way. Olivia heard something - or she guessed something. It wasn’t me, I swear! I didn’t tell her. You know I never meant for anyone to find out about us.”
“Of course you didn’t,” Kate said.
As soon as she said it, the words took on a different meaning.
“Katerina, I’m so sorry,” Alan said.
Kate nodded. She knew that, just as she knew that it changed nothing.
“It’s forgiven,” she said. It was true.
“It’s forgotten,” she added.
That part was a lie.
“Maker, you’re…” Alan blinked at her. “You’re incredible, Katerina. You know that, right?”
“Of course,” Kate chuckled. But inside, she wasn’t so sure. If she was so incredible, then why did she live in a cell in a tower? If she was so incredible, then why had Alan insisted on secrecy all these years? And if she was so incredible, then why had Alan agreed to a marriage of convenience? Why hadn’t he found a way to be with Kate, instead?
“You know, Katerina,” Alan began, “I’ve been thinking. This doesn’t have to change things. Olivia spends most of her time at her flat in town, and I prefer the estates. If you ever wanted to… You know.”
He didn’t outright say it, but Kate had known exactly what he meant.
“Alan, do you honestly think that Olivia would allow me to visit from the Circle? That your mother-in-law would allow it? They’re rather jealous of their possessions, you know.”
Kate had known that was cruel, but she couldn’t entirely control her temper. At her words, Alan flinched.
“I don’t see why it should be a problem,” he said, though he looked uncertain. “I mean, the other wo… er, times…”
Kate heard the slip that he tried to hide. She felt it in her gut.
“Oh,” she said, softly. She looked up at him - met Alan’s eyes for the first time that evening.
“So this wasn’t your only love affair.”
Kate hadn’t phrased it as a question. She hadn’t said it as an accusation, either. She let it fall between them as fact. Alan’s eyes slid away from her as he muttered:
“Come on, Katerina. Don’t act so innocent with me. We all know what goes on in the Circles.”
Kate blinked at that. Her temper had kicked in, just enough to put an edge to her words:
“So that’s it then? You assumed that mages are promiscuous and so…”
“Maker no!” Alan cried. “Everyone knows your reputation. You’re something of a prude, really.”
Kate went from annoyed to mollified to furious, all in the space of a few statements.
“And what, may I ask, is so wrong with prudence?” she demanded. The air had turned cold around her.
“Don’t… Not with the frost, Katerina,” Alan cringed. “You promised no magic. Not around me.”
So she had, Kate thought. That hadn’t struck her as odd until now.
I don’t know why you’re being so childish about it,” Alan went on. “I know you said I was your first, but surely you didn’t… I mean, I didn’t ask you to stay faithful to me.”
Kate felt her face go hot, but she trusted the dim light would hide her blush. She pretended to examine her fingernails instead.
“You know, some people would consider faithfulness a virtue, not a failing.”
Alan’s expression was one of astonishment - or maybe disbelief. “Good Maker, Katerina. Did you honestly think anything would come of this? You can’t possibly have thought that.”
But Kate had thought that. To her everlasting shame, she had hoped - for seven, long, patient years - she had hoped that something would come of this. She’d fallen in love with her childhood friend, and…
No, Kate realized. She’d fallen in love with a dream. She was one of the cleverest mages in the Ostwick Circle, and yet she’d been fooled by a boy without courage. It disgusted her - both Alan’s deception and her own stupidity.
But she’d be damned if she let him see how much he’d hurt her, Kate thought. So she gathered up the shreds of her pride, and gave Alan a brittle smile.
“Goodbye, Alan,” Kate had said, “I hope your marriage is everything you dreamed it would be.”
Kate turned on her heel then, feeling a small thrill of triumph in spite of everything. For once, she’d not said too much or too little, but just enough. And now she was walking away, her head held high.
Alan ruined that, too.
“How dare you?” he hissed at her back. “How dare you try to shame me? I am a teryn’s son. I have responsibilities. And mages aren’t for marrying, Katerina. You knew that. You must have known that.”
She had known that.
Kate had forgotten it, but never again. And in spite of Alan’s words, Kate hadn’t looked back. Even as tears had filled her eyes, she walked on, turned the corner, and headed for her rooms. She reached the bedchamber door as the first sob escaped her. Kate slipped through the door and shut it behind her. For a moment, she rested her head on the solid oak.
Then a tear had fallen, and another and another. Kate slid to the floor, her silk dress pooling around her, her bracelets glinting in the moonlight. Kate tore the jewelry from her wrists, but it was no use. These fine clothes were her chains, Kate thought wildly, just as her guest room was a cage, just as her bloodline and her manners and her magic formed the bars of her prison. There was no escape, Kate realized. There was no way out. And even if she did escape the Circle’s walls, where would she go? Who would she keep company with? Who would ever - ever - want a mage?
“How dare you, Kate?” she whispered into the silence. Her tears tasted salty on her lips. “How dare you hope for more?”
In the quiet of a borrowed room, Kate had placed her hands over her face and wept.
“It wasn’t worth the trouble,” Kate said, quietly.
She went to take a sip of wine, only to find that her glass was empty.
