His head was throbbing—a sick, staccato pulse that he couldn’t quite shake no matter how hard he tried to focus past the pain. It was all Cullen could do not to reach up and rub the bridge of his nose. It had been a pitched battle to concentrate for the last half-hour—
(more, if he were willing to be honest with himself)
—and the pain was beginning to take on a life of its own. Standing in full gear with the glare of guttering candles tricking the eye wasn’t doing him any favors, either; what he needed was just a few minutes alone, in the quiet dark of his room. Maker’s breath, was there to be no end to today?
Steady, he thought, and drew in a breath. Cullen forced himself to straighten, keeping his hands carefully still. The Inquisitor was quick to worry if he gave so much as a hint that he was facing discomfort, and Leliana had eyes like a bloody hawk. There was no keeping anything from her.
“And with that accomplished,” the spymaster said as she scanned the war map. She ticked her gaze up to him, one red brow lifting in a knowing quirk. “I believe we’re finally finished for the evening. Thank the Maker. There’s a copper tub and scented salts calling my name.”
No, of course she knew. A holy sister could sneeze in Denerim and Leliana would sense the breeze. Cullen gave a faint shake of his head, trying to deny her concern, but she just arched her brow higher before deliberately turning the full weight of her attention away.
The subtext was clear: I will let you get away with it. For now.
Well, he supposed that was all he could hope for.
The Inquisitor moved away from the war table with an exhausted sway to her step. Her hair had started to come down from its messy bun, a few wheat-colored curls springing free. She brushed at one absently as she turned a warm smile on the three of them, kind even in the face of what had to be crippling exhaustion. “A fire and one of Varric’s manuscripts for me,” she said. “And Andraste willing, six full hours of uninterrupted sleep.”
“Six? How decadent!”
The Inquisitor glanced over at him and Cullen quickly feigned interest in the already-tidy line of metal pieces ringing his corner of the table. I am fine, he told himself—tried to project it like an aura, a shroud settling over the squared breadth of his shoulders. I am fine, I am fine, I am fine. There’s no need to worry about me. Go.
The last thing he needed was to face the Inquisitor’s concern—she wasn’t so willing to be put off by stoicism. Like their very own spirit of compassion, the Inquisitor had a habit of digging in her heels at the first sign of distress and refusing to budge until every hurt had been healed.
Between the Herald of Andraste and Cole, Cullen thought with a wry wince, listening to the soft rasp of her slippers across the cold flagstones, is it any wonder Skyhold is filled to the brim with the lost, the needy, and the broken?
The fact that he often counted himself amongst those numbers did not escape him.
Leliana pushed open the big war room doors. They were almost past the threshold—and he almost ready to make his own escape—when Josephine politely cleared her throat.
Damn. Cullen shot her an incredulous look. Three hours of haggling over the table, and she still had business for them? Damn and blast.
“Actually,” Josephine said, the apologetic note clear in her voice. She shifted her ever-present tablet and began riffling through a stack of papers.
Leliana pushed the door shut with a tart little sigh. For her part, the Inquisitor seemed content enough to return, her lips twisted into a faint smile—even though, out of all of them, she was the one with the clearest reason to be disgruntled. She, Solas, Cassandra and Cole had been trekking through the Emerald Graves for over a week. She’d barely had time to step through the gates before Leliana was calling the four of them to meet.
She hadn’t even had time to change. There was a rip in her robe and a vivid green stain along one sleeve. Where none of them ever to be given a moment of peace?
But the Inquisitor didn’t seem to share his growing agitation. “How can we help?” she asked, low contralto steady and sweet. All this after three hours of tedious bickering on the heels of a week’s march: there were days when Cullen couldn’t help but think Elayne Trevelyan really was a bloody saint. He would have been snarling and pacing by now.
He almost was; he had to force himself not to curl back his lip in annoyance. Maker, his head was killing him.
Josephine, as usual, was all too willing to politely ignore his foul mood. “If only I can locate—Ah!” She tugged free three folded and sealed letters, handing them over. “Here we are.”
Cullen barely glanced at his name written in a flourish of calligraphy before turning it over and breaking the seal. His stomach was already sinking, even before he’d spread out the fine parchment and scanned the careful words. They seemed to swim before him, darting like minnows in a stream, but oh, their meaning was quite clear. He looked up with an affronted noise, staring Josephine down, because Maker forbid they keep all this nonsense cordoned off in Halamshiral where it belonged.
Leliana groaned. “Josie you didn’t.”
“It would be a great benefit to the Inquisition if the nobles were to see us as their cultural equals,” Josephine countered immediately; she had been waiting for their protests. “There are still some who consider us as little more than barbarian upstarts.”
“But a ball? Here? Is it really wise to open our doors to so many at once?”
Our home, he could have added. Is it wise to open the doors to our home; to invite the Game into our very halls?
“A what?” The Inquisitor looked up from her own (unopened) letter, eyes going round.
“No,” Cullen said.
Josephine cut in quickly. “An Orlesian masked ball,” she said. “I’ve been working with Vivienne on the details. You needn’t worry: I have everything under control, and security won’t be—”
“No,” Cullen said. He would say it all day if he had to. Happily.
“—won’t be an issue.” Josephine shot him a pointed look. Cullen simply stared back, letting a little of his foul temper push through. The idea of opening the doors of their home to, to, to the lying tongues and grasping hands of the Orlesian court was enough to turn the throb of his headache into a piercing stab just behind his eyes. There were few places in this world where he felt perfectly at ease; the last thing he wanted was to lose this last haven. But Josephine sailed on blithely. “I’ve already combed through the guest list for any potential…malcontents. There will be no troubles letting such a number come to Skyhold.”
She hesitated and looked between Leliana and Cullen. She cleared her throat. “…most likely.”
Cullen opened his mouth to protest, but the Inquisitor beat him to it. “But I barely muddled through The Winter Palace,” she murmured, sounding all at once so fragile, so young, that he bristled again, this time in an instinctive urge to protect her.
No matter that she was the Herald of Andraste and had already proven time and time again that she was more than strong enough to take down any threat with or without his help.
Still. The instinct was rooted deep and hard to deny. “I barely survived The Winter Palace,” he muttered, if only to see her smile. Then, briskly: “I say we call a halt to this nonsense and settle our alliances the good old-fashioned way.” Preferably heavily armored and without a single bloody mask in sight.
Leliana tapped a finger to her lips as if she were seriously considering his suggestion. “Well, if you insist, there were several interesting offers for your hand in the wake of Halamshiral. You as well, Inquisitor.”
“This is true,” Josephine added, always quick to press the advantage. “If you do insist on doing things the old-fashioned way.”
He was very tempted to play the brute and tell the both of them exactly what they could do with all those interesting offers…but then the Inquisitor slapped her hands against the war table and leaned forward, effectively ending the brewing argument.
“How about we compromise?” she suggested. “Our doors will gladly open to whomever Josephine thinks we should invite, after both Leliana and Cullen have had a chance to vet the list. None of us will be required to attend,” the Inquisitor added with a quick glance his way; he shut his mouth and swallowed back the rising protest. “And all guests will be politely urged to shove off after no more than two days.”
Josephine made a strained face.
“…three. Four only if they’re willing to line our pockets with enough gold to make it worth the headache.”
This time he gave in to the impulse to pinch the bridge of his nose, rubbing at the incessant ache that seemed intent on painting the world in shades of red. He could try to press the matter, he knew. He could claim it would be too great a strain on their resources, that the security risk would be too high, that something was certain to go wrong. That it didn’t matter if all of Orlais thought them backwards yokels so long as they remained true to course and defeated Corypheus.
He could say that the court didn’t belong here. That inviting them in was akin to pressing a viper to their breasts and trusting it wouldn’t strike. That there were people here who had spent too many years being rattled about, feeling uncomfortable in their own skin; people who needed to trust that this one place would always be safe for them.
But he didn’t. He couldn’t. It didn’t take a tactician to know when the battle was lost, and there were some hard truths best kept hidden even now. “And we are not required to attend?” he asked instead, dropping his hand and forcing a smile into the words. Josephine and Leliana were doing their best. Maker knew the Inquisitor was. There was nothing to be gained by lashing out like an injured mabari.
Leliana waved a hand airily. “You are free to be as much a hermit as you wish,” she said. “I agree to those terms, Inquisitor.”
“As do I. It will be splendid; you will see.” Josephine beamed, already waving her quill in understated triumph. “We will be the toast of Orlais.”
The Inquisitor gave a short nod. “Good,” she said. “Ser Cullen—are you content?”
There were so many things he could—and would never—say to that. “No,” he said instead with a hint of a smile, letting her know he was teasing. “But I know when to surrender. I’ll be in the tower for the next week if anyone needs me.”
The Inquisitor smiled back, so broad and unexpectedly, dazzlingly bright he could actually feel his thoughts skid off-course; it took him a moment to process what she was saying. “All right. I’ll be sure to send Sera with any messages.”
“Yes, fine,” Cullen said by rote—then suddenly snapped his head up, eyes going wide. “Wait!” he sputtered. Dear Maker, he was still trying to put to rights all the maddening little “adjustments” she’d made the last time she’d wormed her way inside his office.
Sudden dimples flashed at the Inquisitor’s rounded cheeks, Josephine and Leliana joining in for a good laugh at his expense. Cullen looked between the three women with the feeling of a hunted fennec, then threw up his hands in surrender, beginning to laugh with them. For just a moment then—sweet and blissful, if all too fleeting—the pain faded to a dull throb as the Inquisitor grinned so very sweetly up at him…
…and finally called the blasted meeting to an end.
“Run along and hide now,” Leliana teased as she moved to throw open the heavy doors. “Perhaps if you are very lucky, you will manage to avoid the fuss altogether.” She dropped a hand to Josephine’s golden sleeve and tilted her head in question; the two women moved toward Josephine’s office together, instantly falling in step as they spoke in a low murmur.
“From your lips to the Maker’s ears,” Cullen muttered, sotto.
The Inquisitor muffled a laugh behind her hand. She stood in the doorway, framed by twin wings of ornate wood; the stoop of her shoulder spoke of that wavering thread of exhaustion he understood only too well. In the gathering twilight, he could clearly see the soft violet shadows collecting beneath her eyes, the way she swayed just a little as she stood waiting for him. Human. Fragile. So incongruously small.
He really shouldn’t be thinking of her that way.
“Inquisitor,” Cullen said, moving carefully around the table. He could feel a renewed tremor beginning to spread through his limbs like a dammed-up river, but the brief brush of her fingertips against his forearm—the earnest look in her eyes as she tipped her face up to his—was enough to steady him, to hold it back for now. It was uncanny, the way her undivided attention could make the troubles of the day sluice away.
“Please, Cullen, we’re off-duty now,” she reminded him. “Well,” she added with a wry, slow-blooming smile, “as much as either of us will ever be.”
“Yes,” he said. “Of course.” Then, because she seemed to be waiting for something: “Elayne.”
Her smile grew and he found himself beginning to smile back, awkward and a little uncertain, but no less real for all that. Cullen tipped his head and she fell into step beside him. Neither felt the need to speak—a mercy, since he never knew what to say to her when they weren’t the Inquisitor and her Commander—but instead walked in surprisingly comfortable silence toward the Great Hall.
He snuck a quick glance as he stepped aside to hold the door open for her. It was strange, he mused, how she could go from Herald of Andraste to Elayne so suddenly, bridging the gap between the human and the divine in a way that should not have been possible. Before he met her, he would have said it could not be possible.
But he had seen her in battle, and he had seen her standing alight with exalted fury, and he had cradled her frozen and broken body against his chest and prayed (and prayed, and prayed) she had strength enough to open her eyes one last time. He had listened to her passionate speeches and advised her decisions and confessed his failings and watched as she crouched in the mud to play with untrained mabari pups—turning her face with a bright laugh as they bounded around her, licking at her cheeks, her chin, the petal-pink slash of her mouth.
He’d seen her face down darkspawn magisters and he’d seen her swathed in magic so powerful that by all rights he should have been struck dumb with memories of terrible fear. He’d seen so much.
And he saw this, now: her tired smile as she slipped past him. Her comfortable robe torn, its hem discolored by mud, her feet shockingly bare…toes curling against the cold stone floor. The sway of her hips when she turned to face him again. Another long curl was coming loose from its messy bun. It uncoiled delicately as Cullen watched, spilling across Elayne’s shoulder to brush the generous swell of her breast.
He snapped his gaze up immediately and did not meet her eyes even when she bid him goodnight.
“We should both try to get some rest,” Elayne said, brushing back that long coil of hair with a crooked smile, as if she had not caught him watching her. “Before the Orlesian invasion begins.”
“Yes,” Cullen said. He hesitated, then gave her a brusque nod before turning away; he strode briskly across the wide stone floor, feeling like a thousand kinds of fool. Where had he let his addled mind wander? There was a world of difference between the Inquisitor encouraging him to think of her as Elayne and her wanting him to see her as…well, as a woman. It wasn’t right for him to think of her like that, even by accident, for a moment. Even for…
He hurried his pace.
“Something troubling you, Curly?” Varric called as he passed, but Cullen didn’t slow, not even at the rasp of the damn dwarf’s laugh. Solas didn’t look up from his books as Cullen slipped through his solar, but high above their heads, Leliana’s ravens added their own raucous calls—as if they could see as easily into his thoughts as the spymaster, and spread him open like a book to read within him the sparks of awareness, of frustrated longing, he refused to fully admit. Even to himself.
And that, ultimately, was enough to finally fully recall the stifled pain. He stormed out onto the ramparts with gritted teeth, pulse throbbing at his temples. He still had that damned invitation tucked into the waist of his belt, and the thought of that—the thought of all those people set to descend upon Skyhold like a swarm of locusts; the thought of Elayne transforming effortlessly back into the shining Herald, the Inquisitor, the symbol of hope for all of Thedas in a place that should have been safe for her to be nothing more than herself—made his stomach churn.
He couldn’t say why; he wouldn’t let himself examine it close enough to know for sure. He just knew he found the idea intolerable, and he hated how helpless he was to stop it.
“Out!” Cullen snapped as he stormed into his office. His lieutenants straightened immediately and saluted before scurrying for the open door. It clicked shut quietly behind them, but he heard it louder than a canon’s fire, reverberating in his skull the way sound sometimes did on the worst of days. The ring of candles in their valences burned all at once far too bright, dark spots eating his vision for one horrible moment.
It was all coming rushing back—everything he’d held at bay for hours now. Tonight was not going to be easy.
Cullen hissed in a breath and pinched the bridge of his nose hard, moving in a controlled stumble to the safe island of his desk. He reached out to brace a hand against its edge, and it wobbled ever-so-slightly. Just enough to make him grit his teeth.
“Enough,” he murmured, head bowed, eyes closed, breathing through the worst of it. It would fade to something manageable again soon. It all would. He just needed patience. “Enough. Enough.”
Chapter 2: For shalizeh7
If he heard the word “ball” one more time, he was going to…
Well. He had no idea what he would do, but he was fairly certain he wasn’t the only one who didn’t want to find out.
Waste of bloody time. Resources. Sanity. He curled his hands around the lip of the cold stone parapet, watching as scores of men and women unloaded a line of caravans that seemed to have no end. They stretched out across Skyhold’s main archway and snaked down the mountain path.
The crates themselves had been neatly packed, but Cullen could make out the occasional detail: a cloth-wrapped form that could only be new candelabra; finely upholstered chairs in flocked velvet and cloth of gold; a huge rug that had to be hefted by three men and carried up the steps to the main hall.
If that had been the end of it, he may have been able to bury himself in work until the whole sorry mess had passed, but there was no escaping the sound of stone being chip-chip-chipped away, of wooden scaffolding going up, of hammers echoing back and forth to each other like a forest of angry woodpeckers. Even standing on the ramparts nearest his tower looking down at the cresting wave of change sweeping across the castle, it was staggering the work Josephine had accomplished with such remarkable speed.
There was no way she hadn’t already been planning this for weeks. Months. There was no way she hadn’t already had men in the wings waiting to swarm across his home in an invasion he was less than powerless to stop. There was no way this whole affair had been anything less than a coordinated attack of the very worst kind.
The kind that involved draperies. And dancing.
“Maker’s breath,” he muttered, watching as four of his men staggered beneath the weight of a huge oak table. This was going to be an utter nightmare.
There was a scrape of a boot just behind him, and a soft, polite clearing of the throat. “Commander,” one of his men said, interrupting his thoughts.
“What do you wager that weighs?” Cullen asked. He watched as his men pitched and swayed beneath the carved slab of it; even at this distance, he could see their muscles quaking. “Seven hundred? Eight?”
He turned away just as two more of his men—men, he couldn’t help but note, that had been tasked with leading the newest recruits in their late afternoon drills—rushed to help their struggling brethren. Cullen swore he heard Vivienne’s voice rising imperiously above the din; Maker save them all. “Disregard that,” he said, holding out his hand.
His man slipped the bit of parchment into his outstretched palm before saluting. At Cullen’s faint nod, he turned smartly on his heel and practically fled—away from the Grand Hall, Cullen couldn’t help but note.
Cullen cast one last look over his shoulder toward the courtyard. Someone had let the mabari loose, he noticed, its tongue lolling as it wove through the caravans, its bright eyes moving across the strange men traipsing through its halls. The uneasy way the war hound studied each wagon that passed through the portcullis made Cullen smile; flight of useless fancy or no, he could recognize a piece of himself in the scarred old beast.
And then his eyes dropped to the message scrawled on the neatly folded parchment and his smile immediately faded.
Vivienne and Josephine gone absolutely mad with power. Cassandra on the verge of staging a bloody coup. Do come along if you don’t fancy a mess.
PS: I am not at all certain Solas won’t bludgeon the next poor chap who wanders into his rotunda. Always knew he had it in him.
“Maker’s breath,” Cullen muttered, fingers reflexively closing into a fist, crumpling the message. He fought the urge to throw it, knowing that the moment he did, he’d regret the lapse in temper. Instead, he drew in a steadying breath and stalked back into his office. Two of his men jerked immediately to attention, eyes fixed ahead, but he barely spared them a glance. He tossed the balled-up message onto his desk before sweeping out the opposite door. With each step he took, the clamor from the Grand Hall grew louder and louder, as if echoing up from the depths of an oubliette. Cullen gritted his teeth and ignored the renewed throbbing at his temples as he threw open the door to Solas’s rotunda and prepared himself for battle.
The elf looked up with a grimace, teeth bared…but it only took a beat before the snarl transmutated into a reluctant, wry smile. “Commander,” Solas said. He was busily gathering his things as men carted out the couch that had stood sentry nearly since they arrived in Skyhold.
“To what do I owe the honor?” He sounded perfectly calm, perfectly serene, even as he shoved a pile of books and papers into his rucksack. His movements were tellingly violent.
Cullen’s brow twitched. “Is the Inquisitor planning an expedition?”
Solas tipped his head. It was unsettling, Cullen thought, the way Solas sometimes looked at him—as if he could see past the layers of duty and honor and armor and flesh down to the very core of him, the beating, bleeding heart. As if, like Cole, he knew much too much…yet unlike Cole, chose to say so very little. “No,” he said; even when Cullen waited a full beat, Solas said nothing more.
He simply met Cullen’s gaze full-on, a tiny smile toying at the corners of his mouth, and waited him out in perfect silence.
Unsettling. “As you were,” Cullen muttered gruffly, trying to ignore the obviously mocking tilt of Solas’s head before the elf returned to his packing.
He made it a policy not to question the Inquisitor’s choice in companions after the final decision had been made—at least, not out loud—but as Cullen stepped around Solas and toward the chaos of the Grand Hall, he couldn’t help but remember the strange way the dreamer had helped shape the course of the Inquisition thus far. From stepping in after the rift had formed to saving the Herald to helping her close the first rifts to leading the battered remnants of the Inquisition straight to Skyhold at the moment of their greatest need…
It was hard to put his faith in a man who knew so much and yet revealed so little.
But Solas wasn’t the only companion in Skyhold. Varric sat at his familiar spot by the door, riffling absently through papers. He had a pair of tiny, gold-rimmed spectacles perched on his nose (though Cullen knew for a fact he snatched them off the moment he saw the Inquisitor coming) and was frowning thoughtfully to himself even as he ignored the chaos spinning like the wide arms of the universe around him.
Maker, it was a mess.
There were men erecting scaffolding around the Marcher statues lining the hall, yelling curses and instructions to each other as wooden frames swayed beneath the weight of stonemasons already set to their task. The Inquisitor’s throne was being dismantled at one end of the hall and the huge double doors were being dropped from their hinges at the other. Just across the way, the dwarf who specialized in those ancient mosaics the Inquisitor was so inexplicably fascinated by was on his hands and knees, inspecting the stone where it butted against the wall.
Varric licked his thumb and turned a page. “Looking for weak spots,” he explained without bothering to look up. “Ruffles has got one of Sera’s bees up her bonnet about a suitable surface for dancing.”
“A suitable…” Cullen pinched the bridge of his nose.
“Mmm. For dancing,” Varric repeated; a smile twined about his words, because of course the dwarf would be able to find humor in all this. “You much of a dancer, Curly?”
He shot Varric a look, brows raised. “No,” he said. And then, just to make sure the point was driven home: “Absolutely not.”
Varric simply turned the next page. “Pity,” he said. He never once lifted his gaze from his work, but Cullen couldn’t escape the feeling that he was paying very close attention—Varric may have been a consummate liar and a fair hand at Wicked Grace, but Cullen had spent the last hard years of his life learning all about the true faces men hid beneath charming masks. It was the only thing that had kept him from falling apart after Kinloch.
What is real and what is false and what does it mean when I can’t tell the difference.
“From what I heard coming out of Halamshiral, Elayne’s no slouch there,” Varric was saying.
Now wasn’t the time for memories. “That’s true enough, but I am no Grand Duchess,” Cullen pointed out mildly. “And I have no intention of coming near enough Josephine’s ball to dance with anyone, much less the Inquisitor.”
That had Varric’s full attention. He looked up, the light of the setting sun shining through the open hall doors, hitting the half-moons of his glasses. For an unsettled moment, Cullen couldn’t shake off the feeling that he, too, was seeing far too deep for comfort. “Pity,” he finally repeated before going back to his work.
There were so many possible answers to that; too many. He would drive himself mad trying to trace them all in his head (what do you know; what secret shame have you read inside me; is this mockery or friendly jest or a sign that you’ve ferreted out buried dreams I can’t allow myself to recognize), and demanding the answer point blank would only give the dwarf power over him. Even amongst friends, he had to be careful to keep his armor in place. He’d learned that lesson well, hadn’t he?
…also, he was fairly sure Varric planned to use him as a template for one of his novels someday, and the less he fumbled about like an awkward, backwoods lad in his presence, the better.
“Right,” Cullen said instead. Awkward after all. Maker take the bloody dwarf and all the impossible thoughts he planted in his head, scattered around him like caltrops. Dancing with the Inquisitor? No, no, that would be a disaster. “As you were.”
“As I am,” Varric said mildly, and Cullen hurried away before he could say anything more. He shot a glance toward where his men were struggling to place the massive table under Josephine’s critical eye. Vivienne called out from her balcony, urging them a few inches to the left: “That will not do; you’ll impede the dancers at this rate.”
Outside the broken-open doors, Cassandra was standing with her arms crossed, dark brows drawn into a fierce frown. Cullen could feel the disgust swirling around her, palpable as any spell; she jerked her chin toward the hall when he moved to join her on the steps. “You agreed to this nonsense?”
“I found my hands tied. Josephine was remarkably persuasive.”
Cassandra grunted. “She had this planned from the start.”
“I will not stand idly by and watch the Orlesian court descend on us like locusts.”
“I cannot abide.”
Cullen tilted his head, biting back a smile. Trust Cassandra to say everything he was trying so very hard to swallow back. “No doubt,” he said again, and when she jerked her chin toward him, dark gaze scanning his face for mockery, he arched a single brow in silent commiseration.
Cassandra grunted and went back to glaring holes into the new gold-plated doors that were being hoisted up the steps.
“The Inquisitor made it clear our presence would not be required at the ball,” Cullen finally said after a long, surprisingly companionable stretch of time just…glowering together. There was so much stress in their relationship caused by damnable lyrium that he often forgot how easy Cassandra was to just be with. No need to fumble for words, no need to find common ground—just the simple ease of comrades in arms.
“Good,” she said with a curled upper lip. “I would rather face a dragon’s charge.”
Someone within the hall gave a shout, and the men bracing the doors staggered as the final massive hinge was broken open. The old door began to topple; Cullen took a step forward, only to pause when six more men came streaming out (how many has Josephine conscripted?) to join their fellows. They formed a ragged line, cursing and sweating and working together with military precision as they slowly lowered the door to the ground. Now the two of them had an unimpeded look into the Grand Hall; Josephine stood near the finally-placed table, worried gaze on the second door still hanging by a single hinge.
“Should we lend aid?” Cullen wondered aloud.
“No,” Cassandra said.
He considered that. “Should we go train with whatever men Josephine left us instead?”
She turned, sparing him a speaking look. “Yes,” Cassandra said. Then, moving down the steps toward the line of wagons and their unending supply of crates and draperies and utter nonsense: “I find myself needing to hit something.”
He dodged a harried-looking woman carrying an open crate. Inside were masks, silver and gold and spangled blue catching the light in a sudden dazzle. Cullen looked away, jaw set. “Yes,” he said, only too glad to escape the chaos for as long as he could…and desperately fighting to ignore the creeping suspicion that before the week was through, he’d be pulled into the whole mess whether he willed it or no.
