She should have learned not to keep the books on her by now.
Cassandra is in Josephine’s office, not a rare occurrence these days. The room is a cocoon of warmth and cosiness. This fortress is a shell of stone housing a hungry chill always waiting to sinks its fangs into whatever morsel of exposed flesh it can find, but the crackling fire, the rugs and the always lit chandeliers have repelled it. It is furnished more like a sitting room than an office: unassuming elegance in sparingly decorated wood, piles of books and armchairs clad with soft velvet. This is a space that urges you to stay a while.
She is far too happy to give in to the beckoning, Cassandra is well aware. She hopes the frequency with which she steers her steps through this door has gone unnoticed. Skyhold is a den of gossips.
Josephine smiles from behind her desk. “Lady Pentaghast. How may I help you?”
She always seems to glow. It is the golden silk lending its sheen, of course, the flickering firelight, but it appears to Cassandra as if the brightness follows her around. Her skin is infused with it, it shines from her eyes and shimmers on her lips. Even her hair, dark as it is, catches the light and holds it. Such a lovely black, glossy and deep. The loose tresses framing her face fall in the softest wavy curls, they billow as she turns her head. Does she tease them out after she has finished her hairdo, or do they escape the hold of her coiffure on their own?
It is of no importance. Cassandra clears her throat.
“There is a small matter where I could use some… assistance,” she says, and decidedly does not think of the many other recent matters she has brought to Josephine over the past few weeks, many of which she may very well have dealt with on her own.
“Certainly,” Josephine says. “I am at your disposal.”
Cassandra listens for steps approaching the office before she states her request. The ambassador of the Inquisition sees many people pass through her workspace every day, and surely installing herself here was a sound tactical move. Anyone going to or from the war room must walk past Josephine’s observant eye, and the throne room is right outside. There are perhaps more stately accommodations in Skyhold, more representational chambers, but none that would put her so at the heart of the operation.
In a sense, that is what Josephine is. The heart of the Inquisition, embedded in its chest, pumping the lifeblood of coin and connections through its veins. Leliana in her tower is the eyes, Cullen the arms and fists on the battlements. But Josephine is the heart. Her importance cannot be overstated.
All is quiet outside the doors. Cassandra carries on.
“You might have heard that I am writing a report of the events at Adamant. The Inquisitor’s journey into the Fade.”
“I haven’t! What a splendid idea,” Josephine says. “May I request a copy for the Inquisition archives, once you’re done? An eyewitness account will be invaluable to future generations, historians will sing your praise for ages to come.”
“I would not be so sure. Which is why I’m here.” Cassandra thumbs the manuscript pages in her hands, the edges rustling against her gloves. “Penmanship is not one of my strengths. This… if it is to survive us all, it needs to be better than I can make it alone.”
Josephine tilts her head. “Would you like me to have a look? Perhaps make some suggestions for revisions, if need be?”
“Yes. If you have the time.”
“Of course!” Josephine says, and her smile widens warmly. “I’m here to assist, Lady Pentaghast, think nothing of it.”
She extends a hand for the papers, palm up, the gesture somehow undemanding. Cassandra takes a step closer, but her fingers tighten around the report rather than giving it up. She wets her lips.
“It really is a mess, the way it reads now.”
“I understand,” is all Josephine says, gently, patiently, and it is certainly a skill, to put someone more at ease simply through modulation.
Cassandra sighs, annoyed with herself. Josephine has read letters and missives and standard reports by her cramping hand countless times before this. That this report stands separate, that she cannot shake the feeling of high stakes in the writing, should not alter the interaction.
She thrusts the papers into Josephine’s waiting hand, regrets the force, wishes it did not always lie so close to her.
“Thank you,” Josephine says. She puts the report on her desk, first page facing down, carefully aligning the corners with her fingertips. “Do you have any directions you’d like me to consider as I edit?”
“I’m not-” Cassandra is unsure how to respond. If she knew how to improve, she would do so herself. “It simply needs to be readable. It is nothing but chickenscratch, as it stands.”
“You sell yourself far too short, I’m sure.”
“No. I do not.” The grim dejection is plain in Cassandra’s voice. Josephine is still smiling that warm smile of hers.
“Very well,” she says. “As long as you don’t expect me to present anything too evocative, I should be able to help.”
“Now who sells herself short?”
“Alas, my skill with the pen doesn’t extend beyond the strictly utilitarian,” Josephine says in a tone that doesn’t sound particularly displeased with this fact. “All creative talent in my family has concentrated in my younger sister, Yvette. Three books of poetry under her belt - not to mention her paintings - and she’s only twenty-three.”
Cassandra was not aware. She knew of siblings, yes, a number, though she cannot recall how many, but she had no more distinguishing information. Josephine’s writerly preferences - these are news as well. There is so much she does not know outside of their roles as colleagues. These past months she has spent a great deal of her waking hours alongside Josephine, but always in the context of work, always with urgent business snapping at their heels. She wishes...
She wishes a great deal, none of it relevant to the conversation at hand.
“Is she any good?” she asks, forcing her thoughts in line.
