“I can’t promise you freedom, Bethany,” he said softly, not meeting her eyes properly, “but I can promise you time. I can stall, for a while at least, but I can’t do nothing. Especially not if it’s revealed that I knew all along- then we will both be the worse off for it.”
Her eyes burned from the tears she was holding back as they came back to the same old point yet again. She wouldn’t cry; she wouldn’t beg for her freedom. She had more pride than that. “What do you mean by time? So I have… tomorrow? A week? A month? A decade?”
His smile was slightly bitter as he played with a strand of her hair, coiling the dark curl around his finger. “I can’t tell you that,” he said, “because I don’t know how long I can keep it hidden. It’s up to you not to out yourself in public, to avoid suspicion. If you condemn yourself, there’s nothing I can do for you.”
She felt a tear escape from her lashes, despite her best efforts. She hated herself for that moment of weakness. “I understand,” she croaked, feeling the room tilt several degrees off balance. This was a good thing! The Knight Captain himself was privy to her terrible secret, and yet had agreed to keep it for the time being? She couldn’t dream of better luck if she tried! And yet…
… why did it feel like she’d had her ribcage hollowed out, like the space below her shoulders was an empty, echoing chamber? It ached, like an old injury, and it was quite hard to breathe in that moment, as if everything was far too tight, muscles and bones and blood locking up against her. All she wanted was to have her freedom, wasn’t it? And here she had it! All she wanted was the chance to run home to her mother, to her stupid brother, and tell them that she was safe and there was nothing to worry about, that things were taken care of. She was free!
And yet she ached, and she wasn’t sure why.
She nodded brusquely instead. No point trying to understand- nothing about this day made any sort of sense, it was foolish of her to start trying now. “I… thank you, Captain,” she said. “I appreciate the risks you take.”
His look was pained, but tender, as his fingers brushed down her cheek softly. She fought not to just shiver and droop back against the door, head tilted back and neck offered up for his mouth. “It is…” He struggled for a moment, his throat working as he swallowed uncomfortably. “Nothing,” he said after the hesitation. “It is nothing.”
Oh Maker, Bethany, what are you doing? She found herself staring at his lips, wondering if it would be the polite thing at all to offer him a kiss in thanks. By the look in his eyes, she was already pushing her luck, and she knew he would not withhold his duty for her forever. But what was a kiss? Short and simple and just an expression of gratitude? “By your same reasoning,” she murmured, well aware of how close she had swayed to his mouth, “it would probably be best if we were not seen together again. Ever.”
He was nodding his agreement, and maybe she was imagining the way he leaned in a little closer. “Under any circumstances,” he mumbled, his thumb dancing over her pulse point. She shivered.
“The risks are too high,” she whispered, stretching slightly on her toes, lifting that little bit closer to him. She could taste him, feel the heat of his breath on her mouth.
It was the wrong thing to say, however, because suddenly there was space between them, the warmth of his body not quite so encompassing; there a slight spark of panic in his eyes. “I’m well aware of the risks, Miss Hawke, I’m not-”
“I mean, we can’t even leave together,” she said quickly, her stomach churning at that look and the fact that she was back to Miss Hawke. She didn’t want him to think her a simpleton, drat it. She didn’t want to care for his opinion! She didn’t want to crave his warmth, even if it seemed much cooler without his arms wrapped around her. She did not want to place her heart in the hands of a Templar!
Andraste’s Breath, girl, you came so close to throwing yourself at him again! Be thankful we’re free of that!
“Obviously,” he said, still frowning. He seemed awkward now, embarrassed slightly, if the way he avoided looking her in the eye was any indication. “I don’t see what-”
“One of us will have to risk the door-” She felt a surge of horror even at the mere suggestion, and her throat worked as if fighting the urge to throw up “- and see if we’re in any danger. To see if we can escape.”
He only frowned at her. Or rather, near her, since he didn’t want to meet her gaze.
Oh Maker, he can’t be that dense. “I’m not going out there naked,” she blurted out, face flushing scarlet yet again. “You’ll have to do it.”
It was his turn to colour, the red in his cheeks stupidly adorable. She ignored the way her heart leapt at the sight of it. “Miss Hawke, I have a reputation to uphold,” he said stiffly. “It cannot do for the Knight Captain to be seen wandering about wrapped only in a-”
“Well, the alternative is to stay in here until whoever trapped us in the first place comes for us,” she said, furious at herself for the shrill note that crept into her voice. “And given that that could be never, or it could be at the head of a patrol of Templars, or it-”
There was a knock on the door.
They both froze. Bethany didn’t even breathe, and she knew the panic Cullen felt was mirrored in her own expression. He looked utterly horrified, dumbstruck to the point that he was simply gaping at her, eyes bugging out from his head. The knock came a second time, and Bethany couldn’t help the squeak of terror that burst out from between her lips. Cullen seemed to regain some measure of courage or levelheadedness, for he tugged her away from the door, arms gripping her tightly as he pulled her slightly behind him.