Before a single day had passed, he was already being pulled in against his will.
He froze, struggling to keep the flash of annoyance off his face. Then he turned, expression perfectly polite (or at least, perfectly blank) and waited for Vivienne to catch up with him.
Maker, his head was pounding. The chaos had spilled from the Grand Hall already, men making “improvements” to outbuildings, the grounds, the tavern. Even facing Cassandra in single combat had only served to heighten the tension building at the base of his skull.
Well, and given him a score of new bruises, but at least that pain felt bearable.
“I was so hoping I’d stumble across you.” Vivienne smiled and he forced himself to smile back, even though he knew it stretched his face closer to a grimace. She paused when she reached him, dark eyes roving deliberately over his frame—no doubt noting the way he was favoring one leg. (Even with him so distracted, Cassandra was not one to pull her punches.) “But you look an utter mess.”
“Can I help you?” he gritted out.
Those perfect brows quirked and all at once, Cullen felt like a child again—face streaked with dirt, sweat beading off unruly blond curls, wooden practice sword clutched in grubby hands. How did I do? asked with bursting pride and excitement as he panted to get his breath back. Nervous, too, as he tried to ignore the mountain of chores he had shirked, the duties he’d ignored in order to play.
How did she always manage to make him feel like he should beg her pardon and rush to scrub the dirt from behind his ears? Like he was somehow less than what he struggled so hard to be?
“That all depends, dear,” Vivienne finally said. She placed a hand on his arm and he fought not to tense—fought to keep his expression clear. She wasn’t the enemy here.
She tipped her head toward the Grand Hall; his temples throbbed in response. “Why,” Vivienne said with a slowly spreading smile. “It depends on you.”
The pounding was constant now, chasing him from day into night into day again. The headache he’d been nursing that first day had never fully gone away; by now, the tense spikes of pain thrummed with the rhythm of hammers. It was all he could do not to flinch, or fling his sword in a fit of sudden temper, or scream. He felt like he was tightening into a fist more and more and more with each hour that passed. Soon enough, that fist would come crashing down.
Maker. This had to end.
Bull slid into the seat across from him with a grunt, and Cullen…Cullen actually curled his lip in a silent snarl. The big qunari paused, head tipped, and studied the way Cullen was hunched over his breakfast, list of Orlesian guests scrawled across sheets of parchment in Josephine’s neat hand.
He could feel Bull’s eyes on him, reading him as if he were nothing more than words scrawled on a page. Breaking him down to his disparate pieces, peeking into the hollows of him and seeing far, far too much; why did the Inquisitor insist on recruiting people who saw so fucking much?
Cullen dragged his gaze up to meet his eyes; Bull snorted. “Loud and clear,” he said, snagging an apple out of the communal basket before hoisting himself back up. He balanced his plate in one hand and saluted with the other. Mocking, perhaps, but Cullen was too glad of the respite to care.
This whole bloody affair was set to drive him mad. He was sure of it.
Down at the other end of the tavern, Sera snickered. Cullen looked over just in time to see Dorian shush her, one beringed hand flapping indignantly. Sera clapped her fingers over her mouth and looked away—but not quickly enough. Dorian, for his part, made a sheepish face and looked down at his breakfast.
They’d been watching him.
No, of course, why wouldn’t they? With the tension mounting ever-higher inside him and the sheer struggle he faced to keep in perfect control, why wouldn’t they be watching him? Whispering to each other? Taking bets on how long it would be before he exploded?
He balled his hand into a fist, waiting out the fine tremor that shivered through him in response. It was getting bad. Worse. Constantly worse. Each minute that ticked by thrummed through him like the, the, the fall of a dozen hammers. The chip of steel on stone. The whisper of skirts across obsidian and wandering eyes, hands, voices skittering over him.
The thought of hiding away in his tower, listening as they invaded his home, his sanctuary, his only fucking safe place in all of Thedas…
He looked away from Dorian and Sera’s whispered conversation and back down to the list of guests, then cursed. He’d crumpled it without thinking—without noticing, and Maker’s breath, that wasn’t a good sign—parchment balled up like trash. Cullen felt a sudden, desperate urge to bolt up from the newly made-over tavern and run like a beast, like prey. He needed to get a hold of himself. He needed to control the panicked fury winging ever-higher in his breast.
It was. Just. A. Ball. He could handle it, like he’d handled everything else in his life: by gritting his teeth and bearing it.
Cullen let out an uneven breath and pushed his bowl (full of uneaten food) away. His hands shook a little as he began to smooth out the parchment, but he just grit his teeth and barreled through, forcing himself to breath steady and slow and even until the tremor faded. Stopped altogether.
The list of names stared up at him. Each name represented another stranger in his home; another bit of safety gone; another chink in his armor.
He needed to stop thinking this way.
Breathing slow and deep and deliberate, Cullen picked up the quill he’d abandoned by his elbow and forced himself to ignore the pain and steadily rising panic. He could overcome this if he simply bore down against the terrible memories that kept wanting to rise like shambling corpses about his feet and do what he did best:
Ignore the clamoring protests of his weak flesh and work.
Chapter 3: For Elyssa
WARNING: For lingering PTSD and equating its effects with fear of madness and withdrawal.
Moonlight sifted through the jagged hole in his ceiling, painting the dark room with striations of silver-blue light. It had been snowing only a few hours before, soft drifts still clinging to the jagged ends of rotted wood and broken tile. Sometimes, when the wind blew just right, a few flakes were jostled loose to sail lazily through the air.
Watching them twist and glide and slowly, slowly fall was soothing in a way Cullen could never manage to articulate. It was…meditative. At least, he mused, it was meditative on any night but tonight. Now, watching the flakes spiral down was like bearing witness to the first earnest steps of a waltz, and Maker, he was probably mad for letting thoughts of Halamshiral follow him even here.
Mad or pushed beyond the point of exhaustion; at this point, was there really any difference between the two?
He rolled away from the light, one arm wrapping around his pillow as he tried to will himself to sleep. It was late—early?—the night weighty around him. This was the hardest time for him to relax; usually, if he hadn’t been pulled down into sleep thanks to sheer exhaustion by now, it wasn’t going to come at all.
And yet he tried, closing his eyes just shy of too tight, coiling his body like a clenched fist, breath coming in maddeningly irregular drags. In. Hold. Out. In. Longer hold. Out. Beneath the sound of his own breathing was the creak of Skyhold all around him; the sound of armored boots as the night watch patrolled; the whisper of a chilly wind against the ancient crumbling parapets; the soft whisk whisk of snow slipping down down down to collect on his bedroom floor.
And beneath that, beneath the sounds that should have been comforting, was the too-rapid thrumming of his heart.
He rolled onto his back with a frustrated growl, one arm flung over his eyes. He could hear each pulse like the strike of a hammer. Like that damned hive of activity that Josephine had kept going day and night over the last week. He almost wished it was still construction keeping him awake—at least then he would have something to blame his restlessness on. But the master builders had finished their work at last, and now all that was left were the final crowning touches before the Orlesian court descended upon them in full force.
In mere hours. Could it be he only had hours left before the quiet halls filled with music and laughter and poisoned whispers behind painted fans?
“Stop it,” Cullen said, rubbing at tired eyes with the meat of his palms. This had long since passed ridiculous and was veering into pathetic. He was a former Templar. He had faced demons and abominations. He had gone toe-to-toe with twisted shadows of his former brothers and he had not hesitated. He would not be defeated by this.
And yet… Yet…
Cullen shoved aside his tangled sheet with a snarl and kicked his way out of the low bed. The floor was frigid beneath his bare feet, but that was good; that was grounding. It kept him from filling his head with memories of those insidious whispers (caught at the apex of the tower, knowing the visions weren’t real, none of it, none of it was real, and hearing soft murmurs like claws click-click-clicking against stone) and letting them morph all too easily into the hush of gossip beneath the steady thrum of a waltz. No. He wouldn’t let himself get worked up over nothing.
He wouldn’t let this pointless anxiety be the thing that defeated him.
Ignoring his haggard face in the mirror, Cullen leaned over his basin and used his knuckles to crack the thin layer of ice that had formed at some point during the night. The water was shockingly cold as he splashed it over his face, stealing his breath and jolting his thoughts from their tired muddle. He shuddered and wiped his eyes clear, fumbling for the shirt that hung neatly over the back of the single rickety chair before pulling on his clothes—quick and precise, like he was running a drill.
Fresh air would do him a world of good right now.
Cullen stomped into his boots and snagged his shaggy-necked coat, slinging it on even as he swung onto the ladder. The rungs creaked beneath his weight, the familiar shape of his office rising in the dim, and already he could feel his heartrate beginning to slow. He dropped down a few rungs from the bottom—absorbing the impact with a bend of his knees—and glanced toward the far doorway. There would be men just outside the one door, he knew, gathering over small braziers as they warmed their hands and spoke in low tones. The night watch was the hardest rotation of a soldier’s month; it wouldn’t be right for their commanding officer to interrupt them now.
Which left the door leading through the Grand Hall.
He hesitated, briefly torn—then cursed beneath his breath and forced himself to stride forward, long legs eating up the stone floor. He slammed out of his tower and filled his lungs with the sting of cold air. High above, the moon shone down on all of Skyhold, full-faced and silver-bright. The Inquisition’s flags swayed in each light breeze and his breath coiled before him in delicate streams as he marched to the door of Solas’s rotunda.
This is your home, Cullen reminded himself, pushing inside. High above, Leliana’s ravens squawked and rustled their feathers. The usual low murmur of voices was missing, however, and the rotunda was heavy with shadows.
Cullen quietly shut the door behind him and moved through the dim, toward the Grand Hall. A short walk out on the main grounds would cool his uselessly circling thoughts; maybe he could drop by the tavern. Even this late at night, it saw traffic from the skeleton crew…or simply from men and women like himself, minds too full of all they had seen to find sleep that evening. It would do him good to be amongst them.
But first he had to pass through the hush of Josephine’s new hall, with its grand statues of Andraste watching him with all the grim impassivity of the true divine.
Cullen paused in the hall’s doorway, weirdly hesitant, and stared up into Andraste’s holy face for a beat, two, his fingers curled around the heavy doorknob. Then he pushed forward as if entering a lion’s den, deliberately angling himself away from the row of new statues and toward the main doors. His footsteps echoed as he strode through the Grand Hall, its newly-set onyx floors pitch black beneath him. It was a bizarre sensation, gliding over them like a ghost, the only source of light streaming in from the huge stained glass windows behind him. It made him feel unmoored from his own body, somehow. As restless here as he had been tossing and turning in his bed.
That was the reason he glanced back toward the Inquisitor’s sunburst throne, impulsively looking for something familiar to ground him. That was the reason his gaze stole up to what should have been delicate glass leaves and flowers and trailing vines picked out in colorful glass…and that was what ultimately made him stumble to a stop, heart giving a painful lurch when he saw her standing there.
Or was it Andraste herself?
Maker, perhaps he really was losing his mind.
Cullen turned to face the huge windows, his breath catching in his chest as moonlight spilled through colored glass. Elayne’s forest had been replaced by a series of painfully familiar scenes, so evocative he could feel the rush of memory roaring in his ears…and yet all of them were twisted strangely, like a too-perfect mirror of the truth: the rift splitting the sky in queasy green, Herald stepping out with determined eyes and tangled golden hair, the shadow of a second woman at her heels. The Herald again, clad in gleaming armor, one hand lifted, bursting with light, as the breach was closed. Facing down Corypheus in the ruins of what had once been their home. Standing on the steps of Skyhold with sword held aloft, eyes lifted in holy rapture. And finally, clad in silver and gold, triumphant and fearless and beautiful before the giant hulking beast that had plagued Adamant.
It was fierce and it was beautiful and it was otherworldly…and it was wrong. It was all so very wrong.
This shining creature depicted in silver and glass was no mere woman. She was the Inquisitor. She was the Herald. She was holy and unapproachable, untouchable, unknowable, and something about that—something about the fact that Josephine and Vivienne had taken the girl who smiled so sweetly up at him and turned her into this—was ultimately what nearly undid him.
It was a lie. It was all a lie.
Cullen started forward, vision flaring red, only to be caught by a sudden hand on his arm. He shook it off with a snarl, but Dorian simply grabbed at him again, fingernails digging into his bicep as he hissed, “Cullen. Cullen. Yes, yes, it’s quite the eyesore, but would you please calm down and at least pretend to be reasonable for a moment?”
“Fuck off,” Cullen snarled, trying to break Dorian’s hold, but Dorian just held on tighter, strong fingers tangling in the ruff of Cullen’s collar, expression gentle enough to be an actual ache.
“Wherever you’re going in your head right now, my friend,” Dorian said, riding out the violent surge of Cullen’s protest, “you’re not truly there any longer.”
He froze. The breath caught in his chest and his muscles clamped tight, eyes fixed on that fucking stained glass. He could actually feel his thoughts spiraling, the exhaustion and stress and struggle of withdrawal picking around the edges of old wounds he’d thought finally scabbed over…
…and yet no, clearly not. Perhaps they would never completely heal. But he could make himself ignore it for now. He could be reasonable. In control. Maker, he needed to be in control of himself.
He let out a long breath, muscles relaxing. Next to him, face so close he could feel each puff of breath hot against his cheeks, Dorian also started to relax. His fists slowly unclenched, letting go of tight handfuls of Cullen’s fur-lined collar.
When Cullen tipped his head to meet his friend’s eyes, Dorian quirked his lips into a smile. “Well, that was fascinating,” he said, playing the moment light in that way he had. “I have a feeling there’s more of a story there than simple disapproval of garish displays of wealth.”
“No,” Cullen said. Then, “I don’t know.”
Then, the truth crystalizing for him even as the words came in a slow, halting confession, “I haven’t been sleeping, and for a moment when I saw that, I was back… Seeing her like that… In Kinloch, they showed me visions of Solona that— Determining what was real and what was not took— It wasn’t real. It was too perfect to be real. And it hurt me.”
He looked back up, swallowing the reflexive recoil at the sight of Elayne Trevelyan in her holy armor, too shining and too perfect and too manufactured to be anything but a demon’s trick.
It’s just colored glass. It isn’t real.
“I haven’t been sleeping,” Cullen said again. That was an easier—and no less true—explanation than the memories surfacing like bruises beneath his skin, triggered by change after change after change, all outside his control.
If Cassandra were still here, he would ask her to keep a very close eye on him until everything went back to normal. Being on constant high alert was clearly wearing him down. He needed to be more careful.
“Right,” Dorian said, studying his face. Cullen tipped his chin to look at him, hating the blush that swept across his bristled cheeks at the understanding clear in his friend’s dark eyes. “That and you’re absolutely dying for an opportunity to unwind. Literally, you realize. You are literally going to kill yourself if you insist on being all…” He wagged his fingers vaguely, indicating the armored boots and coat and uniform he’d pulled together, even after stumbling out of bed at the demon’s hour of night. “Well. So perfectly you all the time.”
Cullen knocked his hand aside with a husky and only slightly forced laugh. “Ass,” he said.
“Oh, undoubtedly. Come,” Dorian added, snagging Cullen’s arm and tugging him toward the main doors. “I have no idea what your original plan was, but now you are going to keep me company while I drink away the memory of the thoroughly unsatisfactory evening I just had.”
“I may not be very good company, Dorian.” He didn’t resist, however. The thought of spending the next few hours with the most unexpected of his friends was surprisingly welcome.
Dorian just sniffed. “I can be entertainment enough for both of us, if needed,” he teased, pushing open the heavy-plated gold doors. A cold wind blew, catching the long ends of his robes and dragging them about his legs like the unfurling of a sail. The air smelled of snow not yet ready to fall, and heavy clouds threatened the perfect brightness of the evening stars. “Brr. Damned southern wastes.”
“So if you’re entertainment for us both,” Cullen mused, following Dorian down the wide steps. It was strange, but he could already feel himself uncoiling with each step he took; perhaps he should have sought out the mage earlier. “Does this mean I am just here for decoration?”
“Now there’s a pleasant thought. What do you say, Commander?” Dorian shot him a playfully coy look over his shoulder. “Have we reached a point where I can talk you out of that uniform?”
Cullen stumbled. “Ah,” he began awkwardly. It wasn’t unlike Dorian to flirt, of course—it was just that usually he was content to be a bit more subtle about it. “Well. That is to say…”
Dorian waved off his stuttering even as he held open the door to the tavern. “Don’t swallow your tongue trying to think of ways to let me down easy,” he teased. “I’m only interested in talking you out of your uniform so I may talk you into something else.” He paused, then tapped his chin thoughtfully at Cullen’s raised brows. “Ah, but perhaps some good wine is needed first.”
“I don’t think I want to know.” Cullen shivered as the warm air of tavern met the cold night outside. The room was dim and quiet, only a few patrons dotting tables here and there. He was relieved to see that none of them were his men—it was always awkward trying to shrug off the troubles of the day and just be human for a short span of time when he was acutely aware of one of his officers desperately fighting not to overhear every word he said.
He supposed that was why he was drawn to the people he was. Dorian, Varric, Cassandra, Blackwall and…Elayne. They were all so easy to be around in their own way.
And he wasn’t going to let himself think about the liar’s image of Elayne dressed in silver and gold plate, shining like Desire’s glossy mirror of the woman she truly was. Not now. Not tonight.
“And there we go with the clenched jaw and balled fists again,” Dorian tsked, nudging Cullen’s shoulder hard enough to get him moving deeper into the tavern. “If I hadn’t already been on a mission to see you relax before, I would swear myself to that cause now. You, my friend, are in dire need of something to take your mind off your troubles.”
“My troubles are the Inquisition’s troubles,” Cullen muttered, even as he allowed Dorian to herd him back to a far corner—Bull’s usual corner, actually. The big chair was empty, the corner quite dim, but he could almost feel the presence of the Chargers all around him. “I no more want to take my mind off them than I have freedom to do so.”
Dorian held up a finger. “Hold that thought,” he said before moving to the bar. Cullen sank back into Bull’s usual chair as Dorian ordered them drinks. He had to be on duty in less than four hours, but now, right now, the night was too dark and heavy around them for Cullen to give much credence to the dawn.
Maker. With the wind blowing down from the Frostbacks and rattling the glass in their sills…with the threat of more snow hanging over Skyhold, making the air taste bright against his tongue…with that darkness settling in, and the irrational fear nipping at his heels, and his mind circling around and around the Inquisitor, the Herald, Elayne… He couldn’t help but be reminded of their frantic race from Haven. The night had been heavy and dark then too, even as voices lifted in song.
He startled when Dorian slapped a tray on the table between them and sank into a nearby seat. “You are brooding again,” Dorian pointed out. “I step away for all of three minutes, and you start to brood.”
“I’m not brooding,” Cullen said. “I’m remembering.”
But Dorian just snorted. “With you, my friend, those are one and the same. Come, drink this,” he added, passing over a tiny glass the size of a shot, only skinnier. “And let’s talk of happier things. Like finding a way to get you to relax.”
“I don’t need to relax.” Cullen lifted the small glass to the dim light, frowning. It was amber-colored but thicker than any ale he’d seen. The scent was sharp and sweet. “What is this?”
Dorian lifted his own as if they were saluting each other. “An Orlesian delicacy, I am told. And I feel I must point out that men who most desperately need a break from their lives always claim they do not. Bibe epulare.”
Cullen frowned. “What does that mean?”
“It means stop being a baby and drink up. Commander.” He winked and threw back the little tumbler of alcohol. Cullen watched him for a moment, then mentally shrugged and did the same. Maybe Dorian was right; maybe this could help.
…or maybe not. “Maker’s breath!” Cullen sputtered, slamming the tumbler down as he coughed and wheezed. The little drink was unexpectedly strong; he could feel its fire racing down his throat to settle low and hot in his belly. He grabbed for his glass of wine, ignoring Dorian’s laughter as he took four deep pulls. The rich, heavy red cooled the blazing path somewhat, though he could still feel its sting. “I,” he said, then coughed. “I have no idea how you could drink that without choking.”
“I have a good deal of experience swallowing without choking,” Dorian said archly. At Cullen’s silence, he sighed. “All the best lines are wasted on you, Commander; it is a tragedy. Well, drink up. Take mine as well, if you’ve a need.”
He did have a need. Cullen set his empty glass aside and took Dorian’s, this time sipping more slowly. “They’re planning on serving that at this ball?” he muttered. He could feel the strange, swirling haze of his thoughts slowing, expanding, with the light buzz. It wasn’t intoxication, but it felt close.
It felt…rather nice, actually. Not that he would admit to that.
“Another reason to take a chance and go,” Dorian murmured, shamelessly checking the lay of his mustache in Cullen’s empty glass.
Cullen snorted. “No. Maker’s breath, no. I remember Halamshiral, thank you.” Whispers and grasping hands and the creeping sense of danger he couldn’t fight with anything so honest as a sword. Josephine and Leliana were mad for enjoying the Game. He never wanted to feel that powerless again. Being powerless meant…
It meant a great many things, and dredged up a great many memories, and he was not interested in reliving them of his own free will. “What?” Cullen demanded when he looked up to find Dorian studying him. He had his chin propped on his fist, thumb lightly continuing to stroke his mustache as if in deep contemplation.
“Oh, nothing. It’s only that…it seems to me you would actually appreciate the opportunity to lose yourself in a masque.”
“Hear me out,” Dorian laughed, lifting a palm. “You are too quick to dismiss what could be a unique opportunity to relax. Remember what I was saying before about you needing to get your mind off things for a time?”
Cullen set his jaw. “No.”
“Oh now you are just being obstinate. This doesn’t have to be like Halamshiral, you realize. There are many details that could turn this in your favor. You will be on your own turf—”
“Strangers will be crawling through my home.”
“—you will not have to worry about plots to kill an Empress—”
“The Game will be played under our very noses, as if we endorse the bloody thing.”
“—and no one need know who you are.”
Cullen opened his mouth to retort…then paused. He tipped his head. “Continue,” he said.
Dorian smirked. “I thought that might catch your attention. That was the worst part of the Orlesian court for you, no? Being exposed, the center of attention, masked men and women circling around you thinking they had all the power, eyes on your every move, blah blah blah.”
He shivered, muscles tightening, and deliberately pulled his thoughts away from that spiral of memory. “It was not my favorite way to spend an evening,” Cullen managed, voice gruff.
“Well then.” Dorian spread his hands wide. “It seems to me the best way to deal with all that is to take back that power. Yes? You go to the ball in disguise. You move amongst them unknown, unremarked. You mark your prey and hunt it to ground.”
He leaned closer, dark brow arching suggestively. “And by prey, I of course mean—”
“I know what you mean,” Cullen grumbled, hating the way his cheeks colored.
Dorian, of course, would not be waylaid by his embarrassment. “—a beautiful, curvy, well-formed—”
“—woman only too happy to help a gorgeous specimen such as yourself unwind before he bloody kills himself.”
Cullen ducked his head, rolling the second empty glass between his palms. He felt flushed and was only too willing to ascribe that to the wine. “It isn’t that simple,” he said, even as a part of him had to admit there was something appealing about the thought. Not of hunting “prey”—he wasn’t the type to see intimacy as sport—but of sinking anonymously into the mob that still haunted his dreams. Halamshiral and Kinloch had become dangerously intertwined in his subconscious somewhere along the way. If he could manage to spend even part of an evening moving unmarked amongst all those blank, perfect masks…could slip through the whispering crowds and not feel like they were converging on him…if he could stand there and not feel powerless, then maybe he could break that chain linking the two together. Maybe he could actually take a meaningful step toward healing his oldest and deepest wound.
Maker. It seemed worth a try, at least. Dorian was right about one thing: something had to be done, or he would drive himself into a useless wreck long before withdrawal from the blighted lyrium had a chance.
“Well,” Cullen began slowly.
Dorian grinned. “You’re actually considering it,” he said. “I’ll admit, as charming as I am, I never thought I’d actually manage to talk you into it. It was the thought of beautifully curvy women, wasn’t it? I told you being chaste for so long would have its consequences, my friend.”
He almost protested, but stopped himself at the last moment. No, let Dorian think he was tempted by something as simple as base desire. It would be easier that way. “I am considering,” he stressed, “one night. And only one night.” One night was hopefully all he’d need to banish those demons for good. “But,” Cullen added with a frown, “I don’t know how I would get hold of a suitable mask and finery. I still have the reds, of course, but those are sure to be recognized.”
“Oh, never fear,” Dorian said, waving his hand airily. He was still grinning, looking bright-eyed and thrilled to his core with this turn of events. It seemed strange he was so invested in this—but then, Cullen mused, Dorian cared much more than he usually let on, and he had been struggling lately. “When I said I wanted to get you out of that uniform and into something else entirely, I actually had something in mind. Come,” he added, rising.
Cullen frowned. “What, right now?”
“No time like the present. I’m sure I heard that somewhere before.”
He slowly rose. “I still haven’t moved past considering and into agreement yet, you know,” Cullen said, even as he let Dorian pluck at his sleeve and tug him back toward the door.
“Details. When you see the disguise I pulled together for you—and have time to realize that I am, as always, entirely too correct about this—you will agree. It will be smashing, Cullen, you will see. What’s more, it will be good for you.”
Dorian cast Cullen a quick, sly look out of the corners of his eyes. “I daresay you will look back on this night many years from now and actually be grateful you listened to me.”