“Hm, I suppose,” Josephine says, and then she wrinkles her nose. It is adorable, captivating. “I must admit, I don’t always understand it. Poetry may not be a genre that agrees with me.”
“I don’t mind it,” Cassandra says. Poetry, when well composed and well recited, can make her heart soar, but she does not add that.
Josephine nods. “I had heard you were a lover of literature.”
The pang of embarrassment hits Cassandra like a punch to the solar plexus. Swords & Shields is her own unbecoming secret, or so she thought.
“Who from? Who says this?”
Varric, that malicious toad. She should never have accepted his supposed goodwill of a new chapter, never have expected there to be no repercussions, the man was conceived in the union of rumor and gossip. When the Inquisitor caught her in the act of indulgence she should have stood by her denial, however fragile the construction of her lie, and she should never have lent a copy to Dorian, you cannot trust a Tevinter, clearly. She should never have read it out loud to Cole. She should never have recommended it to Scout Harding or any of the kitchen hands. She should never have let her desire to share the excitement this awful, wonderful story stirs in her heart with someone, anyone, steer any of her actions.
Cassandra is, entirely, regret.
Her sudden fierceness in voice and demeanour has Josephine’s eyes widening in surprise. She leans back slightly in her seat. “It’s only the word around Skyhold.” Her brows furrow. “Why? Is there something the matter?”
“No- .. No.”
Ridiculous, Cassandra thinks. There is objectively nothing that warrants such awkwardness.
“If there’s any sort of, say, rumor or otherwise uncomfortable topic related to this in circulation, please let me know and I will put a stop to it immediately.”
She could, too, of this Cassandra has no doubt. But this is nothing in the vein of whispered slurs or vicious lies of blemished virtue. This is one foolish woman’s foolish infatuation with writing of a dubious nature.
“That won’t be necessary, it’s only,” she says, cheeks heating, “I had hoped it wasn’t widely known what kind of books I read.”
“Oh, but you’re hardly alone in that! We all enjoy master Tethras’ works,” Josephine says. “Show me a literate person in the free world who’s never opened a copy of Hard in Hightown, and I shall eat my chain of office.”
“Not that one.” Cassandra sighs. “The romance serial.”
“I don’t think I’m familiar…?”
“Swords and Shields. The adventures of Guard Captain Abeline.”
“That does ring a bell, vaguely. Is it very new?”
“No. It just hasn’t sold very well.”
“Unfairly, I’m sure.”
Cassandra huffs a laugh, cut short like a cough. “Not at all. It is terrible.”
“But… you like it?”
“Too much,” Cassandra confesses, and she must look as despairing as she feels because Josephine stifles a giggle behind her hand.
“It sounds complicated,” she says. Her smile is kind, easy to return.
“I suppose it is.”
“Well, I for one am intrigued,” Josephine says with an air of finality. “I’ll have to give it a try someday.”
And it could end here, the exchange and admission soon forgotten on both ends, but Cassandra’s hand is already reaching for the small volume tucked into her belt even as she mentally chides herself.
“If you would like to borrow it...” she says, holding out the book, the covers worn from many readings.
She is weak. How many times has she done this, only for it to end in ridicule? One of her greatest pleasures is one of her greatest flaws, and she does not have the decency, the self-preservation, the sense not to quench this longing for company in the pit of romance novels she has dug for herself.
There is another longing, too. For Josephine’s hands without a pen, without her clip board. For other places, other topics, for more conversations not held in bullet points. For something more to share.
Josephine looks up at her. For a brief second her expression is indecipherable, like a sudden gust of wind shaking the ferns on an otherwise calm day, but then the impression is gone.
“How kind of you,” she says. “I promise to take good care of it.”
Her finger brushes against Cassandra’s as she takes the book, her skin alarmingly warm, worryingly soft.
There is no reason for her to stay now. Josephine is glancing down at the documents before her, already half re-submerged into her work. Cassandra leaves before Josephine has to politely steer her towards the door, but there is still a nervous restlessness prickling in her fingers. Her heart thrums a little too fast, the agitation like that of a child sneaking from the kitchen with stolen cookies in her pocket.
The feeling persists through the afternoon: the thrum, the memory of touch.
She turned the Inquisitor down.
The flirting, it had gone on too long, well past the point of guilt. It is not right to accept that which you cannot return in kind, no matter how soothingly the compliments set around the soul, how softly they caress the ego. The Inquisitor is a formidable woman. She stands proud and sure, a leader born. She is a conduit of faith, a comrade - a friend. It is a form of love to be sure, what Cassandra feels for her, but not the sort that sets the pulse racing, or keeps you awake at night longing for the next furtive glance.
So she turned the Inquisitor down, as she had to, and while that conversation was as hard as these things always are, she does not regret it. She had to be honest with her friend. In the long run, it is a kindness.
Cassandra sighs. She has her small mirror in one hand, kohl stick in the other, a small pot of the dark powder sitting on the table before her. Reapplying her worn away makeup, the memory of that rooftop conversation entered her mind unbidden. It makes her cringe. Her own nervousness, stumbling over the words, and the sadness in the eyes of someone she had sworn to aid and protect.
