On aching branch do blossoms grow, the wind a hallowed breath.
It carries the scent of honeysuckle, sweet as the lover’s kiss.
It brings the promise of more tomorrows, of sighs and whispered bliss.
---Carmenum di Amatus
Cassandra was halfway through her second set of sword exercises before she realised someone was quietly trying to get her attention.
"Lady Seeker?" Josephine seemed full of nervous energy, quite a change from her usual sedate self. She was as impeccably dressed as always, and wasn't quite bouncing on her toes, but the light shone off her golden boots as she shifted her weight back and forth.
"Lady Montilyet? Has something happened?" Whatever was bothering her must be important to bring her out here to talk to Cassandra in the mud. There were going to be stains on those pretty shoes come tomorrow.
"Nothing bad! Something good, in fact. I hope." Josephine gave a polite smile to a drunk who wandered by then leaned closer to Cassandra and lowered her voice. "May we talk in private?"
Cassandra sheathed her sword. "Of course."
Josephine closed the door to the private room beside Cassandra's training ground and smiled. How had she even known this room was here? Cassandra certainly hadn't noticed it.
"Lady Seeker...Lady Pentaghast," she began and Cassandra's heart sank. So this was to involve her family. What joy. Josephine, meanwhile, was exhibiting more unrestrained glee than Cassandra had seen on her, only a thin veneer of her usual calm ambassadorial manner remained. It made her even prettier than usual, and her happiness was infectious, despite Cassandra's misgivings. For all that Josephine personified the life Cassandra had run across a continent to escape from, there was a simple sweetness underlying Josephine's scheming that made her less obnoxious than most nobles.
Josephine leaned close and gave Cassandra a sly smile. "Strictly speaking I should not tell you this until it becomes official, but I thought you would want to know. Nothing is final yet, but..." Josephine nearly twitched with glee. "We are to become cousins!"
"Cousins?" How... "There is...there is to be a wedding between some relative of yours and mine?" Josephine's smile widened into an outright grin. Ah. No wonder she looked so happy. The Montilyets were barely better than merchants, for them to gain a connection to the Nevarran royal family was a massive coup. Cassandra had to admit that the tiny, wizened part of her that still cared about such things felt a little disturbed by the idea. A Pentaghast married to some washed up minor Antivan house?
But then she remembered what her family was like, and what she knew of the Montilyets, and decided it was Josephine's relative who was marrying beneath themselves. "Congratulations," she said with as much enthusiasm as she could muster. Maybe this would even be a good thing. Maker knew Cassandra never did anything useful with her connections to the Nevarran royal court. Josephine would surely leverage this to the advantage of both her family and the Inquisition. "Is it someone I know? Your sister perhaps?" Cassandra remembered the silly girl pestering the Inquisitor for attention at Halamshiral. The Pentaghasts would eat her alive unless she was lucky enough to find a supportive spouse. "I have so many cousins, I'm not sure which of them it could be, but..."
"It's me!" said Josephine, unable to restrain herself any longer. "The one from my family that is. My sister was very naughty and wrote to me...my parents have very nearly arranged a marriage between myself and Lord Elias Pentaghast." Her voice dripped with pride. Cassandra gave a gasp, and quickly saw her own horrified expression mirrored on Josephine's falling face. "Ah, I am so sorry, I know I am not the bride you would have in mind for your cousin, but I promise..."
"Josephine, no, it is not that," said Cassandra. "I have no objections to you, or to your family. You are a good, honourable woman, far better than...It is because I respect you that I...I must tell you that Elias Pentaghast..." Words failed her. Just saying his name brought back all sorts of horrible memories and made it hard to think rationally. "He is an awful man, and not a worthy husband. Not for you or for anyone. He is..." How to explain? "He is violent, and cruel, he would mistreat you more badly than you can...you must dissolve this engagement. I beg of you."
Josephine reacted to the destruction of all her hopes and dreams far better than Cassandra would have. She just took a breath and said "Oh."
"I'm sorry," said Cassandra, "I know this must have felt like such good news..."
"No, thank you," said Josephine. "My parents looked into him carefully, of course, but they do not know him like his own family."
"Elias has always been good at hiding his true nature," said Cassandra. "And the standards of decency for a Nevarran nobleman are...not high to begin with. But we grew up together, and I was friends with his sister...I have never seen anyone else be so cruel to their own family. He pretends to politeness to those with power over him, but anyone beneath him he despises and treats abominably."