Cullen chuckled. He could feel his muscles relaxing, could feel the tense exhaustion seeping away bit by bit. Perhaps this truly was exactly what he’d needed all along. “Why not?” he mused, allowing himself to be dragged across the frozen yard. Above, snow began to fall in soft, silver-pale flakes. The world was beautiful and new, holding its breath on the precipice of some great change. “Stranger things have happened.”
Chapter 4: For Madison
He wasn’t sure exactly what he’d been expecting.
It had all gotten mixed up in his head somewhere along the way, formless anxiety bleeding into his waking hours, his dreams, his everything until something as simple as a ball became formidable as an archdemon. Tonight, dressing himself in the coat and mask Dorian had provided, he’d felt as if he were strapping on unfamiliar armor.
The velvet was a deep blue, nubby and fine against his calloused fingertips. It still smelled faintly of the cedar trunk it had been packed into, and light caught off the small metal details. Something this fine belonged on a lord of some sort—not him. Dorian could carry it off, perhaps. But even after an abrupt elevation from commoner to Templar to this, Cullen never quite felt comfortable swathed in finery that could have fed his family for a month.
Still. If he intended to go through with this, wear it he must.
Cullen took a deep breath. He let it out slowly. He told himself he could still back out, that it wasn’t too late.
Each stilted movement was an act of pure will.
Cullen slid on the coat, letting it settle heavy and significant over his shoulders. It was tailored to fit the breadth of his chest, tapering down at the waist. He tugged the hem to settle its line, focusing as he clumsily did up the long line of silver buttons. The mask set heavy on his cheeks—an inescapable reminder that he was ridiculously out of his element—and he felt the absence of his sword like a physical ache. He didn’t feel like himself like this—not the man he’d once been, and certainly not the man he’d clawed his way back into becoming.
So when Cullen looked up and caught his reflection in the mirror, he supposed it was only right that for one disconcerting moment, he didn’t recognize himself in the man he saw there.
Hair burnished dark red thanks to the foul-smelling potion Dorian had pressed into his hands (“Don’t worry, Commander—one elfroot rinse and you’ll be back to your dashing tawny-locked self again!”) and familiar scars disguised beneath putty and paint, he was a different person. A better person?
Time, he supposed, staring himself down in the mirror’s dark surface, would have to be the judge of that.
“This is nothing,” Cullen murmured. He could hear the tumult of the ball already in full swing—voices raised in conversation, music, forced gaiety. He wet his lips, heart beating out a rapid staccato as the anxious swirl of his thoughts threatened to overwhelm him again, the way they nearly had at Halamshiral. The way they had at Kirkwall, at Kinloch.
He was so very tired of running from his demons.
“This is nothing,” he said again, forcing the tight clench of his muscles to loosen. “I am stronger than this irrational fear.”
The man I want to be is stronger than this.
And that, ultimately, was enough to break his paralysis and send him striding out of the comforting familiarity of his tower—and straight into the maelstrom.
Skyhold was full to bursting with men and women dressed like preening peacocks in shades that defied even the Maker’s vision. They moved through Solas’s rotunda in groupings of two or three, silk skirts brushing across gleaming onyx. Candlelight caught on colorful masks, jewels, an unfamiliar dazzle of ostentatious wealth. Jerking his head up at a blur of movement, Cullen caught sight of laughing couples leaning against the library railing. He thought he saw a flash of green all the way up in the (supposedly empty) rookery. The sibilant hiss of their whispers came from all sides.
They were everywhere.
Cullen froze just inside the doorway, watching the crowd shift and sway like the Waking Sea, waiting for that first whisper in the shell of his ear. It had taken the grand dames less than ten minutes to descend upon him at Halamshiral; he’d spent the hours the Inquisitor danced with the Grand Duchess and searched the royal wing tense as a coiled spring, drawn tighter and tighter with each unwelcome, roving hand. He’d been powerless—unable to leave, unable to defend himself, unable to explain at Leliana’s arched brow exactly why the press of bodies and endless nail-click whispers made sweat break out across his brow.
He touched his fingers to his brow now and tensed for that first assault. A woman glanced over and smiled at him over the rim of her glass…but before he could do more than take a subtle half-step back, she was already turning her attention away—laughing at something her tall friend murmured close to her ear.
Cullen went very still…then slowly tilted his head. Was his disguise actually working? He took a step forward, then another, moving cautiously toward the center of the rotunda. A man brushed past, shoulder lightly hitting his; he turned with a courtly half bow and a murmured, “My apologies, serrah.”
“It is nothing,” Cullen said a full four beats too late—the man was already gone, swallowed back by the crowd.
Maker’s breath. Could it be possible Dorian had been right? In a mask and unmarked finery, was he really next to invisible?
Cullen darted his tongue across his lower lip and deliberately stepped into the path of an older woman dressed in a nearly sheer violet dress, drops of rubies nestled in her elaborate silver coiffure. “Pardon,” he said—then cleared his throat and tried again as she turned to look at him with open but idle curiosity. “Pardon me,” Cullen said, this time flattening his consonants in a mimicry of Varric’s Kirkwall accent. It sounded off to his ear, but the woman just smiled beneath a deep red mask, her teeth flashing white. “Ah. Are you familiar with this song?”
“It’s a Marcher reel of some sort,” she said with an idle wave of her hand. “Likely for the Inquisitor’s benefit.”
“I see.” Each word came easier than the last. He could feel the tense set of his shoulders slowly begin to relax. “Is the Inquisitor here tonight?”
The woman looked him up and down, as if taking his measure. There was nothing predatory in her eyes, however—nothing that made his skin crawl with the unpleasant sense of being hunted. She didn’t look at him as if he were anyone important (the Commander of the Inquisition) and that was enough to make Cullen crack a smile. “Of course she is,” she said, snapping open her fan. It was as deep a red as the large stone dangling between her breasts. “By the throne in her blue-sashed coat; you can’t miss her. But I wouldn’t try to speak with her,” she added, lightly tapping Cullen’s wrist with her fan. “She’s much too important to waste her time on just anyone.”
That shows how little you know her, he thought, offering a quick bow before slipping past the wide arc of her skirts. Cullen wove through the rotunda and out into the main hall, aware of eyes passing idly over him as figures danced and gossiped and flirted beneath the dazzle of light.
He paused where Varric normally held court and dragged his gaze across the wild panoply of color toward the throne on its high dais. There, as the woman had indicated, was Elayne—no, there was the Inquisitor, lush curves contained by stiff red velvet, white mask reflecting light every time she lifted her face. Her wild curls had been tamed—Vivienne’s doing, no doubt—into a painful-looking coif. Her movements were barely contained wildness.
Spread around her like a fan of cards were lords and ladies of the Orlesian court. Josephine stood at her side, whispering from time to time in her ear. And high overhead, watching over the entire gathering like the holy Andraste herself, was that damned triptych of stained glass.
“Easy there, tiger.”
Cullen turned, startled. Dorian (because even in a mask, there was no hiding the teasing curl of his friend’s lips beneath the dark flare of his mustache) pressed a hand over his heart with a flourish and offered a teasing bow. He was dressed in flashy red-and-gold, one muscular shoulder bared in what was either Tevinter fashion or simply a testament to Dorian’s ego. Delicate gold scrollwork encircled a bicep, flashing bright against his skin like a Dalish tattoo. Chains—chains!—dangled from folds of plush red fabric, tinkling musically with every move Dorian made.
Cullen quirked a brow and Dorian waggled his own in reply. “You may ask where they attach,” Dorian said, “and I very well may tell you.”
“I won’t ask because I am certain you would tell me,” he countered.
Both of Dorian’s brows went up. “Oh, that accent coming from your mouth is simply unfair. Can’t you ape something a little less appealing? Blackwall, for instance.” He squinted an eye playfully. “Hmm, yes, plant a full beard on you and growl about like one of Cassandra’s bears and you’ll be quite uninteresting again.”
“…Dorian.” He didn’t even have a good answer to that, but the laugh it stole from him felt so good, he couldn’t bring himself to care. It amazed him, sometimes, to think of the unlikely friendships he’d made since leaving the Chantry. The bonds that went as deep as his Templar brotherhood had ever managed, grasping roots finding cracks in his armor and binding him to this world. This cause.
Dorian just waved his words away. “Yes yes yes, I’m incorrigible, etc. Now, let me take a good look at you while you’re still distracted from gazing earnestly at the Inquisitor.”
Cullen straightened. “I am not—”
“Your accent slips when you bluster,” Dorian interrupted. “You may want to keep that in mind.”
“But I—I’m not—I wasn’t—” Cullen dropped his head to pinch the bridge of his nose…or what would have been the bridge of his nose if the damned mask weren’t in the way. “You are trying to fluster me and it will not work.”
Dorian settled next to him, jostling their shoulders together. When Cullen looked up, his friend’s smile had softened into something warm and fond. “Trying?” Dorian countered, but his tone had lost some of its arch playfulness. “None of us are happy with the way Elayne has been made into some holy punching bag for the people, my friend, but tonight is not the night you can rush to her rescue, much as you may want to. Let’s focus on getting your head right before we swoop in to save our fearless leader, yes?”
“Sometimes I swear you talk in riddles just for the fun of it,” Cullen said. He leaned back against the cool stone wall, however, letting it—and Dorian’s proximity—ground him. The changes that had been wrought to their home, to Elayne, were disquieting, but within just a few days the Orlesian court would be gone and things would go back to normal. The banners would be pulled down, the old tables would be moved back in, the masks would be set aside and the doors thrown open for fresh air and sunlight. The dreamlike dazzle of this evening would pass and the Inquisitor would don those ridiculous beige trousers and run about Skyhold again being a smiling face, a friendly ear, a warm hand clasped over a scarred wooden desk as the world narrowed in on the goodness and grace of a former Circle mage who was nothing, nothing, like the lingering fears that sometimes haunted his dreams.
There were some constants in his life, after all. Some bright points that reminded him what he was fighting for. Elayne Trevelyan was proving to be one of them.
But he had not been gazing earnestly (bah!), no matter what Dorian tried to claim.
Dorian hummed, a smug curl to his lips as if he could read Cullen’s thoughts. “If you think I speak in riddles, then you clearly haven’t been spending much time with our resident spirit. Speaking of: how are you faring?”
“Better than expected,” he said, startled into frank honesty. Then, pausing to consider the usual tangle of his emotions—memory, struggle, determination—Cullen cocked his head toward Dorian’s with a slowly growing smile. “Well, actually.”
“Excellent! With ancient history buried and old demons defeated—”
“Yes,” Cullen said wryly, “thank you for distilling years of struggle into such a concise brush-off.”
“—we can get down to our real work.”
Cullen snorted. “If by real work you mean the pile of dispatches I left on my desk, I agree wholeheartedly.” He didn’t make a move toward the door, however. Despite the crowd, he felt remarkably relaxed—almost comfortable—standing completely unremarked here by Dorian’s side. The only eyes that passed over them tended to stutter on Dorian, not him. The whispers he overheard were nothing but gossip about scandals he couldn’t bring himself to care about. As much as Dorian had waved away his real reason for being here tonight, Cullen couldn’t help but smile to himself as he rolled his shoulders, nearly at ease in his own skin. Perhaps a second visit to the Winter Palace would bring those dark thoughts crawling back, but here, for now, the fears of the last few days had broken harmless as a wave and were even now receding like the tide.
He was stronger than those old demons; it would do him well to remember this moment for all future flashes of self-doubt.
“Will you at least consider trying to relax? If only to keep the rest of us from having to duck for cover every time you blow through a room.”
“It’s hardly as bad as all that.” And even if it was, he couldn’t see how…what, dancing? Finding a girl and awkwardly flirting?...would actually improve matters. “Besides, you seem to be forgetting that we are at war. There’s no time for dalliances now.”
Dorian circled a single finger. “And yet somehow all the rest of us seem to dally just fine.” He caught Cullen’s arm when he would have rolled his eyes and moved away. “Just humor me this once, would you? There’s no need to go rushing back up to your lonely little tower.”
“There’s every need for me to go rushing back to my tower,” Cullen protested, trying to shrug him off; for all that he was a mage, Dorian was remarkably strong. “Especially since I’ve accomplished my goal for the evening. I came, I walked amongst the peahens and fools, and I feel fine. I am going to take my sense of accomplishment, pack away this ridiculous garb, and try to get some actual work done before all of Skyhold comes crashing down around our ears. Besides,” he added, exasperated—there was no way to shake off his friend without matching his strength to Dorian’s. “I humor you all the time.”
“Details!” Dorian gritted, visibly exasperated. “Andraste’s left teat, just give me five minutes. Five minutes will not kill you, will it?”
Cullen heaved a breath, disgruntled, before letting Dorian tug him back to his side. He really should get back to work. As pleasant as he found his friend’s company, and as gratifyingly unthreatening as he was coming to find the ball, there were better ways for him to spend his time than gathering wool and watching Orlesians dance. In his disguise, he couldn’t even help the Inquisitor with forging diplomatic ties.
(Not that he was anything but rubbish at all that anyway.)
But he owed Dorian. Without him, he would have spent the entire three days tucked away in his office, never realizing that the whispers in his head were nothing more than long-dead echoes. “Very well,” he grumbled, crossing his arms. Dorian only let go when Cullen very deliberately leaned back against the wall, visibly—ostentatiously—settling in for whatever nonsense this night had in store for him. “I will give you five minutes.”
“Thank you. You realize it’s easier to get Bull to roll over and shut up than it is to get you to do, oh, anything.”
“Please no details,” Cullen said quickly. He had no idea what was going on there…and he’d come to the conclusion that he was much happier that way. “Or you may have to find someone else to beat you at chess.”
Dorian arched a dark brow. “Like, oh, the Inquisitor?” he mused. Then his eye caught on something across the room and that smug smile cracked and grew into something undeniably real. “I’d almost thought she wouldn’t come,” Dorian said, mostly to himself. “Oh, good girl.”
“What are you talking about?” Cullen said, turning to follow Dorian’s gaze. It was near impossible to tell what he was looking at—not in this crush. “The Inquisitor?”
Dorian cleared his throat. “Now why would you think that?” he said, giving Cullen a little nudge. “I mean her.”
“There are a lot of hers on that dance floor,” Cullen said, at his absolute driest.
“No,” Dorian said—so serious that Cullen immediately straightened, intrigued despite himself. It took a great deal to break down his friend’s usual veneer of dry amusement to get to the heart of him. In Cullen’s experience, it took something—someone?—beyond extraordinary. “I can say with full sincerity that there’s only one worth your notice.”
The way he said those words sent a shiver up Cullen’s spine. Dorian sounded almost…reverent. Who in Andraste’s name was this woman?
“I don’t understand,” Cullen said, gaze sweeping the mad chaos of the hall, searching for Dorian’s mystery woman. “I don’t see who you could be talking ab—”
And then he saw her and the words died on his tongue.
Even amongst the mad whirl of color, she stood out. Or maybe she stood out because of the wild kaleidoscope spiraling around her, as if she were its true center, its still core. The flash of beveled mirror scattered across the dark curve of her bodice caught his eye first—its winking light drawing his attention inexorably to the lush line of her waist, the heavy fall of her dark skirts, the pale swell of her breasts against what had to be a scandalously low-cut neckline. She took a breath and her breasts pressed against the dark material, spilling invitingly forward before she exhaled, lips parted.
Cullen wasn’t the sort to ogle over women. He wasn’t the sort to let his eye be drawn to bare skin and swaying hips. He wasn’t— He—
She twisted around as if she could feel his eyes, though her gaze didn’t make it to his, thank the Maker. He wasn’t sure he could stand to be caught staring like a lackwit. He couldn’t even say what it was (beyond her obvious beauty) that drew his attention. Dorian’s regard? Had he conditioned himself so thoroughly to the rise and fall of his friend’s moods that the mage’s obvious happiness at the sight of that woman was enough to spark answering emotion in his own chest?
That didn’t make any sense. He hated that it didn’t make sense.
There was just…just something about her. Something familiar yet altogether new in the wild tangle of black curls, something shy and sweet and, yes, void take the filthy train of his thoughts, sensual about the blood red purse of her lips. Gloves covered her hands and swept all the way up to the soft give of her arms, and a dark cape of feathers bobbed with each breath she took. She was fumbling with a fan, bordering on awkward, and the way she cast her eyes down and then forced them up again reminded him suddenly, viscerally, of himself.
You would understand, he thought inanely—and then the dance changed tempo and he lost sight of her in the crowd again.
“Dorian,” Cullen said, grabbing for his friend’s arm without thought. He started forward, then froze, paralyzed with doubt.
What was he doing?
“Stunning, isn’t she?” Dorian said. “Or whatever synonym you wish to fumble for. Captivating, alluring, entrancing, dazzling…”
“Yes, but who is she?” He wet his suddenly dry lips, straining to see her above the bobbing heads of the fool Orlesians cluttering up the hall. He caught a glimpse of her, and immediately lost her again, then spotted her as the steps of the dance saw the couples pass by in a whirl. She was visible in short, staccato bursts; he blamed that for the irregular pounding of his heart. “What’s her name?”
Dorian practically radiated smug amusement. “Why don’t you ask her?” he said—then lifted his hands in a warding gesture when Cullen rounded on him. “I don’t know what to tell you, Cullen, truly. But I can say I met her earlier and find her more perfect than words. I was determined you should meet her.”
Why, he wanted to demand, but he was already turning back to catch sight of her again—there, framed by a pair of dancers spinning in ephemeral clouds of color. She was a shadow amongst them, so solid and real as the rest of the room faded to watercolor smudges around her. The black lace of her mask highlighted the arch of her cheekbones, the heart shape of her face.
Elayne had a face like that. Maybe that was what kept drawing his eye.
He cast a quick look toward the dais, where the Inquisitor was standing next to Josie’s side, gamely listening to yet another dignitary try to beat her at the Game. The similarity was striking enough to make his stomach tighten with guilt…but then the mysterious woman’s gaze swept over to them and her expression lit up with such perfect joy that the shame was immediately subsumed by a shiver of awareness.
“Dorian,” Cullen said again, casting about as if he were drowning. Maybe he was; his lungs felt too tight and each breath was a struggle.
Dorian’s hand fell onto is arm and he squeezed gently as the woman snapped her fan shut and began to stride toward them. Those dark feathers quivered in her wake, skirts swaying…and then she slowed and bit her lower lip, as if regretting the sudden burst of forward motion.
Was it him? He was staring, wasn’t he? Yes, Maker, he was staring. He was making her nervous; he needed to stop. What the void was wrong with him?
“I know it isn’t in your nature to trust yourself,” Dorian said in a quiet, shockingly sincere voice. “I know your mind is likely spinning crazily right now at the mere thought of something as natural as attraction, but if you can trust anything, you can trust me: you need this. You need to let yourself relax and care about something beyond troop movements and parchments and resources. It’s okay to see a beautiful woman and want to be by her side.”
“It feels uncomfortably like a demon’s thrall,” Cullen admitted lowly. “I shouldn’t—”
But Dorian just squeezed his arm again and the woman was drifting closer, eyes moving between him and Dorian, a question clear in their depths. She was smaller than she appeared from afar, nearly petite. When she met his eyes, he could feel the quiet thrum of his attraction, his anxiety, echoing back at him. She was a mirror. Maker, how fitting.
“You should,” Dorian countered. “And you will. This is what it’s supposed to feel like if you let it. Otherwise, why would the bards write songs about the arch of a woman’s neck?”
“It feels dreadful. I’d rather be run through with a sword.”
Dorian barked a laugh and shoved at his shoulder. “I don’t think that’s the swordplay you’re really hoping for,” he teased. “Now go fetch two glasses of wine and collect your wits. I’ll butter her up for you.”
Cullen balked. The woman was less than half the hall away and moving closer; he swore he could almost feel the gravitational tug of her presence growing stronger with each step. Madness, utter madness, but there was no escaping the sensation of falling from a great height. “I barely know what to say to you; how will I know what to say to a beautiful woman?”
“Nature,” Dorian said with a wave of a hand. “Nature will take its course. And maybe you will luck out and she’ll find your fumbling adorable. Now go. Let me be a friend to you.”
And, really, how could he argue with that?
Booted feet dragging, heart caught somewhere high in his throat, Cullen reluctantly moved away. He cast one last, long look over his shoulder, eyes locking with the stranger’s. She was flushed as if she were feeling some echo of his own tumbling confusion, and that—that strange, undeniable kinship—was enough to finally quiet the last whisper of doubt.
Dorian was right. As much as he hated to admit it, Cullen had given himself over too thoroughly, body and soul, to the Inquisition. It wasn’t healthy. It may have been what he told himself he wanted, but it wasn’t what he needed.
He needed, apparently, to come to balls in disguise to teach his subconscious that there was nothing to fear in the faceless press of the Orlesian court. That the old demons had no power. That there was no shame in admitting to himself how lonely he had been these long years.
How much, for once, he wanted to give in to the flicker of desire.
He set his jaw and strode with renewed purpose, ignoring the whispering gossips as they scurried out of his way. He could practically feel his self-confidence building with each step he took, doubts and fears falling away with the steady tread of his boots. When he looked over his shoulder again, he spotted Dorian and the woman in black dancing together. She moved with innate grace and a measured self-control that appealed to him greatly. He couldn’t help but wonder what she would feel like in his arms.
And then Dorian glanced up, catching his eye—and winked, as sly as any Orlesian widow with her fingers in too many pies.
Cullen immediately flushed, ducking his head…laughing quietly to himself as he grabbed two glasses of wine from a passing server. When he turned back to his abandoned post, he let his gaze be drawn back to her like a lodestone; his entire body swayed with the desire to move to her side.
Maybe Dorian was right. Maybe this shocking hammerfall awareness was typical for other people. And maybe he wouldn’t be feeling quite so dazzled and dizzy if he’d ever let himself relax and desire anyone before.
It didn’t matter. He was feeling it now, all the way down to his toes. He wanted.
And as the song ended and Dorian bent over her hand, brushing her knuckles with a kiss, he thought perhaps, for once, he might be able to let himself have this.
Then Dorian turned to him and offered a quick bow, expression a mix of warmth and reassurance—before he turned on his heel and left Cullen with the lady in black.
Chapter 5: For Elyssa
Cullen couldn’t look away.
She was beautifully flushed, whorls of color brightening what little he could see of her cheeks. Her lips were parted, full and lush, and her eyes—he’d never thought he could be struck dumb by the warmth in a woman’s eyes. Their fire. The fiercely intelligent weight of them. He could practically feel their touch as she studied him—a light, teasing caress dropping down his body as if she were taking his measure. He had to fight back a shiver of response.
Control yourself, Cullen thought even as he took a hesitant step forward. She moved closer at the same time, head tilting in question. The full weight of her skirts swung with each step, foaming about her in a dark sea. The shattered mirror of her bodice caught a stray light, fracturing it, making her shine like Andraste herself. She was a stunning contradiction, a study of opposites—tightly cinched waist and wildly tumbling hair; the shy dip of her lashes and the brazen flick of her tongue against her upper lip; the way she drew him and yet made his heart trip over itself in growing dismay.
Dangerous. She was dangerous. Moving in a controlled glide, magnetic and strangely familiar and yet like nothing he had ever experienced—she was a heady brew. Already he felt drunk on her. This kind of reaction to a stranger couldn’t be normal. And yet…
Maker take him, it was undeniable. He couldn’t turn away if he tried. He was ensnared by her and she had yet to say a word.
And then she smiled, gaze lifting to his as she stopped just a few steps before him. She was so void-taken beautiful. “Hello,” she said in a husky Starkhaven brogue. The sound sent a shiver up his spine and Cullen opened his mouth to reply. Then, before he could say a word: “I saw you watching me dance.”
He…he had no idea what to say to that. He had been watching her—he’d barely been able to tear his eyes away since the moment she’d first caught his attention—but it didn’t seem polite to admit that. Or was it more impolite to deny he had noticed? Was he supposed to say something flattering in response? Something about how she danced like a… Like…
Maker’s breath, what kind of insipid compliment would be appropriate at a moment like this?
Cullen looked down so she couldn’t see the flash of embarrassed, fumbling confusion in his eyes. Oh, this was going to end very, very badly. Why had Dorian thought leaving him to do this on his own was a good idea? “Ah, well,” he said, clearing his throat awkwardly, struggling at the last moment to keep his accent in place. He felt like an utter fool.
You’re so beautiful, I couldn’t bring myself to look away. No, that wasn’t right. I could watch you forever. That fell somewhere between pathetic and creepy. Please: who are you?
“That cannot set me apart, I’m afraid,” Cullen tried. “Everyone was watching you dance. You move with such—”
He looked up, meeting her eyes, and Cullen could actually feel his thoughts tumbling to a stop, arrested by the sight of her smile. It was utter madness, but everything about her sent tremors of awareness echoing through his frame. Her cheeks were softly rounded, her chin sharp and stubborn. Her lashes were dark, framing lively blue eyes. In fact, her eyes were so like Elayne’s that he actually cast a confused glance toward the dais, where the Inquisitor still stood with Josephine, holding court. The likeness was uncanny—and enough to make his palms sweat. He wasn’t just sublimating his hopeless attraction for the Inquisitor, was he? He wasn’t using this woman in some way, right?
No, no he didn’t think so, but the concern was enough to send his thoughts scattering, and it was all he could do to thread them back together again. He needed to get a hold of himself; the seconds of expectant silence were ticking by, growing increasingly awkward, and she…
…and she was watching him, head tilted as if patiently waiting for him to finish. No judgment, no mockery in those beautiful eyes.
Cullen cleared his throat again and silently handed over one of the glasses, feeling like an utter fool. He was ruining any small chance he may have had with her, but something about her utterly obliterated his carefully won sense of equilibrium.