The Inquisitor herself is doing fine. Cassandra has seen her with lead scout Harding, has been there to witness the girl’s freckled face go bright red when the Inquisitor speaks to her in the lowered, lilting tone she used to direct at Cassandra. Once, she happened by the two of them outside the tavern, the Inquisitor cupping Harding’s cheek, leaning close. Cassandra turned on her heel. The moment was not intended for an audience, but knowing it has happened makes her glad. She wishes the Inquisitor nothing but luck.
Yet there is something else, too. The slightest unease, a difficult to decipher scrawl of emotions. Cassandra gave the attraction to men as her cause for rejection. It was the truth, but as it is in so many other areas of her life as of late, the truth here is not necessarily a singular thing.
Sometimes she looks at Josephine and everything else in the world falls away around her.
It is foolish. She does not pine, does not think of herself as someone who pines, hasn’t become infatuated, there is no better word for it, in many, many years. It bothers her like a scratchy seam. Women are remarkable, and the step from admiration to a deeper feeling does not have to be long - that is no source of anguish. It is simply foolish. At her age. On someone so much younger. And after she told the Inquisitor…
You should have yourself figured out by now, she thinks. She frowns at the mirror, and her reflection glares back in disapproval.
Days will go by away from Skyhold without a single thought spent on Josephine. She will sit in meetings with the ambassador and her only desire will be for the tedium to be done with. Her mind is, for the most part, preoccupied with other things, she feels no passion as she knows it.
But then the sunset over the Western Approach will shift the same gold as Josephine’s dress, or Cassandra will catch a glimpse of her tongue as she wets her finger to turn a page of the meeting protocol, and there will go a surge through her gut that sends her reeling.
Maker, lead her to certainty. In this, at least, she wants to be free of doubt.
The message lies on the table beside her: Lady Cassandra, I would like to return your book. Please let me know when it is convenient. Josephine. She sent a reply as soon as she received it - she wonders if she should have waited, just a bit.
It is an oddity, to see Josephine in the smithy. Cassandra cannot recall ever having done so before, though she’s sure she must have set her foot in here at some point. Amidst the heat and noise and smoke, her frilly presence stands out like a sore thumb, disturbs the settled atmosphere in a way that is a little agitating, though not unsettling.
Josephine makes her way up the stairs to Cassandra’s quarters, and she stands on impulse, pulls out a chair for her.
“Thank you,” Josephine says, arranging her skirts. “So, this is where you make yourself at home?”
She is only making small talk, but Cassandra still throws a self conscious glance at the simple cot, the bare walls, the rough furniture. “Not the most welcoming, I know.”
“Oh, no! That’s not at all what I meant. Simple doesn’t mean unwelcoming, this is quite cosy. And so warm! The castle proper gets dreadfully cold at night,” she says, adding: “If I were to suggest anything at all, perhaps a bouquet of fresh flowers?” and Cassandra smiles, because of course she would.
“I could have one sent for you,” Josephine goes on. Cassandra shrugs.
“If you like.”
“It’s settled then,” Josephine says. “But I’m taking up too much of your time already, aren’t I? I did have an errand.”
She reaches into one of her voluminous pockets and takes out the copy of Swords & Shields. Seeing the book in her hand is enough to bring back all the fretting of the past few days, the sinking regret and the fidgety tension at the thought of what is to come, of having, once again, revealed this unseemly tender part of herself.
“Thank you so much for the loan. I’ve read it all the way through.”
Cassandra takes the book as it is returned to her. She will not ask Josephine what she thought. She will tell her she is welcome, she will put this thing away, they will take their goodbyes and she will not instigate more of this nonsense.
“What did you think?”
Maker preserve Cassandra Pentaghast from herself.
“Well…” Josephine says. She folds her hands, the very picture of diplomacy. “The prose was a little, um, coarse in places, and-”
“There is no need to soften it,” Cassandra almost spits. She can hear her own disappointment, cringes at it. She squeezes the book hard, the pages that have been buckled ever since that time she dropped it in the bath flattening out under the pressure.
“You misunderstand!” Josephine protests. “Yes, this may not be entirely up to par with master Tethras’ usual standard, and the plot does have some holes…”
Cassandra scoffs. “It is a sieve.”
“The pacing is off…”
“...and I really don’t think it’s possible to do that with a cheese wheel, much less two.”
“But-!” Josephine’s seriousness dissolves into a giggle. “Oh, I loved it!”
“You… You did? Truly?”
“Oh, yes! The guard captain could have stepped right out of one of my adolescent fantasies. What a splendid character!”
“Isn’t she?” Cassandra runs her thumb over the image on the cover, the flaming red hair, the proud posture. “She is-” The right words escape her, as they so often do. The Guard Captain is strict authority and raging passion, clenched fists and blushing cheeks. She is a woman of multitudes, a complex creation that speaks to her like few before. To prop her up beside Andraste in terms of leading stars would be blasphemy and so she does not, but it would be a lie to say there is not a small shrine in her honor in Cassandra’s heart.
