At this un-Makerly hour of the morning, the sky was still dark outside the windows, and the war-table was lit by a small pool of lantern light. But Cullen did not look out into the gloom beyond his work space. Likewise, he did his best to ignore the voices that whispered in his head. He was trying - trying, he told himself - to get some last-minute work done in preparation for the trip to Crestwood. But as Cullen considered the paths before him, it seemed his mind had other plans:
“Cullen. Please, Cullen.”
The dream had haunted him long after waking.
Cullen shrugged his shoulders and squinted at the map. Right then, what was the route he’d been looking at? Ah yes. Over the mountains to Gherlen’s Pass. It would be rough going for the first day - nothing but goat-trails from Skyhold to the gates of Orzammar. But after skirting the dwarven thaig, they’d follow the Imperial Highway into Ferelden. That would make for easier travel, though it took them closer to the Storm Coast than Cullen would have liked. They were sure to encounter freezing rain, but Cullen had requisitioned the best tents. Or wait. Hadn’t he? Cullen paused to check his lists. Yes, he had. The tents were in order - ought to be delivered to the stables this morning, and that would help to make the journey more tolerable. As for Crestwood itself…
The voice echoed in his mind once more. New curves and contours swam across Cullen’s vision, quite different than those of the map before him. Instead of drawn hills and valleys, Cullen now saw the slope of a shoulder, the curve of a breast.
Now the war table disappeared entirely, as visions from last night’s dream flashed before Cullen’s eyes. In his dream, a woman had been lying in Cullen’s bed – No, not ‘a woman.’ Cullen could be honest with himself in the privacy of his own mind. Kate had been lying in his bed, wearing nothing but that transparent shirt and her smile. In the dream, Cullen had felt no shame to find that he was naked before her. Far from it: he’d been delighted. In his dream, he’d pushed Kate back against the mattress, kissed his way down her neck and collarbone to her breasts. She had sighed and twined her fingers in his hair, gasping as Cullen tongued her nipples through the fabric. She’d stroked her hands down his back, nails grazing his shoulder blades. Kate had begged for him, cried out as Cullen had lifted his head and lowered himself over her - then into her…
“Cullen. Oh, Maker, yes…“
The map, Cullen thought desperately, his fingers splaying over the north coast of Ferelden. He was looking at the map, damn it. And according to the map, they ought to stick to the Imperial Highway. Cullen pinched the bridge of his nose. If only cartography were as exciting as anatomy.
Alright then. To review: he preferred the Imperial Highway approach to the route through Sulcher’s Pass. Not only did Sulcher’s Pass take them further south than necessary, but it meant sailing over the northern end of Lake Calenhad. Cullen traced the alternate route with his finger. No, this was no good. Getting a boat to carry the horses would be difficult at this time of year. Not to mention, when one considered the landing point…
Cullen froze. Just to the left of those docks was the picture of a tower, set on an island in the great Ferelden lake. It looked like every other tower on the map, drawn as a rectangular box with a triangle hat. Comical, really. Clearly the mapmakers had never visited that particular fortress. Cullen knew Kinloch Hold looked nothing like that. And just like that, the rest of last night’s dream flashed before Cullen’s mind.
The rest of the nightmare, rather.
In his dream, Cullen had just settled into Kate’s warmth. Then bed had pitched violently beneath him, like a ship in a storm. The sheets had twined about Cullen’s legs and the light about him had snuffed into darkness. Long talons had clawed at Cullen’s shoulders and hot, sour breath had fanned his face. And when Cullen had looked down at Kate, he had found that she was gone. A demon had lain beneath him, it’s purple eyes flashing fire in the darkness. Bloodied lips had opened around dripping fangs and a voice like oil had whispered:
“A kiss, templar. It all begins with a kiss.”
Cullen did not remember the next part of the dream. Somehow, he must have broken free. The dream had next seen him running down a narrow corridor. The demon had had been right behind him, its claws inches from his back. The walls had closed in about Cullen, tighter and tighter, until he was certain he would be crushed and caught. Then, just as panic had flooded through him, Cullen had found a door. He’d torn it off it’s hinges as he burst out into a tiny courtyard. Old, crooked buildings had towered over him like disapproving giants. Trash had lain strewn across the cobblestones and rain had poured down from the low-hanging clouds. It was Denerim, Cullen realized. He had fallen to his knees and vomited.
But even as he’d knelt there, retching into the muck, a clawed hand had curled around his throat. Clawed arms had circled his waist and a voice had hissed at his ear:
In the dream, Cullen had split in two. His consciousness had spun out of his body, escaping into the air. Cullen had looked back down at himself, back at the man retching in a back alley of Denerim. But to his surprise, it was not a demon who held his abandoned body.
It was Kate. She sat on the filthy cobblestones, cradling that empty, retching shell in her arms. The real Cullen, the spirit Cullen, had tried to cry out to her, tried to swim through the air and return to her. But he hadn’t been able to change directions. Instead, Cullen had drifted away, untethered, into the sky. He had screamed for Kate to see him, begged for her to call him back. She had not heard him. Then, just as the Cullen had been about to float away forever, Kate had looked up.
Her eyes had glowed like twin stars and fangs had curled from her lips.
Cullen had screamed himself awake.
Maker’s breath, Cullen thought, scrubbing a hand over his face. Yes, that had been his dream. Utterly obvious in its symbolism, now that he thought about it in the clear light of day. Or the murky light of pre-dawn, but still. The back alley in Denerim? Exactly as Cullen remembered it - the retching, too. The desire demon? A regular guest in his nightly terrors. And as for the earlier bit, Cullen knew what had inspired that fantasy. Or rather, who. No, the moral of this story was painfully clear:
Cullen feared his desires, because they led to nothing but trouble.
Well, he needed no dreams to tell him so, Cullen thought, snatching up his itinerary and snapping it before his face. He knew how this worked: his desires turned to dreams and his dreams turned to nightmares, and Cullen was left shaking the morning after. Was it any wonder that he’d gone a decade without sex? Not that he could explain this to any of the people back in the tavern, Cullen thought, wryly. Well, he supposed he could. He just wouldn’t. He wasn’t like Kate, who could up and tell the story of her past lover without even blushing. Kate’s history was more admirable from start to finish.
