“Damn, damn, damn, damn, damn, damn, damn, damn…”
Robert swore with each step, flying through curses as quickly as he flew down the stairs. “Damn, damn, damn, damn…” he paused to round a corner and vault out into the courtyard. “…Damn, damn, damn,” he resumed.
It was what, Robert wondered? Six in the morning? If that? The square of sky above the courtyard shone a pale, thin sort of blue. Robert regarded the weak light as a kind of personal affront. No sensible person should be awake at his hour, he thought. Absolutely awful that the Maker made the early morning in the first place.
“Damn, damn – Good morning!”
Robert paused his glowering and cursing to greet two passing servants. They stared after him in shock as he dashed on into the cloistered walkway. Robert reached the door to the Great Hall, pulled it open and ran on, his backpack bouncing with every step, his socks and boots clutched tightly in one hand.
“Damn, damn, damn, damn, dammit.“
How the Void - how the very Void had Cassandra managed to slip by him? Thank the Maker that Cole had thought to warn Robert. The spirit had appeared at the end of Robert’s bed just five minutes ago and said: “Cassandra is awake and getting dressed. I thought you might want to know.”
Yes, Robert thought. Yes, he did want to know. Only it was Leliana’s responsibility to mind the Seeker this morning. What was the spymaster thinking? Had she fallen asleep in her rookery or something? Blast it, it would not be Robert’s fault if Cassandra found out about Hawke from the crowd down at the stables.
“Hey Ostwick!” Robert heard Varric shout. “You forgot to put on your…!”
But Robert missed the rest. He reached the door of the Great Hall and tore off down the stairs.
“Damn, damn, damn - ow!”
Robert stubbed his toe on the steps, which changed his rhythmic curse to a limping one:
“Damn, ow, damn ow…”
Robert stumbled on, ignored the stares and giggles that followed him. He wheeled around the corner and began down the longer staircase. From here, he could see the lower courtyard, and noticed that a fair number of people were milling about in the early light. Some folks were saddling horses and some were packing bags. Kate and Cullen and Scout Charter stood at a table by the base of the stairs. A raven had perched upon the edge of the table, studying the maps as intently as the humans and elf. Kate looked up to greet Robert with a surprised “Oh! Rob–” but Robert waved off her greeting and hurried on. He reached the lower courtyard and pushed through the crowds. Robert spotted Dorian by the market stalls, looking extremely hungover. Barris stood nearby, watching Dorian warily. Varric was pointing and gesturing at a dwarf-sized pony while Blackwall nodded mildly. And then Robert saw her: Cassandra came striding out of the stables, surveying the courtyard as if it were a battlefield. Robert sighed in relief, then shouted:
She stopped short. She looked around - and then she spotted him. Her eyes went wide as Robert dashed up. He stopped right in front of her. Cassandra’s mouth dropped open, but she didn’t say a thing.
“Hey,” Robert said. And that was all he could manage. Robert found he was completely out of breath. He placed a hand on his chest. Cassandra’s eyes were drawn to that hand. She stared at his chest.
And hullo, Robert thought. That was right. He still hadn’t put his shirt on, had he? Oops.
“What in the Maker’s name are you doing!” Cassandra gaped at him. “You are half naked! And your pants! They are open!”
“What?” Robert looked down in alarm. “Oh. You mean my laces aren’t tied. I thought you meant my small clothes were… Never mind. You had me worried there.”
Robert dropped his boots and socks to the ground, then began lacing his trousers. Cassandra watched him for a moment, then shook herself and looked up at him in shock.
“You can’t dress yourself here!”
“Why not?” Robert wanted to know.
“Because… You…” Cassandra had looked back down at his hands as Robert tied a knot at his waist. And he might have flexed just then, just to make sure she understood that his archery practice had done him some good. Cassandra drew in a sharp breath, then looked up at his face. Her cheeks were very pink now.
“You should dress yourself in your room, of course!”
“I would have,” Robert said. “Only I heard you were about to leave without me.”
“I wasn’t going to leave without you,” Cassandra said, frowning, “I just…”
Her eyes trailed back down to Robert’s chest and she seemed to forget what she was saying.
“You just?” Robert prompted. Cassandra shook herself and looked up at him.
“I was not certain I could trust you to make the necessary preparations,” she said, archly. “The way you were drinking last night, I thought you might not wake until tomorrow.”
Robert scowled. “I didn’t drink that much. In fact, I…”
Robert caught himself there. He almost said he’d quit drinking early so that he could run some errands for Leliana. Instead, he said:
“I paced myself.”
Cassandra looked doubtful.
“Anyhow,” Robert went on, “Here I am now, as you can see. Sober and packed and ready to go whenever you are. You want to leave now?” To emphasize, he hefted his pack on his back.
“You still aren’t wearing a shirt!”
Robert shrugged. “Alright, so I’ll get my shirt on and we’ll go.”
“This!” Cassandra said, waving a hand up and down, as if to indicate his chest. “This is why I hesitate to go with you!”
“What? Because I’m shirtless?”
“Because you do not consider!” she cried, her voice rising. “Because you do not plan! How can I trust you are ready to run a mission when you cannot even dress yourself?”
A few passing servants slowed their steps to stare at Cassandra with wide eyes - then they shot Robert sympathetic looks. They seemed to be silently telling him You’re in for it, before hurrying away.
“I can dress myself,” Robert said, frowning. “I just can’t dress myself and run through Skyhold at the same time. What, you think you could do better? I dare you to strip down right now, then see if you can get your clothes on by the time you reach the Great Hall.”
Cassandra’s mouth dropped open.
“Well, what are you waiting for?” Robert asked her. “Go on then.”
“You!” Cassandra cried. “What is wrong with you? Do you think this is all some joke? Some flirtation? Some kind of seduction?”
Robert frowned. “I’m just saying…”
“That’s all this is to you,” Cassandra said, angrily. “All you care about is pleasure and amusing yourself.”
“It is not!” Robert said, growing angry now. “Come now! I’m about to risk my life on this mission - a mission that’s beginning at the break of dawn, I’d like to add - and you think I’m just doing this for my own amusement?”
“I saw the betting book!” Cassandra cried. She pointed over Robert’s shoulder, as if indicating tavern in the upper courtyard.
“Betting book?” Robert blinked at her.
“The new one,” Cassandra nearly growled. “There was a bet on how long it would take you to… to… To find a new lover!”
Robert groaned. “Truly?” he asked, rolling his eyes heavenward. “That’s what this is about?”
“Well,” Cassandra said, now looking a little less certain of herself, “Your name was in there. And I thought…”
“You thought I put myself down in that book? Signed myself up for more gossip and speculation and anger from you? Maker’s breath, Cassandra. Just how stupid do you think I am?”
“But your name was in there!”
“Well, I didn’t put it there,” Robert said. “Was it even in my handwriting?”