“I found the romance quite gripping, too, and very sweet,” Josephine says. “Even knowing their union was inevitable, I was still biting my nails. Will they, won’t they, oh, but they did and all was well.”
“What about the supporting cast?”
“Absolute delight! Such a motley crew, and yet despite their differences I did get the sense they had found themselves as family by the end. My favorite was… Oh, what’s her name? The civilian scribe?”
“That’s right! Jacintha. I would have loved to spend more time with her.”
“She plays a much bigger part in the following books.”
“I’m so glad to hear it.”
She is sincere. Josephine really is sincere, really does not only understand Cassandra’s sentiments, but share them. In the light of her beaming smile the flaws of these books diminish and the elements Cassandra loves - the suspense and the characters and the descriptions of intimacy that set her pulse racing - their contours sharpen, the merits reinforced.
“I always thought,” Cassandra says, speaking fast as though the moment could slip away from her at any time, “that the Guard Captain would not seem out of place in an epic poem. I know others won’t agree. But she has everything a heroine needs. And more, she has traits that are unique only to her in the way they combine. She feels… true. She is fiction, but she is true.” She pauses to catch her breath, looks up, and finds Josephine regarding her with what can only be described as glee. “...What?”
“Oh, no, nothing. I’ve just rarely seen you this spirited.”
Cassandra’s face is hot. “I blather.”
“Well, I for one enjoy it.” Josephine glances out through the window. “But time flies. I really should be getting back to work.”
“Of course.” Cassandra stands as Josephine does and walks her over to the stairs, meaning to follow her all the way to the door, but Josephine lingers on the steps.
“I don’t want to take advantage of your kindness,” she says, “but I was wondering if perhaps I could borrow the next chapter as well?”
“Yes!” Cassandra turns on her heel with abrupt eagerness and makes for her chest, the soles of her boots scraping against the floorboard. Josephine curtsies as she receives the book.
Cassandra bows. “Lady Josephine.”
An hour after she has left the promised bouquet arrives. Lilies and chrysanthemum; their scent seeps into Cassandra’s dreams, sweet and heady.
It becomes a recurring habit, a quickly established routine.
Josephine will come by, a message anticipating her arrival, once she’s read another chapter and they will discuss together. Around a week goes by between their meetings, time Cassandra uses to reread herself. Revisiting the early volumes, the ones she knows nearly by heart, she tries to see them in the eyes of Josephine, makes guesses as to what she will enjoy and what she will dismiss as unresearched or fudged.
“With a foreign office as violently, obviously and incompetently corrupt as this one, the city’s trading connections would be a wasteland of burned bridges,” she says and purses her lips, and Cassandra argues suspension of disbelief to no avail.
But the discussions are lighthearted, founded in appreciation that is entirely mutual. They admire the Guard Captain, celebrate her victories and mourn her defeats, cheer her on in love and in battle. Josephine takes a special shine to Jacintha, and much time is spent on analyzing her every line, relatively few as they are.
Cassandra loves everyone. They are her friends, these people who only exist on paper, her companions, and she only feels closer to them now that they are also Josephine’s.
“Imagine if the roles were reversed, just once? The Guard Captain assisting Jacintha on a mission fought only by the means of diplomacy?” Josephine suggests, eyes glittering with possibilities, and they lose themselves in the hows and whens of what-ifs.
Slowly, the self consciousness abates. She lets her shoulders down, the tension in her fingers subsides. She smiles without noticing for hours on end, and when she does become aware she does not think of it as a chink in her armor.
Already by their second session, Josephine brings tea and cake, a “small repayment” for the loan of the books which she considers a favor. Which is not right - hers is the kindness, the generosity - so when they meet to discuss the third installment, Cassandra has already seen to the pastries. After this, the division is set: Josephine takes care of the beverages, Cassandra of the food.
“I’m so glad for this,” Josephine says, gently blowing into her steaming cup. “It’s nice to know someone appreciates my company over tea, the way I must nag Cullen and Leliana to attend my interludes I feel quite the pariah at times,” but she is playful beneath the pretend bitterness.
Cassandra more than appreciates. She longs, she delights, she soaks in the candlelit chats like a sponge in a hot bath, absorbs as much as she can to revisit later, little humbly extraordinary memories to set her insides aflutter. The more time she spends with Josephine, the more she wants. She meets her eyes and forgets to breathe. She makes her laugh and feels like flying.
Certainty sits like a speck of dust in her throat, but she swallows it down, worried how the sound will echo if she coughs it out. These evenings are as beacons for her, but Josephine smiles at everyone. She tells herself she is only being realistic. That Josephine is a bright young thing, that if there was affection of another nature, however unlikely that may be, it would be wasted on a wayward seeker. She tells herself this could still be a fleeting thing, a passing infatuation, that you do not stir the waters for crayfish not fully grown.
Call your cowardice what it is, Cassandra thinks. She is not used to self deception, does not excel.
The day Josephine comes and has read the latest chapter, Cassandra is armed with resolve. She will extended the invitation indefinitely, she will lay groundwork for... She does not know. She hopes, she does not hope, she skirts areas in her mind, brushes past fantasies and scolds herself into realism.