“That feckin’ edhis-ava weren’t worth any of it!” Coll said, stoutly. “Sweet Mythal, Kate-lass. Why didn’t you say nothin’ all these years?”
“Habit?” Kate forced a smile. “Anyhow, it happened a long time ago.”
“Three years, lass,” Coll said, watching her closely. “Ain’t that long.”
“Three years is plenty of time to congratulate yourself on making a narrow escape from stupidity,” Kate said, managing a wry smile. This brought a small chuckle from Varric, and a nod from Dorian. Kate lifted her now-empty wine glass, and toasted the crowd.
“Well, there’s your story,” she said.
“That sucks,” Ruvena said, flatly. She then blinked, as if she had not meant to speak aloud. “I mean… Sorry, Inquisitor.”
Kate laughed at the understatement. “No, you’re right, captain. It does, in fact, suck.”
“You bore it well, my dear,” Vivienne said, gently. “And discreetly, too. Ballroom gossip is a pernicious poison. Most people would have melted under such an assault.”
“Another mark in your favor, Inquisitor,” Leliana said, looking pleased.
“Um, thanks?” Kate said, not sure she either deserved or wanted these compliments.
“Ehhh, that’s a battlefield I’ll leave to you, Duchess,” Varric said. “Aristocrats are more vicious than blood mages, darkspawn… shit. Even spiders.”
“Spiders?” Robert asked him. “You have a problem with spiders?”
“I do when they’re bigger than me,” Varric replied.
“Well, in case you were wondering, Katie,” Robert said. “Olivia’s taken to drink and Alan’s in debt to the coterie again. Hope that makes you feel better.”
Kate frowned. “It doesn’t, actually.”
“Ah!” Robert shouted, slapping his cards down on the table before him. “And there’s my win! Take that, you doubters!”
“What?” Barris jerked upright, as if he’d forgotten there was even a game on.
“Bah!” Varric threw down his own cards. “And I was so close to a royal flush.”
“Pay up, pay up,” Robert said, waving his fingers toward himself.
Iron Bull squinted at Robert’s cards, then at his own. “Wait,” Bull said, frowning. “You had the Knight of Roses? I thought it was still in the draw pile.”
“I do believe it was in the draw pile,” Leliana said.
Robert spread his hands wide. “Who can argue with luck?” he asked.
“A loser with a blade, if you’re not careful,” Leliana said. “Work on your slight of hand, Scout Trevelyan.”
“Yes ma’am,” Robert said, snapping off a salute.
“How could you be cheating at cards when your cousin was telling that story?” Cassandra said. She looked at Robert as though she thought him heartless.
“Who said I cheated?” Robert wanted to know. “Ought to call you out for suggesting such a thing. Shall we play another round?”
“Not me, I’ve done,” Barris said.
“No, no, stay,” Dorian said, patting Barris on the shoulder as he came over to the table. “You’ve got teach me how to play.”
Dorian grabbed a chair from a nearby table, turned it around and straddled it. Barris glanced over at Dorian and stayed put.
“Any room for me?” Krem asked. Kate turned to find that Maryden was taking a break by the bar.
“Sure, sure,” Bull said, waving Krem over. “How about you, Coll?”
Coll seemed to consider this. “Sure,” she said, after a moment. “Deal me in.”
“Do you know how to play?” Krem asked her.
“Oh, sure. How hard could it be?”
“How about you, Curly?” Varric asked, shuffling the cards.
“Huh? Me?” Cullen looked up with a start.
“Come join us, ser,” Ruvena said. She looked at Cullen expectantly.
For some reason, Cullen looked up at Kate. He stared at her for a moment, and Kate managed to meet his eyes. Maker, he was handsome, Kate thought. And she’d just told a very embarrassing story in his presence. This was not how she’d envisioned their evening conversation happening. Not at all. For right now, Cullen had a very strange expression on his face. Disapproving, maybe? Or had the milk made him sick? Truly, he looked a bit ill. His brows were drawn together as if he wanted to ask Kate something. But she didn’t know what the question was, and so she couldn’t answer.
“How about you, Duchess?” Varric called, starling Kate. “Want me to deal you in?”
Kate wanted to say yes. She wanted to want to stay. But quite suddenly, Kate felt hollow and spent. She felt that she didn’t belong here, in spite Varric’s invitation and the fact that all her friends were here. Her own embarrassment seemed to be shooing her away.
“I think I’m going to, um… mingle,” Kate lied.
“Are you sure?” Cullen spoke at last. “Shall I…?”
But Cullen didn’t complete that thought and Kate didn’t wait to hear the offer. She shook her head and waved at the card game.
“No, no,” she said. “Stay and play if you like. I’m just going for a short walk.”
A short walk to my room, she added silently. Where I’ll hide for the rest of the night.
“Ser?” Ruvena prompted. There seemed to be an edge to her voice. Cullen looked like he might say something more to Kate, but then he turned to the card game with an “Er, yes.” He shuffled his chair in Ruvena’s direction. She scooted aside to make room for him. Kate paused at that – then pushed the thought aside.