“I move with such…?” she murmured.
“You know how you move,” he replied gruffly. He took a deep swallow of his wine, looking away. He could feel a hot flush sweeping across his cheeks, and the wine was bitter on his tongue. Or maybe it was just the taste of failure he’d found so bitter.
Why should it matter? he tried to tell himself, arming against her inevitable derision. She was clearly a fine lady, a noblewoman; he had no doubt she had scores of suitors tripping over themselves to offer her compliments. And here he was, literally tripping over his own words when all he wanted to say was:
There is something about you I cannot deny.
Simple. Easy. Impossible. And any moment now, she would turn away from him and find some man whose iron core of competence was not entirely given to the battlefield. Being trained from a young age to be a Templar, living in those Circles, devoting himself to the Inquisition…everything in life prepared him to lead soldiers into battle. He didn’t have the artful tongue of a diplomat, and he didn’t dare fumble for the raw honesty he felt welling up inside him.
It was too much. It was all just…too much.
“Perhaps,” she said. He turned back at her teasing tone, surprised. She wasn’t turning away in disgust. If anything, she had shifted closer, red lips pulled into a crooked smile. “Or perhaps not. But sometimes it’s good to hear it, anyway.”
“Oh, no, of course,” Cullen said quickly, more grateful than he cared to examine for the chance to recover from that fumble and do this right.
Not that he was entirely confident he knew how to do this right.
“I’m sorry—I have never been very good at this. If I knew all the poetry of useless flirtations, I would be able to tell you just how beautiful I find you when you’re dancing, or…not.”
“Useless flirtations?” He immediately saw his mistake, punctuated by the quirk of her brow. Well, at least she found him diverting. “Are they really so useless?”
“…I feel I may have set a trap for myself there,” he admitted.
The woman in black laughed, low and sweet, and placed a hand on his arm. He could feel the warmth of her fingers through her gloves, the wool of his coat, the fine linen of his shirt. He fought to hide the shudder it earned, eyes immediately locking onto the graceful fan of her fingers silhouetted by deep blue cloth. Her hand seemed small, yet capable. Delicate, yet strong. Contradictions. She was such a creature of beautiful contradiction.
Her thumb rasped across heavy wool and he fought back a shiver of response. “Perhaps,” she said, voice pitched low, “flirtation won’t feel so useless if there’s a goal to be achieved. You seem to be the goal-oriented sort.”
That sounded…he wasn’t going to let his mind puzzle out exactly the way that sounded right now. The ball was a whirl around them and she was so close—close enough to have to tip her chin toward him when he met her eyes. Her lips were a bright slash of red, parted in a way that made his stomach twist with awareness. Loose dark curls brushed the bared arch of her neck and tumbled down to the swell of her breasts. Maker, he wanted to— He didn’t know. His head was spinning, like he’d been drinking too much of Dorian’s fine Tevinter wine. He wanted to something, everything. “And, ah, what goal might you offer me?” Cullen managed, voice a traitorous rasp—and far too close to his own accent for comfort, damn it all. He needed to be more careful.
She took a last sip of her wine before setting the glass aside. Then—Maker’s breath—she touched the tip of her tongue to her bottom lip. Cullen tried not to watch, but he couldn’t seem to drag his gaze away, heat bubbling up inside him. Oh, this was dangerous. This desire was wholly untempered, uncontrolled. Tumbling messily through his limbs, as steady and relentless as a waterfall, and he the fool trapped at its base, thinking he could weather the tide.
She was too much; she was too close to everything he wanted. This was a terrible mistake. He opened his mouth to excuse himself, ready to sound the retreat and rebuild his defenses before they could be utterly obliterated. He was no good at games.
“I offer myself.”
Cullen let out an unsteady breath, all the tension in him bleeding away at once. That…that did not seem to be part of a game. Her words were so simple. So forthright. So unlike anything he would have expected from a blasted Orlesian ball. He had little enough experience with women, and even less with noblewomen, but he would never have imagined he could meet someone so willing to lay her own cards on the table like this, even as they stood here in a pair of blasted masks. She was blushing even as she stared him down, and he wanted…
Maker’s breath, he wanted her. And if he was willing to trust her words and his instincts, she wanted him too. He could have this if he just let himself. And with that thought, there could be no retreat. His path was set.
Slowly, Cullen began to relax. And then he began to smile.
Then laugh. It was a good feeling, filling his chest with the same butterflies that were wreaking such havoc in his stomach. “I…yes,” he said, very deliberately setting aside his nearly untouched glass. If he was going to do this, he was going to do right by her. Cullen took her gloved hand in one of his, dwarfing her fingers easily as he leaned in and brushed a kiss over the knuckles. His eyes stayed locked on her face, willing her to read the emotion there.
“Yes?” she murmured.
Cullen cleared his throat. That husky brogue was enough to make his stomach tighten with pleasure. “A goal such as that would be…most inspiring,” he said. “I think even I can manage flirtation for a woman like you.” Then he straightened, subtly tightening his grip on her fingers. “Will you dance with me?”
“I don’t know.” But she was smiling up at him so sweetly he didn’t even brace for a rejection. “Are you as skilled a dancer as my previous partner?”
He laughed again, surprised at himself. He couldn’t remember the last time he had laughed so much. It felt good. “No,” Cullen said, “I can promise you I’m nowhere close. But if you’re willing to muddle through with me, I would like to, ah…” he stumbled over the flirtation even as it came tumbling out of his mouth, “…take the excuse to hold you.”
Cullen frowned. “Oh, no, that was dreadful,” he admitted, hoping the wry honesty at least would be appreciated. “It sounded much better in my head.”
Miraculously, that seemed to work; she burst into bright laughter, squeezing his fingers back. “Luckily for you, I prefer unpolished,” she said. “Come, muddle through with me. I find myself wanting to be held.”
“I…as the lady commands.”
They moved together to join the dancers as the first strains of a new song began. Swallowing, Cullen reached for her, letting one hand drop to the high curve of her ribcage before sliding down down down the exaggerated hourglass of her figure.
She was tightly contained within her dress, lush curves reshaped by some kind of heavy…female…contraption. He fought a wild urge to reach behind her and snap the ties holding her dress bound, freeing her from whatever was cinching her so tightly. He wanted to feel her softness, the gentle give of flesh and not the steel cage of her gown. He wanted to let the heavy swell of her breasts tumble free, wanted to drag his hands along the flare of her hips, wanted—
Right, no, if he wanted to hold her close for a dance without embarrassing himself, he needed to stop thinking along those lines right bloody now.
Praying she couldn’t read the heat in his eyes, Cullen folded one of her hands in his and stepped forward into the dance. He half expected to tread on her foot or get tangled up right away in the swinging folds of her dress, but she moved with him as if she could read his thoughts (Maker, I hope not), falling as naturally into the dance as if they had been doing this for years.
Usually, he felt out of place on the dance floor—on those very few occasions he could even be dragged, protesting every step of the way, out of the comfortable shadows. Even in the rough tavern reels or country barn-raisings of his home, he’d never been much of a dancer.
She made it feel so easy. She made all of this feel easy. Effortless. Inevitable. As if he had been shaped for her without even realizing it, and Maker, he needed to stop letting his thoughts run away from him.
“We appear to be quite good together,” she said.
Yes. “So it would seem.” At the subtle weight of his grip, she turned, flowed, spun with him across the floor. It was as if they moving through the steps of a familiar training exercise. Or maybe they were more like cogs in some clever mechanism; a small part of a greater whole. All around them, other dancers moved in concert. Not a single one of them cast him a second glance or made him feel like he was somewhere he didn’t belong. Made him feel anything but part of the greater machine. He had never felt so at ease in a place like this, so effortless.
“It’s never been easy for me before,” Cullen admitted.
Her blue eyes searched his. “Dancing?”
It stayed easy for another dance, then another. As one song melted into the next, the part of Cullen that was still half-expecting the whole thing to be revealed as a hoax—Orlesians laughing behind their fans at his fumbling as the Starkhaven woman’s soft smile morphed into a scornful twist of her lips—fully dissipated. She was laughing as they whirled across the controlled chaos of the dance floor, her dark skirts lifted and buffeting about his legs, her hair tumbling back as she tilted her face toward his. He wanted to kiss her so badly it was a constant ache—he almost did time and time again, before the next step of their dance stole her tempting mouth away from him.
She was flushed pink and bright-eyed and deliciously mussed. Cullen couldn’t remember the last time he’d felt this good inside, and all it had taken was a mask, the banishment of a long-standing nightmare, and the extraordinary woman in his arms.
Then the music changed again—this time to a lively Anderfels reel that brought her literally flush against his body with every other athletic step—and Cullen couldn’t seem to find it in himself to question his luck.
This dance was far more strenuous than the last, and closer to what he remembered from his childhood. He had a dim memory of his parents at a barn-raising, Mother flushed and laughing as Father lifted her in the air. He refused to look for any inner symbolism as he lifted his mystery woman just as easily, hoisting her high overhead before letting her sink back down the broad plane of his chest.
The drag of her breasts across his coat was enough to make him shiver; she bit her bottom lip.
“I should tell you my name,” she suddenly blurted. “Just a first, however. It is a masque, after all.”
“And Maker knows being forthright is against everything the Orlesians stand for.” She laughed at his joke and he couldn’t help but grin back, feeling flushed and pleased and remarkably boyish for all his years. “I apologize,” Cullen added with a crooked grin. “I know I sound the curmudgeon.”
“So long as you’re still willing to dance and shower me with useless compliments, you can be as curmudgeonly as you want. You can call me Jenny.”
He’d been around Leliana and Josephine long enough to catch the careful way she worded that. “I can call you Jenny or your name is Jenny?”
They reached the next lift, music soaring, and Cullen caught her about the waist again, muscles tightening as he lifted her up into a breathless spin. Her hands were clamped around his biceps, dark curls tumbling between them as her eyes stayed locked with his.
He could feel the hitch of her breath as she slid back down into his arms, her own arms going around his neck and hips arching close. They stumbled at that, out of step, and it was all he could do not to sink his fingers into her hair, cup the rounded curve of her ass, and drag her tight against him for a hot, messy, desperate kiss.
She must have read the flare of desire on his face, because she stumbled again, visibly flustered. “Does it matter?” she managed, voice husky. The sound of it was enough to send a tight lance of heat through him; he was hard, just from the way her lips shaped the words.
Maker. “I’m finding it matters a great deal,” he said, voice strangled. Then, before she could answer, he fumbled for a name of his own—one that wouldn’t instantly mark him as the commander of the Inquisition’s troops. Tonight, he was just a man. “You can call me Marcus.”
“I can call you Marcus or your name is Marcus?” she teased, fluttering her lashes up at him.
He caught her about the hips one final time, lifting her as the music soared into a high crescendo. All around them, men and women were flushed and laughing, falling into each other’s arms…trading kisses. Cullen swallowed, keeping her aloft through the last tumbling notes of the song. She was looking down at him, the long ends of her hair brushing his cheeks. Her lips parted in welcome.
Slowly, as if in a dream, Cullen drew her close. She slid down his body one last time, black velvet dragging against heavy wool, the edges of shattered mirror casting dizzy streams of light about them. He couldn’t look away from her eyes. He was trapped, flushed with heat and simmering arousal, entire body throwing off sparks.
He had never—never—been so content to be so utterly enthralled.
Maker’s breath, but she was beautiful. He wanted to kiss her so much it was a constant ache. “Does it matter?” he said, dipping his head toward hers. If he dared, he would kiss her now, here, in front of everyone. He could feel the unsteady gust of her breath against his parted lips; he wanted to lick deep into her mouth and swallow her moan.
She shuddered and rose up onto the balls of her feet to whisper in his ear. “Please take me somewhere private; if I don’t feel your mouth on mine, I feel like I’ll come flying apart.”
Cullen closed his eyes, gritting his teeth against the alarmingly possessive growl that wanted to rise up from deep within his chest. It took all his willpower not to take her right then, right there. His mind was filled with tumbling images of him pushing her up against the cold stone wall; him feverishly twining their tongues together as he dragged one of her thighs up to hook around his waist, letting her skirts fall back, letting him slide his hand up whisper-soft skin, letting him push past the silken underthings to slide sword-rough fingers into the molten clench of her body…
Control yourself. “As my lady wishes,” he said as he pulled back, eyes hungrily scanning her face. She wet her lips, blue eyes dilated wide and dark, and it took everything he had not to claim her mouth then and there. “This way.”
He kept a hand stationed firmly at the small of her back as he led her off the dancefloor. A few dancers watched as they passed, eyes sliding across Jenny with covetous interest, but Cullen glowered so fiercely that they quickly drew back—parting for the two of them as if they were a royal procession. He thought he spotted Dorian in the crush, but he lost sight of him again between one breath and the next.
Well, no doubt he was somewhere. Maker, but he would be smug about just how right he had been in the morning.
Jenny twisted her head to look over her shoulder once, then stifled a laugh against his arm. That was enough to soften his scowl, and Cullen looked down at her with a quirking smile as they passed out of the huge double doors and onto the main steps. The sky was huge and bright overhead, moonlight casting the courtyard in shades of blue and silver. Compared to the dizzy golden press of the ball, the night seemed still, somehow. Private and safe and…
It was so bloody beautiful. And here he was, standing in the middle of it, with a woman like Jenny pressed against his side.
Whatever I’ve done to earn this, he thought, watching as tiny silver flakes drifted down to catch like jewels in Jenny’s dark hair, whatever I’ve survived to bring me here, I’m grateful. I am so fucking grateful.
He took a step, then another, as the big doors closed behind them, cutting them off from the rest of the ball. He turned when he realized she wasn’t following, however, brows knitting in question. “My lady?”
“I should tell you,” Jenny said, sounding almost anxious. “I’ve never done anything like this before.”
Cullen tried not to read too much into that admission, but it was hard not to grapple with what it implied: she’d never done this, but she was now, with him. She’d chosen him. For some reason, awkward as he could be, as out of step with whatever he’d always imagined a woman like her could want…she wanted him anyway, despite all his flaws.
Maybe, an insidious part of him whispered, because of them.
He lifted a hand to brush his knuckles along the black lace of her mask, wishing he could see all of her face. It didn’t seem right that she could make him feel so full of hope, and yet be concealed from him. “I would never do anything you did not wish,” he murmured.
She let out a breath, tipping her cheek against his gentle touch. “That’s part of the problem. I wish a great many things, but I don’t know whether my courage is enough to see me through them.”
Slowly—slow enough to telegraph his intent in case she wanted to pull away—he dropped his hand to her waist. His thumbs moved across the curve of her hips, rasping against heavy velvet. When she took a sudden deep breath at the caress, the pale, rounded tops of her breasts surged against the embroidered velvet of her bodice.
Maker, he wanted to tangle his fingers in her hair and tug her into a graceful arch; he wanted to lean close and drag his teeth along that tempting swell of pale skin.
Instead, he flattened his palms and dragged them across the exaggerated curve of her waist, feeling the drag of nubby velvet and cool glass. Cullen urged her just a little closer, sliding his fingers upupup her spine before sliding around her ribcage to drag down her stomach. He was drunk with her proximity, so hard it was an ache. The tease of her—so close, so warm—had his blood boiling. “My lady,” he said again; he barely recognized his own voice, the husky growl of his accent making it feel thick on his tongue. “I can’t see how anyone could call you anything but brave. Tonight—”
“I wear a mask,” Jenny interrupted. She wet her lips, then leaned close, the supple curves of her dragging against his heaving chest. He swallowed hard, and she slid her arms around his neck, face tipping close enough that he could taste every word. “It’s easy for a coward to be brave when you can’t see his face.”
His cock was trapped within the too-tight falls of his breeches, aching. This was the first time in a very, very long time he had wanted anyone like this. It was all he could do to keep from rocking forward against her soft weight. “The Orlesians like to say that a mask lets us be our true selves,” he said, trying to keep focused on her words. He reached up to brush back the heavy fall of her hair, tracing a fingertip along the delicate shell of her ear. The shape of it fascinated him; was there nothing about her that wasn’t perfect? “I’ll admit, I always thought they were talking out of their arses,” he added. “I’ve never much seen the point of hiding.”
She tipped her face toward his hand until he was cupping her flushed cheek. The night was cool, a low wind blowing flurries of snow around them, but all he felt was the incredible heat of her. “Of course not,” Jenny murmured. “You’re a man of action; I can tell.”
Cullen dragged his thumb across her lace-covered cheekbone, then down to brush her mouth. The way she parted her lips for him made something deep and primal stir in the pit of his stomach. “I’m finding there are some actions that aren’t possible to take unless that mask is in place,” he said. The words came easily now, his thoughts too wrapped up in the warmth of her eyes to stumble over useless self-censure. “I hate to say the Orlesians were right about anything, but if I didn’t have this damn thing on now, I wouldn’t be here, with a most extraordinary woman, hoping against all luck and logic that someone this beautiful may allow me to steal a kiss.”
Jenny sucked in a breath. Even behind the mask, he could see the sudden fierce joy on her face, as if… As if somehow, some way, against all the odds, he were someone worth aching for.
His pulse picked up speed, heart aching right along with hers.
Then she tipped her face up in welcome. “Can it truly be called theft if the kiss is freely given?” Her arms tightened, drawing him close.
Maker. His knees nearly gave out at the sudden blinding joy he felt. Cullen surged forward with a heedless groan, hands framing her face, lips finding hers. The first touch of her mouth lanced through him like magefire and he jerked in response, moan deepening, going guttural. A growl. He brushed his tongue along the seam of her mouth and stole her little gasp before stroking into her heat.
Andraste take him, he was so hungry for her it was like a madness. He wanted to bear her down against the steps and lay her out for the soft kiss of snow and the desperate scour of his mouth.
It had been so long, and he was losing himself in his need—achingly hard, straining for her heat, her touch, her. He would give anything to have more of her. She made a low noise into the fierce kiss and he responded in kind, wanting more than anything to make Jenny just as desperate for him.
Gentle, he told himself, forcing the frenzied kiss to slow by careful degrees. You have to be gentle.
The warning was enough to control the ache of lust—of possession—and Cullen tipped his head as he allowed the kiss to linger. Their lips brushed together over and over, panting breaths slowing by degrees. Around them, the snow had picked up, falling in a delicate curtain as if to shield them from the world.
When she whimpered and slid her fingers into his hair, Cullen had to tense against the sheer ache in his chest. She was so fucking sweet—melting against him with a welcoming warmth he felt all the way to his core.
Tongues stroked, deep and slick and hot. When she arched forward, he was all too aware of the press of her body—her hips pushing snugly against his, dark skirts threatening to swallow him whole. Her breasts dragged against the front of his coat and her hipbone grazed his aching cock, sending a flare of heat tumbling through him.
He needed more.
Grabbing for the full curve of her bottom, he hauled her against him, groaning when Jenny hooked a thigh over his hip. Her heel dug into the back of his thigh, and when he rocked forward, tongue thrusting feverishly into her mouth, he swore he could feel the scalding heat of her against his erection.
She’d be wet. Slick. Sweet and sweating as he spread her open with his thumbs and dragged his tongue along her folds. He wanted to taste her so badly. He wanted to feel her come apart beneath him.
Please, his blood seemed to chant with each stroke of their tongues, each panting breath. Please, please, please.
Jenny broke the kiss to drag in a serrated breath, head tipping back. She flickered her eyes closed against the drifting snowflakes, then trembled as he followed the line of her jaw down to her neck. It took everything he had not to leave deep, claiming marks on her fair skin. Instead, he traced the arch of it with the very tip of his tongue, wending his way to where her pulse erratically pounded.
“Oh,” she gasped at the first rake of his teeth, and Cullen growled in agreement, one hand lifting to cup her breast. Even trapped beneath the steel cage of her underclothes, confined by heavy velvet, he could feel the tight clench of her nipple. He shifted his grip as he dragged his teeth down to the join of her shoulder, thumbnail rasping over the peak. “Oh, oh Maker.”
Her hips were moving with helpless little ruts. Tongue trailing up her neck again, thumb teasing ever-tightening circles around her nipple, there was nothing he could do but thrust back, straining cock rocking between the soft valley of her thighs. He could lift her skirts around them and take her here, just like this. He could swallow her little gasps and mewls and drag his sword-calloused fingertips across the place where their bodies met, circling her clit until she shattered in his arms.
His mind was a storm of want.
“You’re impossible,” Cullen growled. He kissed along her jaw, then licked back into her mouth, tongue stroking deep. He felt powerful and powerless all at once. He felt, strangely, more like his true self than he had in a very, very long time. She was the one who made that possible. She was the one who had given him this.
And then, suddenly, from within the Great Hall, a clock began to chime.
It seemed so inconsequential, barely making it past the roaring in his ears. As if from a great distance, just inside the closed doors, people were laughing and crying, “Unmask, unmask!”
Jenny turned her face away with a gasp. “I have to go,” she said.
No. He kissed the column of her throat, tongue swirling hot against the skin, but Jenny tangled her fingers in his hair and tugged him back, meeting his eyes. Her lips were parted, slick and swollen with his kisses. Her beautiful blue eyes were nearly black with desire.
“I have to go,” she said again.
And Cullen found he could not deny her. Forcing himself back under some semblance of control, he slid his hands down her waist and gently lifted her away from him.
It hurt to do it. He ached. But he ached more to think he may have done anything she didn’t wholeheartedly want. “I apologize,” he said, “if I overstepped. It has been a long— I have never met a woman as—”
The words once again tangled on his tongue, the ease of before dissipating in the face of her gentle withdrawal.
He made a disgusted noise and raked his fingers through his hair, barely holding onto that damn accent again. “Words. They always desert me when I most need them.”
Jenny reached up to cup his cheek. “It’s not that,” she promised. “You are everything I wanted and more. I just…I have to go.”
He looked at her, fervently hoping she was telling the truth. Being wanted by a woman like this…it was inconceivable just a few days ago. And yet now that it had happened, he wasn’t sure he could go another hour without being certain of how she felt. He grabbed her hand and pressed a kiss against her palm, heart overflowing. “Tell me I’ll see you again,” he said, begged.
Jenny pulled away. “You’ll see me again,” she said, taking another step. “Tomorrow night.” Another. “At the ball.”
He couldn’t look away from her, even as she fled from him. A dark part of him couldn’t help but whisper: what did I do wrong?
“I’ll be the lady in blue. You’ll know me.”
Cullen swallowed. “I’m beginning to think I’d know you anywhere,” he said.
She made a low noise, almost as if pained, then suddenly lifted the long folds of her skirt, turned, and fled. The doors pushed wide before her, framing a golden dazzle of the party in full swing. All through the ballroom, men and women were pulling off their masks and laughing. They were a kaleidoscope of color—garish now that he’d grown so used to the cool blue-and-silver of the night sky. Cullen stood just beyond the light cast from the party and watched her run from him.
Within three steps, she was lost amongst the press. The last bell tolled, loud even over the roar of music and laughter. One midnight gone.
And Cullen…Cullen tipped his head to look up at the wide open sky. Snowflakes caught on his lashes, and he closed his eyes, dragging in a trembling breath. Somewhere, lost amongst the Orlesian court, “Jenny” was wending her way toward some unknown goal…but she had promised he would see her again. She had promised.
Slowly, heart winging in his chest—lighter than it had been in many, many years, filled with something very much like hope—Cullen let out a trembling breath…and began to smile.
Chapter 6: For Elyssa
He really should have expected Dorian to lay siege. The fact that he wasn’t prepared for the (inevitable) ambush spoke as plainly as anything about his current level of distraction.
More, perhaps. Maker.
“Commander,” Dorian said, straightening from an artful slouch the moment Cullen stepped outside his tower door. There was a loose, easy smile threading across his face, predatory in a way Cullen didn’t feel comfortable exploring. The bright gleam in his eyes was almost enough to have Cullen turning on his heel and striding back to the safety of his familiar office. At least there he could barricade the doors.
Dorian’s smile grew, teeth flashing white against his skin. Cullen hated the flush he could feel creeping up his cheeks even as he marshalled his nerve and stepped past Dorian, pausing only long enough to lock his door against enterprising Orlesian widows.
Cullen jiggled the handle once to test the lock, hyperaware of Dorian’s eyes on him. Cataloguing him. Looking for…Maker only knew what. As if perhaps there’d be a flashing sign over his head for all the world to see, proclaiming something inane and frivolous like last night I kissed the most beautiful woman in Thedas.
…something inane and frivolous and improbably true.
He looked up, catching Dorian’s eyes. If Dorian’s grin grew any broader, it’d wrap around his bloody head. “What?” Cullen demanded.
“As if he did not know!” Dorian splayed a hand over his heart, both brows arched. “Commander, why do you think I bothered to rouse myself from the comfort of my bed to haunt your doorway at this perfectly dreadful time of day?”
“Do you by chance mean morning?”
Dorian gave a mock shudder. “Is that what you heathens call it? You know, it’s a wonder Ferelden didn’t fall into the ocean an age ago.”
His lips twitched at the familiar banter, but he bit back the smile, tipping his head toward the rotunda in invitation. Dorian fell in step with him easily, shoulder knocking his in a friendly sort of way. “Not for lack of trying, I’ll give you that.”
“Yes, well, not every country can be as talented as Tevinter at…how does Sera put it? Ruining bloody everything?”
Cullen laughed, instinctively tipping his chin away from the other man (the mage) as if he still had to veil his emotions; habit, he supposed. It took more than a few months to break years of conditioning, no matter how much he wished he could shatter all the old chains and start anew.