Josephine sighs wistfully, dabbing blueberry jam from her lips with a napkin. She gives the latest part of Sword & Shields, the one Varric wrote for Cassandra only recently, a tender glance. “When do you think he’ll publish the next?”
“When this is all over, I gather.”
“Listen to me! I’ve lost all sense of priority,” Josephine says with a laugh, and Cassandra chuckles with her. She knows the agony between books.
Silence settles comfortably between them. The smithy is calm in the evening, no hammering on the other side of the wall to Cassandra’s quarters. The window is dark, the flames of the candles reflecting in the pane. The room is warm and quiet. Right now, she would be happy to stay here forever.
“There is one thing I’ve been thinking,” Josephine says after a bit. “It involves the Guard Captain and Jacintha.”
“You should know, it’s entirely indulgent and probably nonsensical.” She tugs at her sleeves, adjusts the drooping ruffle with short, twitching movements. “But have you ever considered what it would be like if the Guard Captain and Jacintha… If they were the couple?”
Cassandra blinks. “No.”
“Ah, it was a silly thought, let’s speak of something else,” Josephine says, waving her hand in front of her face as if she could dispel the conversation this way, but Cassandra leans forward.
“It isn’t silly. It has never occurred to me, that is all. But if you want to tell me, I want to hear.”
This is what Josephine does. She thinks outside the text, finds new paths leading out from the page and into unexplored territory, makes camps and charts the very edges of the story. She finds themes and connections Cassandra would have never seen, she reads between the lines where Cassandra takes them at value.
Now, she worries at her lip as she peers at Cassandra.
“There’s not much more to it, really. I am just so fond of them both, and they are both so fond of each other. They do have chemistry, don’t you think?” she says, and when Cassandra nods agreement she goes on, eyes alight: “I have been thinking this for a while, I admit, so many of their scenes together simply radiate tenderness. Or, do you think I’m reaching? You are the resident expert on Swords and Shields, after all.”
“I make no claim on that title,” Cassandra says, amused. “If anyone, shouldn’t it be Varric?”
Josephine puffs up. “Considering the way he completely disregarded several well established facets of the lore and kept bringing back characters who had already died, sometimes twice, I think not!” and Cassandra can’t help it, she laughs.
“You’re still angry about that?”
“Why aren’t you?”
“Let’s not go there again.” They have bickered companionably over this before - she simply does not reach Josephine’s level of outrage. It is all details.
“All right, fine. I shall yield, for now,” Josephine says. She refills her teacup and offers to pour for Cassandra, who shakes her head.
“What made you think of it? The Guard Captain and Jacintha,” she says. She wants to return to the topic. It gets her belly full of tingles, for lack of a better word.
“Oh, I don’t know. One day I saw it, and since I haven’t been able to unsee. I’m starved, I suppose.” Josephine lifts the cup to her lips, blows into it. “I assume you’re aware I favor women, as well as men? Romantically speaking.”
She says it so casually. Perhaps inside she is not as at ease as she seems, Cassandra cannot tell, but there is nothing in her demeanour that suggests conflict, that hints at hidden shame. Cassandra has heard of the eldest Montilyet daughter and her ‘indiscriminate heart’ before. The nobility of Thedas is an insular sphere, and gossip runs rampant. For all that she resents her uncle she can appreciate one aspect of his insistence on keeping her out of the public eye at a tender age, that the records originally claiming her parents had two sons - an error long since rectified - are not widespread knowledge, yet another curiosity of her life for strangers to gawk at.
“There isn’t as much romance between women getting written. Or, perhaps it is, only not published… I don’t know. It is certainly not as popular, the Randy Dowager has only featured a story featuring two women a few times,” Josephine says. ”In most of those, they died at the end.”
Cassandra runs a pensive hand over the book cover, the picture of a woman with a powerful jaw. “I would have liked that story, too. The Captain and Jacintha.”
“Maybe you should write it yourself?” There is a teasing glint in Josephine’s eyes.
“Me?” Cassandra makes a small disgusted noise. “You know my writing skill. My complete lack of it.”
“That’s mostly a matter of practice, the mind builds up bulk over time, just as the arms do.”
“You write it. You have gotten ample exercise.”
“In all the wrong areas, I’m afraid!”
“Could you even…” Cassandra starts, frowns. “Could that really be done?”
“I don’t know, this is all wishful thinking,” Josephine says. She smiles, standing. “But, I should be off.”
Cassandra stands as well. She follows Josephine to the door and she needs to say it now, her confession of an invitation, or she might never find another moment that she feels allows it.
Josephine lingers, a hand on the door frame, worrying at her lip again.There is something shy in her expression, something unreadable and frail, and Cassandra knows she will remain silent.
How does one court a creature this gentle? This elegant, this clever, this sharp and soft in equal measure? Which are the words with which you reach her, what are the codes, the gestures, the phrases and the signs? She does not know these things, no one has taught her. With men it has never been easy, it has been awkward wanderings on shaky ground, but never has she been this lost. There was a script, to follow or to deviate from, and even when she did not think she could have it she knew what she wanted, what sort of thing she sought. Now, she knows nothing.