“I… That…” This simple piece of logic seemed to stump Cassandra. She scowled at him.
“You were chasing after women just last night! I heard you talking to that server. You were flirting!”
Robert fixed Cassandra with a look. “So you’re jealous?”
“I am not jealous!” Cassandra practically shouted. “I just don’t like the way you toy with my reputation the way you do your own. I know you love playing the rogue…”
“I hate playing the rogue,” Robert said, unthinkingly.
”… But I deserve better than to be dragged all over Thedas by some man who does not think two days into the future, whose idea of ‘planning’ for a mission is to stay up all night, making bets with drunks and card cheats!”
Cassandra’s voice raised once again. Several stable hands turned to stare. And Robert, who had begun to feel a bit chilled without his shirt on, now felt hot with anger and shame. She sounded just like his father.
“And why me, Robert?” Cassandra went on, her voice rising. “Why choose me? Why not pick some woman who would welcome your insincere flatteries? Maker knows there are plenty who would have you.”
Before he could stop himself, before he could consider the wisdom of what he was thinking, Robert leaned down and hissed in her face:
“No one wants me, Cassandra.”
Cassandra blinked. “What?”
Robert caught himself there. He couldn’t explain all that. He wouldn’t explain that. And he was tired of this farce. He didn’t care what he’d promised Leliana. He’d keep the secret about Hawke, but he was done with the rest of it. He refused to spend his days herding Cassandra about. She was no sheep, and he wasn’t a damned dog.
Robert swung his pack around into his arms, opened the top, and began rummaging through it.
“You want plans?” he asked her. “Here you are: plans.”
Robert grabbed a sheaf of papers out of his pack and shoved them at her folded arms. Cassandra grabbed for them so that they would not fall.
“I’ve got maps, scout reports, Cullen’s notes on former templars, Scout Harding’s notes on observed red lyrium trades, and everything Cole and Barris could tell me about red templars. This might be a bit rudimentary compared with a Seeker’s work, but it’s all I’ve got.” Robert swung his pack back onto his back.
“You think you can do better?” he asked Cassandra without looking at her. “Then go to the Graves without me. But I’m done with this interrogation. And I’m done with you.”
Cassandra just stared at him in shock. And unable to meet her eyes, Robert stomped away.
Damn, damn, damn, damn, damn…
Damn her insinuations, Robert thought in fury. And damn her accusations and her doubt and her prying questions that got right at the heart of him. And damn it all, this just wasn’t like him to get hurt like that. He was the casual Trevelyan. He was the fun Trevelyan. And yet somehow, Robert had also become the Trevelyan who lived down to every assumption that anyone ever made about him.
He had also stomped himself right into the barn, Robert realized. It was quiet in here, as most of the horses were out in the courtyard getting saddled for the journey. This space was mostly packed with bales of hay. A quick glance over Robert’s shoulder showed him that Cassandra still stood in the courtyard beyond. She was reading through his notes, brows drawn and lips pressed in a deep frown.
She didn’t have to look so upset, Robert thought with a frown. Sure his handwriting was terrible, but the notes were fine - or so Robert thought. And now that Robert stood here, he realized that he should not have lost his temper like that. In giving Cassandra those papers, he’d given away his mission. And he couldn’t do that. Leliana would have his hide. So Robert supposed he ought to go back out there and ask for his things back. But two things made him hesitate: first of all, his pride was still wounded. And second of all, he still wasn’t wearing a shirt. Better get dressed first, Robert thought. Then he could focus on how to deal with Cassandra.
With a sigh, Robert looked around for a dressing room. He could go up into the hayloft, he supposed. Only it looked quite dusty up there. Perhaps – ah! There! The hay bales in the corner had been stacked in neat columns and rows, making a standing fortress of burlap-wrapped blocks. Robert ducked around the side, side-stepping along the narrow space between the barn wall and the bales. He continued around the corner of the barn until he came to a space where the blocks had been stacked unevenly, forming a kind of bale-throne. Robert plunked himself down upon a hay bale and threw his bag and boots to the straw-strewn floor. It was like he was king of the barn, Robert thought. That seemed fitting somehow.
Robert found his tunic and pulled it out of his bag. The shirt was a crumpled mess. Sort of like this morning, Robert thought. He scowled and did his best to shake out the wrinkles. He was so busy fuming, that Robert almost missed it when a voice on the other side of the hay bale said, softly:
“I’m sorry, what’s this about now?”
Out of habit, Robert froze and listened. Years of eavesdropping at the edges of ballrooms had taught him well enough how to stay quiet still. Robert didn’t place the voice at first, but he recognized the second speaker easily enough:
“I just wanted to talk with you privately, if that’s alright.”
That was Katie. And now that Robert recognized his cousin, he realized who was with her: that Cullen-commander fellow.
“P-privately?” the man stammered in reply.
Robert frowned at the man’s reaction. The commander didn’t need to sound that nervous about being along with a mage. Varric had said that Cullen was a stuffy ex-templar, but this took stuffy and ex-templar-y to new heights.
“If there’s a problem with the route…” Cullen began.
“Oh no, the routes are fine,” Katie said. “I think you made your case for the Imperial Highway well enough. No, I wanted to talk to you about something else.”
Robert looked over his shoulder, as if he could actually see through the wall of hay bales. It occurred to him that perhaps he ought not listen in on his own cousin. But Robert couldn’t very well sneak out of this corner without revealing himself. And that would raise all sorts of questions about why he’d been shirtless and hiding in the hay in the first place. As Robert didn’t feel like explaining himself, he stayed quiet.
Furthermore, Robert found he was quite curious about what Kate was up to, talking to the stuttering ex-templar. And as listening to his cousin provided a welcome distraction from his own problems - and he didn’t plan to tell Leliana about any of this morning anyway - Robert allowed himself to listen in. He only felt a slight twinge of conscience about it, too.
“So, um, Cullen,” Kate began on the other side of the bales. “About last night…”
Sitting on his throne of straw, Robert froze. Hang on. What about last night? Surely these two hadn’t…? Together? Dear Maker, this was already more information than he’d bargained for.
“Last night?” Cullen said on the other side of the bale. “What happened last night?”
Oh, Robert thought. Never mind. Judging by the man’s confusion, nothing exciting had happened last night - at least not to the templar. Still, a suspicion bloomed in Robert’s mind - the seed of which had been planted the previous evening in the tavern. It had germinated under a winter of distractions: the drinks and the game of Wicked Grace and the tantalizingly close view of Cassandra’s leather-clad bottom. But now, Robert’s suspicions opened in full flower. Had Katie invited this Cullen fellow to the tavern out of a sense of pity? Some sort of outreach-to-uptight-templars-type charity? Or did Katie’s interest run deeper than that?