Cullen frowned and let his list drop to the table. Still, that story of hers. He didn’t know what to think about it. In fact, Cullen found he didn’t really want to think about it. The tale left him feeling… What was the word he was looking for? Jealous? No, surely not. Itchy, maybe. Or stricken, that’s what it was. After Kate had finished talking, Cullen hadn’t been able to think of a word to say to her. He had felt like an accomplice somehow, as if the whole thing had been his fault. Though that didn’t make any sense. Why should Cullen feel guilt over something that had happened years ago, in another city entirely? All the same, Cullen hadn’t been able to meet Kate’s eyes once she’d finished. And when Kate had stood up and walked away, Cullen hadn’t had the courage to follow. He hadn’t felt he deserved to.
An odd feeling, that. So instead, Cullen had stayed behind for a time and played cards. Not a terrible way to end the evening, he supposed. Still, the events of last night weren’t at all what Cullen had hoped for. He had hoped – well, wait. Cullen caught himself there. He hadn’t hoped for anything. He hadn’t had imagined that drinks with Kate meant anything or – No. He had just been looking forward to some time alone with Kate. Er, time with Kate. Just time. That was all.
Of course, he hadn’t spent much time with Kate, had he? And after he’d spent such a ridiculous amount of effort getting dressed for the evening, too. Silly really, when Cullen considered how few clothes he owned. But then, full armor had struck him as too formal and a mere tunic had seemed under-dressed. Cullen had spent a full twenty minutes trying to turn his various pieces of armor into a decent outfit. Then he’d washed his face, smoothed back his hair, taken a deep breath, and hiked on over to the tavern - only to be struck dumb the moment he’d seen Kate. The sight of her in that thin tunic had quite literally haunted his dreams. Even now, images from both dream and reality swam before his vision yet again…
“Well, someone’s up early!”
The voice brought Cullen’s head snapping up. Sweet Andraste, he thought. It was a good thing that his thoughts were all hidden away in his head, not lying scattered about the war table like his papers. Otherwise Cullen would have been caught with all his wicked fantasies out on display.
A figure approached from the shadows, and though lantern light had not yet revealed a face, Cullen recognized the person all the same. There was no mistaking that smug, Orlesian accent.
“Good morning, Leliana,” Cullen said. “What are you doing up by daylight? Hardly any shadows left for you to hide in.”
“Oh pish, I never went to sleep,” Leliana said by way of reply.
“Do you ever sleep?” Cullen asked her. “I thought…”
Leliana stepped into the circle of lantern light, and Cullen drew up short, staring. At first, he thought the spymaster was wearing an oddly-shaped black cloak, but then Cullen realized that she carried two ravens with her, one perched on each shoulder. The ravens cocked their heads and stared at Cullen with beady little eyes.
“New fashion?” he asked.
“Remind me to tell you about the time that feathered coiffures were the rage in Val Royeaux,” she said. “Besides, you’re one to talk.” Leliana eyed his furred collar significantly.
Cullen decided at once that he would not rise to her bait, nor would he be drawn into a discussion about Orlesian fashion. Instead, Cullen studied the ravens, who seemed to study him right back.
“Er, morning,” he greeted them. Leliana smiled and reached up to stroke one raven’s ebony feathers.
“Good move, commander,” Leliana told him. “Baroness Plucky will be going with you to Crestwood. It’s wise to make friends with her, or she sulks. Lady Pickles will be staying behind, of course.”
“Hawke requested Plucky’s company,” Leliana went on, as if these were perfectly normal raven-names and it was perfectly normal to name ravens in the first place.
“You’re giving one of our ravens to Hawke?”
“Not giving,” Leliana frowned. “They aren’t possessions. Plucky liked the Champion as much as the Champion liked her. It’s a friendship. On you go then.”
This last statement was addressed to the birds, who hopped off of her shoulders and right onto the war table. Cullen noticed that their little talons looked like miniature dragon-claws. He opened his mouth to protest, fearful they’d rip the map to shreds. But Cullen stopped himself there. He supposed that part of the map contained nothing important - just the blightlands of the Abyssal Reach. Not like anyone was going out there anyway. He shrugged and turned back to his papers. Leliana did the same.
For a few minutes, Cullen and Leliana stood side by side, each rifling through their papers. They’d spent many hours like this, both at their work, both not speaking. But today, Cullen got the impression that Leliana kept staring at him. Yet every time he looked over, the Nightingale’s eyes were on her work. Cullen supposed he was imagining things. He had just put the notion from his mind when Leliana suddenly asked:
“So, commander. A decade without sex?”
Cullen sputtered. At the edge of the table, one raven fluffed her feathers, while the other fixed him with a curious look.
“I’ll take that as a ‘yes,’” Leliana said.
“No!” Cullen cried. “I mean, yes. I mean… Sweet Andraste, where did that come from?”
“From the tavern last night?” Leliana suggested. “Don’t worry, commander. I took the liberty of editing your story on its way out the door.”
“I… What? Editing my story?” Cullen didn’t know what that meant, but he didn’t like it. It sounded like something Varric might say.
“The story of your celibacy or orgy or… Whatever it was. I fixed it for you.”
Cullen went still. That could be a good thing. Or it could be very bad.
“Fixed it how?” he wanted to know.
“I couldn’t stop the story from spreading,” Leliana told him. “But I directed its trajectory. By the time the tale reaches the barracks - which,” she glanced to the windows, “should be in about an hour or two - the new rumor will be that no one knows for certain how many lovers you’ve had, but you were a perfect gentleman to all of them and everyone parted on amicable terms.”
Cullen blinked at her. He opened his mouth - nothing came out - then blinked again.
“You’re welcome,” Leliana said.
“I’m sorry? What? And how…?”
“How did I manage that? All too easily. I paid off Sera - artists are easy to win over, I find, if you keep them well-supplied with notebooks and pencils. Bull and Krem are already in my employ, as is Robert Trevelyan, so I merely said the word and they saw it done. The rest of the crowd agreed to keep quiet.”
“You paid everyone to spread a false tale about me?” Cullen gaped at her.
“Would you prefer that people learn the real story?” Leliana asked. “I did what I could to control the damage.”
Cullen flinched. “I am not damage that needs controlling.”
“Oh come,” Leliana sniffed. “You know that Morris would have blurted out the truth eventually. So short of murdering your quartermaster, I had to do something to contain the situation.”