You do know how to deny, Cassandra thinks. She wrings her hands.
“Lady Cassandra,” Josephine says at last. She curtsies.
Cassandra bows, bends her neck in defeat.
And so their meetings stop.
She has little chance to feel the emptiness too keenly. Red templars stalk the Emprise du Lion. The dead rise in the Exalted Plains. Cassandra spends fewer nights at Skyhold than she does on the road, and most time not spent with sword in hand she spends strategizing.
In the space that is left she occupies her mind. She reads her books over again, this time with Josephine’s ideas besides her, and the more she does the clearer she sees it. The Guard Captain and Jacintha, how well they fit. She sees the love that seeps between the lines, she sees the meaning in the things unspoken, she sees the little pockets where there love can be filled in. She throws herself into what she imagines for them, into the fiction of happiness that sits outside herself, where it is easy to adore and be glad.
One late night in her quarters, they are to set out again in the morning, she finds herself in bed unable to sleep. There are words in her body and a picture in her heart. She tosses off her blankets.
She lights a candle, finds the ink. A scarf around her neck against the draft from the window. She dips the nib, puts it to paper.
You are a silly, silly woman, Cassandra thinks. For once, she does not heed the shame.
It is, as always, hard. The words in her head are, oh, so clear, but as she tries to put them down they fall like sparrows shot from the sky, dead and stiff. It is not quite enjoyment, wrangling unwilling sentences into order, but there is something that insists to exist, so she persists. She writes.
She writes a woman, with bright red hair, with a sword and shield, who wields authority as well as she does steel. She writes the woman that this woman loves. A girl of poise and manners, refined, intelligent, a master of perception armed with tact.
She writes the could-have-beens and what-ifs, she writes a longing into shape. She writes two women, hand in hand and heart to heart, and she writes love all over.
The birds are singing outside by the time she is done. A full dozen pages written - but satisfaction only lasts a wink. Embarrassment has seized her as soon as the last few letters have dried, she gathers up the sheets and stuffs them under her mattress, determined to forget forever that she once brought herself to this.
You should set them on fire, Cassandra thinks, but she snuffs out the candle instead.
One week in the Emprise, another traveling. Two weeks of cramped tents and damp cold and snow in her boots and snow down her neck and snow in her hair and in her mouth when she falls, and melted snow for drinking. It would be miserable even without Dorian reminding them of it every five minutes. Cassandra is glad to return to the castle and her always warm room. She chose it first because it was humble and detached from the castle and its dignitaries, but soon found she had the most luxurious bedchamber of all. The heat is a wealth without measure.
It is late, well past midnight, as they pass over the drawbridge, a ragged party ridden to exhaustion. The Inquisitor is especially fatigued. While it no longer spreads the mark still drains her after use, and there has been little chance for proper rest. She is a shivering, sniffling mess. Cassandra hands their mounts to Dennett, shuts down the Inquisitor’s protest that she should care for her horse herself, and promptly leads her to her tower rooms. She is willing to defer in most areas, but the Inquisitor will not catch her death on Cassandra’s watch.
On her way back through the dark and empty throne room, she sees light coming from under the door to Josephine’s office. It is both curiosity and concern that has her walking over, cracking it open.
The fire on the hearth is nothing but embers. The room is chilly, the candles not enough to heat up the terse stone walls. Josephine is at her desk, uncharacteristically unraveled. Her hair is down and she is wrapped in a robe and a shawl, not her usual armor of silk and brocade in layer upon layer. She writes, frantically, one hand clutching her tresses.
She looks up as Cassandra enters.
“Oh, you’re back?” she says.
“You are still up?” Cassandra counters, and if she sounds disapproving she has every right. Burning the night oil like this is not healthy.
“Well, you know. As the Inquisition’s influence grows, so do its demands. I had gone to bed, truly, but my mind kept racing to the tasks I left off... “
“You need to delegate.”
Josephine sighs and rubs her eyes - then interrupts herself with a twitch. “Oh, goodness!” She looks dejectedly at her fingers smeared with eye makeup. “I forgot.”
Cassandra reaches into her pocket for a handkerchief, hands it over. Josephine accepts with a sheepish smile and carefully wipes the black smudges from around her eyes. Without the makeup, her face is intimately bare.
Two weeks since Cassandra last saw her. Two weeks without hearing her voice. To have her here before her again is like downing a glass of champagne in one go - a bubbling, intoxicating rush flooding her system. Perhaps it really does leave her a little drunk, because she barely hesitates to say:
“Come finish your work in my quarters. It is freezing in here.”
“I couldn’t possibly keep you up as well, I’m perfectly fine where I am,” Josephine says, and has her words immediately undermined by a shiver.
“Nonsense. You’re shaking.”
Josephine tucks her hair behind her ears. “If you try to convince me one more time, I will give in.”
“I have a box of brandy pralines.” A gift bestowed by an overzealous duke before she left, and never opened.
“Ooh! You drive quite the bargain, Lady Pentaghast.”