But that made no sense, Robert mused. Katie hated the Order, even though she would never say so aloud. Besides, by all accounts - well, Varric’s account, anyhow - the commander was dull and rigid. Not to mention, Robert thought, he was also freakishly celibate. Meanwhile, Katie had a romance-novel collection that amounted to a small library. No, Robert thought. Cullen didn’t seem at all a good match for his cousin. Let that over-eager Ruvena have the commander, and let Katie find someone kinder.
“Um, don’t you remember?” Kate was asking Cullen on the other side of the bales. “We went to the tavern last night?”
“Yes, I remember that part,” Cullen said. There was a strange note of in his voice - almost like sarcasm. “Kind of hard to forget it.”
“Right,” Kate said. It sounded like she was grimacing. “So naturally, I must apologize.”
Apologize? Robert wondered.
“Apologize?” Cullen repeated in evident confusion.
“For abandoning you at the tavern like that. Rude of me, really, to invite you out for drinks and then not remain to play hostess. I woke up this morning and just felt awful about it. I rushed down here as quick as I could to say so, only you were busy talking to Charter and, well, here we are. Anyhow, I’m sorry.”
Robert barely kept himself from snorting aloud. Is that what this was all about? Not romantic interest, but unfounded social guilt? How very Trevelyan of her.
“Abandoning me?” Cullen said on the other side of the hay bale. “That’s not how I remember it.”
“But that’s what I did,” Kate said. “And I am sorry for it. I found myself growing tired after all those drinks, and … Well, to be honest, I had a bit of a panic after I finished with my story.”
“Quite,” Kate said. “I was belatedly mortified.”
Behind the bale, Robert blinked in astonishment. Wait, Katie was admitting to an emotion? Just how close was she with this templar anyhow? Even more curious now, Robert leaned toward the wall of straw. He did his best not to make a sound.
“Ah,” Cullen was saying. “I see.”
“Yes,” Kate said. “And besides that, I thought… Well, I feared that perhaps you might disapprove of a mage carrying on so. For having an affair like that, I mean. You were glowering while I spoke…”
He was, Robert thought. That was part of the reason Robert hadn’t thought the templar cared much for Katie.
“Um, well yes,” Katie said. “And I thought that perhaps, with you being a templar and all…”
“Ex-templar,” Cullen interrupted - rather emphatically, in Robert’s opinion. “And I don’t disapprove of…” Cullen paused, then said:
“Actually, yes. Yes, I do disapprove.”
Behind the bale, Robert rolled his eyes. So the templar was that severe after all.
“But only because it was quite unwise,” Cullen went on. “In Kirkwall you would have gotten the brand for such a thing.”
Robert went quite still. Kate gave a startled ‘Oh!’
“Well, you would have,” Cullen persisted. “Your teyrn’s son, whatever his name was, he would have gotten away with nothing more than a stain to his reputation, whereas you…” There was slightly strangled sound, then a pause, and then:
“This is why I didn’t – I don’t…” Cullen cleared his throat. “I don’t like thinking about it.”
Robert didn’t like thinking about it either. The tranquil’s brand? Really? Just for taking a lover? But surely that wouldn’t have happened in Ostwick, and definitely not to a Trevelyan. Still, Robert thought with a frown, Katie’s tendency toward secrecy and anxiety suddenly made a great deal more sense.
“Your Circle was horrible,” Kate said, angrily.
Robert found himself surprised by that pronouncement - not at the pronouncement itself, but at the fact that Katie would criticize a Chantry institution. She’d never done that before.
“Yes?” Cullen said it as if it were a question - as if he were resigned to that question. There was a strange, tense silence on the other side of the straw.
Robert couldn’t see either person’s face, but he could imagine the scene all the same: Cullen with that stony scowl he’d worn last night, and Katie with her half-angry, half-earnest expression.
“Well,” Kate said after a moment. “Hence the secrecy all these years.”
“Er, yes,” Cullen said. “Yes, I can see that. Still,” he pressed on, hesitantly, as if shuffling one foot in front of the other, “Still, to take a risk like that, you must have loved him very much? Your, um… him?”
Well now. Robert’s brows shot up. So the ex-templar was jealous? Robert scarcely knew Cullen from Mafarath, but Robert knew that tone of voice well enough. Maybe he’d misjudged this Cullen fellow after all.
“Alan?” Kate said, supplying the name when Cullen did not. “I suppose I did.”
Robert wanted to smack his forehead, but he dared not. Really Kate, he thought? Did she have no idea how to play coy? One never spoke openly about one’s former lovers. One kept things obscured by saying ‘That’s in the past’ and making other vague insinuations. Or was Katie even trying to play coy? Was she trying to do anything other than apologize? Robert wasn’t certain.
“Ah. Well.” Cullen said briskly. “I see.”
Did he, Robert wondered? Maybe he could explain Katie to Robert, as Robert didn’t entirely understand her sometimes.
“Leliana certainly liked your tale,” Cullen went on. “Liked it so well that she…”
He stopped himself there. Behind the bale, Robert’s eyes went wide. How had Cullen found out about that?
“What did she do?” Kate asked, clearly alarmed.
“Oh, um,” Cullen said. “She thought it made you sound sympathetic. So she, um…” Cullen hesitated there.
“I’m not quite sure what she’s doing, exactly.”
“She’s going to publish it in a broadside, isn’t she?” Kate said, her tone flat.
Robert bit back a chuckle. Oh yes indeed, he thought. But Robert completely approved of the spymaster’s plans. After all, Leliana was quite right: the story did make Kate seem heroic and all those other things the Inquisitor ought to be. Robert hoped the tale made its way back to Ostwick, and that Alan and Olivia choked on it. How he’d love to see their faces when the gossip began! Robert grinned at the thought.
“I should have realized the story wouldn’t stay in the tavern,” Kate groaned. “I never should have said anything.”
“Why did you say anything?” Cullen asked her. “You needn’t have told them that story. Certainly not in such detail.”
Robert perked up at that. Yes, why had Katie told that tale after so much silence?
“I don’t know.” Kate said, in a way that made Robert think she knew perfectly well what she’d been about. “I suppose I thought it was better that way. Bull always tells me, ‘control the battlefield, boss.’ I decided I ought to tell the story myself, rather than have someone ferret it out.”
“Makes sense,” Cullen said.
Behind the hay bale, Robert nodded to himself. If only he had thought to do something similar with Cassandra, Robert mused. Might have saved himself a great deal of embarrassment this morning.
“A tactic of the Grand Game,” Kate went on. “I’ve learned a few.”
Sort of, Robert thought. Katie had managed well enough among the Trevelyans, but around this Cullen fellow, her subtlety had failed entirely. Maybe she did fancy him after all.
“Ah,” Cullen said. “Because for a moment there, I thought you told the story because… Er, never mind.”
“What did you think?” Kate asked.