“Murder Morris?” Cullen repeated in astonishment.
“Surely you have wanted to murder Morris on occasion, too.”
“Well… No! Maybe. Sometimes I’ve wanted to strangle him a little. But that’s not the point.”
“No, the point is that if I hadn’t stepped in, every soldier in camp would think you were either entirely debauched, or completely inexperienced.”
“I don’t see how inexperience is so bad,” Cullen said, rubbing the back of his neck.
“As it is, I maintained your dignity,” Leliana went on, as if he hadn’t spoken. “Or was there some other rumor that you would have preferred? ‘Cullen is pure as the driven snow,’ perhaps? Or ‘Cullen has a membership to every brothel in Thedas?’”
“No! I don’t… That’s not…” Cullen knew his face must be turning red. “I just don’t deal in rumors, that’s all.”
“No, you don’t, do you? And that’s why you needed my help. Maker’s breath, Cullen. Would it kill you to say ‘thank you’?”
“No, I…” Cullen sighed. “You’re right,” he admitted, though it stung to say it. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome,” Leliana said, lips twisted in a wry sort of smile.
Cullen just sighed and shook his head. Maker’s breath, what a whirlwind Leliana was. Like any bard, she could pirouette so quickly with her words that no one could possibly keep up. And Cullen was no dancer.
Cullen turned back to his papers, trying to find that list he’d misplaced. He didn’t get any further than that. For of course, Leliana just had to go twirling off again:
“Incidentally, I left Kate’s story exactly as it was. I may even have helped it spread.”
Cullen’s head whipped around. “What?”
“No embellishment needed there,” Leliana said in a sing-song voice as she made a note on a piece of paper. “The noble mage and her princely lover? I couldn’t have crafted a better tale myself.”
“He wasn’t a prince,” Cullen said. Leliana ignored the correction.
“It makes dear Kate seem wronged and loyal and attractive and untouchable all at the same time, don’t you think?”
Cullen did not answer that. He wasn’t about to tell Leliana what he’d thought about Kate’s tale. Not for all the gold in Orlais.
“No opinion?” she prompted.
“None,” Cullen lied. One of the ravens made a noise in its throat. Cullen glanced over at them, but neither one had moved. The birds sat there like little winged bookends, entirely still except for the occasional blink of their beady eyes.
“Really?” Leliana asked, lightly. “Well, I must say that I had a definite opinion on those stories. All of them. Your story in particular.”
Cullen froze with his fingers over his requisitions list. “Leliana, if you please…”
“Ten years, Cullen?” There was steel in the spymaster’s voice now.
“Yes, yes, I know it’s been a long time,” Cullen said, irritably. “Just as I am aware that most people fornicate on a more regular basis than me. But as the discrepancy between myself and the general population is my own business, I’d appreciate if you’d leave me alone.”
“But it’s not just your own business, is it Cullen?” Leliana said, turning to face him with narrowed eyes.
“Just what is that supposed to mean?”
“Ten years is not just a long time, Cullen,” Leliana said, glaring now. “Ten years is a very specific time.” She folded her arms over her chest and asked:
“Have you really been denying yourself all these years because of Aurelia Amell?”
Cullen should have seen the question coming. He ought to have known that Leliana had that missile in her arsenal and might shoot it at him at any moment. But even so, he was struck dumb with surprise. He looked at her in shock, then down at his chest, as if he might see an arrow sticking through him.
“We must speak of it sometime, commander.” Leliana said, raising a brow.
“Must we?” Cullen returned, turning quickly back to his papers. “I think I preferred it when we pretended that we’d never met before.”
But of course, they had met before. And not only in Kirkwall, when Leliana had looked at Cullen and said, “Oh yes. You,” with narrowed eyes. No, it had been before, back when…
Cullen’s gaze shot across the map to the tower marked ‘Kinloch Hold.’ It had been then, he thought. Back in the chaos of the Fifth Blight, Aurelia Amell had left the Ferelden Circle, left the tower that both she and Cullen had lived in - and she’d gone on to become a Grey Warden. But when she returned to the tower…
A memory flashed through Cullen’s mind: claws and blood and cold and quiet - quiet punctuated by the occasional scream. Cullen shuddered.
“We can go back to pretending in a moment,” Leliana said. “But for now…”
“Leliana, this is neither the time nor the place.”
“On the contrary, this exactly the time and the place. “If Auri affects you even now…”
Cullen winced at the familiarity of that nickname. He had known of the connection, of course. But to hear that endearment spoken aloud was another thing entirely. Leliana saw his reaction and scowled.
“Exactly,” she said. “That’s what I thought.”
“No, it’s not… I’m not…”
All other explanations failed him, so Cullen reached for his trusty back-up shield:
“I’m married to my work.”
It was the explanation he’d always given in the past, but somehow, it rang a bit hollow in the cavernous war room.
“So you say.” From her tone, Cullen guessed Leliana did not believe him. “Cullen, do you know why spies and bards keep track of love affairs?”
Cullen blinked at the sudden change of subject. “Because you’re nosy like that?” he suggested, before he could stop himself.
“Because desire is a weakness,” Leliana said. “It’s the chink in the armor where the knife slips in.”
Cullen looked away sharply. Maker’s breath, he already knew that. Hadn’t he dreamed that this morning? Of course, those dreams had featured another lovely mage entirely. Cullen blushed at the thought.
“I’m well aware of the dangers of desire,” he said, stiffly. “And I’m not… I don’t want…”
But of course that was a lie. Cullen desired a lot of things that he couldn’t have. But he wasn’t going to talk about them. Certainly not with the spymaster.
“Leliana, there is no need…”
“I suspected you were carrying a torch for her,” Leliana began, and for a moment, Cullen almost slipped up and said, “Kate?”
“But if you’ve spent ten years pining for Auri…” Leliana went on.
“I didn’t,” Cullen said. “I mean, I did, but…”
“Cullen, I was there. When we found you in the Ferelden tower,” Leliana went on. “I know what happened to you, what you…”
But Cullen did not hear the rest. For in that instant - with those simple words - Leliana had sent him hurtling down the path of memory. Cullen found himself in a prison of memory:
Cold moonlight, bloodied walls. Claws, screams, bruises, nausea and pain. So much he didn’t remember, so much lost to the shadows of delirium and fear and time. But the blood on the floor was always fresh. That part Cullen remembered perfectly.