The fool didn’t even seem to care that he was utterly naked, but he straightened with a look of steel in his eyes and she melted despite her best efforts not to. She must have made some whimper of approval, for he cast a quick glance back over his shoulder at her, heat and embarrassment kindling in his eyes for a moment.
Turning his gaze away from her again- although his grip was firm on her arms- he faced the door as he called out “Who goes there?” It seemed overly formal to her, but then… it wasn’t really like she had any idea of precedent for a situation like this. At this point anything seemed fair game, really- maybe Flemeth would walk through the door to greet them.
The doorknob moved, as if someone had taken hold of it from the far side, and they both tensed. Cullen’s fingers dug into her skin almost painfully, but he ignored her moan of protest. The brass sphere turned slowly, twisting noiselessly, and the door made no sound at all as it swept quietly open- no creak of protest, no groan at having long gone without use. “Who-” Cullen didn’t get any further than that, for an elf woman crossed briskly into the room carrying a splendid silver tea set- all while completely blindfolded.
She navigated the room with ease, even though the furniture had to have moved since the two of them had been locked in, and she set the tray down on the small table as they gaped at her. She was so precise that there wasn’t even a clatter of porcelain as she began to arrange the plates artfully for a simple tea service.
Bethany and Cullen looked at each other, baffled and still on edge; Cullen stared for a long moment at the open door, and the prospect of freedom. He was obviously tempted, drawn by the idea of fleeing and not looking back. She didn’t know if she could even blame him- this was a colossal, glorious, awful mess. A mage and a Templar- the Knight Captain at that, with an unHarrowed apostate? He could run, say she’d entrapped him, tricked him, seduced him without his consent. Mind control. Blood magic.
No one would believe her.
She held her breath, but she must have tensed noticeably, for he shook himself and glanced quickly at her. She couldn’t read him- was that guilt she saw there? Fear? Desire? Shame?
Maker, what was she feeling?
Their little moment was broken by the elf woman turning back towards them, the empty tray in her hands- she’d set out the entire tea service, without so much as spilling a drop of the hot liquid, and all while blindfolded. She bowed politely in their direction, her expression revealing nothing. “Your clothing has been completely laundered, and will be returned to you shortly,” she said pleasantly. “In the meantime, please enjoy these refreshments, courtesy of your hosts.”
She went to leave, and Cullen stepped in front of her. She stopped instantly, not even stumbling; her expression never wavered. “Is something the matter, messere?” she asked politely. “Do you require any additional assistance? Perhaps a third?”
Thanks to weeks of Isabela and her lewd innuendos, Bethany knew exactly what the woman was insinuating and couldn’t help her gasp of astonishment at the brazen offer. From the deep red that Cullen turned, he obviously wasn’t as dense as he seemed to be sometimes- he at least understood what the offer of a third meant. “That won’t be necessary,” he snapped, casting a quick, nervous glance at Bethany. “Where are we? Why are we being held prisoner?”
The woman nodded respectfully. “My apologies for the confusion messere,” she said, “but you are not prisoners. Your accommodations were fully paid for in advance by another guest. Her instructions were quite explicit- you were not to be disturbed until you had resolved your differences.” Her lips twitched, as if she was fighting not to smile at the unspoken ‘and you clearly have’.
“She,” Cullen snarled, his hands tightening on Bethany until she grunted in protest; thankfully he relented. “I demand to know who this she is, and where to find her.”
“Unacceptable, messere,” she said calmly. “That was not in the terms of her contract with my mistress. Anonymity is tantamount, and we take the privacy of our clients very seriously.”
“I don’t care what your mistress agreed to,” he said, reaching for her. Bethany tried to grab at his hand to stop him, but he batted her aside. “What I want-”
“Messere, I would advise you not to move,” the woman said calmly, as if there wasn’t a six foot wall of naked muscle in front of her ready to throttle her. Granted, she couldn’t see him, but she had to sense the threat in his tone, feel the hostility in the air. “If you make any untoward moves in my direction, the gentleman standing just beyond the door will be forced to enter to encourage you to step back, and he is most distressed whenever I ask him to do that. It would be better for everyone if you just remained calm and accepted these refreshments, and just relax until your clothing is returned.”
Cullen visibly struggled for words for a moment, his jaw tight and the veins bulging in his neck. Bethany tried not to notice. “There is nothing to stop me from leaving now,” he said stiffly, obviously fighting the desire to shout.
She nodded politely. “Nothing at all, messere, save that you are completely naked and to walk through that door would very quickly expose you to several dozen sets of eyes. I am not sure that you would find that desirable, unless voyeurism and exhibitionism are to your tastes? We were not informed as such, but we can make arrangements for-”
“Nothing of the sort!” he snapped, blushing furiously. He pinched the bridge of his nose with the free hand that he’d tried to grab her with.
Swallowing nervously, Bethany took advantage of the small silence. “Please, um, where are we?” she asked, cursing how her voice shook.
The woman smiled in her direction, and Bethany had to wonder if the blindfold was just for show- she certainly didn’t seem hindered by it at all. “Why, the Blooming Rose of course.”