Josephine looked at her with sad eyes. "That is horrible," she said. "I'm sorry that you had to...although..." She squinted at Cassandra hopefully. "Could he have...changed? You left Nevarra a long time ago, and...it would not have to be a happy marriage, as long as I was able to continue my work we could live separately..." Cassandra frowned and Josephine shook her hands in negation at her previous words. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I don't mean to doubt you. I'm sure he is as awful as you say. I just need to convince myself, and then convince my parents. This will not be an easy letter to write. Not that I am not grateful! Far better to write an awkward letter than have an awful husband."
But now Cassandra was doubting herself. Could he have changed? Could she be being blinded by the past? Elias had only been in his early 20s when she left Nevarra. What did she know of the man he was now? "I am not entirely cut off from Nevarra," said Cassandra, slowly. "Much as I might wish it sometimes. I still write to old acquaintances from time to time, and some members of my family still write to me whether I like it or not. Elias wrote to me himself after his old nurse died, since she and I had been close, and then again after the death of his sister. I must admit he was...more polite than I was expecting. For many years he had a reputation for rough treatment of servants and women, but I have not heard any stories like that recently...I think the last I heard of him, he was trying to institute some reforms of inheritance law, or access to the Grand Necropolis, something sensible like that. I think he has even been supporting the Inquisition in Nevarra, in a small way. So, I suppose he could have changed. Though I know of no evidence to suggest it strongly either way."
"Oh," said Josephine. "Did you write back?"
Cassandra prepared herself for Josephine to defend Elias again, or ask more questions. Instead, she said "He's trying to kill you."
"Kill me? Why..."
"I should have seen it before," said Josephine. "I knew about some of his previous reputation, I had dismissed it as youthful indiscretion, but...I think I was too in love with the idea of marrying a Pentaghast." She gave Cassandra an apologetic smile. "I'm sorry, this is...most unbecoming of me. I swear I am not usually such a fool."
Cassandra was left feeling pretty foolish herself. "But what makes you think he is trying to kill me?"
"Well, the letter about the nurse of course! If he despises those beneath him, why would he make a note of the death of a servant? Unless he wanted to know your reaction, to see if you forgave him. He was hoping your reply would let him know one way or the other, but when you didn't reply at all he assumed the worst. And so he wrote to you again, but you still didn't reply...and thus, desperate to find some way to get close to you, he proposed to me." She rolled her eyes at herself. "As if a Pentaghast would ever really want to marry a Montilyet!"
"A better one might," said Cassandra. A pretty, competent woman like Josephine should not feel inferior to a brute like her cousin. "But Elias...would he really go to so much trouble?"
"Well...first I must ask, Lady Seeker: why have you never come forward about him killing his brother?"
For a moment Cassandra was 12 again, facing her grieving uncle with Elias and trying to explain how a simple horse ride through the forest had ended with her uncle's heir falling to his death. "I wasn't...I was never sure if he really did it. Everyone was so convinced it was an accident, and it was hard to believe that even Elias...." To her embarrassment she found herself blinking back tears. "But it was all so long ago. Why would he still care?"
"Because as I understand Nevarran law, he cannot inherit if he is found guilty of the murder of any preceding heirs. And it's not like the evidence is gone, I assume your cousin's corpse has been well preserved. Both of your cousin's corpses. If you were to come forward before he murders his father he would lose everything."
"Maker's breath," said Cassandra. Elias had killed Irene as well? It was all so horrible and yet...she could not convince herself to doubt it.
"Indeed," said Josephine. "I am very glad I spoke to you about all this before marrying such a man."
"As am I," said Cassandra. She had always thought Josephine intelligent, but was frankly boggled by her ability to untangle a complex plot that Cassandra herself had completely failed to notice. "I will be on my guard, now. Proving his guilt will not be easy, and a failed attempt to could cause untold troubles for myself and the Inquisition. And if he is so determined to kill me I am sure he will not stop at this."
"He has probably already sent assassins after you," said Josephine, nodding, "I suppose they must have gotten lost amongst all the other assassins targeting the Inquisition." She laughed. "Perhaps I should be grateful that my assassins were polite enough to explain themselves first."
Cassandra laughed. "Well since I am not to be so lucky...I am grateful for your help. Maker knows when I would have figured it all out otherwise. Perhaps only after I found a knife in my chest."
Josephine looked at Cassandra's chest and then looked at her own hands. "I am glad we will not have to find out."
Cassandra stepped towards the door. "And now you must write to your parents, and I must decide what to do about Elias. Nevarran engagements can be hard to get out of, but I am sure you will find a way. You are a most capable woman, Lady Montilyet. If you had married into my family we would have been far better for it."
"Thank you, Lady Seeker. You are most capable too, Lord Pentaghast will be no match for you I am sure." She smiled. "I would have been proud to have you as a cousin, and not just because of your name."
"We will have to settle for being comrades in the Inquisition instead," said Cassandra. "I think I prefer that to cousins, under the circumstances."