“I don’t want to speak of it,” Cullen said, turning away from that memory as if slamming a door.
“Cullen,” Leliana said, “We must. You must. Listen to me, I have endured similar things. I know…”
“You do not know!”
Cullen found himself towering over Leliana, though he didn’t remember turning around. He heard a voice echoing through the room in rage, though he didn’t remember shouting. At the edge of the table, the ravens let out nervous croaks. They fluffed their feathers as if they were trying to decide if they should intervene. Leliana, however, stood still as carved marble. Cullen held her gaze for a moment, fury filling his entire body, rage coursing down every muscle, down every vein. Leliana stared right back, and in her eyes, Cullen thought he saw a flicker of - fear? Surely not. Sympathy maybe. Either emotion was unwelcome.
Just like that, the fight went out of him. Cullen felt sorrow sweep in in it’s place. He turned to the table, placed his hands on the edge.
“You do not know,” he whispered. “No one does.”
Not even me. Not really.
“I always feared you might bring this up,” he said, his voice thick. I just didn’t think it would hurt so much, he added, silently.
“I’m sorry, Cullen. I…”
Leliana’s words came to him from a long distance away. At the edge of the table, the two ravens ruffled their feathers and cooed. Their soft sounds drew Cullen back to the present, where there was no blood, no screaming, and no demons.
This was his world now, Cullen reminded himself, looking out at the map before him. He was safe here, with his work, with these maps, with his life laid out before him on wide, well-marked roads.
“Amell spoke well of you, you know,” Leliana said. She spoke the words haltingly, as if she holding out crumbs to a wounded bird. “She said that of all the templars, you were the most kind.”
Cullen hung his head. That praise did not sound so praiseworthy, somehow.
“I tried to be,” he said.
Yes, he’d tried to be kind, until he’d believed that kindness had backfired on him.
Another memory flashed in Cullen’s mind: the topmost chamber of the Circle tower had blazed with candles on the night of Amell’s Harrowing. Half a dozen templars stood guard for the ritual. They had selected Cullen to strike the killing blow should Amell fail, and Cullen had been nearly sick with fear. But then Amell had entered the room, and all Cullen’s fears had fled. She had looked like a queen: her best robes swirling about her ankles, her dark skin powered and perfumed, her black, curling hair swept up into elaborate braid. But her eyes, Amell’s striking, Starkhaven blue eyes, had flashed fury and fire wherever she looked. She hadn’t said a word, but Cullen had understood her all the same. She hated this. She had hated all of it. And she had hated all of them. She hated the templars for what they were doing to her. And then - at least on that night - Cullen had completely agreed with her.
“She deserved better than that life,” he said, unthinking.
“All mages do,” Leliana replied.
“Not all of them,” Cullen said. “Not Ulric and the blood mages who took over Kinloch Hold and slaughtered everyone. They deserved a harsher death than the one you two gave them.”
Leliana’s brows raised in surprise, and Cullen shook his head.
“I’m sorry,” he told her. “I just… When you met me… When you both saved me…” Cullen sighed. “I was my worst self that day.”
Leliana nodded. “I understand.”
Cullen doubted that she did. When they had rescued Cullen from Kinloch Hold’s tower, he’d been half out of his mind. And Amell had seen him like that. Leliana had seen him like that, too. Little wonder that Cullen had always been so nervous around her.
“Amell and I never…” Cullen began, looking over at Leliana. “You know that we never… That I never…”
“Yes, she told me.”
Cullen stiffened. They’d talked about him? Maker, how embarrassing.
“There you are then,” he said, blushing.
“You admire the admirable, Cullen,” Leliana asked, watching him closely. “As do I.”
Again, the words seemed like an offering - or maybe bait.
“Is that your way of saying that you forgive me for once being infatuated with your lover? Come now, Leliana, clearly I’m no threat to your romantic bliss.”
To his surprise, Leliana drew back as if he’d struck her. At the corner of the table, the Pickles and Plucky snapped their beaks.
“Oh,” Leliana said, softly. “You didn’t know?”
“Know what?,” Cullen said, speaking over the sudden noise of the ravens. “I don’t… Oh, Good Maker, is she dead? I’m so sorry, I didn’t realize.”
“Auri isn’t dead,” Leliana said, rolling her eyes. “Maker, have you been taking lessons from Cassandra when it comes to tact?”
Cullen didn’t know what to say to that. He was quite curious now, but he feared any show of interest might be taken the wrong way. Still, he thought it best to ask:
“So, um, what exactly…?” That was apparently all the invitation that Leliana needed.
“We quarreled,” she said. With a scowl, she snatched up another of the raven-shaped map-markers that stood jumbled among her things. Leliana held it in her hand, stroking the little bronze wings. “We haven’t spoken in, oh, nearly three years now.”
“Ah,” Cullen said. He refrained from commenting on how long a time that was. He wasn’t one to talk.
“Back before I met Auri,” Leliana went on, haltingly, “Back when I worked as a bard…” Leliana shook her head, her eyes going unfocused as she looked down at the raven.
“I was once tortured,” she said, flatly. Cullen felt an answering drop in his stomach.
“I was not lying when I said I know something of what you’ve endured,” Leliana looked up at Cullen, met his eyes. “I know how it changes you. The pain, the fear of the pain. The fear when it begins, for how long it will last - the fear when it ends, for how long you’ll have until it resumes again. To be like that - to be dragged to the edge of yourself and thrown off into the abyss… You never recover from that.”
If Leliana had spoken those words with pity, Cullen wouldn’t have been able to bear them. But as it was, Cullen heard nothing but truth.
“It isn’t the pain itself,” Leliana added, looking back down at the bird. “You can endure that. No, the truly awful part is knowing how small you are, how near your edges lie. You always break much sooner than you think. Most people live their lives believing that they are solid and whole. But people like you and me? We know that is a lie. We know we are only a handful of threads, just waiting to unravel.”
Cullen nodded at her words, for he could not speak past the lump in his throat. He had never thought of himself of having anything in common with Leliana - least of all something like this.
“It takes a long time to gather yourself back together,” Leliana added, softly.
“That’s assuming you can find all the threads,” Cullen said.