“Well,” Cullen said, trying to sound off-hand and failing miserably, “For a moment I wondered if maybe you were trying to deflect attention from me. You know, some kind of challenge to draw the attention of the enemy. Not that anyone at the tavern was the enemy. It just seemed like a tactic, that’s all.”
“Oh,” Kate said.
“Foolish, I know.”
“No, no,” Kate said. “I was trying to shield you as well. You’re quite right.”
Behind the hay bale, Robert wanted to smack his forehead. Behold the failed subtlety, he thought. She might as well tell the man she planned to slay dragons for him.
“You were?” Cullen sounded startled. He sounded a bit pleased as well, but mostly startled.
“Of course,” Kate said. “That’s what friends do, right? Shield each other?”
This time, Robert really did smack his forehead. He couldn’t help it. But neither Cullen nor Kate seemed to hear the soft ‘thwack’ on the other side of the straw wall.
Katieeeee, Robert wanted to whine at her. Was she trying to court the man or push him away? What in the Void was she doing?
“Oh.” Cullen sounded rather disappointed, which was only to be expected. “I, um… Yes. I suppose so.”
“I mean,” Kate added quickly. “I wanted to defend you. Or, you know, help. I figured with all the struggles you’ve been facing –”
Struggles? Robert perked up. What struggles?
” – the last thing you needed was a lot of rude questions about your past.”
What about Cullen’s past?
“Yes, well…” Cullen didn’t seem to know what to say there. “Thank you?”
“You’re welcome?” Kate replied, and that also sounded like a question. “Or you would be, if I’d been successful in stopping them. I wasn’t able to entirely fend them off.”
“No need to worry about that,” Cullen said, sourly. “Leliana ‘edited’ my story.”
“Oh.” There was a telling pause. “What does that mean?”
Robert knew, but he listened quietly as Cullen explained: “She spread a different tale around the barracks. Some obscuring story that passes me off as a gentleman. Roped your cousin into it, I understand.”
Robert found himself frowning. Oh, well don’t thank me or anything, he thought.
“You speak as though that was a bad thing.” Kate sounded confused. “It sounds like they were trying to do you a favor.”
Thank you, Robert thought, glad his cousin was defending him.
“No, you’re right,” Cullen said. He sounded like he did not think she was right. “I just take issue with needing an editor in the first place.”
Shouldn’t have gone on a bender then, templar, Robert thought.
“I don’t judge you, you know,” Kate said. “I don’t think anyone did. For your sexual… er, for your history, I mean.”
Robert wasn’t so sure about that. Varric had a decided opinion on the matter, and Coll had looked downright dubious.
“It wasn’t an orgy,” Cullen said at once.
Robert snorted to himself. Well that had been rather defensive, hadn’t it? Frankly, he hadn’t cared about Cullen’s history one way or the other, but after listening to this fellow half-flirt with Katie, Robert now found himself quite intrigued. Was the man’s celibacy due to a physical problem? Was it a rule-based thing? Or did Cullen have some weird kink or something? Robert knew it wasn’t really any of his business, but he couldn’t help but wonder.
“Um, yes, you established that,” Kate said. “And “I’m sure you had your, er… reasons?”
Good God Katie, Robert thought! Why not just ask the man for a fully narrated account? With drawings, even! Yet again, her Trevelyan subtlety was nowhere to be found.
“My reasons for Denerim, you mean?” Cullen asked.
“Yes,” Kate said. She said nothing more, as if silently asking Cullen to explain.
“Well, I…” Cullen began, “I, um… I once fancied a girl…”
Ho, now! Robert thought to himself. The templar had had a sweetheart! A promising start.
“It, um… Well, it didn’t work out and I tried to forget her. And the forgetting bit didn’t go as I’d planned either. Took me a while to forget the forgetting, as it were. Then the lyrium kicked in. Stronger doses in Kirkwall, so I found it hard… Er, difficult…”
Robert bit back a laugh. Nice save there, templar.
“Anyhow, that was long ago. And after a morning of talking with Lel… er… It was long ago.”
Cullen said that emphatically, quickly, as if tossing all the words away in a rubbish heap. There was a long pause, then Kate said:
“It sounds like she was special to you.”
Robert shook his head at that entirely unhelpful observation.
“She…” Cullen didn’t seem able to confirm or deny that. “It doesn’t matter,” he said instead. “I’m married to my wor…”
Robert assumed that Cullen meant to say ‘Married to his work,’ but the commander seemed to choke on his words. Behind his bales, Robert made a face at the templar’s rudeness. Alright, so maybe Cullen wasn’t interested in Kate after all. But surely the templar could find a gentler way to let her down? As it was, Katie sounded quite crushed when she said:
“Oh.” That was all she said, too. Robert scowled at the hay bales in cousinly indignation.
“No!” Cullen said, rather loudly and much too quickly. “I’m sorry. I didn’t… I don’t… I don’t like to be fussed over. But I appreciate the um… the thought.”
What thought, Robert wondered? Had there been a thought?
“What thought?” Kate asked.
“The thought of asking me to the tavern,” Cullen explained. “I had a nice time. Wicked Grace is a fun game. I enjoyed it. Might like to play it again. And I would have liked to have spent more time with you. That had been my intention. So perhaps another time…?” Cullen trailed off meaningfully and cleared his throat.
Ah ha, Robert thought! That had definitely been a flirt. Well done, templar! Now just go back and fix the last bit.
“Oh,” Kate said, sounding flustered. “Yes, another time… Another time would be fun.” She paused, and Robert pictured her shuffling her feet awkwardly. “I wish I’d planned last night more carefully. As it was, I wish I hadn’t invited you.”
On the other side of the bales, Robert winced. Katie, he thought. That was a terrible way to phrase it.
“You wish you hadn’t invited me?” Cullen sounded confused - and possibly a little hurt.
“No, no!” Kate said, quickly. “I didn’t want not to invite you. Maker, that makes no sense. I mean, I wish I’d invited you to do something else. Take a walk maybe, or have an actual conversation? Or toast marshmallows in the courtyard, perhaps.”
“Toast marshmallows,” Cullen repeated. “You would have asked me to toast marshmallows.”
He sounded like he was trying not to laugh. Robert likewise held in his own exasperated noises. Was this Kate’s idea of flirting? What was this?
“You’re right,” Kate sighed on the other side of the hay bale. “We couldn’t have toasted marshmallows. Josephine won’t be able to get any for months.”
“I’d like marshmallows,” Cullen said.
Sounded like the templar wanted more than marshmallows, Robert thought.
“Anyhow, I’m sorry,” Kate went on.
“You’re sorry about marshmallows?”
“I’m sorry for exposing you to embarrassment.”
Robert rolled his eyes. Why did Katie take the blame for things that were not her fault? Why apologize at all if one could avoid it?