Cassandra was not expecting to see Josephine again so soon. She was certainly not expecting to have her turn up just as Cassandra was preparing for bed.
Josephine finished climbing the ladder and straightened her clothes before sitting on Cassandra's single chair. She was wearing a wispy, pretty outfit Cassandra hadn't seen before, much less formal looking than her usual attire. It outlined her figure more, as well. It was disconcerting.
"Lady Pentaghast," said Josephine. She gave Cassandra a confident smile, then seemed to lose her nerve and looked away. She coughed and glanced down over the edge of the balcony into the blacksmith's below. The workers were done for the day but there was still a slight glow of light coming from the smouldering embers in the forge. The orange light flickered across Josephine's dark hair and softly glowed through the top layer of her thin dress. The edge of the bodice was covered with lace and seemed to only be being held closed by a single ribbon. She found herself imagining what might happen if the ribbon were to be untied.
Cassandra crossed her arms. "Yes?"
Josephine stared at her silently then finally seemed to gather her courage. The words came out in a rush. "I've been thinking about our mutual problems and I think I have a solution. But I am really not sure you'll like it. I am not sure I like it. But it means I can escape the engagement with minimal shame on my family and it allows you to challenge your cousin without risking legal complications...although maybe we shouldn't be avoiding legal complications, even if he is trying to kill you, the rule of law....but Leliana thinks this way is best, and the Inquisitor said that she agreed, so perhaps we should do it this way."
Josephine took a deep breath. Her cheeks became noticeably pinker. "The plan, that is the idea, and you can say no, I will entirely understand if you do, but the idea is that we...you and I....pretend to be lovers."
Cassandra gaped. "Lovers?" Josephine nodded, her face still pink. Cassandra could feel herself blushing as well. "Why? To...shame Elias into dropping the engagement?" And he would be shamed, quite effectively, if Elias was at all the man he used to be. But to pretend such a thing! "How would this not bring shame on your family? To be seen as unfaithful, even to an arranged engagement..."
"I am not supposed to know yet, my sister sent her letter before the contracts had been drawn up. It is too late to stop it happening, but not to late to pretend I do not know. And when it comes out, you could challenge him to a duel..." Josephine frowned. "I do not like that aspect. I know he has conspired against you, and Leliana has tried to convince me that a trial would be too likely to end in charges being laid against you, but it seems very...violent. My hope is that by drawing him out in this way we might force him to play his hand sooner, so that you would not actually have to kill him yourself."
"That is what bothers you? I would happily kill a thousand Elias's rather than..." Wait that sounded terrible. "He may be my cousin, but the man is a murderer. I have no qualms about killing him even if some manipulation is involved. And I cannot claim to care much about my reputation. But it is just..." She imagined days (weeks?) of pretending to coo over Josephine, of everyone watching them and thinking... She made a grunt of frustration. "This is such a typical Leliana plan. She forgets the Maker did not gift us all with her enthusiasm for deception. I am not even interested in women!"
"I understand," said Josephine. "We will find some other way."
"I did not say no," said Cassandra irritably, and then was surprised at herself. Why was she even considering this? "Just because I have no enthusiasm for deception does not mean I am incapable of it. And as for you being a woman...you will just have to be an exception. These things happen." Strange, that the idea bothered her so little. Half trying to convince herself of her motivations, Cassandra said "As much as I find Leliana's plans frustrating they do usually work. And if we do not do something soon, you will be trapped in an engagement with a man who has murdered several members of our shared family and intends to murder me. If you and Leliana are both convinced this is the best path..."
"I am quite convinced," said Josephine. "Trust me, I might have more, as you say...enthusiasm for deception in general, but I do not like lying to my friends. And I respect you a great deal, Lady Seeker, I am sorry to think of how much embarrassment this will cause you. Were I to have a lover in truth I could not ask for...but this is not truth, and I...uh..." She lost her train of thought, and then found it again. "I will do my best to make this as painless as possible. We are both private people, there is no need for dramatic scenes. Just enough to convince Lord Elias."
"What did you have in mind?" asked Cassandra. "Lady...Josephine. I suppose we should start by using our first names. And then tomorrow, should we....hold hands?" She imagined holding hands with Josephine, the two of them skipping along the path to the war room. "No that's...ridiculous. This is all ridiculous. I can't..."
"I will court you," said Josephine, firmly. "You would not have to pretend very much feeling, just try to cover any, uh...disgust, and pretend your blushes are not just embarrassment, and then we hope that your reputation as a secret romantic means people imagine that you are more affectionate in private." She gave a small smile. "But holding hands is not a bad idea, if done naturally. We would not skip along the path to the war room, haha."