They grin at each other for a few seconds. Sweet Andraste, Cassandra has missed this. She helps Josephine gather her things, documents and several pens and ink horn and does not argue that she has writing equipment of her own. She carries most of it - her arms are a great deal longer - as they cross the courtyard.
Josephine walks first up the stairs. The robe, a light pink velvety thing with a golden sash tied tight around her waist, is a good deal snugger than what she normally wears. Her wide hips are clearly outlined, swaying with each step, the contours of her soft, round buttocks shifting bewitchingly.
Maker take Cassandra Pentaghast and her unruly eyes. She forces herself to keep her gaze on the ceiling the whole way up, and stumbles when she reaches the top.
“Are you alright?” Josephine asks.
“Yes,” Cassandra lies, and hurries to busy herself with unloading her burden, lighting candles and rummaging through her chest for those pralines until the blush on her cheeks has died down.
No one can say Josephine Montilyet is not dutiful. She gets to work as soon as she sits down, only tearing her attention away to thank Cassandra as she offers her the chocolates. Other than this, she is entirely absorbed.
Cassandra does not mind. She nibbles the candies in silence, happy just to watch her, to bask in her presence. The little concentrated furrows on her forehead. The ink stains on her fingers. The way she will mouth words to herself under her breath, the way her tongue touches the praline before she takes a bite. Ever so ordinary things, but Cassandra marvels.
They sit an hour, maybe more, and then Josephine takes a deep breath and puts the pen down.
“There,” she says. “I think that’s it for now.”
Josephine raises her last chocolate, so does Cassandra, and they clink them together in a toast for a job well done.
“I’ve missed this,” Josephine says, licking her fingertips.
“So have I,” Cassandra admits, and Josephine tilts her head.
“Why did we stop?”
“We ran out of books.”
“Ah. Of course,” Josephine says. “I have been thinking about them, often. And I know it’s silly and not at all what the story is about, but it has been mostly on the subject of the Captain and Jacintha, I’m afraid.”
She neither sounds nor looks apologetic, and Cassandra is glad she does not feel she has to be. “It has been the same for me,” Cassandra says. “Your fault entirely.”
“I am delighted to accept the blame.”
Since she wrote it, Cassandra has not given her own little story a thought, but now her gaze flickers to her cot. Her heart is beating hard, she is dizzy with liquor soaked sugar and Josephine. She clears her throat.
“Do... Do you remember when we talked about the possibility of writing them? Together, ourselves?”
They are the only two people in the room, but Cassandra still inches closer, as if the walls themselves could overhear and pass along her words for everyone to mock.
“I may have…”
Josephine gasps. “You have?!”
“Ridiculous, I know-”
“Oh, no!” Josephine has clasped her hands before her face. “Not ridiculous at all, oh my goodness!”
Cassandra shrugs, attempts casualness. “It is not very good.”
“But still! You did it!”
“I suppose I did.”
It is a strange thing, to feel at once so nervous and so triumphant. Josephine has shot up with excitement, all sluggish late-night lethargy vanished, and Cassandra drinks it up even as she knows it is misplaced on her incompetent scribbles, fated for disappointment.
When Josephine carefully asks: “Do you think you might ever be comfortable with letting me read?” Cassandra knows she instigated this, that deep inside she wished to hear it. There is a part of her all set on sabotage.
She is about to say no, she truly is, all self preservation has not escaped her, but oh. Oh, Josephine’s face. Her bare, glittering eyes, her parted lips, her honest happiness at this piece of absolutely insignificant news, as though Cassandra’s bumbling attempt at piecing together a story was a thing that warrants joy.
She is a weak woman and Josephine is her downfall. Cassandra gets up, takes the bundle of paper from under her mattress.
“I promise not to show anyone,” Josephine says, voice hushed and reassuring.
“That’s not-!” Cassandra throws out her hands, like she could push the misunderstanding away from her, from them both. “I’m not implying… Your discretion is not in doubt. Just… Do not expect anything.”
“I can promise much, but I cannot promise that,” Josephine says. She takes the papers like a precious gift.
Cassandra panics, of course.
As soon as Josephine has left, regret enters. Why does she do this to herself, over and over? Why can she not enjoy her guilty pleasures in secret, why must must she insist on shedding light on the dust in the darkest corners, bring guests to the ramshackle garden shed?
Josephine will be kind. She knows, because Josephine is kind. She will tell Cassandra the kindest of lies, and the thought of that shrivels the pride she tries so hard not to have.
Sleep only touches her lightly and she wakes early on reflex. She has only just dressed and resigned herself to a day bleary with fatigue, when there is a knock on her door.
A messenger, most likely. Calling for a morning meeting, perhaps, or carrying a summons from the Inquisitor, a dignitary or, Maker forbid, one of the chancellors. “Come in.”
The door opens and there is Josephine, dressed, now, her hair up and makeup on.
“Forgive me,” she says. “I know this is irregular.”
Cassandra swallows. She thought she wouldn’t have to face this quite so soon.
“I read your story,” Josephine says, takes a step into the room. “All I meant to do was to take one small peek before bed, but then I couldn’t put it down. It was truly something-”
“You don’t have to do this,” Cassandra interrupts.
