Alistair was lost. Again. He would have thought that after all of his time in Denerim and Vigil’s Keep, and yes, even Weishaupt these past few years, he would be used to castles by now. But Skyhold was something altogether different, and he just couldn’t seem to get the hang of it. He’d go through a corridor expecting to find the kitchens and somehow end up in the dungeon instead. Or he’d try to find Leliana up in her rookery and instead wind up halfway to Cullen’s tower.
He had managed to find the kitchens today, at least. Part of him wanted to stay, just tuck himself up in a corner and hide out here where no one cared enough to stop him and beg for stories about the Blight, about the Hero, about himself. And Maker, how had half the castle already found out about his father? Okay, well, it wasn’t exactly a secret these days, but it wasn’t like he led with it. There was no, “Hello, I’m Alistair, my father was king of Ferelden.” He didn’t give his surname—and Andraste’s ass but did it still feel strange to be using it after all of these years but Eamon and Teagan insisted and Anora had approved it, Maker only knew why—unless asked, but somehow everyone still always seemed to find out. The other wardens were used to it by now and knew him better than to think his name had anything to do with who he was, but strangers did not seem to get it.
Yes, better to just hide out in the kitchens all day where there was warmth and food and playing cats and everyone was far too busy to notice a solitary warden. Except, from the way the head cook kept glaring at him, he suspected that wasn’t really an option. With a heavy sigh, he wrapped up the breakfast he had come to procure and slipped out a side door, finding himself on a set of stairs outside. He glanced around with a frown, wondering where he should go next. Maybe the battlements? Most people stayed off them except for patrols or if they were on their way from one place to another. They might be quiet.
It took some doing, but he finally managed to make his way up there. As always, his breath caught at the view of the mountains surrounding the fortress. It truly was beautiful here. He couldn’t fault the Inquisitor for her taste in locations. He wandered aimlessly for a while, mostly looking at the mountains, but occasionally glancing down at the keep as he ate his breakfast. He paused as his gaze fell on the tavern. It was early in the day, there might not be many people there. Perhaps he could find a nice empty corner to hide in and listen to some music. That would be a nice way to pass the time until he was needed again.
He glanced around and saw what appeared to be a stairway leading down toward his destination. Crossing his fingers, he began his descent. He felt rather proud of himself as he reached the ground and saw that the tavern was indeed close at hand. His smile faltered a moment later when he glanced up again and realized that the battlements ran right past an upper door to the tavern itself. If he had continued around the battlements, he would have come right to it. He let out a sigh and shook his head. Right. Well. He was already down here. Might as well use the main entrance.
As he walked across the grass, movement off to the side caught his eye and he turned. Tucked into this corner of the yard, a woman was going to town on a set of sparring dummies. His eyebrows climbed his forehead as he watched her fiercely dismantle one after the other with her sword. A particularly vicious swing turned her enough for Alistair to catch a glimpse of the flaming eye on her breastplate. Oh! This must be the Seeker he kept hearing about, the Inquisitor’s chief lieutenant. Maker, but she was good with that sword. A large shield was strapped across her back, not necessary against the dummies. He frowned. That made for incomplete practicing though. He wondered who she sparred with to keep up with the shield work. Cullen, perhaps? Or maybe she tested herself against the new recruits? Alistair couldn’t fight a smirk as it occurred to him how terrifying a prospect that might be for them.
“What do you want?”
Alistair blinked at the barked inquiry and gathered up his wandering thoughts, turning his attention to the woman before him. The Seeker had demolished the last dummy and was glaring at him with an expectant air. “I’m sorry?” he tried.
She huffed and rolled her eyes, then narrowed them at him. “Did Cullen send you? Or Josephine?”
“No.” Alistair answered, brows drawing together.
“So you are just here to waste my time with your gawking, then?” She made a disgusted noise and started to turn away.
“I wasn’t gawking!”
The Seeker responded to his protest with an arched brow.
“I was just heading to the tavern and I noticed you sparring,” he started. He gave himself a shake and decided to try starting over. He drew a deep breath and stepped closer, holding out his hand. “I’m Alistair.”
She eyed his hand with suspicion. “Alistair Theirin? Hawke’s friend?”
He braced himself for the round of questions that was sure to follow. Traveling with Hawke had turned up its own share of fawning from people who wanted to know all about what the Champion was really like. Alistair was getting tired of being defined by the people around him. But the Seeker didn’t say anything else, just continued to watch him. Alistair narrowed his own eyes. “You know, when someone introduces themselves, it’s polite to return the favor.”
That surprised her. She blinked and took a step back, then blushed. Alistair’s breath caught and he noticed she was rather pretty. Huh. The Seeker cleared her throat and stepped forward, composure regained. She took his hand, giving it a firm shake and then dropping it. “Cassandra Pentaghast,” she said in a clipped voice. She stepped back again, looking like she was waiting for something.
“A pleasure to meet you, Cassandra,” Alistair replied. He gestured at the dummies, and then at her shield. “Looks like these fellows have given you about as much resistance as they can, and not much chance to use that. I don’t suppose you’ve any interest in sparring with a live partner?”