“That was not your doing,” Cullen said.
Well good, Robert thought. He was glad to hear the templar say so.
“Perhaps not directly,” Kate pressed. “But you were embarrassed on my watch. Or at my invitation. Or something. Anyhow, I feel I ought to have prevented it somehow. Maybe if I had written out a list of things to talk about? Or if I’d kept the conversation on safer topics…”
Robert could not help it. He snorted with laughter. As if that would have worked. Thankfully for Robert, Cullen burst out laughing at the same time, and covered for him.
“What?” Kate demanded on the other side of the hay bale. “It’s not that funny. Is it?”
“Kate,” Cullen said - the use of her given name startled Robert into silence - “Do you honestly think your cousin would have followed one of your lists? Or Sera? Or any of them? Maker knows Morris wouldn’t have. And that’s assuming they could read your handwriting.”
Hold on now, Robert thought. Cullen knew about Kate’s lists? And her handwriting? And how did the commander know that Robert wouldn’t have followed Kate’s instructions? Of course Robert wouldn’t have, but how did the commander know Robert so well? Robert had only met the man twice.
“Hey!” Kate said, but it sounded like she was laughing.
“Really now,” Cullen said. “Would they have listened?”
There was a pause, then: “Maybe not.”
“Alright!” Kate said, and there was a definite laugh that escaped her this time. “It was a hopeless situation from the start.”
“It was,” Cullen agreed. “And we both got broadsided.”
“Which is why I should have planned for us to do something else.”
“Like marshmallows,” came the deadpan reply.
“Exactly. Like marshmallows.”
On the other side of the hay bale, Robert lowered his face into the palm of his hand. They were terrible. Terrible! Dear Maker, did he sound like that when he flirted with Cassandra? Surely not. Surely he was far more smooth and direct than this… whatever this was.
This entire conversation was confounding, Robert thought. The two of them were definitely flirting, but neither of them seemed to realize that the other person was flirting back. It was like watching two people hesitantly hold out gifts to one another, not realizing the other person’s hands were too full to accept anything in return.
“Incidentally,” Cullen asked, his voice carrying over the hay bales, “What had you hoped for last night?”
Ah, Robert thought. A good question. Remarkably forward, that. Robert was surprised the commander had even asked. Katie took her time answering. At last she said:
“I don’t know. I guess I wanted to have a conversation that didn’t involve troop movements, or Morris’ strange requisition orders, or your lyrium withdrawals…”
Robert’s eyes bulged from his head. What withdrawals?
“Ah,” Cullen said. His tone was tight.
“Not that I have a problem with the withdrawals!” Kate said, her voice rising. She then caught herself and spoke in a near whisper. Robert had to strain to hear. “You know how I feel about that. I mean to help you get through all this, not… Oh Andraste, I’m making this worse, aren’t I? I just thought that it would be good for you - for everyone - to take some rest. Inquisitor and commander included.”
“So, a furlough of sorts,” Cullen said. He said this in an odd tone - searching, maybe. Or perhaps disappointed.
“Of sorts,” Kate agreed.
But Robert scarcely heard this. Instead, his mind was spinning over what had been revealed a moment before. The templar had quit taking lyrium? Good Maker, did the man have a death wish? He might as well take himself to the top of Skyhold’s tower and throw himself off the side. Everyone knew that there was no coming back from a lyrium addiction. Katie had befriended this man just as he reached the end of his life.
So this wasn’t a flirtation, Robert realized. This was a long goodbye.
“Well again,” Kate was saying on the other side of the bale. “I’m sorry the evening didn’t work out as planned.”
“And again,” Cullen replied, “That’s not your fault. I…”
“Ah there you are!”
Compared to Kate and Cullen’s furtive whispers on the other side of the hay bales, this latest greeting boomed through the whole barn. Robert recognized the speaker at once. So also did Kate.
“Morning Coll,” she said. Kate’s voice came out rather breathless. “You seem to be in a fine mood.”
“I am,” Coll said, and the straw crunched as she came to a stop on the other side of the bales. “But only because I got the last word in with Solas just now. Howya, templar. Say, where’d your cousin get off to, Kate-lass? Seeker’s out there lookin’ for him.”
Robert cringed. Oh dear. He’d forgotten about that, engrossed as he had been with Kate and Cullen’s interchange. Was Cassandra still angry, Robert wondered? Or had she cooled off?
Unfortunately, Coll made for yet another person blocking Robert into this self-inflicted straw prison. Maybe he could sneak past them all without being noticed? Robert looked around and frowned. Not likely. If he started shuffling around in the hay, they would probably hear him out there. Straw was notoriously noisy in all the wrong ways.
“How strange,” Kate said. “I saw Robert earlier. Maybe he realized he’d forgotten his shirt and went back to his rooms?”
No, Robert thought to himself. That’s what he should have done, but no.
“I’ve no clue,” Coll said, as if Robert’s whereabouts didn’t concern her in the least. “As for you two, I got mixes for you both.”
“Mixes?” That was Cullen.
“Potions,” Kate clarified without missing a beat.
“Stayed up all night on ‘em,” Coll added. “Done never went to bed, I’ll have you know. Things didn’t work out with Krem, by the by. Just in case you’re wondering.”
Neither Kate nor Cullen commented upon that. Neither of them had asked in the first place. There was a clinking of glass as Coll went on:
“For you lass, healin’ potions and sun ointment.”
“It’s the middle of winter,” Kate protested.
“No excuse,” Coll said. “As for you, templar. I done made you up some elfroot pellets.”
There was a strange rattling sound. It sounded as though Coll was brandishing a jar of pills at the templar.
“Er,” Cullen said. “And what are these for?”
He sounded rather put off by whatever he was looking at, Robert mused. Robert had half a mind to take a peek at the offering, but didn’t dare.
“These here are for your suhlan’nu. Your lyrium pains.” There was another rattle on the other side of the bales.
“Uh… oh,” Cullen said.
On his side of the bale, Robert perked up. Wait. Coll had made Cullen some kind of medicine? Robert felt a flicker of hope rise inside of him.
“Oh, thank you Coll,” Kate said, in obvious relief. “See? This is what I was telling you about, Cullen. A supplement to help your body break down the lyrium.”
Ah ha, Robert thought! Clever, clever mages! Really, Robert mused. Why did they lock mages in towers anyhow? From all he’d ever seen of mages, they were the most useful people to have around. And Robert should have realized that his cousin wasn’t going to let the commander just withdrawal himself to death. Of course Katie had a plan. And of course she’d recruited Coll to help her.
“Sure, but you’ll need to keep an eye on him, Kate-lass,” Coll warned on the other side of the bale. “This geshathena is all experimentin’ at this point. Gonna need to check in on him regular-like with the protocols. Perhaps twice a night.” Coll chuckled to herself. Then there was a muffled ‘Oof!’ then “Ow, lass!”