It wasn’t her business, Kate told herself. None of Cullen’s personal life was her business. Nor his present interests, nor his past exploits…
Still, some part of her mind whispered. Ten years?
Not her business, Kate told herself. She turned and headed for the door. Kate hadn’t gone two steps before someone called:
“Kate darling!” Kate turned to find Vivienne had followed her.
“Before you go, my dear,” the enchanter said, crossing the distance between them, “I meant to tell you…” Vivienne leaned over and whispered low:
“Are you aware that your shirt is rather transparent?”
Kate’s eyes went wide. She looked up at Vivienne in alarm.
“I thought as much,” Vivienne said, nodding at Kate’s expression. “Didn’t imagine you meant to start a trend of visible bralettes. Though it does look rather Antivan, the way you’ve styled it,” Vivienne cocked her head, as if considering the fashion. “Still, if that wasn’t what you intended, you might want to change before you make the rounds. Have a good night, darling.”
With this, Vivienne turned and strutted away.
“I… Yes, thank you,” Kate sputtered after her.
What the Void, Kate thought? How could Coll and Cullen and Robert and Dorian and all those people have let her sit on a table, telling embarrassing stories about past lovers with her bra showing? Maker’s breath.
Kate whirled around and bolted for the door. As she slipped through the crowds, a pale figured appeared by her side.
“A few of them didn’t notice,” Cole told Kate without preamble. “But most of them did. Cullen did.”
“Oh, Andraste’s tears,” Kate said, pushing past him.
“They call it ‘Herald’s Rest,’” Cole said. “But you still need rest.”
“I need some air,” Kate told him.
“Of course you do,” Cole said. “Your lungs won’t work without it.”
Kate couldn’t argue with that. She dove for the door, yanked it open and threw herself out into the courtyard. The door swung shut behind her.
It was like plunging into dark water from the light of day. The noises of the tavern were muffled now, as if coming from inside a wrapped box. The moon had set, and the enchanted lanterns had dimmed and sunk. They skuffed along the ground with the last of their flickering magic, like glowing paper tumbleweeds. The courtyard was nearly empty. It seemed everyone had gone to bed or packed into the tavern for warmth.
Here she went again, Kate thought - fleeing yet another party where she didn’t belong.
But no, Kate thought. That wasn’t true. She belonged here. That tavern had been named for her, for the Maker’s sake. And yet, Kate thought, as she stopped and looked back at the tavern, she still felt like an outsider. Quite literally, she was standing out here in the dark, with paper lanterns floating about her feet.
It seemed that the role of Inquisitor was the most isolating position of all.
Oh come now, Kate told herself. No one in that pub had pushed her away or rejected her. Her friends had been kind, if a bit tipsy. And maybe she’d bungled her not-really-a-date with Cullen, but it wasn’t entirely her fault. So perhaps, Kate thought, perhaps she ought to try and salvage this evening after all. Maybe she should return to the light and the laughter inside. Surely there was time enough for Varric to deal her in on that next round of Wicked Grace. Then Kate could sit beside Cullen and…
How dare you?
Kate stopped short. She recognized that voice in her head. And now she realized whose voice it was. Curse Alan for slipping into her thoughts like that. And yet, Kate thought, his warning wasn’t entirely wrong. He’d been right. That’s why the words hurt so much. Men like Alan did have responsibilities. Men like Cullen had responsibilities, too. They couldn’t be expected to drop their obligations for the sake of some heartsick girl. And mages weren’t for marrying. Kate knew that well enough. The Chantry almost never granted the special license required. And every eligible man that Kate had ever known had passed her by. So how could Kate think - how dare she think - that someone like Cullen would want her company? Alan had dazzled Kate, but Cullen was the better man by far. Cullen was handsome and charming and he opened doors for people. And Kate wasn’t the only woman who had noticed this - not if Captain Ruvena was any indication. It seemed Cullen could have his pick of the Inquisition. So why would he ever choose her?
The only reason he would, Kate realized, was if he felt obligated to. If Kate pressed her advantage as Inquisitor, Cullen might feel that he must return her attentions. And that would be awful. Kate wanted Cullen to like her for herself. Just as she wanted…
Maker, wouldn’t anyone ever like her for herself? A tear tracked down Kate’s cheek, and she swiped it away.
Oh come now, Kate told herself sharply. She was being ridiculous. She was no longer a rejected mistress, but the Herald of the Inquisition. She had people counting on her. She had a job to do. Come to think of it, her job required her to set out for Crestwood at the break of dawn. Set out with Cullen at her side, Maker help her. What she needed now was sleep, Kate decided, not more brooding. Clearly, the drink must have gone to her head. That was why she felt so tender and teary when there was no real reason for it.
Kate turned her back on the lights of the tavern and stalked off into the dark. She wasn’t looking for romance, Kate reminded herself, kicking a paper lantern out of her path. She didn’t need anything but friendship and her freedom. And if she dreamed of love, the kind that bonded two people together in spite of every obstacle, the kind that gave a person a home…
No, Kate told herself. She didn’t believe in a love like that. She’d reached for it years ago, but she wouldn’t make that mistake again.
She didn’t dare.