“Indeed,” Leliana said, her voice little more than a whisper. “And for a time, I thought I had. Auri bound me together and held me close. But then…”
Leliana’s gaze shifted, her eyes gazing out over the map - to the blight lands near Lothering, if Cullen was not mistaken.
“Dorothea - Divine Justinia, I should say - She once saved my life. She once saved… No,” Leliana chuckled. “She would hate for me to say that. She helped me save myself. That was why I had to answer the call when she became Divine. But my Auri did not understand. She was so angry. How could I, she asked? How could I leave her? After everything we’d been through? How could I leave her for the Chantry? Something she never believed in.”
“She never found the Maker?” Cullen asked, unable to keep the question to himself.
“No,” Leliana said, sadly. “Not in the Chantry, anyhow. You remember how she was.”
“A general in mage’s robes,” Cullen said, before he could think better of it. When Leliana looked to him in surprise, he shrugged. “I know it was wrong of me to question the Order, but I could never understood why they’d locked her up. Amell could have done so much good in the world.”
“She could,” Leliana said. “She did. My Auri changed the world. She changed me.”
Cullen turned away at that. This seemed rather like a confession to him, and he was not a cleric.
“She made me dream,” Leliana went on, her tone soft and wondering. “She made me want to make the world a better place for her - for the both of us. But in the end…”
“In the end?” Cullen asked politely, when Leliana did not go on.
The spymaster shook her head. To his surprise, Cullen saw that Leliana’s eyes had filled with tears. Cullen had never seen Leliana cry before. He hadn’t known that she could cry. He felt alarmed now, as if all the laws of nature were failing, as if Skyhold might crumble down around them any minute.
“Uh, Leliana?” Cullen asked, uncertainly.
“I couldn’t do it,” she said, thickly. “I couldn’t watch her grow blighted and die. We ended the Fifth Blight, and for what? For her to keep fighting? Not three days together and there we were stopping at some cave again. Always the blighted caves! Always that smell of blood and rot and the Broodmother’s breath. You’ve never been down in the Deep Roads, Cullen. You don’t know how they are. You begin to believe that you’ll never see sunlight again.”
Leliana wiped the tears from her eyes. Cullen stood there awkwardly, unsure if he should put a hand on her shoulder or say something or what. He’d never seen this side of Leliana. He hadn’t known it existed. Cullen cleared his throat and raised his hand, but he didn’t say anything and he let his hand fall right back down at his side.
“When the Circles rebelled, she came for me,” Leliana went on after a moment. “She believed the Chantry had fallen. She believed I was free. She wanted me to go with her - for good this time, she said. But I couldn’t. Not when Justinia needed me more than ever. My Auri didn’t understand. She didn’t see…”
“That our work had just begun?” Cullen suggested, when Leliana did not go on.
“Our work is never done,” Leliana said, glaring at the map-marker in her hand.
“True,” Cullen agreed.
Until this moment, he’d thought that was a good thing. Work was a blessing, or so the Chantry said. Work kept idle hands and idle hearts from temptation. But in light of Leliana’s tears, that proverb rang hollow.
“Forgive me,” Leliana said, shaking her head. “Last night at the tavern, I got to thinking about how long it has been for me. And then I thought…”
Leliana continued to stare at the metal map-marker in her hand. She tapped it against her lips, then set it quickly on the table.
“I am going to write to her,” she announced.
“Oh.” Cullen blinked. “Alright.”
He looked at where Leliana had set the raven marker: in the Free Marches, of all places. How odd.
“Because the Inquisition needs it,” Leliana said. “We can’t allow pride to rob us of a potential lead, or… Wait.” She stopped, staring at him.
“You don’t object?”
“No concerns?” Leliana asked, eyes narrowing. “No problems with bringing Auri on board?”
Cullen thought about it a moment. Strangely enough, no.
“It will probably be awkward as the Void at first,” he said, “but no more so than any other partnership we’ve made. Certainty can’t be worse than playing referee to a meeting between Fiona and Vivienne. By the way, would you deal with them next time? They’re bound to get into another argument while I’m away in Crestwood.”
“You’re serious,” Leliana said, looking at him in disbelief.
“Well,” Cullen said, feeling rather flustered now. “You said it yourself: we can’t allow pride to rob us of any leads. We need information about Corypheus, and the wardens have a connection to him. If we’re stooping to contacting Hawke, we might as well exhaust all our other contacts as well.”
“I am not writing to Auri just to see if I can smooth things over with her,” Leliana said, frowning at him.
Cullen’s brows furrowed. “I didn’t say that you were.”
“Good. Because I’m not. This isn’t about trying to win my love back. That ship has sailed.”
Cullen glanced over at the ravens, wondering if they found this behavior as odd as he did. One of them - was that Plucky? - fluffed its wings in an approximation of a shrug.
“And don’t you dare try and make a pass at her, either,” Leliana warned. “I might have to stab you if you do.”
“She doesn’t favor men,” Cullen pointed out. “Not that I realized it back then,” he added, rubbing the back of his neck.
“Well, yes,” Leliana said. “Yes, but… Never mind.”
Cullen let his hand drop and cocked his head. He’d never seen Leliana this flustered before. Somehow, it made him feel better, like he wasn’t the only person that had once fancied the mighty Amell. But it seemed that Cullen’s infuatuation had faded at the edges, like a portrait left too long in the sun. Leliana’s memories, it seemed, were colorfast.
“You really don’t mind?” she asked, looking up at Cullen with narrowed eyes.
“Even if it did, it’s hardly relevant. By the way, have you seen these new guard rotations?” Cullen picked up the list from the table.
“Cullen!” Leliana cried. Cullen turned to her in surprise.
“What?!” he returned, startled by her tone.
“You can’t possibly be that calm about all this!”
Cullen blinked. “It seems I am.”
“But you went a decade without sex,” Leliana said. “Because of her.”
“That wasn’t because of Aurelia,” Cullen said. When Leliana raised a brow at him, he amended: “Alright, not entirely because of her. Look, can we discuss the guard rotation?”
“Cullen we have to talk about this!”
“We just did, for pity’s sake!”
“No, not Auri. Your decade-long celibacy! Cullen, your abstinence worries me.”
“Worries you?” Cullen repeated, turning to Leliana in astonishment. “I’m sorry, what exactly worries you about the fact that I…? That I chose to… That is none of your business.”