Marcus may have been a step in that direction, he realized, smile slowly fading. He’d never felt more relaxed in his own skin as he had in those moments on Skyhold’s steps, snow drifting slowly around him, flakes catching like starlight in her dark curls. And Maker, how like Dorian to somehow push past all his resistance and give him exactly what he needed?
To look at him, past the title and formality and rules he wore like armor and just…know.
Cullen’s frown deepened as they crossed the windy battlements. He had to remind himself that it wasn’t some sort of failing on his part. Dorian was the closest thing he had to a friend in all of Skyhold. The Inquisitor was the Inquisitor. Cassandra was a brother-in-arms, and Josephine and Leliana sometimes tormented him like his own sisters—Sera and Varric certainly did—but Dorian had always had a habit of being able to read the shifts in his mood the way no one else could.
Maker, his moods. Up and down and back and forth like the Waking Sea, never steady, never consistent the way he desperately wanted to be. He wished he could blame that on the lyrium, but Cullen knew it wasn’t that. At least, it wasn’t all that. The truth was, he’d never been perfectly at ease, even as a boy. Growing up in Templar training, surviving the Circles, coming here to help shoulder the weight of the entire world…it had all shaped him in strange ways, each battle survived leaving its mark until there were days when he felt like little more than a collection of scars.
No wonder it took a mask and another man’s name to make him feel like he could breathe again.
“Oh, there it is,” Dorian said quietly, breaking into the downward spiral of Cullen’s thoughts. The cheeky smile had gentled into something far more real—gentle. “My keen desire for gossip aside, I do think it’s time for you and I to sit together and talk. Don’t you?”
Cullen turned to face him as Dorian shut the rotunda door quietly behind them. The room felt echoingly empty after last night, still buzzing with energy as if the ghosts of all those courtiers still lingered in the painted walls. “I’m expected at the War Table,” he began, stiffly.
Dorian just waved off his protests. “If I know you—and even you have to admit that I do—you are a good fifteen minutes early. Plenty of time for a brief chat.”
“I really should,” he began, then sighed—and chuckled quietly despite himself—when Dorian’s brows simply climbed. “All right, fine; there’s really no point in trying to escape this, is there?” Cullen fought to keep the mood light.
“None at all.” Dorian tipped his head toward the stairs that would lead up into the empty library. “Come, let’s find a place Josephine and Vivienne haven’t touched with the spirit of improvement.”
“We’ll have better luck finding a virgin in a brothel,” Cullen muttered, but he followed in Dorian’s wake.
Dorian tutted. “I believe we all know where to look if we want to find one of those, Commander.”
“…there was a rude joke in there somewhere,” Cullen said, narrowing his eyes. “And I’m fairly certain it was on me.”
“Such a clever man. With just as clever friends.” He paused to sweep a discarded book out of one of a duo of chairs, checking the spine before giving a little snort and tossing it blindly onto a nearby shelf. Dorian sank into his chair with a pleased air. “Like me, for instance.”
Cullen nudged his own chair so he could keep an eye on the entrances and exits, taking his seat stiffly, thanks to his armor. “For instance,” he said.
“Clever enough to find you the one diamond in all of last night’s rough.” That smile crept back onto Dorian’s face when Cullen quickly looked down, and he leaned back in his chair to smooth his mustache with far too much smug satisfaction. “So you did hit it off with the mysterious lady of Starkhaven.”
He cleared his throat. “In a manner of speaking, yes.”
“The fact that you’re willing to speak of it at all betrays as much. So tell me, Commander, how did you spend your magical,” he flourished a hand, adding a welcome weight of irony to his words, “night at the masque? Please do not concern yourself about boring me with any and all of the salacious details.”
Cullen made a disgusted noise, looking up. He had his elbows braced against his thighs, hands dangling between his knees. “You know I’m not the sort to kiss and tell, Dorian,” he chided.
But Dorian just lit up, visibly delighted. “So there was kissing,” he crowed.
Cullen blinked. Blinked again. He couldn’t shake the feeling that he’d walked blindly into some sort of trap. “I’m beginning to understand Cassandra’s feelings about you,” he said slowly, without any real venom.
Dorian waved that off, still grinning. “Yes yes yes, I am a terrible person. Now, about your mysterious lady…” He just laughed when Cullen groaned and dropped his head forward. “I can tell you want to talk about it, so you may as well find your way over your impressive scruples and try.”
“I don’t know why you’re so invested,” Cullen muttered. He was mortified by the heat in his cheeks, the flush so hot he felt almost as if he were immolating from the inside out. Dorian wasn’t wrong, however. There was an unexpectedly large part of him that did want to talk about Jenny. There was a part of him that had, perhaps, been hoping Dorian would be there this morning to push the issue.
He supposed it made a sort of sense. As private a man as he could be—and as much as he resisted sharing intimate details of his life with anyone—something about saying the words aloud granted a peculiar kind of weight to them. A power. He’d lived so much of his personal life through daydream and unrealized fantasy that the fact that this was real—that last night had really happened—was still sinking in. His non-relationship with the woman who would become the Hero of Ferelden was the most glaring example. In his head, young and earnest as he was, he’d concocted a fantasy where they could be more than Templar and mage…and look how poorly that had gone in the end.
And then, Kirkwall. Maker alone knew how far he’d retreated into his own skull there.
But here, with this…as much as a fairy tale as it felt, it was real. And Cullen didn’t want to risk it all getting trapped inside his head where he could overanalyze it to death. He didn’t want to sit in his lonely tower and brood, filing away the memory of her smile, the soft curve of her waist, the feel of her fingers sliding through his hair. A single night and a lifetime of memory—it wasn’t enough. He couldn’t let it end there. He couldn’t. He couldn’t.
“Cullen,” Dorian said, voice quieter. He dropped a hand over Cullen’s—which was what it took for Cullen to realize he’d been clenching them together hard enough to make the knuckles bleed white.
Cullen made a frustrated noise and leaned back in his chair, pinching the bridge of his nose. He felt like he was going out of his skin. No. No, maybe seeking Jenny out again wasn’t a good idea after all. If only a few hours in her company—a few kisses—could do this to him, there was no telling what long-buried emotion another encounter would force to surface. Maybe freedom wasn’t an option for a man like him.
Maybe it could even be dangerous.
And Maker, he’d been through all this before, all through the night—cycling through hope and joy and frustration and wary fear over and over until he was too tangled in himself to find his way out.
“I feel like I’m going mad,” he admitted, voice husky. “And I don’t understand why. She’s just a woman. I’ve met women before. I’ve even…” Cullen trailed off. “But she’s nothing like anyone I’ve ever known, and I feel… I…” He let out a heavy breath and leaned forward again, meeting Dorian’s eyes. The sparkling delight had gentled again while he spoke, woven through now with empathy. Yes, Cullen supposed out of anyone, Dorian would understand the terrible frustration of want mingled with fear. “I don’t know what I feel,” he finished.
“And that frightens you, I take it?” At Cullen’s annoyed sound, Dorian barked a laugh. “Yes, yes, yes, of course, you are very manly and afraid of nothing—I get it. Oh, the male pride, how it stings in the face of truth. Let me reword. That…makes you cautious, then?”
Cullen crossed his arms. “Caution is good. I have to be cautious, for the Inquisition’s sake.”
“You tell yourself that as you tuck yourself in your lonely bed every night, do you?” Dorian drummed his fingers against the arm of his chair. “Caution in battle is only wise. Caution in matters of the flesh…or heart…is a very good way to end your days with nothing but regret to keep you warm.”
That hit very close to home. Too close. Cullen shifted. “Says the man who dances around the Bull as if we don’t all know where that is going.”
Dorian waved him off. “We are not here to talk about me, much as I adore the topic. We are discussing you, your habit of treating feelings like demons to be exorcised, and the way the Lady of Starkhaven managed to shake you so badly that you’re actually considering attending the ball a second night.” He tilted his head, meeting Cullen’s eyes. “You are, aren’t you?”
Dorian’s smile began to bloom again. “But you are. Oh, brilliant. I knew I wasn’t wrong. I could just tell the two of you— That she was exactly what you needed.”
Maker’s breath, that shouldn’t have made his heart kick up speed, but it did. Cullen leaned forward intently, zeroing in on Dorian’s stumble. “So you do know her? From before last night? What is her name? Where can I find her?” It was funny the way all doubt melted away the moment he thought Dorian might be able to unravel the mystery that was Jenny. The fear of never seeing her again was just as great, he was realizing, as the fear of how she was steadily stripping away every bit of his armor. He’d spent a lifetime content to stay behind walls and live out his life through duty and dreams.
But every time he closed his eyes, he could feel those walls crumbling around him. If Dorian knew her… If Dorian could take him to her…
Dreams, Cullen realized with a pounding heart, would not be enough. Not this time. Not with her.
But Dorian was shaking his head. “I’m sorry, but no. I can’t answer those questions for you.”
All at once, Cullen had to be moving. He rose abruptly, chair clattering back, and paced to the railing. The rotunda was completely silent, their guests still fast asleep in their beds after a late night of revelry. Leliana’s ravens had been moved for the time being, so not even their familiar squawks could break the heavy still.
And he was being such a fool. The Waking Sea indeed—he felt like a ship tossed on the waves of his own tumultuous thoughts, emotions, desires. And the worst, the worst part of it was that he was absolutely rudderless. He had no idea who she could be or where he could find her.
He couldn’t choose to leave their time together as nothing more than a pleasant memory to take with him to his grave or go to her now and declare his troubled feelings. He couldn’t take her hand and bring it to his lips. Couldn’t call her by name. Couldn’t even see her bloody face. The decision was completely out of his hands every step of the way.
He couldn’t, and he wanted to—he’d never wanted anything more—and it was all out of his control.
Andraste save him, his life was once again out of his control.
Dorian’s hand fell on his shoulder and Cullen glanced back, meeting his eyes. “Another night,” he said, voice betraying only a fraction of what he felt.
“There is always another night,” Dorian promised, squeezing.
Cullen straightened, gently—but firmly—brushing Dorian’s kindness away. He’d already leaned on him enough; any more and there would be no soothing his embarrassed pride. “No,” he said simply. “Only two more. But…you’re right. I would like to try.” He paused, then glanced down and away. “I think I have to try.”
His friend sighed, fond and exasperated, and Cullen made himself smile, just a little, in reassurance. He couldn’t imagine how difficult it must be to follow the thread of his emotions when he was like this. Jagged, unpredictable, too angst-riddled and needy by far. He should get the Bull to hit him with one of those sticks to break him of this terrible habit of giving in to melancholy.
“Don’t look at me like that,” Cullen said, pulling back. “Your eyes will cross and spoil what I’m told are passably good looks. I should get to the War Room; I’ll see you later today.”
“You’re being impossible, you realize,” Dorian scolded, but he stayed where he was, allowing Cullen to move away uncomforted. That was the best part of their friendship—Dorian, unlike almost anyone else, knew when to let him be. “But I will play along for now. I’m sure your lady will be pleased to see you, at the very least. Hmm,” he added, stroking his mustache, “though where I’ll find another set of finery for you at this late hour, I don’t know.”
He kept moving back toward the stairs, shaking his head. “Don’t bother,” Cullen said. “I’ll just wear what I did last night.” He snorted at Dorian’s strangled noise. “It will be fine, Dorian.”
“Isn’t that supposed to be my line, Commander?”
Cullen managed a smile. “It is,” he said. “I’m just borrowing it for a time. Dorian.” He inclined his head in goodbye, then turned on his heel and headed down the steps, aware of Dorian’s soft sigh behind him.
He crossed the rotunda and strode out into the Hall seconds later, boot heels drumming loud in the echoing stillness. It was strange to be here with the memory of its vivid beauty painted on the backs of his lids. He could almost imagine he heard the rustle of gowns, felt the crush of bodies. It was dim, sunlight just beginning to push through the stained glass to paint delicate colored shadows across the floor, but the memory of hundreds of candles filled his mind, making the room thrum with golden light.
He clenched and unclenched his hands, feeling her fingers against his, and began to flush as he hurried down the long hall toward the War Room. Leliana looked up as he pushed inside, a single brow arching.
“Someone is bashful this morning,” she said. The look she shot him was arch and knowing, as if she’d already riffled through his brain for all his most treasured secrets. “Hmm! I wonder why.”
She knew. Somehow, she knew. She knew about the disguise, and Dorian, and Marcus, and the dancing and—
But then Josephine giggled and lightly hit Leliana’s shoulder with the back of her hand. “Oh, you are too wicked,” she scolded. “It is all right, Commander,” she added, amusement threading through her words. “She’s only this mysterious when she doesn’t actually know anything.”
“Ah, but look at his face,” Leliana protested, eyes gleaming. It took everything he had not to take a step back in the face of that look. “There is a secret to ferret out; I can smell it.”
“What can you smell?”
Cullen barely bit back a groan as the Inquisitor slipped past him. Only the solid click of the door closing kept him from turning on his heel and making a hasty retreat. “Maker’s breath,” he muttered. “The two of you are worse than Mia.”
The Inquisitor tipped her face toward his, brows slightly arched. Her hair was still damp from her morning bath, loose curls slipping free. A dimple played at the corner of her mouth. “There’s something I’m missing here,” she mused.
“It has to do with Orlesian widows,” Josephine mock-whispered. “I am certain of it.”
“Orlesian widows, wandering hands, and desperate proclamations of undying love. Cullen will be happy to tell us all about it,” Leliana agreed, leaning forward with a wicked quirk of her mouth. “Isn’t that right, Commander?”
“No,” Cullen said, as firmly as he could. But even he had to laugh at his own expense when the three women who helped shape the course of the world broke into girlish giggles—and through the War Room’s arrowslit windows, the sun broke past the ridge of the Frostbacks, heralding the start of a new day.
And the promise of the night to come.
Chapter 7: for persephoneunder
She wasn’t going to come.
Cullen stood at the far edge of the main crush, staring out hopelessly across the ballroom. More courtiers had arrived earlier in the day—by the Maker, was there to be no end to them?—and the cacophony was nearly enough to drive him from the hall and to the relative safety of his locked tower.
Nearly enough. Surely he would be long gone if he hadn’t been filled with such foolish, naive hope that he would see her again. As if it would be such a simple thing to spot her through the throngs of Orelsians, glowing brilliant and pure and perfect; a star in the night sky. A beacon. A… A tortured romantic metaphor—oh void, this place was turning his brains to soup.
“She is not coming,” Cullen murmured, easing further back against the wall as a knot of chattering women passed. Not a single one of them had Jenny’s tumbling dark hair or the long sweep of her lashes. Not a single one of them drew him the way she did. “I was too forward. I mucked this whole thing up.”
Dorian cast him a fondly irritated look. “My dear Marcus, you give up too easily. Give it time; this will all end splendidly, you will see.”
“You act as if you could possibly know that,” Cullen said. He crossed his arms over his chest, then straightened a moment later, only to pace away two steps, then back. He would be crawling the walls if he could; never, never had he felt like this before, balanced precariously between despair and hope. It was so easy to take his agitation out on Dorian. “Have you taken to augury in your spare time? Will you be reading tea leaves or the shadows of the Fade like Solas now?”
Dorian whistled low under his breath, and Cullen shot him a sharp look. The corners of his mouth were curled into a wry smile, gold of his ridiculously tiny mask only serving to highlight the smooth lines of his mustache and the kohl circling his eyes. “Why, Ser Marcus,” Dorian teased. “Well done; that was very nearly catty of you.”
Cullen sighed and resisted the urge to pinch his brow. (Not that he could in this damnable get-up.) “I apologize,” he said, but Dorian just waved him off with a laugh.
“No no no, it was glorious. We should wind you up and point you toward Corypheus. The old blighter would never see it coming.”
“I hate you,” Cullen said, but he couldn’t help the way his lips curled up at the corner, amusement soothing the frayed edges of his jangling nerves. And, knowing Dorian the way he did, that had probably been the plan.
Dorian just snorted and rested a hand on Cullen’s arm, warm and somehow grounding. Trust the other man to know exactly what he needed; and trust him to see it delivered in the most refreshingly obnoxious, underhanded method possible. Cullen could actually feel his muscles loosening, his frustration sinking back into tightly wound patience. The crush of the crowd no longer seemed to press in so tightly against him, and the wail of the orchestra was not quite so intolerably loud.
This, Cullen thought, shaking his head but not pulling away, is why we are friends. Though Maker only knew what Dorian got out of their friendship. Cullen knew he had the temper of a bear sometimes—or perhaps the lion of his helm was more truth than he wanted to admit. Scarred and battered and old and all too ready to snarl at every good thing that came past; graceless and—
“I can see your mind working like a rat in its cage,” Dorian interrupted smoothly, pointing a single warning finger at Cullen. “Whatever thoughts have you descending back into melancholy after my astonishingly deft save must simply wait. You have a lady to woo, and you can’t do that with such a long face.”
Cullen batted away his hand irritably. “I am not,” he began, only to sigh, then chuckle at Dorian’s arched brow. “Yes, fine, perhaps. What would you have me focus on instead?”
Dorian arched a brow. “How about the lovely Jenny of Starkhaven?”
“And that is supposed to make me less agitated?” Cullen said. “If she is here—if she even decided to come—she could be anywhere. I would search her out if I knew where to look. Maker, I didn’t even think to ask what color of dress to search for, and the whole lot of them are like a pack of butterflies swarming about my face.”
“Blue,” Dorian said. “You should be searching for blue.”
Cullen stared at his friend. “How the void would you know that?” he demanded. “And don’t tell me tea leaves.”
But Dorian just laughed. “No tea needed, my friend; I just used my eyes. And she’s getting away, so you may want to be quick about it.”
Immediately, Cullen straightened, gaze raking the busy dance floor as his heart gave an unsteady lurch. He scoured the room searching for bits of blue amongst the brilliant tapestry—here there was midnight, turquoise, the color of the sky at dawn…
“Dorian,” he said, grabbing for his friend’s arm. The rush of mingled hope and terror—at missing her, at losing her—rose like bile in his throat, and for one terrible moment, the whole room seemed to whirl in a blur of nearly overwhelming sensation. “Damn you, where—”
And then he saw her.
Pale as ice, as a snowflake falling lazily through the confusing riot around her…she was serene in a way that made his whole body relax in instant relief. Cullen let out a serrated breath, watching as she turned once, her long skirts floating like an afterthought about her legs. Black curls fell in a beautiful wild sweep about her face, and her lips were parted as she studied the dancing figures, searching.
Searching for him?
Maker, he hoped so.
“Oh,” Cullen said, utterly transfixed. She was so beautiful it almost hurt to breathe. All around her, the ball faded into a blur; he saw nothing but her. He took a half-step forward, grip loosening on Dorian’s arm, eyes hungrily drinking her in. He had no idea how he had missed her before—she shone so brightly, silver-pale and gleaming in the center of the maelstrom, that he must have been blind to have not spotted her at once. He wanted, desperately, to drop his clumsy hands to the dip of her waist and pull her close to him. He wanted to breathe her in, to center himself in her.
And then she turned away, silky skirts swirling about her, and headed toward the great doors.
“What? No,” Cullen said, as if that could somehow stop her. He took a reflexive step forward, then paused to look back at Dorian in apology.
Dorian just waved him on, smiling with infectious joy. “Go get the girl, Commander,” he said; then made little shooing motions when Cullen didn’t immediately race off. “Well, go on. Trust me: beauty waits for no man.”
He gave a strangled laugh and did as he was told, spinning on his heel and hurrying after Jenny. The hall was an utter madhouse, all the worse now that he was shoulder-to-shoulder with the main crowd. Cullen tried to be polite for all of two minutes before gritting his teeth and simply plowing through the bejeweled couples. He heard a few cries of protest in his wake, but he kept going bullishly, moving like an arrow straight for the main doors.
He lost her for a moment, the pale blue of her dress disappearing beneath a wall of humanity—but then as he shoved through another knot of gossips, he saw her passing out onto the steps. The doors had been opened for her, and she stood for one frozen, perfect moment at the landing, silhouetted by starlight. Face tipped up toward the night sky, silver mask catching a thousand twinkling lights.
Then she lifted the waterfall of her skirts in her hands and started down the winding steps.
“My lady,” Cullen cried, fighting to escape the last clutches of the ball. The cold air hit his face, the big doors being pushed shut by two footmen in Inquisition livery. He hurried his steps, racing after her; his heart pounded out the seconds in his ears. “My lady.”
A wind blew, dragging long coils of her hair about her face, like smoke. She was getting farther away, escaping down the steps, and Cullen couldn’t shake the feeling that if he lost sight of her—if she somehow slipped away again like water between his fingers—he would never find her again.
He couldn’t, he couldn’t let that happen.
“Jenny!” Cullen rasped, pushing past the last of the courtiers and through the big doors moments before they were pulled closed behind him. He staggered out onto the high landing, breath coming hard and fast—then freezing in his lungs when she turned at the sound of his voice, face lifted to his.
Her eyes, Maker her eyes, widened at the sight of him, as if she were half as struck by him as he was by her.
Impossible. There was no way she could be feeling the same soul-deep jolt of awareness, the sudden perfect stillness of the moment. All at once, the whole world seemed to go quiet and peaceful and right again, agitation disappearing like snow on the wind.
And then she lifted a hand to him, reaching for him, and Cullen’s stillness shattered in his need to be by her side. He hurried down the steps, taking them two at a time, and caught her hand in his. Impulsively, he pressed her fingers over his heart, as if somehow the erratic tempo could show her just how deeply she moved him. “I searched everywhere,” he said. His voice sounded rough, the accent still strange on his tongue. “I thought maybe you had changed your mind and would not come.”
“Never,” she breathed. When she reached up to cup his face, he had to fight against the shudder that worked its way through his frame. “I tried to find you, too. But the ball…”
His lips twisted into a wry smile. “It’s a madhouse,” he said, catching her wrist. It was so small in his big hand, delicate, that he couldn’t suppress the urge to turn his cheek and press a feverish kiss against the pale tracery of veins. His eyes never left hers. “I’m glad I found you.”
Cullen watched, heat unspooling low in his belly, as her eyes slowly dilated in response. Her lips parted, full and slick. Her breath came in an uneven drag. And then she shivered hard and dropped her eyes, lashes dark fans against her cheeks.
Maker, he wanted to kiss her. He wanted to drag his fingers into her hair and lick his way into her mouth; wanted to devour her, swallow her panting breaths as she surged up against him, gorgeous curves pressing against the hard lines of his body.
But she shivered again, breath rising in silvery coils about her face, and chivalry somehow won out over base need. “Are you cold, my lady?” Cullen asked. He didn’t wait for an answer, already fumbling at the silver buttons of his coat. It was nice and thick, midnight blue velvet heavy enough to trap his body’s heat, and she was wearing little more than a whisper of fabric. It was only right she have his coat.
Even so, she protested. “Wait,” Jenny said, lifting a hand. “You’ll freeze.”
He would freeze? Cullen nearly laughed at that, even as he stepped in to wrap the coat around her shoulders. This close, he could smell the scent rising from her cloud of dark hair—something deep and rich that he couldn’t quite place, like a blend of vanilla and some exotic flower. He drew it deep into his lungs, watching as she pressed her cheek to the collar of his coat.
That simple act—or maybe it was seeing her so thoroughly encased in his clothing, as if he’d laid some kind of base and shameful claim on her—flared through him hot and bright. He couldn’t help but imagine her in only his coat, skin pale against the deep blue, curves partly hidden by the thick velvet. Her soft thighs would flash into view at every shift of the fabric, the heavy swell of her breasts threatening to push its two halves open and reveal her to his view with every breath.
Maker, just the thought of that—the image that flashed through his mind—was enough to make his cock harden. Shameful, shameful, the things he wanted to do to her. If he pushed her up against the stone wall and pressed against her lush body, rutted like some sort of animal in the cold, that damn coat would keep her delicate skin from being raked and torn while he swallowed the peak of her breast and thrust his calloused fingers inside the sopping wet clench of her body in time with—
Jenny laughed. “Enjoying the sight of me in your clothing?” she teased. Cullen was snapped out of his vivid fantasy with a guilty start; he could feel the damning blush spreading across his cheeks. “Does it feel like you’ve marked me? Claimed me?”
He cleared his throat. “Perhaps not anything quite so…” Cullen began with all the dignity he did not feel. Then, with a helpless bark of laughter, he added, “Yes.”
With anyone else, he may have been afraid of causing offense, but Jenny just laughed with him, bright and light and wonderful. It was easy with her in a way it had never been with anyone else. He could so easily imagine so much more when he was by her side—and not just sexual, either.
“Did you want to dance again?” she suddenly asked, after their shared laughter had faded into comfortable silence. Then she tilted her head. “Or perhaps we could go for a walk. It’s a beautiful night out.”
“Anything but dancing,” Cullen said quickly. “You’ve already seen the sum total of my skill in the area.” He offered her his arm in question and she took it at once, slipping her fingers along the crook of his elbow. Cullen was suddenly glad of the loss of his coat; this way, he could feel the warm press of her hand through the thin cotton of his shirtsleeve.
They moved together slowly down the steps. “Oh, I don’t know,” Jenny said thoughtfully, face tipping up toward his. Each gust of wind dragged dark curls across her face and buffeted her long skirts about his legs. Flurries of snow were lifted from where they’d collected on the roof and parapets, falling around them in intermittent silver starbursts. “I thought you were impressive.”
“The lady is too kind.”