Cullen must not have heard that last interchange. Either that, or he was preoccupied with the bottle of pellets. “I’m sure this isn’t really necessary is it?” he asked.
Robert frowned at that. Why was Cullen complaining? The two mages were trying to save him.
“Will you listen to the boyo?” Coll cried. “Elfroot ain’t good enough for him, is that it?”
“Keep it down, Coll,” Kate hissed. “Cullen,” she went on, speaking more quietly, “We talked about this…”
“Now you listen to me, templar,” Coll said, talking right over Kate and speaking just as loudly as before: “Kate here told me you’re in a right state. I can tell you’re in a right state just by standin’ here. An’ there’s a heap o’ difference between elfroot healin’ and your Chantry’s feckin’ drug.”
“I, well, yes,” Cullen said, hesitantly. “But they look awfully, um… grassy.”
“Sure,” Coll said, “You take ‘em rectally. Shove one in every morning after your daily crap.”
Robert doubled over. He didn’t know how he managed not to laugh, but somehow he managed not to laugh. As it was, tears came to his eyes and he wrapped his arms around his bare stomach. Good Maker, no wonder the templar didn’t want them!
“What?” Cullen sputtered. “I…er… Well, I suppose…”
“Oh Coll, stop!” Kate cried. “Don’t tease him like that.”
“Is she teasing me?” Cullen asked. He sounded desperate for it to be so.
“No,” Coll deadpanned.
“Yes!” Kate insisted. “Coll,” she chided.
“Fine, fine,” Coll said, “I’m just messin’ with you, templar. Serves you right though! I stayed up all night on those!”
“So these are not rectally inserted.” Cullen sounded like he wanted to be very clear on this.
“Maythal no,” Coll said. “You jess swallow ‘em. Or mash ‘em up in your food if you prefer. Oh, Creators love you lad! Look at how red you’ve gone after goin’ so pale!”
“Coll,” Kate said. “That wasn’t very nice.”
“No, but ‘twas worth it,” Coll said. “Come on now, templar. I want to hear some gratitude.”
“I, er… thanks?”
“Ta!” Coll said. “And lemme be clear, boyo,” she added, “You don’t want to put those things up your arse. Might sprout in there, for sure, elfroot grows in any crack in all of Thedas. And then you’d end up with…”
“Yes, thank you Coll,” Kate said. “I think we get the idea.”
“Might have to try that sometime though,” Coll said, thoughtfully. “Not on meself, but on someone else. You got any prisoners down in the dungeons who…?”
“I believe the Chantry has laws about torture,” Cullen said.
“Nah they don’t,” Coll said. “They’ve got Circles, don’t they? Ah now, don’ you two worry. I was just jokin’. Me days of tormentin’ are over. Mostly. Almost entirely. Exceptin’ for Solas.”
“Coll, you’re a force of nature, truly,” Kate said.
“Ah, you’re too kind, lass.”
“How do you keep up with her?” Cullen asked.
“I don’t,” Kate admitted. “I really don’t.”
“No one can,” Coll said, proudly. “By the by, templar, your stable master wants to speak to you. Cute lass she is, too. Somethin’ about not knowin’ what kind of horse you want?”
“One suitable for a beginner, I suppose,” Cullen said. There was another rattle of the elfroot pellets, perhaps as Cullen transferred them from one hand to another.
“Beginner,” Kate said. A doubtful note crept into her voice now. “Cullen, I hesitate to ask. Did you ever get a chance to practice riding?”
“Maker no,” the templar replied. “Didn’t have time. I’ll learn in the saddle, I suppose.”
“What?” Kate groaned. “Cullen.”
“Oh come now,” the man said. “How hard can it be?”
Behind the bale, Robert bit back a snort. Coll did not, however. Her laugh echoed through the barn.
“I admire your confidence boyo,” the elf said. “Still, you might want to take two pellets a day now. Not up yer arse, but for it.”
“What?” Cullen sounded like he was frowning. “Why? Surely I don’t… Ah, yes Sienna! I’ll… Of course! If you’ll excuse me, Kate. Coll.”
There was a crunching as Cullen walked away through the straw.
“One pellet a day, templar!” Coll shouted after him. “No wait. Two!” There was a pause, then:
“He’s gonna be dyin’ by tomorrow.”
“By tonight,” Kate replied. “His ass will be sore in ways he didn’t know were possible.”
Robert burst out laughing. Katie was commenting upon a templars ass? Since when had she grown so bold? But before Robert could consider the answer to that question, he heard an ‘Eep!’ on the other side of the straw. That was Kate, Robert realized, and there was also a shout of ‘Who in feck’s back there?!’ which came from Coll.
Oh. Oops, Robert thought. That’s right. He was supposed to be hiding back here. Ah well. The game was up now. At least the templar had gone. Robert stood on his bale-seat and peeked over the hay wall.
“Good morning,” he said, waving a hand.
On the other side of the straw, Kate’s eyes went huge. Coll just looked delighted, as if Robert’s appearance was the latest joke in a comedic play.
“Mornin’ lad!” Coll said, waving back. “Sure but you have the best timin’.”
“Robert Alexander Lindsay Trevelyan!” Kate cried, eyes wide and furious. “Have you been back there all along?”
“Lindsay?” Coll laughed.
“We have a Great-Aunt who demanded a namesake,” Robert explained, as Coll started poking around the bales.
“How’d you get back there, boyo?” Coll asked. She walked to the end of the hay-wall, found the small walkway, and came around to Robert’s side.
“What a grand hidin’ space!” she laughed.
“Coll!” Kate hissed. Then, with a glare at Robert, Kate followed her friend. A moment or two later both Kate and Coll had shuffled through the narrow walkway and into Robert’s rustic court of hay-thrones.
“Welcome!” he told them, spreading his arms wide.
“Robert Trevelyan…” Kate began. “What in the Maker’s name… ” Kate broke off when she finally got a good look at him.
“You still don’t have on a shirt?” she asked. “Robert, why?”
“Boffin’ lasses in the barn, were you?” Coll nodded approvingly. “Classic, that. Personally, I find that straw is dead scratchy. Also there’s mice.”
“I wasn’t back here with a woman,” Robert said in exasperation. “I came back here just to… Um…”
“Oh,” Coll said, glancing down at his trousers. “Pullin’ the dread wolf’s tail, were you? Well then. We’ll leave you to it.” She elbowed Kate and made to leave.
“I wasn’t masturbating,” Robert said.
“Oh my Maker,” Kate said, looking from one of them to the either. “You two. It’s like having a conversation with a couple of apprentices.”
“Don’t be knockin’ it, Kate-lass,” Coll snorted. “Sure but you must rub the little fennec from time to time.”
Kate said nothing to that, but went slightly pink. She turned to Robert and deliberately ignored Coll.