Cullen turned back to his papers with a huff. Maker’s breath, he liked it better when Leliana was terrifying him with her tears. He had no desire to discuss his sex life with Leliana, of all people - or lack of sex life, as the case may be.
“Cullen, I’ve read ‘The Tale of the Champion.’ If you were still speaking of Auri years later…”
“I am going to kill Varric over that book,” Cullen said, lifting his face to the ceiling. “So help me, I will.”
“Cullen, you’ve been denying yourself for how long? And all for one woman! Admit it, you wanted Aurelia. You still do.”
“No, you want her,” Cullen said, looking down suddenly. “You still do.”
Judging from Leliana’s sudden jolt of surprise, Cullen knew his words had struck true. He redoubled the assault, if only to keep Leliana from attacking.
“You got her, then you lost her,” he said. “And while I’m sorry for your pain, Leliana, please don’t use it as an excuse to drag me into your… Whatever this is. Either the ship has sailed on, or it hasn’t. Either write your letter or don’t. I don’t care. Just please kindly keep your nose out of my business.”
Leliana went very still. Her face became a perfect mask of calm. Cullen wondered if this was the expression Leliana wore just before she slid a knife across someone’s throat.
“Alright then,” she said, suddenly. Surprisingly, no knife accompanied the words.
“Alright then,” Cullen repeated. They stared at each other for a moment. Then Cullen turned back to his papers.
“Now about these guard rotations…” he began.
“Cullen, you must keep your head in this game we are playing!” Leliana said, scowling at him. “Affection cannot get in our way. Nor the lack of it.”
“Dear Maker, Leliana,” he groaned. “I am trying to work here!”
“I am serious.” She folded her arms over her chest.
“So am I. Work! See?” he shook his papers in emphasis.
“Your business is my business,” Leliana told him. “All our fates are intertwined in the Inquisition.”
“And yet, I notice that no one is allowed to pry into your affairs,” Cullen muttered, flipping through his lists.
“You say you are married to that work, Cullen,” Leliana said, jerking her chin. “But work is a hard wife. She makes for a cold bed.”
“Very poetic,” Cullen grumbled. Still, hadn’t he felt the truth of that this morning?
“Cullen, I understand,” Leliana said. “I am married to work as well. That is why I know her limits. You and I share the same spouse.”
“You know, I find the idea of polyamory with you and work rather disturbing. Besides, I thought you liked your work.”
“I did! I do.” Leliana waved a hand impatiently. “That is not the point. The point is that when one’s wife is cold, one is tempted to take a mistress.”
“Mistress?” Cullen choked.
A vision flashed over the map again: sheets and skin and a sheer wisp of a tunic. Cullen closed his eyes against it.
“Yes, a mistress, Cullen. That is what I am worried about. A mistress can trick you into abandoning your duty. A lover can make you shed your dignity. If someone tempts you enough, you may reveal all our secrets.”
Cullen fought to shake off the dreams that still danced before his mind: Kate’s arms, Kate’s smile, Kate’s… other parts.
“Cullen, admit it,” Leliana said. “After ten years alone, you are ripe for the plucking.”
”‘Ripe for the plucking?’” His eyes popped back open. “I’m not sure I like being compared to a piece of fruit.”
“You are vulnerable, Cullen. Starved for affection.”
“I am not starved.”
“A decade,” Leliana returned.
Cullen snapped his mouth shut. Alright, he was a little hungry.
“Loneliness is a danger,” Leliana said. “Celibacy is a danger. It could make you reckless. It could even get you killed.”
“I hardly think that K– That anyone,” Cullen caught himself quickly, “Would kill me just because I… Because…. Maker’s breath, I’m not lonely. Rather too much company at present, if you ask me.”
Cullen hoped that Leliana would take the hint. She did not.
“Desire did that to me one,” Leliana told him. “It tripped me and trapped me and led me to torment. Obsession nearly undid me.”
“I am not obsessed…”
That, too, was something of a lie. In the past, Cullen had been obsessed with Amell. And in the present, his interest in Kate was growing just as strong.
Not thinking about that. Not thinking about that…
Alright, Cullen admitted to himself. When it came to desires, he was just an obsessive sort of man. All the better to keep it to himself and direct his single-mindedness toward his job.
“Desire is a danger,” Leliana was saying, and Cullen realized he’d missed what she’d said a moment earlier. “But it can also be a salvation. It is both the poison and the balm, you see.”
Cullen did not see, nor did he like how this conversation had danced away from him yet again.
“I’m not looking for a balm,” he lied. “I’m not looking for anything, thank you very much.”
“So you say,” Leliana said, eyes narrowing. Her lips twisted in consideration.
“But maybe,” she went on, slowly, “Maybe it would be better to plan for it and deal with it like a sensible adult. It would surely be better than going wild like you did in Denerim.”
“I didn’t ‘go wild,’” Cullen said, feeling stung. But Leliana was entirely in her own head right now, dancing to her own tune.
“Discretely, of course,” she said, tapping a finger to her lips. “And not too much attachment, or it could get sticky should it end…”
“What are you on about?” Cullen asked.
He should not have asked.
“Perhaps you should take a mistress, Cullen. Have you considered it?”
Oh dear God.
Yes, he’d considered it. But he was not going to consider it again with Leliana standing right there before him. Yet even as he thought that, a flood of images swept into his mind:
Tangled sheets. A whisper-thin shirt. Conversations about logic and lyrium and tea from beer mugs and soft lips that Cullen had almost - almost - kissed…
Cullen buried his head in his hands.
“Oh stop it,” Leliana said, slapping his arm. “I’m not trying to act as your pimp, Cullen. I’m just saying that if you were to take a lover, that might be better for you and for the Inquisition’s security.”
Cullen looked up, his hands dropping before his mouth as if folded in prayer.
“This is about security?” He spoke through his fingers.
“Well of course,” Leliana said. “Just make sure that you choose someone clever and loyal to our cause, or I would have to intervene.”
Cullen meant to say something, he really did. He might have said ‘This is absurd’ or ‘Duly noted’ or ‘Leliana, you have lost your Orlesian mind.’ But instead, Cullen said nothing. He’d been rendered incapable of speech. For just then, a helpful, hopeful voice piped up inside of him and said:
Kate is loyal to our cause. Why not pick her?