Her grin was sly, amusement brightening her face, her eyes, making everything about her shine like a beacon. “She’s also quite sheltered, so it doesn’t take much to impress her. Not to belittle your talents,” she added over his surprised huff of laughter; it filled his chest with perfect, uncomplicated warmth. For the first time in a long time, he felt so effortlessly happy he almost didn’t know what to do with it. “Which I’m sure are legion. I— Oh!”
The last was lost in the sudden fervent press of his lips against hers. He hadn’t been able to help himself; he needed to kiss her the way he needed to breathe, to sleep, to eat. He needed to feel her lips against his, to brush his fingertips reverently along the curve of her jaw and shudder as she leaned against the line of his body, pressing close. Her lips were so soft against his, opening like a flower, and Cullen slid his thumbs across her cheeks just below the cold metal of her mask even as his brushed his tongue into her welcoming warmth, tasting her in a languid, aching glide.
Yes, Cullen thought nonsensically, kissing Jenny in the light snowfall—flakes gathering in her hair like stars, lips parting slick and hot beneath his. Yes, yes, this.
He dropped his hands to her waist, holding her close as the kiss lingered before slowly, slowly, slowly breaking apart. She tipped forward as if to follow, fingers curled in the front of his shirt, and ah Maker, that was nearly enough to have him lost in the heat of her mouth again. Instead, Cullen pulled back and looked down at her upturned face, watching the way snowflakes gathered on her lashes. Jenny shuddered, as if aware of the warmth of his gaze, and slowly blinked open her eyes.
The dazed longing there nearly undid him; Cullen had to lock his knees to keep from dragging her down against the cold stone steps and losing himself in her heat.
“What was that for?” Jenny murmured throatily.
The sound of her voice shuddered through him; he was hard, erection straining against the front placket of his trousers, heat gathered tight as a fist low in his belly. Daring much—daring everything—Cullen tugged her against him. He slid an arm across the hips, splaying his other hand along her spine, and brushed his lips across her temple. Maker, but she smelled incredible. “You looked like something out of a dream,” he admitted, voice pitching low. Cullen closed his eyes and breathed her in, heart pounding so loud he could count its beats, like a war drum. “Back when my dreams were good.”
She lifted her head at that, eyes sad. “Are your dreams so often trouble?”
“Not last night,” Cullen said—because last night, staring up at the starlight through the hole in his ceiling, all he’d been able to think about was her.
“I’m glad,” Jenny said, voice a whisper. She reached up to brush the backs of her fingers along his mask and he closed his eyes in reflexive pleasure, shuddering despite himself. “I’m so, so glad.”
Cullen impulsively reached up to catch her hand. He pressed a kiss to her palm, mouthing along the thin band of silver there. His heart felt so full he wasn’t sure what to say, to do; his head was swimming with her proximity. “Tell me your name?” he asked impulsively.
She went very, very still.
I’m sorry, he almost said, ready to take it back—but he wasn’t. He wasn’t sorry. Last night, the anonymity had been an amusing diversion, an escape from his life, but here, now…he wanted to know her. He wanted her to know him.
So he kept silent and waited her out.
“Jenny,” she finally said, drawing away. Her eyes wouldn’t meet his. “I’m sorry.”
Cullen swallowed against the bitter disappointment. “So am I,” he said simply.
She must have read some of his hurt in his tone. Jenny turned away, shivering, and wrapped her arms around her middle. He watched as she stared out into the night, wrapped in his coat, looking all at once so tired and lonely he wasn’t sure what to say. He could see shades of himself in this vision of her, too, and not for the first time, he wondered what sort of life she led.
The Lady of Starkhaven, yes, but who was she? Fragile and yet strong, sensual and yet innocent, sweet and yet self-assured, she was a blend of opposing forces, a complicated tapestry of triumphs and failures and loves and losses he could never know—not unless she was willing to share them with him. Not unless she was willing to let him in.
But he couldn’t force her. He could only ask, and hope, and enjoy what parts of herself she gave him in the meantime.
Slowly, so as not to startle her, Cullen moved to stand close behind Jenny; he wrapped his arms around her, pulling her back against the warmth of his body. She fit so perfectly there, as if Andraste had fashioned them to be together—and not even that fanciful thought was enough to shake him out of the breathless sense of connection he could not shake.
“If I could tell you,” she said, slowly relaxing back against his chest, “please believe me that I would. There’s—”
Jenny trailed off, unable to fill the silence…but then again, Cullen didn’t need her to. Everything he was feeling simply tumbled recklessly into place, filling the gaps as easily as mortar to stone. It should have been frightening, just how much she moved him, but instead he just felt like for the first time in a very, very long time, something was finally going right.
Cullen leaned in to press a soft kiss to the arch of her neck, arms tightening around her. He was so damned grateful for that rare sense of rightness that he didn’t risk pushing any farther. “Come inside with me,” he murmured, running a hand down her arm. She must have been so very cold, even wrapped in his warm coat. “There’s a tavern. It won’t be as crowded there.”
She made a low noise and turned in his arms, tipping her face up to his—studying his eyes as if searching for something there. Whatever she saw, it must have put her mind at ease, because her lips began to curl into a soft smile and she slid her arms around his neck. “Kiss me first?” Jenny murmured, rising up onto her toes. Her body dragged against his in a visceral reminder of the heat simmering between them that had never fully banked.
Yes, Cullen thought, wrapping an arm tight around her waist. Always, he thought, hauling her close against him. “As you wish,” he said, leaning close—and then their mouths were crashing together in another long, hungry, aching kiss, and there was nothing but the sound of her breathless cry and the taste of her hot and sweet and perfect on his tongue.
It seemed, between them, nothing could stay chaste for long. Within seconds, she was pressing up closer, gripping at him as if she wanted nothing more than to meld their bodies together. Cullen swallowed the eager slick of her tongue with a broken noise, hands restlessly clenching and unclenching as the kiss spiraled quickly out of control. He wanted to drag his hands over her skin. He wanted to cup the mounds of her breasts and flick his thumbs across the tight clench of her nipples; wanted to drag up the diaphanous folds of her gown and find her slick and hot and ready for him. He wanted to fall on his knees and spread her wide, wanted to follow her down as she sank to the snow-covered steps and stroke his tongue deep into her core.
He wanted to savage her like an animal, and only the bare vestiges of his fraying control kept him from doing it.
“It’s all right,” she moaned into the kiss, arching against him. With each shift, she was dragging her belly against the hard jut of his erection, driving him absolutely crazy. She kissed his chin, his jaw, teeth raking along his stubble until he moaned.
“Jenny,” Cullen rasped, grip going too tight when she teased the very tip of her tongue up the column of his throat. Didn’t she understand how close he was to snapping? He felt like a wild thing, half mad and aching. Andraste take him, it had been too long since he’d given in to his baser instincts.
She rose up onto her toes, dragging against his body with a subtle hitch of her hips. “I want you to touch me,” she said, and dug her nails into his shoulders as if to spur him on. “Please.”
He slid one hand up to touch her the way she wanted, aching for it, but he stalled partway. It just…didn’t seem right to take what he needed from her out here, in the open. Anyone could see them at any moment; they were utterly exposed for the entire world.
But she was tipping her head back, baring the long line of her throat. He could feel the drag of her breasts against his chest, the heat of her through layers of fabric against the near-painful ache of his cock, and suddenly there was nothing more he wanted than to have her here, now—in front of the whole damn Orlesian court, if it came to that.
“Oh Andraste save me, you are so beautiful,” Cullen said thickly, fighting that dark impulse to claim, to dominate. “I’ve never seen—”
Anything I’ve wanted so badly…and if that was the truth, then why wasn’t he taking her?
Growling suddenly low in his throat, Cullen tightened his grip and yanked her against him, one arm going about her hips. He lifted her easily, hauling off her feet and against the broad plane of his chest, needing to feel her under his hungry hands, under his tenuous control. He pushed a leg forward, letting the cradle of her thighs rest against hard muscle, and deliberately ground against the scalding heat of her cunt through layers of filmy fabric.
She gasped, head falling back again, then moaned when he reached up to cup the heavy weight of her breast, dragging his thumbnail along the visible peak of her nipple. He wanted to taste her, but first he dragged his thumb back and forth, back and forth, riding the unsteady buck of her hips as she writhed helplessly against him. If she wanted him to touch her, by the Maker, he would touch her—and watch her fall apart in his arms.
“So beautiful,” he breathed, shifting so her weight rested fully against his thigh. His cock was pressed tight against her hip, a maddening grind with each slow, rocking rut of his hips. Cullen dropped his mouth to the exposed line of Jenny’s beautiful throat, tongue swirling along her rapid pulse, teeth scoring gently down her neck as she quietly begged for more, more, more.
And despite their exposed location, despite the fact that anyone could come upon them at any time, he was going to give her more. Cullen reached down to cup the curve of her ass, intending to lower her to her feet before bearing her down to the steps, pushing up her filmy skirts, licking his way past the slick folds of her body; if he didn’t taste her soon, he’d go mad.
She was bucking helplessly against him, and all he wanted was to lose himself in her. To spread her quivering thighs wide with his shoulders, to part her delicately with his thumbs, and curl his tongue along the nub of her clit over and over and over again. To tease the orgasm from her in careful degrees, building her to crest after crest, to find—
“A treasure hunt!” someone cried very, very near, and Cullen jerked away in surprise, instinctively reaching for the sword that wasn’t there. Jenny staggered back with a muffled cry, one hand slapped over her kiss-swollen mouth, eyes huge. She slumped back against the gilt railings that now lined the steps, breasts heaving against the low front of her dress, color high, eyes dilated dark and impossibly tempting. Above them, courtiers were pouring out of the grand hall, laughing and calling to each other like a flock of colorful, squawking birds.
And Cullen would have wrung their necks, one and all, in that moment.
If he could only find his scattered wits first.
Chapter 8: For persephoneunder
Things passed in something of a blur after that.
The crowd swept around them, laughing and joyous and enough to set his teeth on edge. He wished he could scowl them down the way he would one of his soldiers, but despite the dark glower Cullen shot a laughing, plumed dowager, all he got for his pains was a face full of feathers and a mounting frustration.
Cullen would have been able to command the crowd; Marcus could only struggle to keep his flash of temper in check and shield Jenny from the worst of them.
“Are you all right?” he asked, reaching impulsively for her. His body was still throwing off sparks, erection straining near-painfully against the front of his trousers. He shifted, feeling awkward and out of sorts and exposed. Maker, all anyone had to do was look at him and they’d know just how much he ached.
The thought made his cheeks burn; he hated, hated playing the fool. He hated even more being out of control, thrust unwillingly into a boisterous crowd…when all he wanted was the sound of her breath, the press of her lips, the warmth of her body against his. Maker, the scent of her. The awareness that went down to his toes and…
And he shifted again, flustered, aroused, caught unawares. Irked.
“I’m fine,” Jenny said, swinging off his coat with a sweet—if a little wry—smile. The crowd broke around them like a stream around a rock. She was an island of calm as laughter and music and merriment crashed messily around him.
He let her press the coat back into his hands. “But you’re,” he began.
Her smile went a little wicked, and Maker if that didn’t make him take an aborted step forward, itching to have his hands on her lush curves again. “In less of a need right now than you,” she said. A bejowled man pushed past her and Jenny looked away, up toward the crest of the steps. The huge doors had been thrown open, the light pouring through them catching her upturned face and glinting off the metal of her mask.
Suddenly, he was caught by the realization that if she slipped away again, he’d have no way of finding her. “You’re not going to run away again, are you?” he asked, throat closing at the idea. When she turned back to look at him, startled, he parted his lips to say please.
Please. Maker’s breath, please what? Was he really going to beg a woman he didn’t know to forsake her life to stay with him? Was he truly that (lonely) desperate?
Cullen didn’t want to think of the answer to that. He wasn’t sure he’d like the truth.
The crowd that had broken them apart was still swarming around them, but by now, they may as well not have existed; he was fixated on her. He stood frozen when she reached up to brush her fingertips across his mouth, her own expression softening. “I’m not going anywhere right now,” she promised.
The smile that stretched his mouth felt brittle, but he wasn’t going to beg. Not here. Not with peacocked fools knocking into them, nearly sending them crashing together again as someone yelled, “A treasure hunt!” and what his brain insisted on interpreting as mocking laughter echoed across the square.
“Whoa there,” Jenny said with a crooked smile when Cullen caught her arm, suddenly needing to ground himself against old memories, old demons. It was astonishing how her laughter settled the rising…something…deep inside him, chasing away the darkness like shadows from a flame. “We should probably make a strategic exit before we’re trampled.”
Maker, yes. “Sound the retreat,” he muttered, accent briefly slipping. He had to swallow a wince when she shot him a startled look, covering with a solicitous, “My lady?”
Jenny shook her head and caught his hand. It was small in his, delicate, the silver bisecting her palm warm against his sword-calloused skin. He looked down, something in him responding to the sheer disparity in size even as she tugged him after her into the melee. “Follow me,” Jenny said.
And the void take him, but he would have followed her anywhere.
Cullen kept his focus on Jenny as they wove through the milling crowd, grateful for each glance she shot his way. When they reached the bottom of the steps, they were nearly separated, but he pushed forward, unsubtly knocking a paunchy man with steel grey hair aside when the fool made a leering grab for Jenny. The man shot him a confused look followed by a braying, drunken laugh; Cullen dropped a possessive hand to her waist.
It didn’t seem right that he should feel this way—she didn’t belong to him. But even though Cullen was certain Jenny could defend herself from leering perverts with wandering hands, he felt a near-uncontrollable desire to wrap around her, shield her, defend her. And, yes, claim her.
It was shameful, shameful. Mia would have his head if she knew how desperately he wanted to stake his claim as if he had the right.
As if sensing his thoughts, or maybe just responding to the spiraling good cheer of the crowd—Jenny suddenly let go of his hand and sprinted toward a silver-bright, unbroken expanse of snow. She lifted her skirts, dark hair streaming behind her, diaphanous blue fabric swirling light as air around her legs as she spun, laughing.
Maker’s breath, but he was a fool to ever think a woman with a spirit like hers could be caged. He stopped several paces away, watching her as she spun like a snowflake caught on the breeze. He could watch her for hours, the tension inside him breaking away piece by piece by piece until he was smiling again, relaxed. Strangely whole.
He would never have guessed he’d find peace standing in Skyhold’s courtyard beneath a gentle snowfall, watching a woman he barely knew, and yet, well. Here he was.
And here she was.
“What are you doing?” Cullen stepped forward as she began to slow, gaze traveling over her. There were snowflakes caught on her lashes. They were scattered through her dark hair, shining like jewels amongst the thick curls. The swell of her pale breasts pressed against the bodice of her dress with every deep breath, and he wanted, Maker, to drag his finger down the tempting cleavage and tug until they tumbled free.
Instead, when Jenny reached for him, Cullen slid his arms around her waist and pulled her tight against him.
“I’m being happy,” she said simply, as if he should have been able to recognize the simple emotion—and what did it say about him that he had to ask?—rocking up onto the balls of her feet to brush her lips against his. Almost as if she could breathe that joy into him, filling his lungs with the sweet earnestness of the moment. Somewhere what felt like leagues away, the courtiers were still calling out to each other, laughing, but here under the soft whisk whisk of snow, Jenny in his arms, smiling against his lips, there was nothing but the sound of their breathing and the way she shivered against him.
Cullen reached up to cup her cheeks, kissing back. The kiss deepened by slow degrees until his tongue was brushing along the crease of her mouth in question. She made a low noise and let him inside; the first slick of their tongues sent a jolt shuddering through him. Maker’s breath, he’d thought the desperate need had faded, but all it took was the eager press of her against him and he was flushed with heat again.
But she pulled back before things could get out of hand. “If we continue like this,” she said with a sweet, crooked smile, “we’ll freeze before we ever reach the tavern. Come morning they’ll find us locked together like queer little ice sculptures.”
Now wasn’t that a curious image. What in the Maker’s name would Cassandra say to that? Varric? “I would hate to clutter up the Inquisition’s lawn,” Cullen said, giving into insurmountable temptation to brush his thumb across her full bottom lip before firmly forcing himself to step away.
Then, feeling silly—playful; happy—he gave a little bow, the way he had been taught to greet the highest-ranking ladies of the court. He’d resented the lessons at the time, refusing to take them seriously. Now, seeing the pleased smile spreading across her face, he was so very grateful to Josephine’s gentle meddling. He was no fairy tale prince, but for Jenny, by the Maker he would try. “My lady.”
She took his hand delicately, allowing him to tug her close and slide the coat back around her shoulders as they crossed toward the welcoming tavern. Just shy of the door, Jenny moved until she was tucked up against his side, and the warmth of her, the scent rising from her hair, the whisper of her skirts across the virgin snow—it was all like something out of a dream. This couldn’t be real; this couldn’t be his life.
“Thank you,” she whispered, stopping them again and turning more fully into his arms. One hand slipped out to catch his shirt. Her cheek was pressed to his chest as if she were listening to his heart, head bowed, dark curls lifting like coils of smoke around them with each breeze.
He kissed the crown of her head, arms going tighter around her. Standing out in the snow, flakes dusting his hair and catching in his lashes, he should have felt cold. Instead, all he felt was her. Almost overwhelmed, he cupped the back of her skull with infinite gentleness and brushed his lips across her brow. “For what?”
“For being here.” Jenny pulled back to smile up at him, mask catching the light thrown from the tavern door.
And what could he say to that? Anything he may have tried would have been too awkward, too tangled, the words fumbling as he tried to explain exactly what being here with her in this moment meant to him. Instead, he just smiled helplessly and reached for the door, ushering her inside with a hand at the small of her back and hoping that she could read in his eyes all the impossible things he wasn’t sure how to say.
The Herald’s Rest was almost unrecognizable thanks to Josephine and Vivienne, but at least it was relatively quiet. Just a few people sat about the little tables ringing the first floor, candlelight flickering warm and golden. That bard was in her usual position, singing one of her songs—not the one about Sera, thank the Maker. Or the one he was fairly sure was supposed to be a tribute to him.
But then, of course, the moment he thought that, she ended one song and began another. He winced at the first words. The lion of the night stalks swift ‘cross the skies / fear in his belly and fire in his eyes.
“Upstairs will be a little quieter,” he said, tipping his head toward Jenny’s. Anything to get them away from that damnable song. He dropped a possessive hand to her hip as eyes swung their way. “Do you want to claim a spot while I get us drinks?”
She gave a little nod and he squeezed once—sending a message to any of those men or women who would have followed her—before letting go. Cullen crossed the room toward the bar, casting Maryden a dark look as she sang about battle scars and sleepless nights. Bloody bards and their bloody songs.
“A flagon of wine, if you would,” he said to the barkeep. The man grunted in response, reaching for a silver serving tray that most certainly would have been out of place here on any other night. Cullen tried to imagine Bull drinking out of one of the delicate silver goblets the barkeep was setting out, and he had to turn away, stifling a laugh. The Orlesians dotted about the place looked undeniably at home with the fripperies and finery—and as well they should. Josephine and Vivienne had taken something proud and simple and rustic and twisted it into a gilded mirror image of Orlais.
It was a misstep—one Cullen wished he had fought harder to prevent. As beautiful as the Winter Palace was, Skyhold was beautiful too. Elayne had gone out of her way to make it reflect the people who made up her Inquisition. The Marcher statues, the Orlesian throne, the Dalish-inspired stained glass, the hand-hewn Ferelden furniture… It was a mish-mash of influences and simple, so simple and clean and good and exactly what the Inquisition strove to be.
Not delicate finery and pretentions. Not a poor reflection of Orlais.
“Bah,” he muttered, turning back to snag the tray. He tipped his head toward the barkeep in thanks, biting back a laugh when the man just waved him off in disgust. There was one man, at least, who agreed that the tavern was better the way it had been. Cullen could have cataloged the changes as he climbed to the second floor, then the third, but instead he forced himself to think of pleasanter things. Maryden had moved to a different song; that was good. The wine smelled sweet as it sloshed gently within its decanter; yes, fine.
And then, of course, there was Jenny—surrounded by tiny votives glittering in the dark landing, curvy form framed by the play of light and shadow. She was smiling down at a nosegay of white flowers, fingertips brushing delicately over their petals. He couldn’t make out her expression, but even the way she moved filled his chest with the breathless weightlessness that came before the fall.
Oh. Maker’s breath.
She turned as if sensing him, eyes lifting to his. He cleared his throat, heart pounding ridiculously fast. He lifted the tray with its decanter and two glasses at the arch of her brows. “To save us the trouble of going up and down the steps,” he said, moving to join her. There was a delicate wrist-purse next to the flowers, and the candles immediately surrounding the comfortable-looking bench had been blown out, casting the immediate area in cozy shadow. “Are we encroaching on someone’s territory?”
“No,” Jenny said. She reached out to take his hand, tangling their fingers together even as she took the glass he offered with the other. He couldn’t seem to tear his eyes away from her nearly-shy smile, and though much of her face was covered by the mask, he swore he could see a flush rising up her cheeks as she took a sip of wine.
He wanted to follow that sweep of color with his lips. His tongue.
“Sit with me?” she murmured. He followed at her light tug, sliding into the heavenly soft booth with her. Their thighs brushed as the cushion sank beneath them, drawing them together, and he wanted—He wanted—
He wanted so much. Much too much to admit out loud.
“I almost don’t know what to say to you,” he admitted. There were likely smoother ways to woo a beautiful woman, but his thoughts were in such a jumble he couldn’t do anything but speak the truth. Blind instinct would have to be enough to see him through tonight. “I feel like I know you—like I’ve known you for a long time—and yet we’ve barely had a chance to talk.”
Jenny set her (empty) glass aside, fingers twisting together on her lap. “I know how you feel,” she said in a low voice. He had to lean closer to hear her…but void, that was no hardship. “It’s almost as if I should know everything about you, and yet we’ve only really been in each other’s company for a few hours at a time.”
“Wearing masks, no less.” Cullen made a face. “Have I told you recently how much I dislike wearing a mask?”
She reached out, laughing, and brushed her fingers over his. He immediately took her hands in his, greedy for the touch. The way she made him feel should have been impossible. He had lived his entire life without her; how was it he now felt like he could barely survive any moment his hands weren’t on her?
Fanciful thoughts. Mad thoughts. But they were chasing around and around in his head as he brushed his thumbs lightly over the clever bands of metal criss-crossing her palms.
Jenny cleared her throat. “I can tell,” she said. Was it just his imagination, or was her voice huskier? “I like it, much more than I thought I would. It lets me do things I wouldn’t dare otherwise.”
The look she shot him very nearly had him jolting out of his seat. Cullen sat up straighter, surprised heat buzzing low and insidious in his belly. “Put another few drinks in me and I fear I may show you,” Jenny whispered.
And oh Maker what could he say to that but yes please? He turned to refill their glasses with teasing haste, grinning at her laugh; she had the most extraordinary laugh, full and throaty. It tugged a response from deep inside him, and somehow, blended so perfectly with hers, his own laugh didn’t sound quite so rusty from disuse.
In fact, Cullen mused as the laughter faded and she began to color prettily under his intent gaze, it may have been madness to think it, but being with Jenny made him feel more relaxed, more himself, than he had in years. “Idle curiosity only, I assure you,” Cullen said when she glanced away. He’d hate for her to think he was trying to take advantage of her; Maker, how could he? If anything, he was at her mercy. He was beginning to realize he would do anything to keep feeling this way. “I would see what kind of boldness a mask might bring. Perhaps you will change my mind about them.”
“I see,” she said. “But is it truly a fair experiment? Can we say with any clarity that it was the mask and not the wine that encouraged boldness?”
The low husk of her voice curled hot tendrils through him; Maker, he wanted to kiss her more than he wanted to breathe. “There was no wine by the steps either time,” he murmured, suggestive.
She gasped, eyes slipping shut, and it was all he could do not to drop to his knees in front of her; slide his hands up the diaphanous folds of her dress; drag calloused fingertips along the silk of her thighs. He wanted to watch her eyes darken with heat as he hooked her legs over his broad shoulders and leaned in to press hot, open-mouthed kisses along the trembling apex of her thighs.
To lick between the slick folds of her cunt.
To make her come and come and come and never, ever leave him.
But her eyes squeezed tighter, as if against a painful thought, and worry pushed aside the shimmering haze of desire. Cullen reached out impulsively to cup her face, thumbs brushing along the cool metal of that damnable mask. “Is something wrong?” he murmured.
Jenny blindly set her glass aside and lifted her hands to tangle her fingers in his shirt—pressing them tight over the mad race of his heart.
“No,” she said in a quiet voice, so low he had to tip closer to hear her. “It just overwhelms me a little from time to time.”
He didn’t understand. “What does?” Cullen asked. Was he pushing too hard? Did he want this so much he was making her uncomfortable? “This?”
He started to pull away, but Jenny opened her eyes, the expression in those impossible depths freezing him in place. His heart was pounding so loud surely the milling crowds below couldn’t help but hear. “How much I want you,” she said. “I’ve never wanted anyone like this before.”
“Jenny,” Cullen said—and he swore, he swore he could actually feel the moment he blew past all the doubts, all the disparate pieces of him yelling that this sort of thing didn’t happen to men like him and just…fell in love with her.
Love doesn’t happen like this, he thought, shocked-alive by the feeling. Struggling against it, as if a sword and a shield could save him from this. Not this quickly, not this easily. It’s not possible.
And how would you know, another, quieter part of him whispered, and Andraste save him, but that was true.
Jenny pressed her fingers over his mouth before he could say more. “Don’t call me that,” she said. There was a strange desperation to her words. “Not right now. We can’t be completely honest with each other, but… But right now, I want as few lies between us as possible.”