“So,” she said. “Just how much of that conversation did you overhear?”
“Oh,” Robert shrugged. “Just about about all of it.”
“Robert,” Kate groaned.
“What?” he said, holding his arms out innocently. “You and your commander trapped me back here.”
“Trapped you?” Kate repeated. “What. You weren’t spying for Leliana then?”
“Maker no!” Robert said, affronted now. “I don’t sell out friends.”
“Then why were you back here?”
“Because I was hiding from Cassandra, if you must know.”
“Hiding from the Seeker?” Coll laughed, as Kate frowned.
“Why are you hiding from Cassandra?” Kate asked.
“Long story.” Robert sighed.
“I…” Kate shook her head, then evidently decided not to ask about that story. “Fair enough,” she said. “So if you were back here, did you hear me and Cullen talking about his lyrium… Um…?”
“Did I hear about how your commander quit lyrium? Yes.”
“What?” he waved his arms wide. “Stupid thing to keep secret if you ask me. If he goes balls up on the battlefield, it’ll come as a shock to everyone.”
“That’s what I said!” Coll agreed.
Judging by the look on Kate’s face, his cousin had had a similar worry. She sighed.
“I’m doing what I can to help him,” she said. “But he can be a bit stubborn, if you hadn’t noticed.”
“Oh, we all noticed,” Coll said. She raised her eyebrows in a sort of ‘And how’ expression.
“It comes of being a commander, I suppose,” Kate said. “I only wish that I…”
But what Kate wished, Robert didn’t find out. For at that moment, a voice called out on the other side of the hay bales:
“Hello? Inquisitor? Katerina, are you in here?”
Robert froze in panic. He heard a ‘stomp’ as a boot hit the bottom step of the hayloft stairs.
“Katerina? Cullen said you were still in the barn?”
“Don’t answer!” Robert hissed, but Kate had raised her voice and shouted:
“Under here, Cassandra!”
“No!” Robert hissed.
”‘Round the edge of the hay bales!” Coll added.
“Coll!” he turned to glare at the elf.
“What?” Coll shrugged. “Rude to leave a body hollerin’ out there.”
“What in the Maker’s name…” Cassandra’s voice trailed off. There were more steps and sounds of crunching hay. Then shuffling as the Seeker made her way through the barn. Robert looked down at himself, then dove for his bag. Where was his shirt, he wondered? He dug through his pack frantically. Where was his shirt? Robert spotted it on a hay bale where he’d left it. He snagged it just as Cassandra came into view. Then he whirled around, holding it before himself like a shield. Cassandra stood at the edge of the tiny space, her eyes wide.
“Oh,” she said.
Once again, she was staring at Robert’s chest.
“Hullo,” Robert said.
“You still have no shirt on,” Cassandra noted.
Coll sniggered into her tattooed hand. Kate pressed her lips together and looked down at the floor.
“Er, no,” Robert said. “Not yet. I came back here to get dressed.” He shook out his shirt, but couldn’t seem to find the opening.
“You are dressing while your cousin and Coll are watching you?”
“No,” Robert said, turning the fabric around and around. “They came…”
“We came to wish him a happy journey,” Kate said, jumping in to explain. Robert would have hugged her for it, if he hadn’t been so busy with the tunic. “We realized we’ll miss him while he’s out in the Emerald Graves with you. Do keep him company, will you?”
Well that was laying it on a bit thick, Robert thought. He would have been grateful for Kate’s words, only Cassandra wasn’t coming with him anymore, was she?
“Oh, I’m sure Cassandra wouldn’t want my company,” Robert grumbled. “She’s got better things to do. Doesn’t she?”
There was a silence at that. Robert realized that he’d said that aloud. He hadn’t meant to do that. Coll pressed her lips together and gave Kate an ‘Oh shite!’ sort of look. Kate just looked up innocently at the beams above. Cassandra flushed, but she didn’t not look away from Robert’s face. Their eyes locked, and Robert felt a sudden warmth spread through him.
“Well now!” Coll cried. She clapped her tattooed hand together. “Look at the time, Kate-lass! Best we be gettin’ on, don’t you think?”
“Oh yes, definitely,” Kate agreed. She and the elf turned to go.
“No, wait–” Robert called. Now that he was about to be left alone with Cassandra again, he felt a sudden sense of panic. Kate must have guessed at his worry, for she turned back to him and said:
“It’s alright, Robert. You’ll do well.” She nodded once. “I know you will.”
Whether she meant the mission to the Graves or speaking with Cassandra, Robert didn’t know. She might have meant both. And some advice that was, Robert thought. All the same, he felt he ought to offer some advice of his own:
“You, too, Katie,” he told her. “You and the temp…” He caught himself there. “Just remember,” he said, trying a different tack. “You don’t have to settle for an Alan anymore. You can do much better than that.”
Kate’s eyes went wide, but all she did was nod. To one side, Cassandra made a kind of sighing sound. Coll just snorted.
“Sure, but I coulda told you that. Come on, Kate.”
The two of them left, shuffling past Cassandra in a tight exchange between the bales. Then Robert stood alone with the Seeker once more.
And he was still shirtless.
“Blast.” Robert dove into his tunic, got tangled, then tried to get himself sorted out. On the other side of the fabric, he heard Cassandra say:
“So,” he replied, all muffled. Damn it, where was the - ah! - the neck. Robert popped his head through, the threaded his arms through the sleeves.
“You’re backward,” Cassandra told him.
Robert looked down. So he was. He pulled his arms back into his shirt and turned the tunic around. As he threaded his arms in the right way, he heard Cassandra say:
“Regarding the Emerald Graves…”
“I’ll handle it,” Robert said, tugging his shirt into place. “You needn’t…”
“I would like to go with you,” Cassandra told him.
“You would?” Robert froze, blinking at her.
“I would,” Cassandra nodded. “And I must apologize. I lost my temper back there.”
“You’re admitting it?” Now Robert was even more astonished. And it seemed that made Cassandra angry.
“Of course I am admitting it,” she said, frowning. “I can do that, you know.”
“No,” Robert said quickly. “I mean yes. I mean, sure. Of course you can.”
“You have made very good plans for the journey,” Cassandra continued on. She held out her hands, and Robert saw now that she was holding all of his papers in a neat stack. “They are much better than I would have expected.”
Robert snorted. “High praise, indeed,” he said. He tugged down each shirt cuff in turn.
“I also now realize,” Cassandra went on. “That it was not your handwriting that I saw in the betting book.”
“Is this the part where I get to say ‘I told you so?’” Robert began to tuck his shirt into his trousers. “Because I’d like to. Very much.”
“I must ask you though,” Cassandra went on. “Where did you get this?”
Robert froze mid-tuck. He stood there, staring at Cassandra while he had his hand down his pants. For in her hand, Cassandra held had a book. It was a very old, very worn-looking book.