"Indeed," said Cassandra, amused that they had had the same thought. "And it is not disgust I will be feeling, merely..." Then she remembered why she had a reputation as a secret romantic. "Ugh. Varric is going to be insufferable." She shook her head to remove thoughts of the annoying dwarf. "Fine. I will try this. It will not be too long until the official letter arrives, I hope?"
"No more than a month," said Josephine. "We do not have long. Which is why I wanted to start tonight."
Josephine stood and gestured down across her dress. "Did you not notice that I am trying to seduce you? I wore my most alluring dress."
"Seduce me!" said Cassandra. "That is very forward of you. I do not care much for my reputation, but would not like to set such a precedent." Though it was a very alluring dress. If Cassandra was the sort to be seduced in a single night, and by a woman...a dress like that wouldn't hurt.
"Of course, I am doomed to fail," said Josephine. "A woman like you needs to be courted properly. But you see...I was so overcome by passion I lost my head." She leaned back in a tragic pose.
"Is that...plausible?" asked Cassandra. "You do not strike me as the type to be overcome by passion."
"Not...as a rule," said Josephine, siting back up straight. "If we had months at our disposal we could create a more natural progression from friends to lovers. But we do not have time for subtlety. And at worst...they will assume I am a social climber, trying to use your social position to improve my own. After all, you are a Pentaghast." Josephine's self deprecating laugh reminded Cassandra of her earlier glee at the idea of marrying a different Pentaghast. If she didn't trust Josephine's basic honesty, she might think this was all a plan to exchange one Pentaghast partner for another. "But I will try to seem sincere. I would not want to make you look foolish, for believing my lies. And you are a very beautiful woman. Who's to say you couldn't inspire me to uncharacteristic heights of romance?"
"...you flatter me," said Cassandra, self consciously. She felt foolish already.
"That is the plan, is it not?"
This was such a strange conversation to be having with Josephine. Until now she had been the quiet, competent voice in the background of the Inquisition that Cassandra had, if she was honest, not paid much attention to. But Josephine had played the game in Orlais, this must be nothing to the seductions she had pretended to. And pursued in earnest. It was an odd thought.
"Mmm," said Cassandra. She found herself unable to meet Josephine's eyes, which just made her feel more embarrassed.
Josephine's demeanour changed from flirtatious to concerned. "Do I go too far? I was merely trying to get into character. I would never...if I ever make you uncomfortable you must let me know."
Cassandra shook her head. "It's fine."
"I will go," said Josephine. "I think enough time has elapsed. We will begin again tomorrow, if you are still willing."
"Yes," said Cassandra, pretending more certainty than she felt. "But one more question: What are your plans for courting me?"
Josephine gave a sly smile. "You will have to wait and see."
The next morning Cassandra woke to the smell of Arbor's Grace and tea.
There was a tray by her bedside with a freshly baked roll, some cold meats, and lidded mug. Next to the tray was a vase filled with flowers with a note propped up against it. She took a bite of the roll (delicious!) and sat up to read the note:
The note was written in a neat calligraphic hand on a single card, a thick creamy rectangle of paper scented lightly with roses. "The greatest discretion" indeed. Cassandra wondered how much it had pained Josephine not to put the card in an envelope as was proper. She also wondered how many servants' hands it had passed through on the way to her bedside. There was no going back for Josephine now. But she had still given Cassandra an out, if she had changed her mind during the night.
May this simple offering atone in some small way for my intolerable rudeness last night. Of course you were right: though I have loved you in secret these many months, this is all very new for you, and if we are to be anything more than friends it can only be after an appropriate courtship.
I wish only for your happiness, and will by guided in love, as in all things, by your wishes. I will say nothing further without a sign from you. I know you value your privacy, any relationship between you and I would of course be pursued with the greatest discretion. But if you do not object to my suit, please pin a flower to your heart, to show that you think of me.
Cassandra drank her tea, got dressed, and pinned a single white rosebud to her armour.
It wasn't as bad as she had feared. Everyone she cared about knew the truth, and if others whispered about her when she thought she couldn't hear them, well, it was no worse than when people had whispered about her arresting the Herald of Andraste, or being a candidate for Divine.
Josephine's behaviour was different, but not unpleasant: she was friendlier, always asking Cassandra about her day, and smiling that little bit wider whenever she stopped by. It made Cassandra feel...odd to know that Josephine's interest was not sincere, but she had to admit that she did enjoy having someone to listen to her complaints when she'd had an especially frustrating day. She even enjoyed listening to Josephine in return, Cassandra had little interest in diplomacy but Josephine had a gift for turning her anecdotes into entertaining stories.
And every day she woke to fresh tea and flowers.