I love you, I love you, Maker preserve me, I think I love you.
Overwhelmed, Cullen kissed her fingers. He dropped a hand to her waist, following the curve from those lush hips up to the just beneath the full swells of her breasts, and then down again. He could feel the ribs of some kind of corset beneath his fingers, cinching in the natural shape of her, and he wanted nothing more than to reach for his blade and cut her free. Snap the bars of whatever steel-and-bone prison kept her caged and run his hands across soft bare flesh. She had to know how beautiful she was—right? Maker, he would give anything to spend the night mapping her curves and letting her know through every kiss and touch and straining ache of his body. “I would do anything you asked of me right now,” Cullen said with the urgency of a vow, even as she slid her fingers up into his hair. “I would…spout ridiculous poetry and fight duels and—and climb the bloody Frostbacks naked just to pick you flowers.”
Her throaty laugh made him burn; he was straining urgently against his dark trousers. “Now there’s an image,” she said.
“I swear you have me bewitched,” Cullen said. The words seemed to come like they were breaking through a dam—he couldn’t have stopped himself if he tried. “All day, all I could think about was you. All I dreamed about was pressing you back against something soft and— And kissing you, and—” And self-preservation at last kicked in. He bit the inside of his mouth, wincing. Void. Yes, that was exactly what a cultured lady wanted to hear. He was mucking this all up.
“This isn’t very romantic,” he admitted. He could feel the burn of his own cheeks. “I’m sorry. Would you believe I’m trying to be?”
“Yes,” she said with a crooked smile. And then, because she was the most perfect woman in the world: “Would you believe that it’s working?”
“Is it really? Well, then. Have I mentioned that you are the perfect woman?”
Something was seriously wrong with his ability to filter the words before they came tumbling out of his mouth, but at least his blunt honesty seemed to charm her. She laughed, tossing back a few dark curls; the rest fell artfully over her shoulders, coils nestling along the curve of her breasts, drawing his eyes again and again. “Feel free to keep mentioning it,” she said.
Cullen cleared his throat. “I,” he began, then gave up at the husky growl of his own voice. There was no hiding how she affected him; it was in every syllable he spoke.
And she was some demon, clearly, eyes flickering up to meet his, all dark fire. She wet her lips and he very nearly moaned. “When you dreamed of me,” she murmured, “what did you dream?”
There was no way he could answer honestly and not give offense. Cullen stumbled helplessly over his words, fumbling for an answer even as the truth flickered like heat lightning under his skin. I dream of dragging my fingers into your hair and pulling you close. I dream of yanking at that silken bodice until it shreds around you; cracking open that damn corset and watching as your breasts tumble free—big and soft, plush, gorgeous. Nipples tight, fuck, fuck, want to swirl my tongue around them, want to suck them into my mouth and push my hand roughly between your thighs and struggle not to bite.
“I, ah,” he said, shifting awkwardly. Fuck, he was so hard it was a near-constant ache now. Each subtle movement of his hips was a gut-deep struggle not to thrust up against the maddeningly tight tent of his trousers. “Well. It’s. Ah…”
Jenny glanced away—embarrassed? Angry? But before he could apologize or offer some kind of desperate, fumbling attempt to save the moment, she was already turning back to him, reaching out to press a palm against his shoulder. His words, his breath, his very thoughts dried up at the touch—at the look in her eyes, wicked and sweet and fiercely determined.
Cullen smiled, hopeless, helpless, and let his eyes slip shut in relief when she pressed forward for a kiss.
Not embarrassed or angry, then. Not offended. Thank the Maker.
She tipped in, moving closer, and the dark wave of her hair crested forward, brushing his cheeks. Cullen reached up to dig his fingers through that gorgeous tangle and tipped her face for a better angle. It was all he could do not to claim her at once. Instead, he brushed the very tip of his tongue across the seam of her mouth, teasing along the curve of her bottom lip when she sucked in a gasp.
Her lips were parted, welcoming, but he kept the kiss almost painfully shallow—learning and relearning the shape of her mouth, loving the quick, harsh cadence of her breaths. Finally, unable to hold back any longer, he stroked deep into her lips. They both moaned at the first slick of their tongues together, heat incredible, spiking higher and higher as they tangled.
Jenny shifted, then again, pressing closer with a low noise trapped deep in her throat. Cullen growled in response, grip on her hair tightening; he caught her tongue between his teeth and lightly scored the length before sucking away the sting.
There was a rhythm building between them, maddening, and his hands itched to be on her. Jenny’s nails dug hard into his shoulders as he deepened the kiss more and more and more, letting it go messy and hot as he tried to show her just how much he wanted her. Maker, but she was driving him mad. The soft little pants, the stifled cries, the rustle of her skirts, all underscored by Maryden’s song and the electric awareness of people just two stories below.
He wanted to make her keen and he couldn’t, and that contradiction was hot enough to be addictive.
Cullen broke the kiss before he could give in to the desire to press her back against the benched seat and see if he could make her shout. His breath was coming harshly and his voice was little more than a growl. “Was that all right?”
Jenny gave a little nod, almost shy, and he closed his eyes—battling back the fierce need to throw her down and spread her soft thighs and rut like some kind of filthy beast. Maker’s breath, if she could see into his head right now, she would be horrified. He needed to get control of himself before he ruined everything. He needed to—
And then suddenly Jenny was shoving him back, clambering forward with a fierce baring of teeth. She moved into his lap while Cullen just stared, utterly dumbfounded—elated—unable to move as she took control of their encounter with the air of a woman who knew exactly what she wanted, and damn the consequences.
Her arms were twined around his neck, breasts brushing his chest. Her knees braced his hips, a shimmer of blue silk falling across their laps as she bit her bottom lip and met his eyes…then very slowly, very deliberately pressed close, until her weight rested against the cradle of his thighs.
Until she pressed, scalding hot and (oh Maker, oh Maker) perfect, against the straining jut of his cock.
Chapter 9: For cute-ellyna
The sensation was almost too much, burning through him, making his breath go sharp and ragged. Cullen gave a muffled shout, reflexively grabbing hold of her as if, as if, as if Maker, he wouldn’t go spiraling out into this insane surge of pleasure if he just managed to hold on. His grip was too tight, but he couldn’t bring himself to loosen it as his hips jerked up, up, up into the incredible heat of her.
He was so hard he felt breathless with it, lightheaded, straining cock pressed along the slick heat of her smalls—ah, void, he wanted her so much he could barely stand it.
And Jenny just snapped her hips forward in return, grinding against him with a breathy, “Oh!”
She wanted this. Thank the Maker, she wanted this. Almost, perhaps, as much as he did.
Their breaths were coming in harshly syncopated pants. He could feel the heat of each exhale against his cheeks, his slick mouth, making his stomach twist and his cock ache. Their eyes locked, serious, intent, and Cullen stroked his thumbs up and down the heavy boning of her corset. He wanted to crack it open and free her, feel her, lose himself completely in her. “Maker,” he said, watching as Jenny dropped her head back, dark hair tumbling across her shoulders. The noises she was making were driving him crazy—small, barely muffled, spilling past her parted lips as if she didn’t have the strength to swallow them back.
He wanted to swallow them for her. Fish them out of her mouth with his tongue and let her lose herself inside him. The possessive growl rose up inside his chest at the thought, and his big palms slid up the exaggerated curve of her waist. Cullen shifted beneath her, planting his feet against the floorboards for purchase before deliberately rocking up, fascinated by the way she gasped—pink flush rising beautifully across the heaving tops of her breasts. “I want,” he said, only to stutter to a stop. How could he possibly say what he wanted when he wanted everything? “What can I—”
“Anything,” Jenny said at once. She slid her fingers up into his hair, gripping tight. “Please, Maker, I need— Anything.”
That was all the permission he needed. Hands actually trembling with desire, fingers fumbling uselessly, he plucked at the tiny buttons that spanned the back of her dress. He wished suddenly, feverishly that he had more experience with this sort of thing; Dorian would not paw uselessly at a gentleman’s doublet like a boy barely out of adolescence. No, Dorian would be calm and steady and quipping, saying something charming to put his partner at ease, and…
And. And why was he thinking of what Dorian would be doing when he was here, arms full of the most beautiful woman he’d ever met, sweating nervously as he pawed like a fool at her dress?
Focus, damn you, Cullen ordered himself, managing to unfasten another few buttons. He hid his frustrated growl in a kiss, pressing his lips against the curve of her neck, then down to lave her clavicle. He traced his tongue in distracting patterns, catching Jenny’s earlobe between his teeth and tugging sharply.
When she whined and rolled her hips forward, he nearly ripped the damn dress clean off her. The front was sagging tauntingly, going loose across the heavy swell of her breasts, and he was desperate to feel them tumbling free—to cup them in his calloused palms and drag his thumbs across the tightening nipples. He raked his teeth along the column of her neck, wanting; down below, blissfully unaware of what Skyhold’s commander was doing above, that damned bard moved into yet another of her damned songs.
And then Jenny pulled back to meet his eyes, her own dark with lust, mesmeric. She bit her kiss-swollen lower lip, cheeks flushed…and arched her back in a slow, deliberate move that—dear fucking Maker—had her breasts tumbling free, as if she had read his mind; as if she were his every fantasy come to life.
Cullen made a broken noise, trapped high in his throat, so turned on that he very nearly spilled himself then and there. The sight of her heavy breasts, milky-pale and tipped with tight rose-colored peaks was a punch to the gut. He wanted her more than he’d ever wanted anything in his life. The illicit thrill of it, of knowing they could be discovered at any moment, that no one would ever suspect that their commander could be capable of something so wanton and reckless made him feel dangerously lightheaded. Or maybe that was the blood rushing away from his brain, because she was arching so beautifully in his lap, thighs gripping his hips, breasts bare, hair an inky spill between them and. And. And ah, ah void, void, she was incredible, she was—
It felt as if something snapped inside of him. Cullen surged up against her, driving hard against the maddening heat of her cunt, growling. He wanted to be inside that heat more than anything in the world, even as he dropped his hand to cup her full breast, drawing it hungrily to his mouth.
She mewled, arching back sharply, when he caught the peak of her nipple between his teeth. She shook, trembling against him. Jenny was just as soft, as sweet, as he had imagined. She smelled, tasted, incredible. Cullen flattened one hand along Jenny’s spine and dragged her ever closer, tongue swirling along the tight clench of her nipple before he began to suck. Jenny gasped, thrashed, dragging in hard, fast breaths as he groaned brokenly in encouragement.
Maker, her breasts were glorious—big enough that they nearly spilled out of his palm when he slid his free hand around to cup her other breast. He squeezed the left, dragging his tongue along the aching peak of the right at the same time, and the way she writhed against him was both beautiful and maddening at once.
He wanted to give her so much pleasure. He wanted to make her come. That mattered a thousand times more than taking his own pleasure, no matter how much he ached. He tried to convey that in the worshipful way he cupped her breast, thumbnail tracing over the tighttighttight peak. He tried to show her in the way he dragged his lips along tender skin.
Jenny snarled her fingers tighter in his hair and sobbed in a broken breath. “Please,” she cried.
Cullen turned his face at the sound, gasping. He felt drunk on her, utterly consumed. He wouldn’t be satisfied until he’d tasted every last inch of her, teased every last cry from her—leaning in to capture her other breast in his mouth, hands shifting so he could rub the slick spittle against the peak of the first. Jenny was crying out over and over again, in rhythm with the tugs of his lips, his tongue. Everything in him tumbled headfirst into that thrum—his cock ached with it, his breath came out in ragged pants, his heart thundered to the aching cries growing gradually louder, louder, louder. Cullen could feel the way she was tensing against him and knew that she was seconds away from finding release, just as he knew she would not reach it from this alone. The restless shift of her hips against him was its own sort of plea, and void take him, he would not leave her wanting.
He would give her anything within his power to give.
Cullen dropped his hand and shoved up the blue silk of her skirts, moving them roughly aside. She gasped, lush body jolting as he pushed sword-roughened fingers into the ridiculously delicate, sopping wet smalls—lace snagging, rending against the rough intrusion—and hooked them deep into her body, palm pressed flush against the throb of her clit.
He barely had time to grind down against it with just the pressure she would need before Jenny cried out, loud. Too loud. Down below, the tavern went alarmingly quiet.
Cullen lifted his head, hissing a breath. He heard the heavy tread of a foot upon the stair.
“Fuck,” Jenny whispered. He could only wholeheartedly agree—especially when seconds later there was another noise, this time from the door at the far end of their landing: drunken voices laughing, calling to each other, talking about that damned treasure hunt.
If Josephine hadn’t been, well, Josephine, he may have throttled her. Or at least cursed her name. But she was Josephine, and not even he could be that churlish, so Cullen just sighed and squeezed his eyes shut to control the flare of rage.
He was vibrating so strongly with pent-up sexual frustration that he would have gladly glared down any of nobles that came spilling through that door—the way he would have were they his own men—then lose himself in Jenny again. But he hated the thought of embarrassing her—of Jenny feeling anything but pleasure when she was with him—so instead, he carefully slid his hand free, hating the little noise of disappointment she barely swallowed. He caught her around the waist and lifted her, murmuring, “I’m sorry.”
Her skirts fell easily into place, hiding the way her legs trembled, but her bodice still sagged beneath the heavy swell of her breasts—slick, Maker take him, from his lips and tongue. His mouth went dry at the sight. He dragged in a serrated breath, heat unspooling low in his gut, then forced himself to refocus.
Think, he commanded, reaching to help tug up the front of her bodice, then around to close the gap between buttons and their damnably tiny holes. They needed to get her dressed again, and fast.
That was easier said than done. His fingers fumbled uselessly; he was hyperaware of the voices growing closer, of the heavy tread making its way up the stairs. Seconds seemed to toll like warning bells in his head. Any moment now, and they would be caught.
“Marcus,” Jenny said. She looked up at him, eyes huge.
He growled, fumbling faster at the buttons, only managing to fasten one out of every four. Finally, unable to take the rising tension, he snapped, “Oh void take it,” and grasped her shoulders, spinning her around. She grabbed the front of her bodice, visibly trying to suck in to make it easier to draw her dress closed. He had no idea how she’d managed to pour herself into it in the first place, but whatever handmaiden had assisted her clearly had more presence of mind than the void-taken commander of the Inquisition, because this was all bloody well beyond him. “It’s not,” he protested, fighting down rising frustration.
He had surmounted a humble background, initiation, demons, the madness of his commander, lyrium, a hole tearing open the sky…and yet he was finally going to be felled by Maker. Taken. Buttons.
“Your coat,” she said, tugging sharply at her dress. There were huge gaps between where he’d managed to get a button or two in place; when he flung his coat over her shoulders, she managed to barely look respectable. It would do, at least.
He’d no sooner taken a step back from her when the door banged open, drunken fools swarming into the loft with a trill of bright laughter. They swept up around them, between them, in a sudden violent burst of color and perfume and confusion. Cullen planted his heels, bracing against the onslaught as a woman in a green plumed mask pressed close and laughed wine-fumed gusts against his cheek.
“Why, hello,” she purred, buffeted up against him by the crowd. “Unmask!” She reached up, fingers fumbling against his cheeks; Cullen jerked his face away with a strangled noise, fighting not to shove her back with all his strength. His skin felt hypersensitized, and adrenaline was doing funny things to his legs. He felt flushed hot and all at once beset from all sides.
It was…it was a kind of madness, that sudden clamor of colors and smells and sounds spinning like a top around him. He turned away, trying to ward off all-too-bold hands and desperately scanned the crowd, searching for Jenny.
She had disappeared into the crush, and when he realized he had lost her, Cullen felt a sudden stab of panic. His breath was caught high and tight in his chest, and he, he, oh void take him, he just needed to think. Everything was fine; he was fine, she was fine. He just needed to…
Somewhere far away, the bells were tolling midnight.
Pull yourself together, you fool. These are no demons. Cullen sucked in a breath and grabbed the woman’s wandering hand. He forced himself to keep his grip light as he gently but firmly pushed her away—scouring the rainbow burst of color, the confusing kaleidoscope of feathers and sequins and velvets, masks like snarling beasts, like wide pits full of gleaming white teeth. He violently shook off that thought. Cullen took a step forward, boxed in by the crowd, wishing he could shove the nobles out of his way, could bare his sword and fight them back and find her and claim her and escape with her and—
He looked up just in time to catch her turning to meet his eyes.
And for a moment, the confusing jumble, the assault of sensation, narrowed down once more until there was only her.
Jenny was framed in the doorway that lead to the broken tower, lovely in shades of icy blue. With darkness behind her and a riot of color just a few steps below, she was an oasis, a revelation. She looked serene as the moon itself—and he, oh he, he was the tide tugged in her wake.
“Jenny,” he murmured, soaking her in. The whole tavern seemed silent, though he knew the chaos was still spinning madly between them. Even so, all he heard was the pounding of his heart in his ears. All he could see was her.
Just…Jenny. Jenny. Jenny.
If he could reach her, he could have some small part of that stillness. It seemed nothing terrible could happen when she was near. The maddening blare of noise and grasping hands and endless demands could be pushed aside and he would have this.
Then she shook her head, very slightly, and mouthed across the vast and growing gulf between them: “I’m sorry.”
“Jenny!” he cried, jerking forward—held back by the crowd between them, by hands on him, and all at once the cacophony was swarming back, filling his head, making him stumble. He tried to shove them away, no longer caring to be gentle, but there were too many of them; the crowd was like quicksand around him. “Wait!”
If she heard, he would never know. He watched, helpless to stop her, as Jenny turned on her heel and darted away, skirts swirling like mist around her. The coat fluttered from her shoulders, but she didn’t turn to grab for it…and Maker, but he couldn’t help but read something into that. The way she shed him so easily, the way she was so willing to run away again and again, as if she wasn’t half as lost in him as he was in her.
As if she wasn’t struck to the core and trembling.
That was the hardest part to bear because maybe…maybe she wasn’t.
“Jenny,” he said again, quietly, losing sight of her. It felt suspiciously like his heart was breaking.
A gloved hand slid across his waist, pushing low, and Cullen moved away with a snarl. The woman laughed up at him, all coy amusement; she pressed her fingers against her lips. “Someone was having a good time,” she cooed, accent thick and Orlesian. She dropped her hand down her front, very obviously tracing the deep cut of her cleavage. “Perhaps the night need not end after all? Hmm?”
His stomach twisted; he had to look away or he would be ill.
He needed to get out of here.
Ignoring the woman’s indignant cry, Cullen pushed his way past her—through the boisterous crowd filling up the tavern. It was like giving himself over to a storm, each flash of color and glint of metal blinding him. He dropped his head, trying to ignore the overstimulation—the hands trailing over his body, as if he were communal property—as he made his way to the still-open doorway.
Finally, finally he broke free, stumbling into the blessedly cool dark. The bells had long since silenced, and he strained to hear the sound of Jenny’s distant footsteps—fleeing from him, perhaps for the last time.
Maker. What would he do if he never saw her again?
Letting out a shaking breath, Cullen reached back and blindly shoved the door closed behind him. The din of the party was instantly muffled, and he was swept into blue-tinted darkness. Flakes of snow slowly wended their way down, passing through holes in the ceiling. They felt inexplicably good against his heated cheeks.
Cullen drew in another breath, then let it out slowly, slowly, slowly. He stepped forward, bending to snag his coat from the floor. The far door was still open from Jenny’s flight, a cold wind blowing from the parapets. The night he could see through its austere rectangle was black and lonely and full of distant stars.
“Damn it,” Cullen murmured, lifting his coat to press his face against the rough velvet nub. He filled his lungs with the scent of it, of him and a hint of Jenny’s soft perfume mingled together. He felt like an utter fool, but if this was all he could have of her…
If this was all he was allowed to have…
“Damn it,” he said again, squeezing his eyes shut. It was rank idiocy to feel heartbroken over a women he barely knew, and yet standing there in such great uncertainty, snow gathering silver against his stooped shoulders, he felt—
Gutted. Knowing she had fled from him and uncertain if he would ever again be allowed to see her smile. Soon the ball would be over and she would become nothing but a memory…and he still did not know her true name.
Two midnights gone; he was running out of time.
Chapter 10: For pterodactyldrops
Cullen did his best to hide his disappointment, but he was certain Leliana at least could see it writ clear across his face.
One last night. As much as he wished they could extend the ball for days—weeks—more, he knew Leliana and Josephine were right. They had to allow the Orlesian court to return; they had to bow their heads and accept that their time was over. And if Jenny chose not to see him…
One last night. The thought of that made his heart pick up a slow, unsteady rhythm. Skyhold would be theirs again. The fancy china and chandeliers would be retired, their old friends would drift back like the return of the tide, and he would close himself away in his lonely tower again and spend his days fighting to save Thedas and his nights trying to remember the exact shade of Jenny’s eyes. The shape of her smile.
Maker, he could bear a great deal, but he was starting to think that fate would be too hard for even him to shoulder.
“If there is no more business to discuss?” Elayne asked in her low voice. Her eyes were on the war map as if she were studying the metal pieces strewn across the table, but he could tell from the too-quick flick of her lashes that her thoughts were miles away.
Josephine inclined her head. “I have nothing more for you, Inquisitor.”
He wet his lips. “There is nothing further to report.”
“I have nothing official,” Leliana began, drawing out the last word playfully. Her gaze cast to Josephine, and Cullen instinctively took a step back; he knew that look. He didn’t need more sisters than the Maker himself would know what to do with to understand he should leave before he got dragged into something he wasn’t ready to face. “But if Josephine and I might have a moment of your time…”
“Later, perhaps?” Elayne said. She looked up, and he swore he saw something almost…tragic…flash behind her eyes before she hid the emotion with one of her usual gentle smiles. He smiled back, just a little. Just enough for Elayne to know she wasn’t alone in whatever she was facing. “I needed to have a word with Ser Cullen. Commander, will you walk with me?”
“Of course,” Cullen said, very lightly stressing the words. Her smile grew just a fraction at the reassurance, but it was enough to send warmth unfolding like origami in his chest. Their Inquisitor took much too much to heart; he was glad whenever she was willing to lay any kind of burden on him. Whatever it took to help.
He moved around the table to join her even as Elayne stepped toward the door. She pushed it open and held it for him, while behind them Leliana learned toward Josephine and murmured something soft into the shell of her ear.
Josephine muffled a laugh. The door closed behind them.
Cullen glanced down at Elayne, but she was staring down at her feet, her expression a million miles away. Loose coils of golden hair brushed her round cheeks as they began moving down the hall together, past Josephine’s office and toward the inner doors. The sounds of clattering pots drifted up the stairwell from the temporary spillover kitchens. The scent of woodsmoke and hot buns made Cullen’s stomach rumble in response.
Still, Elayne was silent.
He came to the inner door first, holding it open for her. The Grand Hall was another world in the full light of day. Sunlight cast dazzling beams of contrasting color through the stained glass, creating strange shapes that danced and swayed across the gleaming floors. Someone had swept up the debris of the ball and servants were in the process of resetting the Grand Hall for that one final evening. That one final chance.
Maker. He couldn’t think about that right now or he might well go mad.
“You needed to speak with me, Inquisitor?” he asked instead. They moved together into Solas’s rotunda.
She looked up at the sound of his voice, brows faintly arched. “Honestly?” she said. “No. I just needed an excuse to avoid Josephine and Leliana.”
He gave a surprised bark of laughter, then cleared his throat. A servant dusting off one of the little gilt chairs looked up curiously as they passed before dropping her eyes back to her task. “Is it like that, then?” he mused, holding open the door that led out to his tower. “I assume they wish to debrief you on the evening’s events?”
“Ah, yes. Something like that.”
Cullen couldn’t imagine what it must be like to be the Inquisitor. He, at least, had the luxury of begging off the gala…or at least of pretending to. Of donning comfortable anonymity. Of enjoying the simple pleasure of not having to be himself for hours at a time.
It was strange, how bloody difficult it was just to be him. Just to be any of them, he supposed. Trapped in the public eye, shouldering the burden of lives, knowing every decision, every choice, every mission failed or succeeded represented lives being won or lost. Commander Cullen ate and slept and sweated duty and sacrifice and responsibility. Marcus…all Marcus had to do was convince a beautiful woman he was worth her time.
How much worse must it be for Elayne? Quiet, introverted, kind Elayne, who took everything to heart and tried so hard sometimes he wanted to pound his fist against the table and demand that everyone just leave her be. Just for an hour, just—
But no. She wasn’t allowed that. She was the Inquisitor, and he had seen her in her mask and damnably uncomfortable red velvets, holding court for the curious Orlesians as if the role she’d so gracefully accepted made her something less than human along with something more than divine.
“For what it’s worth,” Cullen suddenly said, glancing over. “I am sorry to abandon you to our guests. Truly,” he added. The wind was blowing, scattering the most recent snowfall. “I would offer to let you hide out in my tower if I thought…” He rubbed the back of his neck, suddenly feeling awkward. Dorian, he noted, was leaning against his tower doorframe, waiting with the indolence of a stray cat to be let in.
“No,” Elayne was saying, “but thank you. That’s your sanctuary. Besides, perhaps the ball has grown on me.”
Perhaps. If you meet the right people, I suppose it could.
She looked over at him, startled, and Cullen flushed and rubbed at the back of his neck again. Bloody hell, had that been aloud? Had he really started spouting off the poetic nonsense tumbling through his thoughts where just anyone could hear?
The thought was absolutely horrifying.