“I know what I have made. Sugar coating does me no favors, I assure you.”
“Lady Cassandra! Please!” Josephine rarely raises her voice, not even a little. She times her speech so that she will not have to, she brandishes a different style of leading people to compliance, so to hear this sudden exclamation is strange, startling.
“I did not come here first thing in the morning, against all etiquette, out of pity,” Josephine says. “If you want my honesty? Then, no. This was not penned by a skilled hand. The sentences are clumsy, the metaphors derivative and there is nothing in terms of plot. This? Is the work of an amateur who doesn’t know what it means to show instead of tell. From a literary perspective it is deeply, deeply flawed,” she draws in a breath, “but it is true.”
“...Oh,” is all Cassandra can think to say.
“It spoke to me. It meant something for me to read this, and I thank you for writing it.”
“So…” Cassandra says, amazed. “You truly liked it?”
“Yes!” Josephine is laughing. “Yes, I truly did. Oh, when they finally kissed…” She hands the story to Cassandra. “Thank you again.”
Cassandra does not know what to name this feeling. Elation is too grand for something so unimportant from a greater perspective. She has saved no life with this, added nothing of importance to the world. But Josephine liked it. It made Josephine glad. Cassandra made herself understood, her words, her thoughts, the emotions plucked from her chest and splattered onto the page, they resonated in another. One day, she might read this over and it might not make her cringe.
“After saying all this,” Josephine says, “I certainly don’t want to launch into nitpicking. However, there were a couple of things you might want to be aware of.”
Cassandra nods, signaling that it is all right, and she goes on:
“First of all. You describe Jacintha with brown skin and dark hair, but in the books she is blonde, with a pale complexion.”
“She is?” Cassandra is genuinely surprised. She always pictured her with black curls, with brown skin sprinkled with freckles. Always - or is it only recently?
“Yes. Master Tethras isn’t one to spend too much time on descriptions, but it is mentioned a few times.”
“Secondly,” Josephine continues, and is it Cassandra’s imagination or is there an high-pitched jauntiness to her voice, a fidgety nervousness to the way she plucks at the buckle on her belt? “You have spelled Jacintha’s name wrong a few times. In fact, on several occasions you write another name entirely, especially towards the end.?
“What do I write instead?”
Cassandra’s heart stops. Everything stops, time freezes around her for a second, icecold and airless, while it all sinks in.
“An easy mistake to make, to be sure,” Josephine says, speaking fast, still too-high and tensely. “The spellings are not so vastly different and we have spent time together, it’s only natural they could be mixed up. Please do not worry about me reading anything into this, I am aware of your preferences in these matters, and of you and the Inquisitor-” She puts her hand over her mouth. Her cheeks glow. “I should really be going.”
She could beat herself up. Cassandra could hate herself for handing her heart over without knowing, could detest these many months of hapless anxiety, of her own refusal to act or acknowledge or dare, but she finds she wants to be kind. It is a frightful thing to love. It is a frightful thing to love in new directions. It is a frightful thing, and she is not so brave she never fears.
Josephine is already at the door.
“Wait!” The pages of her story scatter over the floorboards when Cassandra drops them. Josephine turns, looks at her in consternation. She must make a sight, her hair still a little sleep tousled, surrounded by dozens of pages, all scribbled full. It does not matter. “I was. Wondering. If you might want to take supper with me tonight. And, after. We could perhaps take a stroll in the garden.”
“I’m always happy to spend time with you, Lady Cassandra.”
“You should be aware,” Cassandra says, “that my intentions are not entirely… platonic.”
Josephine smiles. It is a smile so bright, so shining, so filled with earnest happiness that it alone is answer enough.
“I am most delighted to hear it.”
She crosses the floor. She walks to Cassandra, still carrying that gorgeous smile, until she is so close Cassandra feels the scent of rose water, until she can count her eyelashes, the little moles on her chin, every stray strand of hair. Josephine looks up at her, so close it is breathtaking, paralyzing. She rises on her toes and comes closer still, the shine of her lips and the bump on her noble nose, the shifts in her irises. Cassandra cannot get her fill of her, of this much beauty, this close.
Seconds pass, she does not know how many, until Josephine loses her balance. Cassandra catches her before she crashes into her chest, her hands around Josephine’s waist, holding her up.
Josephine giggles. “I can only reach so far, you know.”
Cassandra kisses Josephine. She bends down and Josephine wraps her arms around her neck and then Cassandra kisses her. It is not the best kiss of her lifetime - first kisses seldom are - but it is good. Josephine’s lips are soft, her breath is damp and sweet. Josephine kisses Cassandra and it feels ever so right.
“My Lady Cassandra,” Josephine says as they break apart. She runs her hand along Cassandra’s scar, traces her jaw with a finger, and her touch is reverent, tender, it makes Cassandra quiver. She feels both fiercely strong and frighteningly delicate, at once the trunk of the tree and the flower trembling at the tip of a branch.
Women are remarkable, Cassandra thinks. She feels remarkable.
“My Lady Josephine,” she says, and she leans in to kiss her again.