Cullen squeezed his eyes tight and pressed his fingertips to his eyelids.
No, no, no, and no, he told himself. That was not a good reason - not a good reason at all. He couldn’t ask Kate to become his… what? His mistress? His lover?
Why not? that hopeful voice seemed to ask. She was faithful to a teryn’s heir for years. Is it too much to hope that she might consider a gruff, broken, lyrium-addicted ex-templar as her second lover?
Cullen frowned and let his hands drop. Yes, he thought, glaring out over the map. Yes, of course it was. When he compared himself to Kate’s perfect little teyrnling…
Cullen scowled. Kate could have had the pick of Ostwick. She certainly wouldn’t choose him. Besides, Cullen couldn’t ask the Inquisitor to become his mistress. It flew in the face of everything he knew about decency and respect and the chain of command. And then there was the problem of Corypheus to deal with, and his lyrium addiction, and…
Actually, the lyrium addiction hadn’t been as much of a hurdle as Cullen had feared. Kate had been quite accepting of his struggle - supportive, even. But that didn’t mean she was ready to deal with rest of his problems, Cullen reminded himself. And the rest of his problems were myriad.
But she’s your friend, that hopeful part of his mind seemed to say. She invited you to the tavern, she defended you. So maybe, if you play your cards right…
If he played his cards right, then he’d have to reveal his cards, Cullen reminded himself. And that was the trouble, right there. It wouldn’t be gentlemanly to pursue Kate without letting her know exactly the kind of man she was getting in the bargain. And how could he explain all that? Right now, Kate thought him a capable commander and a friend. Cullen didn’t want to sully that image. For when he imagined trying to tell Kate about Kinloch Hold, Cullen broke out in a cold sweat.
No, Cullen thought. He couldn’t do that. He had his professional life in order, but his personal life was a mess. He currently slept in a bed of nightmares and woke to screaming. So how could he possibly invite Kate into that chaos? How would that even work? What, Kate and Cullen and all of his demons, tucked cozily under the covers? Some orgy that would be. Good Maker, she’d run away screaming. And if Kate did that – if she became Cullen’s lover, only to become his ex-lover…
Cullen felt as if his stomach had dropped through his boots. Sweet Andraste, he couldn’t think of that. He recoiled from that notion as quickly as he recoiled from all thoughts of Kinloch Hold. It would destroy him. And Leliana would intervene then, Cullen was absolutely certain. The entire Inquisition would intervene.
Besides, Cullen told himself, he liked Kate. She deserved better than to be his mistress or his dirty secret or his mode of letting off steam. He liked her far more than he’d ever been infatuated with Amell. That alone ought to warn him not to mess around with this friendship. Obviously, what he had with Kate was more than fancy and wonder and youthful lust.
So, it’s adult lust? the hopeful part of his mind asked.
No, Cullen thought sharply. This wasn’t about a comparison anyhow. Yes, Amell had been a remarkable woman, there was no denying it. For years, she’d been his ideal… well, everything, really. His ideal woman, his ideal leader, his ideal person. Whereas Kate? Kate wasn’t an ideal. She was just his friend. His best friend. He liked her company, just as he liked her insight and her bravery and yes, he could admit it, also her looks. But Cullen was ten years wiser now: he could separate need from want. That was why he saw the solution clear as day: Cullen wanted Kate in his bed, but he needed her at his side far more.
Looks like we’ll be taking the high road, then. The hopeful voice in his head sounded disappointed.
Yes, Cullen told himself. The high road. He had settled on this route back at Kate’s coronation, and he would stay the course. He would keep to the paths of honor and duty and practicality – all Imperial Highways in a landscape of social and sexual unknowns. And he would not go scouting about in the wild-lands of desire, Cullen told himself, nor plan journeys down roads that did not exist. There was no path from Ferelden to the moon, after all. Likewise, there was no path that could lead Cullen to Kate’s bed.
Actually, the helpful, hopeful part of his mind perked up, She’s just up the stairs. If you go down the hall and hang a left…
Cullen winced. Maker save him. The moon and the Inquisitor’s bed, indeed. The one was as inaccessible to him as the other. He would do well to remember that.
“Cullen, are you even listening to me?”
Cullen blinked. He looked down to find that Leliana was glaring at him.
Had he been listening to her? Not at all. Leliana had been talking all this while, but Cullen hadn’t registered a word. Something about love and healing and time?
“Uh, loyalty to the cause?” Cullen guessed, going back to the last bit he remembered. “Time heals all wounds. Something, something…”
Leliana’s eyes narrowed. “You needn’t treat me like a meddlesome sister, you know. I’m trying to help.”
“The comparison is fitting,” Cullen said, seizing on the change of topic. “Only your meddling puts my sister’s to shame.”
“Why thank you.” Leliana’s lips twisted in a trying-not-to-smile sort of smile. “And I suppose that makes you the little brother I never had.”
“Little brother?” Cullen stood taller than her by a half a foot at least.
“Little brother,” Leliana repeated. “The pretty, dim, helpless little brother that I might have fussed over and teased and driven to distraction.”
“You certainly drive me to… Wait. Dim?”
“But pretty,” Leliana said, with a cheeky smile. “Speaking of which, that reminds me: your actual sister - Mia? She wrote to you. Wanted to know if you’d survived the fall of Haven. I took the liberty of assuring your family that you’d survived. Here’s her letter,” Leliana added, handing over a piece of paper. “You might want to write to her yourself. I think she’s rather angry with you.”
“You opened my mail?”
Cullen couldn’t tell which bothered him more: that Leliana had written a letter for him, or that she knew Cullen well enough to realize that he’d put off writing to Mia for as long as possible.
It wasn’t that he didn’t like his sister, Cullen thought. But the more often that Cullen wrote to Mia, the more often she wrote back. And she wanted to know everything. Cullen could scarcely stand to face his private life when he was in private. He certainly did not want to sit down and sort through all his thoughts and feelings for the sake of a virtual stranger.
Maker, Cullen thought with a start. When had his own sister become a stranger? And how had he let that happen?
“For what it’s worth, Cullen,” Leliana said, cocking her head at him. “You’re stronger than I thought.”
“Oh,” Cullen said. He felt taken aback, embarrassed, and yet somehow pleased all at once. “Um… Thank you?”
“Don’t mention it,” she said, turning back to her papers.