It was awkward, sitting and trying to drink tea with a naked Templar. Cullen had at least had the courtesy- or perhaps the modesty- to fetch one of the blankets from the bed and wrap it about his waist before sitting, but… still. His bare chest was very distracting. Bethany kept glancing up from her mug, gaze dancing slowly over ever scar and wondering how he’d come by it. Looking at every red mark on his skin and wondering how long her scratches would last. Fantasizing about whether or not any of them would last to take their place on the map of scars on his body.
A lasting reminder of the few short hours he had been hers to claim and mark as she saw fit.
She squirmed uncomfortably in the chair as the memories sent warmth flooding through her, and took a hasty sip of the tea. Cullen sat opposite, staring off into space, hardly aware of her. They’d nearly established some sort of consensus on what was to become of them, and how to treat this bizarre encounter and now it was out the window. Not that they had a window, she mused, sipping on the drink just for something to do with her hands.
Anything was better than just sitting there fidgeting and waiting for him to acknowledge her again, as if she was some simpering wench desperate for his attention. She didn’t know quite what to do with her feet though, and really she was quite uncomfortable from having thought about their love making earlier, and shifting in the chair again to try and find a better position wasn’t helping at-
He slammed his hand down on the table, making all the silverware clang and Bethany jump. “Would you stop that?”
She tried to hide how badly he’d startled her, taking a moment to take another mouthful; she hardly tasted it though, and she struggled to swallow. “Stop doing what, Knight Captain?” she said carefully, looking at him from beneath her lashes as she licked the last of the drink from her bottom lip.
His nostrils flared, and his hands tightened on the arms of the chair. “Stop moving,” he said tersely.
“I can’t just not move until they bring our clothes back, Knight Captain,” she said, blowing on the tea to cool it. “A rather strange request if I must say.”
“Bethany,” he growled, “we had an agreement.”
With a boldness she wasn’t really sure she felt, she set the mug down and settled her hands in her lap; she almost regretted that she’d tucked the blanket so firmly around herself. “We agreed on nothing, Knight Captain,” she said, “least of all whether or not you had any right to command the movements of my body.”
His eyes darkened with heat, and she felt a corresponding rush in her blood. “Do not taunt me, woman,” he said quietly.
“I wouldn’t dream of it, Knight Captain,” she said, putting far too much emphasis on his title, on the unspoken power he held over her no matter how much she wanted it to be otherwise. “But thinking you have any sort of dominion over me is a terrible shortcoming on your part.”
Oh Maker, Bethany, what are you doing?
It seemed to be her mantra today.
He was all but vibrating with tension, and her breath was coming in shallow puffs now; it was thrilling, and it shouldn’t be, because Maker what was she doing taunting a Templar in the first place? But this was Cullen, and he was as gentle as he was violent, as loving as he was angry, and she wanted her freedom but she wanted power too, and she wanted his hands on her no matter how badly she knew this would end.
So when his control snapped and he snarled and lunged to his feet, pouncing at her with the desperation of a drowning man, she couldn’t help but laugh in delight. He cut her off with a kiss, but by the Maker it felt good.
It felt like freedom.
On the upstairs balcony, Isabela signalled to the bar downstairs, sighing happily when her mad waving was acknowledged and a girl dispatched with a fresh tray. She sank back into the chair, kicking her feet up onto the table, as she turned to her companion.
“I have to admit, I didn’t think you had it in you,” she chuckled. “But, I stand corrected, and I tip my hat to you.”
“You don’t have a hat,” Aveline said wryly, altogether too smug. As the serving girl arrived she held out her mug for a refill.
Isabela sighed woefully. “I lost it with my ship,” she said dramatically, “but I’ve got my eye out for something flamboyant to replace it with.”
“Well, you won’t be buying it any time soon,” Aveline said. “Come on now- fair’s fair. I’ll be taking my money back now.”
With another melancholy sigh, Isabela reached into her ample bosom with a wink and withdrew a coin pouch. She tossed it across the table to her friend, taking a liberal swig from the wine bottle as Aveline stopped to count the gold within. “I have to ask though,” she said coyly, “what your secret is. I mean, with Garrett and Anders it was easy, because Anders did most of the work for us, but… I was expecting to have to provide a much more hands on service for these two.”
Aveline rolled her eyes at her and tucked the pouch into her leathers- she was deliberately not wearing her uniform, not that she was exactly inconspicuous. “You disappoint me,” she said, “I would have thought it’d be obvious to someone with your talents.”
“Oh you frigid old cow, just spill already.”
Smiling despite the insult, she said “You’ve never been married to a Templar. You might have tumbled one or two-”
“Or seven,” Isabela supplied helpfully.
“Over the years,” Aveline continued, as if she hadn’t been interrupted at all. “But you’ve never gone home to one at the end of the day. And that, my dear trollop, makes all the difference.”
Isabela made a scoffing noise. “Oh, come off it, they aren’t in love, this was just to get them laid.”
Aveline took a quiet sip of her drink. “Maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t,” she said softly, her eyes somewhere else. Then she straightened, and she smiled. “But it doesn’t matter, because I won my money back. Now we’re even.”
Her friend eyed her off. “Oh, we’re far from even, my dear. Far from it.”