Cassandra looked surprised again, but only for a second. Then she relaxed and tilted her head, looking him over in assessment. “All right,” she said at last. “But I know all about the extra strength you wardens have. Don’t expect me to go easy on you just because the Inquisitor thinks we need you.”
Alistair grinned and let out a hearty laugh. “Wouldn’t dream of it.”
Their sparring sessions became a regular thing. They met every morning after breakfast and usually before dinner as well. Those pre-dinner sessions often turned into shared meals together after. Alistair was glad of the distraction. The Calling was getting worse, and the Inquisitor seemed determined to gather as much information as she could before moving on Adamant. That meant he had a lot of time to sit around and do nothing but wait while trying to ignore the voices in his head.
The days when Cassandra was gone from Skyhold doing her own work felt interminable. He had grown rather dependent on his time with Cassandra. Cullen let him drill with the new recruits, but it just wasn’t the same. For one thing, the end of those sessions signaled a barrage of the curious questions he tried so hard to avoid these days. Cassandra didn’t give a damn about who his father was or who his friends were or what he’d done in the past. Her respect for him came from how he had proved himself against her in their sparring matches, and from the easy conversation they enjoyed afterward.
He missed her when she was gone.
It wasn’t until he saw the rose that he began to realize why he missed her so damn much.
The Inquisitor had returned a little while ago, along with Cassandra and the rest of her team. Alistair had come out into the garden to wait while they went over their trip in the war room with the advisers. What he’d wanted to do when he’d seen Cassandra ride through the gates was run to her and pull her off to the side to make sure she was all right with his own eyes. He doubted she would have appreciated that, though. Not only for the scene it would have made but also because she was hardly something fragile, and it wasn’t like he had any right to be so concerned. Knowing that didn’t stop him from worrying though.
So as soon as they’d disappeared into the war room, he removed himself to the garden to wait. It was quiet here, and he felt calm wandering through the plants that filled the place. Even the Calling seemed to dim in this space.
He stopped short in front of a rose bush. Most of the buds had long since bloomed and been taken away to decorate the castle’s interior. But one flower still clung defiant to the bush, standing strong and proud despite its solitude. He smiled when he realized that its petals were the same scarlet as Cassandra’s skin when she blushed. Before he gave it much thought, he glanced around and reached out with his belt knife, cutting the stem. Careful of the thorns—this one seemed to have a few more than usual, probably why it had been left alone, he guessed—Alistair clutched the rose and beat a hasty retreat from the gardens. He was sure no one would mind him taking one flower from the lush garden, but better to be safe than sorry.
He made his way to Cassandra’s favorite corner of the yard, noting with a smile that new practice dummies had been set up in her absence. She would find her way here once the briefing was over. She always did. He sat down and leaned against the wall, letting his eyes fall shut as he took a deep breath, inhaling the scent of the rose.
His eyes snapped open and he blinked a few times, then glanced up, grinning to find Cassandra standing over him. “Must have fallen asleep,” he mumbled.
“It would seem so,” she answered with a dry laugh. “Why did you fall asleep here?”
“Was waiting for you,” he shrugged, pushing himself up to his feet.
“Oh, that’s,” she cleared her throat and looked away, but not before Alistair caught the hint of a smile on her face. He grinned. She glanced back and her eyes widened as they fell on his hands. “What is that?”
Alistair looked down and then blushed, holding the flower out to her. “A rose.” When she didn’t take it, he hastened to explain himself, feeling his blush deepen. “I saw it in the garden,” he tried, “it made me think of you.”
She stared at him, her face expressionless. Oh Maker, this was a bad idea. A woman like Cassandra didn’t want flowers. What was he doing? She was probably about to tell him what a fool he was, that she never wanted to see him again, that—wait, was she blushing?
“You saw a rose. And thought of me?” Her eyes were wide and her voice was tinged with wonder. She reached out a reverent hand to take the flower.
“Yes, well.” Alistair cleared his throat, handing the rose over, careful to keep the thorns from pricking her fingers. “To be fair, I was already thinking of you when I saw it, but um, yes. I hoped you might like it?” He shot her a hopeful glance. “I missed you.”
She smiled down at the rose, then up at him. “I do like it,” she said. “Very much. Thank you, Alistair. I missed you too.” She looked down again, her blush deepening.
Alistair felt a goofy grin spread across his face. She liked the flower. She had missed him. On a whim, he reached out and caught up her free hand in his own, lacing their fingers together. Cassandra let out a startled sound and looked up, meeting his eyes again.
A small smile flickered across her face and then she shook her head, letting out a wry laugh. “Maker, look at us. We’re acting like fools.”
“I think that’s allowed every once in a while,” Alistair said, squeezing her fingers. “Have you eaten yet? Maybe we could get something from the kitchens and take it up to the battlements. Have a little picnic with no one to see us being foolish but each other?”
Cassandra lit up and squeezed his fingers in return. “I think that sounds like a fine idea, Alistair.”