“Er, likewise,” Cullen said, for it seemed he ought to attempt a compliment in return.
“Well, just… You’re not nearly as heartless as you pretend to be.”
Leliana frowned and her eyes narrowed. “Yes I am,” she said, scowling. “And if you tell anyone differently, I will have to kill you.”
Cullen snorted and rolled his eyes. “Yes, yes, always the vicious spy… Wait. You are joking, aren’t you?”
“You’d better get going, commander,” Leliana said, looking back to her work. “I believe that’s the six o’clock bell that I hear.”
Cullen froze. Indeed, that was the morning bell, ringing faintly in the distance. He lunged for his papers.
“Maker’s breath, Leliana, you might have said something.”
“I just did.”
Cullen scowled at her as he tried to gather up his things. “Blast, blast… Oh, Crestwood!” he cried, snagging a map-marker and sliding it onto the dot on the map. “Blast! Look, I still don’t have the guard rotation settled.” Cullen dug out a paper from his pile and tossed it at Leliana. “Could you get that to Rylen? And please keep Morris out of trouble, will you? He never listens to anyone, but he’s frightened of you. You might be able to use that. Oh, and if you see Barris… Wait, no. Barris is going with me. Isn’t he?”
“We’ll be fine,” Leliana said, laughing. “I’m sure we can manage without you for one week. Now go on and have fun, commander.”
Cullen had been stacking his papers into a pile, but he nearly dropped them at that.
“Fun?” he repeated. What was she talking about? He was about to try and make contact with Hawke.
“Oh, and don’t forget to take Plucky with you!” Leliana cried, as Cullen could turned to go.
Cullen turned back around as one of the ravens came hopping across the table in a flurry of beak and feathers. Cullen clutched his papers to his chest, shouting “Maker!” Then the flapping stilled, and Cullen had a giant crow clinging to his fur ruff.
“Ohhh, she likes you,” Leliana crooned. The bird leaned forward cried WAAACK! right by Cullen’s ear.
“This bird isn’t going ride me all the way to Crestwood, is she?”
“I love you, too, Plucky,” Leliana said, ignoring Cullen. She went up on her tip toes to rub her nose to the bird’s beak. Cullen cringed at this display of avian affection.
“You cannot be serious.”
“Go, go!” Leliana said, shooing him away. “Bon voyage, little brother!”
“I’m not your… Unngh.”
But Cullen did not have time to argue with her, so he grabbed his papers and strode toward the door, Plucky clinging to his shoulder the entire way.
“Be good, Plucky!” Leliana called. “And Cullen! Think about everything I said!”
Leliana kept waving until the door had shut behind Cullen. The moment she was alone, however, Leliana dropped her hand, and her eyes narrowed.
“Hmmm….” she said. At the edge of the table, Lady Pickles cawed once, drawing Leliana’s attention.
“Oh yes,” Leliana said, nodding. “He’ll be kind to Plucky. Probably will try hand her off to the first person who will take her, but you know Plucky won’t let him get away with that.”
“Ack!” the bird crowed.
“Oh yes, he’s always been like that. Thick as Denerim’s outer walls.”
Pickles bobbed her head and croaked again: “Ack!”
“I didn’t say he was stupid,” Leliana said. “I said he was thick. You know, doesn’t pick up on things. Although when he does pick up on things…” Leliana sighed and shook her head. “Hmmm, some bard I am, misjudging my audience like that. You’re right. He’s cleverer than I gave him credit for. And more vulnerable. So we’ll keep a better eye on him in the future, won’t we, Pickles?”
Pickles bobbed her body close to the table, croaking: “Aack, ack!”
“Oh. That. Well, I did try to give him a hint. Find a nice girl, I told him. Enjoy what time you can, I told him. But did he listen to me? Oh no. Wincing and frowning at the table as if I was sticking pins in him.”
“Aaack!” the raven cawed, fluffing her feathers.
“I’m not so sure. I find they’re rather formal with each other. Hard to tell one way or the other. Even if you did see them talking on the ramparts the other day, that could mean anything. What about that Ruvena girl? She might do for him.”
Pickles let out a loud, angry squawk: “Maaaack!”
“Really? She seems nice enough.”
Pickles made a short ‘Haaa!’ and looked away. Leliana turned to the table and started rifling through her papers.
“Do you indeed? Alright then, I’ll take that bet. And I raise you four silver on our bet about Coll and Solas. The end of the month or sooner, see if they don’t.”
Pickles fluffed her feathers snapped her beak. “Ack?”
Leliana flinched ever so slightly.
“What about me?” she asked.
Pickles made a whistling, whippoorwill sort of noise. Leliana’s jaw dropped in indignation.
“I beg your pardon? No, I was not just looking for an excuse to reminisce about Auri!”
The raven cocked her head and blinked her eyes.
“What cheek! Besides, that is over and done with, as you know very well.”
The raven looked up at the ceiling and remained silent.
“I do not dwell on it!” Leliana protested.
The raven bent over, tapping a blank sheet of parchment which lay upon the table. Leliana waved a hand impatiently.
“Yes, yes, of course I’ll write to her. I said I would, didn’t I?”
Pickles hopped along the edge of the table and tapped her beak against the ink pot.
“You’re a pushy thing, aren’t you?”
Pickles let out another “Ack!”
“No, it is over, and I’m not going to delude myself into thinking otherwise.”
Pickles made a cooing sort of sound now, a kind of soft ‘weep-weep’. Leliana sighed.
“I do not share your confidence,” she said.
Pickles cawed once more.
“Yes, yes, I will. Oh, and do keep an eye on things in Crestwood, will you? Plucky is counting on your backup.”
“Ack!” The raven bobbed her head.
“Very good,” Leliana said. “Now follow at a distance and report to Charter if anything goes wrong. Oh, and do be safe, my dear.”
Pickles hopped up on Leliana’s shoulder, and nuzzled her head against Leliana’s cheek. Leliana chuckled.
“Yes, yes,” she said. “I’ll miss you, too. Now off you go. The window is open.”
The raven took off in a rush of wings, and Leliana didn’t even blink. Then she took up a piece of paper, drew a breath, and let it out in a heavy sigh.
”‘Not as cold as everyone thinks’?” Leliana murmured to the empty room. “Oh my dear Auri. I only wish I was.”