Damn, Robert thought.
“Carmenum de Amatus is banned,” Cassandra told him. She said ‘banned’ as if this was a very serious thing.
Damn, damn, damn…
“Banned?” Robert asked, trying to act nonchalant. “Really. How interesting. Must be one of Katie’s.”
“Does your cousin often put her books into your bags?” Cassandra asked, raising a brow.
“Oh, you know scholars,” Robert said. “Always leaving their things about.”
“Katerina is fastidious to a fault. Especially with books.”
Robert cringed. He often forgot how observant Cassandra could be when she was actually being observant.
“Must be a mistake,” he shrugged.
“I’ll make sure to give it back to her, then,” Cassandra said. She turned as if to go.
“No, no, it’s fine,” Robert said hastily - probably too hastily. “I’ll take the book with me. Reading material for the trail and all that.”
Cassandra’s eyes narrowed. “Well,” she said. “This is not your cousin’s.”
Oh damn, Robert thought. Damn, damn, damn, damn, dammit.
For now Cassandra held up another book. This one was a small notebook - the kind of leather-bound journal one could pick up at any binder’s shop in Thedas.
Robert swallowed. “Oh,” he said. “That’s…”
Without waiting for him to finish speaking, Cassandra flipped the book open.
“Did you write these poems?” she asked him. “All of them?”
“Don’t read them!” Robert cried, taking a step toward her.
“Why not?” Cassandra asked, looking up at him.
“Oh no,” Robert groaned. “You already did, didn’t you?”
“You handed them to me!”
“Not on purpose,” Robert groaned. “Andraste’s tits! I should have wondered why it had taken you so long to read through my maps.”
“So you did not intend for me to see these poems.” Cassandra pointed the notebook at him, as if it were evidence in a court of law.
“You’re damn well right I didn’t.” Robert reached for the book, but Cassandra spun away, out of reach.
“Well that’s too bad,” she told him. There seemed to be a kind of triumph in her tone. “Because I read them. And I liked them.”
Robert stopped short. He blinked at this unexpected praise. “Really?”
“Yes!” Cassandra cried. “I mean… yes. That is why I wondered if you planned for me to see them.”
“Of course I didn’t plan for you to see them!” Robert scowled. “I don’t let anyone see my writing.”
“Why is that?” Cassandra asked.
“Well I…” Robert floundered there. How did one explain that being a poet wasn’t acceptable among the Trevelyan family? That writing was a terrible practice for anyone trying to project an image of perfection and polish?
“They’re not finished,” Robert said instead.
“This one is finished. It is also quite good.”
And before he could stop her, Cassandra flipped the book open - he realized that she’d had her finger in that page the whole time. “This one right here,” she said. “‘The Dance.’”
Oh no, Robert thought. That one was one of his favorites, too. And yet, it was far too revealing. Robert felt himself shrink with shame.
“I was drunk when I wrote that,” Robert said. He tried reaching for the book again.
“Oh really?” Cassandra asked. “Were you also drunk when you edited it all those times?” There was a playfulness to her tone as she darted past him and out of reach.
“Blotto,” Robert said. “Completely snockered every draft.” He reached for the book once more.
Cassandra spun away, giggling. And in spite of himself, Robert found he was smiling. But surely that was ridiculous. He shouldn’t find this amusing. He should find this horrifying. Cassandra had read his poetry. But he found he didn’t mind. He found he almost… wanted her to?
But then - then - Cassandra did something alarming. She stepped back out of reach, held up the book - and she read it.
In that moment, Robert probably could have reached out and yanked the book out of her hands, but he was too shocked to do so. He’d never experienced anything so strange as hearing his words fall from Cassandra lips. Robert stood there, frozen, picturing the lines as she read:
"The waltz has become so familiar I could dance it in my sleep. So also the maggot, the reel, the quadrille. I see the ruts in the ballroom floor from a thousand feet that shuffled here before shuffling off into the orangery for the second set: a jig of sweat and grunts and a groan -- Then we return to silken pretense. We fill dance cards. Swap partners. We say stupid things to sound clever. But then, as I look out of the windows, I see two servants have sneaked out into the gardens. As they walk, they hold hands. They merely hold hands. It occurs to me -- That's the one dance I've never tried."
Cassandra finished the poem and looked up. Robert felt himself trembling, as if the poem were a stone dropped into a pond. Ripples of awareness trembled through him. Perhaps those ripples trembled through Cassandra as well. Her hands shook. The notebook shook. Cassandra looked at Robert, her eyes searching his face.
“You’re a poet,” she said.
“I didn’t want to be,” Robert replied. His voice came out breathless - as if he’d been the one reading, as if he’d just run for miles.
“Why?” Cassandra asked.
Robert couldn’t answer that. Not just now. He shrugged and shook his head. Cassandra didn’t press him. She looked at him a long moment, then held out the notebook and De Amatus. Robert took them gingerly, as if they might burst into flames.
“I will go saddle the horses,” Cassandra told him. She turned to go.
“Cassandra!” Robert called.
She turned at the desperate note in his voice. But Robert didn’t know what to say. What was he supposed to say, anyway? Robert stood there, feeling far too big for the space, feeling as though he were a poem that hadn’t yet taken form on a waiting page.
Cassandra took a step forward. She reached out her gloved hand - reached it out towards Robert’s bare hand - and then she caught herself. Her fingers curled into a fist and she drew back. She hesitated there.
“I need some time,” she said. “We need some time. But I should like to see…”
“You should like to see?” Robert prompted, when she did not go on. To his surprise, Cassandra looked up at him with a smile. It was a sly smile, almost seductive.
“I should like to see more of your poetry, Robert Trevelyan,” she said. “Perhaps on the trail, you could read some to me?”
Robert’s mouth dropped open. He stared at Cassandra and did not speak.
Say something, damn it, his mind prompted him. Say ‘I’ll show you more than poetry.’ Or say, ‘Of course,’ in a deep, throaty voice and gaze meaningfully into her eyes. Just say something! Anything, damn it!
Say something coherent, his mind groaned.
Cassandra gave Robert a smoldering look. Her eyes roamed his body from his head to his bare feet. Then she smirked - actually smirked - and strutted away.
Robert just stood there. Then he gulped. Then he let out a breath and fell back against the hay bales.
“Maker save me,” he sighed.
Or maybe the Maker already had, he realized. That might have been his salvation just then. And to think, all it took was some of his shameful poetry.
“Thank you, Maker,” he said, speaking in the direction of the hay loft. “I won’t waste it.”
Robert kissed his notebook, then tucked it into his bag. Better be careful with that, he thought. Then Robert quickly finished dressing. He was off for the Emerald Graves, he thought, his excitement rising once again. And he’d better not keep his lady waiting.