“Perhaps,” she said. Then—probably just as embarrassed by his mawkish sentimentality as he was—she deliberately looked away. “Oh, it looks like Dorian is waiting for you.”
Cullen looked over, meeting Dorian’s eyes. The other man was straightening, slow grin curling across his handsome face. “It would seem he is,” Cullen said. He blinked at the beaming welcome but smiled back out of habit. Next to him, Elayne was smiling too, her whole face lighting up in that way she had. “Dorian,” he said. He wonder if Dorian had this effect on everyone he met.
(And then he remembered Blackwall and had to swallow a laugh disguised a low cough. Because no, maybe not everyone was so charmed by Dorian after all.)
Dorian, for his part, just radiated a particularly smug joy. “I see you’ve finally figured it out,” he said expansively, as if they were children fumbling through a remedial bit of spellwork he’d set for them. Dorian’s chest puffed out and his mustache was practically bristling. “And with no wounded feelings to be seen. All hail and huzzah!”
Cullen looked at Elayne. Elayne looked at Cullen. Both of them looked at Dorian.
“Um…I’m sorry?” Elayne said.
“What are you on about?” Cullen demanded.
Dorian hesitated, then slowly, slowly began to deflate. He glanced between them, dark brows rising slightly. Clearly whatever reaction he’d been expecting, it hadn’t been that. Cullen watched, curious, as the joy turned to surprise turned to disappointment turned to faux cheer all in one breath. Dorian’s grin was back almost as bright as before, but there was a dulled edge beneath it, as if they’d failed some kind of important test. “Why, I meant you finally figured out that you had to lock your doors throughout the day against unwanted Orlesian guests,” Dorian said, reaching out to jiggle the handle pointedly. “And since you are hale and hearty without a single scratch on you, I must assume you managed it without starting any exciting new blood feuds.”
Cullen let out an aggravated breath, part at the playacting and part…well, part because bullshitting or not, Dorian had hit on what had become the absolute bane of his days. If Jenny weren’t waiting for him every night, Cullen wasn’t sure he would have made it through those days without following Solas off into the highest peaks of the Frostbacks. Hell, he’d go back to Kirkwall to escape some of his admirers.
Elayne’s slow smile grew wickedly teasing; she laughed. “Are your admirers really coming to your door?”
The sound of that laugh was all the encouragement he needed to play along. Anything to keep the Inquisitor smiling like that. “By the droves,” Cullen said, not even having to reach far to dredge up the proper amount of weary disgust. “I think they must be encouraged by firm refusals. I can see no other blasted reason why they’d even bother.”
“My dear Cullen,” Dorian teased, pushing himself away from the door as Cullen unearthed the key, “I will never understand how a man who looks like you has such a weak passing familiarity with vanity. Wouldn’t you agree, Elayne?”
The fond roll of his eyes turned into a glare when Dorian invited the Inquisitor’s opinion. That wasn’t—That was not how his back-and-forth with Dorian usually went. It was one thing to have Dorian tease him like, well, that. He wasn’t sure he was comfortable with the idea of Elayne being pulled into the game.
Not that he cared whether the Inquisitor found him handsome or not.
Not that it had ever once crossed his mind.
Not that it mattered to him in the slightest.
Cullen cast a quick, hot-cheeked glanced her way…but Elayne was not paying attention. In fact, she was so obviously not paying attention that Dorian’s eyes narrowed and Cullen was forced to laugh at his own expense. “Don’t make the Inquisitor perjure herself on my account, Dorian,” he said, shoulders relaxing. Somehow, Elayne’s obvious disinterest in him didn’t feel like a slight. If anything, it set him at ease. He never did know what to do with a beautiful woman’s regard. “Unlike you, my vanity is not a cat in need of constant attention.”
“I’m sorry?” Elayne said, glancing up between them. Then her eyes went comically wide. “Oh!” she said, hand flying to cover her mouth, a laugh shivering beneath her words; Cullen grinned back, utterly relaxed and, oddly, happy in the moment. Friends. He was amongst friends. That was good, too. He needed to remember that even if he lost Jenny tonight, he could still have this. “Oh, I’m so sorry, Cullen. Yes, of course, you are a very handsome man.”
“Yes, Elayne, and I am sure your delayed response makes him feel it.”
Her soft cheeks flushed a brilliant petal-pink. “I truly am sorry,” she promised, and all Cullen could do was laugh and wave the concern away. “My mind was just wandering to, ah, something I just remembered I must do.”
Dorian snorted, reaching out to tweak one of her long curls. “Fly away, little sparrow,” he said, then turned back to Cullen. A dark brow arched. “Cullen, if you have the attention to spare…” Dorian let the words trail away in clear invitation.
Cullen crossed his arms as the Inquisitor left them with breathless thanks. He tried not to pay attention to the way she sprinted across the walkway before hopping down to the landing below, lithe as a Kirkwall cutpurse. He hated watching the Inquisitor’s impulsive acrobatics—it never failed to make his heart race as he strained to hear the sound of crunching bone.
When he didn’t hear a cry or the thwack of the Herald of bloody Andraste busting her holy head open on the paving stones, his shoulder minutely relaxed.
“I do so hate it when she does that,” Dorian tsked, moving to peer over the ledge.
Cullen just shook his head and unlocked the tower door, pushing it open. It was early enough that even the most determined of his admirers hadn’t come knocking, but he figured they did not have long. “Come inside if you are coming,” he said, striding in. “And lock up behind you. If you let them into the tower, I will let them have you.”
“But, my dear Cullen,” Dorian protested, following Cullen inside. He tugged the door closed behind him, turning the key with a flourish. “I am not the one who shrinks in horror at attention. Though.” He turned, leaning back against the door. His dark eyes gleamed in the fitful streams of golden light pushing through the cracks in the ceiling. “Perhaps this was simply all a ploy to get me alone.” He waggled his brows.
Dorian pushed away from the door with a laugh. “No,” he said, tossing the key Cullen’s way. “I’m not that fortunate, it is true. Alas, alack; it seems instead I must counsel you on the care of your new lady-friend. How is dear old Jenny of Starkhaven, hmm?”
He shoved the key back into the folds of his coat and moved around the corner of his desk with a growing frown. The heavy desk wobbled when he knocked against it—damned thing never had been right since the last thaw—and he kicked his chair back, collapsing into it with an almost-Dorian-like sigh.
Dorian’s brows climbed. “That poorly?” he mused.
“That frustrated,” Cullen countered. He dragged his fingers through his hair. “Dorian.” He hesitated, then sighed and scrubbed the meat of his palms over his face. “I am about to ask you a question that is just asking for mockery.”
Dorian immediately brightened. “Now this sounds promising,” he said, perching on the edge of Cullen’s desk. It wobbled beneath his weight. “Is it scandalous? Will I blush? Should I avert my eyes and hold my breath?”
“You could refrain from being a complete arse about it—”
Dorian waved his hand as if to brush aside the mere suggestion.
“—but I will not hold my breath for that. All of this is to say… I would not ask if I had anything in the way of recourse, but… Considering the events of the last two nights, I cannot help but wonder…”
Cullen floundered, searching for the right words. It was mortifying to have to ask, even the man he’d likely consider one of his closest friends. This sort of thing…it had never come easily to him, and his chosen profession had shielded him from the necessity of having to learn. Was that how he had reached this stage in his life with so much hunger and so little applicable skill?
Sex, sex was easy. Sex he knew how to do. But he had no idea how to make Jenny want to stay, and he was equally as lost whenever he thought about what he might do if she were to leave forever.
“Void take it,” Cullen murmured, scrubbing at his face again.
He stilled at the soft hand on his shoulder. Dorian was leaning forward, brows drawn into an inverted V, eyes warm and soft and not even a little mocking. “Peace, Cullen,” he said quietly. “Whatever you have to say, I promise you, it sounds worse stuck in your head that it would shared between friends.”
“I am in love with her,” Cullen blurted all on one breath. Then he sighed and rubbed at his face again. “And you are a bald-faced liar, Dorian—that sounded far worse aloud. Maker, what a bloody fool I am.”
“To be in love is to be a fool,” Dorian agreed. “But it helps that you’re rarely a fool alone. How did Jenny react when you told her?”
Cullen looked up, brows arched. Dorian leaned back on his hands. “Ah,” he said. “You have not told her. Well, that does explain things, I suppose. Will you tell her tonight?”
“I don’t know. I don’t—” Cullen stood suddenly, shoving his chair back. He needed to be moving. “I don’t know what to do with any of this. It is too soon; it is too soon, isn’t it?” He paced away from the desk, fingers tangling in his own hair. Now that the words had burst free, he felt incapable of swallowing them back again. They just kept pouring out of him, messy and painful and so frustratingly confounding that he couldn’t seem to find the wherewithal to corral them into order. What was it about beautiful women that could send his orderly world sailing arse over teakettle every time? “If I tell her I love her, she will think me a madman. I haven’t even seen her face.”
“Blah blah blah, but you’ve seen her heart, blah, masks let us be ourselves, and so on.” Dorian just waved off Cullen’s glare. “I am cutting to the quick of it, my friend; you will thank me later. You love her. You say it is too soon, but really, with red lyrium threatening to swallow the world and a power-mad magister looking to damn us all, perhaps a little haste isn’t so out of the question. And if she makes you happy…” He trailed off.
Cullen sighed and leaned back against the wall. He imagined Jenny’s smile and the warmth of her breath against his lips. He imagined the sweet scent of her, like sugared violets, and the gentle fall of snow caught like stars in the dark cloud of her hair. “She makes me happy,” he admitted quietly. “I don’t remember the last time I felt this way. I’m not convinced I ever have.”
Dorian’s expression went soft. “Oh, Cullen,” he sighed. “Then there we have it. You must see her tonight, and you must tell her how you feel. Perhaps you should start by telling her who you are.”
But Cullen was already shaking his head. “I don’t want to try to force her hand. I’d hate for her to agree to be with me because of some misplaced sense of gratitude.” He was commander of the Inquisition’s armies. He was helping to save the world. That was a lot of pressure to place on so delicate a decision.
“Well you can’t very well wear a mask your entire lives,” Dorian pointed out. “Eventually, you will have to show the goods.” He gestured expansively up and down Cullen’s body, brows giving a little dance. “All of them.”
Cullen just snorted. “Please stop picturing me naked,” he said. “I hate it when you do that.”
“And I said that you could picture me naked in retaliation any time you wished,” Dorian purred, then laughed at Cullen’s flat stare. “All right, all right—but you can’t blame a man for trying one last time before love wins out after all. I’m happy for you, Cullen,” Dorian added suddenly. “Truly.”
Cullen swallowed, straightening. “Thank you,” he said. “But you may want to reserve that happiness for when I finally manage to convince her to stay long enough to listen to me fumble a confession. This is going to go terribly,” he added, pushing away from the wall to pace again. “I am terrible at this.”
“You could practice on me.” Dorian smoothed his mustache and crossed his legs. “Come: you see me across a crowded ballroom. I am wearing a mask and a devastatingly beautiful dress. All eyes are upon us. What do you say?”
“You are an ass,” Cullen said, laughing.
Dorian tsked. “No! You will not get into my silky underthings with such language. Now.” He rapped his knuckles against the desk. “Try again, and use words like ravishing and love and perfection. Also, give me that look—you know the one. The my soul is being sucked out by my nostrils I am so gobsmacked by your feminine mystique look.”
“…I really do hate you. Why did I let you into my tower again?”
“It’s a riddle for the ages, my friend,” Dorian said. “Come on, practice; we do not have all day. Or should I bring the Inquisitor back? Would you find it easier to practice confessing your undying love to Elayne?” He actually started to stand as if about to go and do just that.
Cullen couldn’t explain why, but the mere idea of that—of letting Elayne know that any of this confusing mess was churning inside his head and heart—made his breath freeze in his chest. “Don’t you dare,” Cullen growled, and only Dorian’s laugh was enough to keep him from flying up into arms at the…the mere thought of Elayne looking up at him with those kind eyes as he struggled to find words not meant for her.
Maker. Even the suggestion was making wires cross in his brain, because for a moment there, he swore he could picture Elayne in Jenny’s mask, her hair a dark cloud, her lips a slick, inviting red.
When he looked up to meet Dorian’s eyes, he caught an edge of frustrated hope there, but Dorian swallowed it back with a sigh. It was gone so quickly, he must have imagined it. “Are you done being brutish and brooding now?” Dorian demanded.
“No,” Cullen said after a moment’s deliberate thought, and Dorian’s laughter was enough to have him smiling again, relaxing into their easy friendship—even if his heart, trapped within the cage of his chest, pounded rapid fire as if counting the seconds to nightfall.
Chapter 11: For Elyssa
She wasn’t coming.
Andraste save him, but this time She. Wasn’t. Coming.
Cullen stood in the center of the ballroom, the eye of the maelstrom, barely aware of the dizzying swirl of color as Orlesians moved about him in a blur. The candles burned low, light casting off jewels and laughing faces. Masks meant for anonymity now made monsters of them all, snarling in the periphery of his vision as he stood frozen in their midst.
He felt as if he’d been hit by one of Dorian’s ice spells. He felt…shattered in some unmistakable way that was at once both all too real and all too mortifying. He was a grown man. He was the commander of the Inquisition’s troops. He had survived far greater nightmares than being left stranded by a woman he barely knew.
…standing here, alone and knowing there was nothing he could do to find her, he felt a sort of desperate emptiness he wasn’t sure he knew how to control. Heartbreak. Wasn’t that what he was feeling?
“For Andraste’s sake,” Cullen murmured beneath his breath, willing himself to just leave. To put one foot in front of the other and stop standing here like a fool, hoping, as the clock wound closer and closer to midnight.
For the first few hours of the ball, he’d made his way through the throngs in a careful, deliberate search. He’d been so certain that each lady turning to glance his way would be her; he’d been so sure that she felt for him at least a fraction of what he felt for her…and if she did, if she cared even that much, surely, surely she would be here.
And yet moments passed into minutes, minutes into hours, hours into this. As time stretched around him, he grew more and more desperate—pushing past laughing couples, scanning faces, hoping, hoping, hoping. But she wasn’t there. He searched every corner of the ballroom, scoured the tavern and the grounds, called her name like a fool as he stood on the frozen steps, and she was not there.
She had made her choice on this, their final night. She had chosen…and whatever it was Jenny wanted, it wasn’t him.
Cullen closed his eyes. He was aware of the ball swirling gaily around him, and yet he felt rooted in place. He wasn’t sure he trusted himself to move—because he knew he should return to his tower. He knew he should accept what Jenny was telling him with her absence.
And yet, even now, he couldn’t bring himself to kill that last flicker of hope that she might change her mind and come to him after all. You fool. You lost, pathetic fool.
“And what are you doing, standing like a maypole while the rest of us weave ribbons about you?”
He didn’t open his eyes at Dorian’s voice, shouted over the music and laughter of the crowd. He didn’t move. It wasn’t until he felt the warm hand at his elbow and heard Dorian’s low, “No, we are done dancing now. Yes, yes, off with you,” that he allowed himself to be pulled back into the wild glitter of the party.
A young man was backing away, lips twisted in a sour expression beneath a bone white mask; Dorian barely paid him any mind. “What happened?” he asked, eyes scanning what he could see of Cullen’s face.
Cullen tried to speak, but his voice was too raw. He cleared his throat and tried again. “You should go after him,” he said, feeling awkward and stilted, like he didn’t quite belong to his own body anymore. He hadn’t felt like that in a long, long time. “He doesn’t look happy with you.”
“Please ask me if I care. On second thought, don’t. Cullen.” Dorian gripped his elbow and tugged. There was a moment of resistance, almost as if Cullen really had managed to take root in the shining onyx floor, but then he took a stumbling step forward, then another, then another, and he was following Dorian out of the eye of the storm.
It was a relief, he realized, to enter the relative calm of Solas’s rotunda. There were fewer curious, pitying gazes following him, fewer dark clouds of hair and laughing faces that turned out not to be Jenny. He sank into the spindly gilt chair Dorian pointed to, rubbing a hand over his jaw.
“I feel like an idiot,” Cullen admitted as Dorian took the chair next to his.
“Explain why before I confirm or deny such a thought.” Dorian caught the eye of a passing servant, snagging two glasses of champagne and pressing one into Cullen’s hands. “Also, drink. You look as if raiders sacked and burned your no doubt excessively charming village.”
He looked down at the drink in his hands, considering a protest—then mentally shrugged and drained the glass in one swallow. Why not? He wasn’t here as himself. “I thought for sure she would come,” Cullen explained. “I had everything planned in my head. What I would say to convince her how I felt. What I would do, how I would beg her to stay. I just…want her to stay.”
“Cullen,” Dorian said, sympathy bright in his eyes.
Cullen waved it off sharply. “It was arrogant to assume she felt the same way. Because, what, we kissed? Because she let me touch her? She doesn’t owe me anything, but Maker, I had hoped…” He set the glass aside before he could shatter it in his fist. “She’s not here.”
“She must be here,” Dorian countered. “She feels the same for you; I know she does.”
“You can’t say that. You can’t know that for certain. You weren’t…” There. Cullen slumped back in the ridiculously tiny chair, shoulders rounded forward. “It’s the ball,” he decided. “This…damned masked ball, filling my head with all kinds of nonsense. Real lives don’t happen this way. Love isn’t this easy to fall into, and hearts don’t break. It’s all some kind of fairy tale, and if I refuse to believe in it, it can’t hurt me.”
Dorian made a soft noise, nearly lost under a crescendo of music. His hand was warm and familiar on Cullen’s arm, grounding him. Cullen was so, so pathetically grateful for the gesture. It was a reminder that he was no longer that young Templar, stumbling foolish and alone into a demon’s trap. He was no longer the raw Knight-Captain turning a blind eye on horrors he should have been man enough to face. He’d made it through, he’d made it past, he had friends and men who cared whether or not his mind was his own.
That was solace in itself, wasn’t it? That softened this last, terrible blow.
It didn’t matter if he’d fancied himself in love. It didn’t matter that he’d lost that…ephemeral emotion…before he could even truly come to understand it. Surely he didn’t need Jenny when he had his duty and he had his post and he had this.
“I can see you trying to gather yourself again,” Dorian said, squeezing Cullen’s arm. “And I commend the effort—but I promise you, your lady will find you.”
“And if she does not?”
Dorian sniffed, sitting back—finally letting go. “Then I will track her down and make her come to her bloody senses…if I have to stuff her into one of those fine gowns myself.”
“Dorian,” Cullen began, chiding.
Dorian simply waved him off. “No, no, don’t look at me like that. I’m in a fair mind to do it now. Honestly, toying you along like this and then waiting until the last possible moment—” He let out a harsh breath. “If I know her, she is hidden behind some door now, agonizing over something that is supposed to be so very simple.
Cullen wet his lips. “You…appear to know her well,” he said slowly.
“If she’s willing to treat you like this, clearly not as well as I thought.”
“Don’t,” Cullen said. Even now, he couldn’t sit by and let Dorian talk about Jenny like that.
Dorian sighed. “Oh very well. Though she will get an earful for this later.” He looked over at Cullen, lips pulled into an unhappy line. It was gratifying, in a way, to know that his friend cared so much for his happiness. It was also confusing—not that Dorian cared, but that Dorian seemed to know so much. What exactly was he hiding? Did he know who Jenny was? Would he—
No. No, it wouldn’t be right to ask. Cullen wanted Jenny to tell him. Still, he felt like there were puzzle pieces slowly clicking into place, and if he only had more time—and less aggravation from the Orlesian peacocks swanning about the place in a confusion of color and jewelry and battling scents—he could easily step back and see the whole picture.
A thought occurred to him, impossible and yet just as impossible to ignore. “Dorian,” Cullen began slowly, uncertain how to ask what he was gradually beginning to suspect. “Is—”
He was cut off by the tolling of the bell.
One. Two. Three.
All around them, the frenzy of the ball stilled as the clock struck the time in Skyhold’s highest tower.
Four. Five. Six.
Cullen curled his hands into loose fists. That clock had dictated the course of his life for two evenings now, tolling its warning and spiriting Jenny away at each midnight. He knew it was ridiculous to resent it, but he couldn’t help the low coil of annoyance.
Seven. Eight. Nine.
The music had died and partygoers were standing about in little clusters; he could just make out the rest of the ballroom through the open rotunda door—an entire swath of uplifted faces as the bell tolled out the remainder of their night.
One hour closer to midnight. One hour closer to the end of this…fairy tale, farce, comedy or tragedy or whatever it was he had somehow wandered into. One hour closer to the end.
The clock tolled its last bell, echoing and dying away once more, and for a single moment in its aftermath, there was silence all through Skyhold. As if the entire ball held its collective breath. As if it were straining for something it couldn’t define—snow in dark hair, a sweet smile, the breath before a kiss.
Then a violin wailed, loud as a woman’s cry, and the music began again. The moment was broken…and yet something was different.
“Cullen,” Dorian began, picking up their discussion again, but Cullen lifted his hand for silence, frowning. He stood, aware of a ripple of…of something…happening in the main room. Murmurs rose and fell in waves and people were shifting back from the main dais, turned toward it like flowers toward the sun. All he could see were their backs, and yet a sudden hope surged through him hard enough to steal his breath. He took a step forward, then another, another, heart beginning to hammer. It couldn’t possibly be. And yet…
“By the Maker,” someone said, “who is she?”
…and yet somehow he knew.
“Jenny,” Cullen breathed. He was dimly aware of Dorian saying something, but the words—the crowd, the ball, the whole void-taken world—was falling away like pieces of a shattered mirror. Like that ice spell he could have sworn had been holding him in place, scattering about his feet in gleaming shards as he stumbled forward.
The crowd was buzzing with awed whispers, but Cullen barely paid them any mind. He pushed blindly through groups of men and women, heart pounding triple-time in his chest. She came, she came, echoed over and over in his head; he could just make out the crown of Jenny’s dark hair as she stepped down from the dais, moving with enviable confidence into the slowly parting crowd.
They made way for Jenny as if by a spell, but he had to fight to pass through the gathered courtiers. He grit his teeth and pushed past whispering men and women, barely seeing them; eyes fixed on dark curls, on a flash of deep red. He wanted to dig his fingers in her hair and lift her face for a biting, desperate kiss. He wanted to tell her every hope that was tumbling in his chest.
He wanted her, full stop. For as long as she would allow it.
Finally, finally Cullen managed to push past the last of the crowd, stumbling into the open space that surrounded Jenny—and froze just steps away, staring at her like an utter lackwit and unable to help himself because…oh Andraste take him…she was…she was…
Well. She was wearing very little clothing, for one.
The first night they had met, she had been dressed in severe black-and-silver. The next, blue as light as a whisper. Tonight, she was living flame itself, draped in sinful red cloth that looked silky to the touch, skin brazenly bare and all too tempting. The soft, rounded flesh of her arms, the swell of her breasts, the curve of her neck, her back, a flashing thigh—fuck, but if he hadn’t wanted her before, he was on fire with it now, aroused in the space between one breath and the next. He wondered, dizzily, whether anyone would stop him should he try to bear her down to the gleaming floor and rut like a maddened animal against all that softness.
He wondered whether she would stop him.
He wondered whether anyone could tell what he was thinking.
He wondered when he stopped caring if they could.
“Maker’s breath,” he said, forgetting for a moment that he was supposed to be Marcus. The words came out in his own accent, and Jenny stared at him, startled. Pull yourself together, Cullen scolded himself, drawing a sharp breath before adding—this time copying Varric’s flat vowels carefully—“I have never seen anyone more beautiful in my life.”
She wet her lips, tongue brushing over deep deep red, and he barely swallowed a groan in time. Cullen took a jerking step forward, aware of eyes on him even as he offered Jenny his hand. She flushed, smiling almost shyly, and crossed that last bit of distance between them to take it.
The moment their fingers touched, he felt the world righting itself inside him. Jenny was here, Jenny had come, all wasn’t lost after all. He tightened his grip, desperately fighting to control himself. Each breath was a monumental effort not to yank her against him and plunder her mouth. Not to drag his calloused palms up the tempting swell of her hips, rucking up silky red skirts to press his fingers past the delicate silk of her smalls.
Not to kiss, touch, claim, fuck her right here, right now, before the Maker and his bride and all the void-taken court.
“Marcus,” Jenny murmured, lips curving deeper, smile melting from sweet to wicked. “Ask me to dance.”
Maker preserve him.
He tugged her closer, hungrily scanning her face. Searching for a sign that she was by all the virtues not serious. Surely she could tell exactly how tenuous his mastery of his own control was right now. “Please tell me you are joking,” he said.
“Do I look like I am joking?”
That, more than anything, was an open invitation to look at her again—gaze dropping down down down the figure-skimming cut of her red dress, taking in the way it clung to the tips of her breasts and the wide flare of her hips. His cock, nearly painfully hard already where it was trapped within his dark leathers, tightened. Fuck. “You look like sin,” he said. “I won’t be able to keep my hands off of you.” Already they were trembling.
And she just made it worse, pressing close to him—close enough that he could feel the soft give of her body against his straining erection, breasts brushing the velvet of his coat. Her breath was hot as it fanned across his face, her lips tauntingly close. Cullen froze—utterly froze—free hand closing into a fist at his side, nails digging into his palm as the susurrus whispers began to climb into a hum. There was a soft, scandalized titter, and he was all too aware of the court watching the two of them with frank interest.
Void. Taken. Orlesians.
But then Jenny leaned closer, one hand lifting to slide across the soft nub of his coat, dragging up to his shoulder. Her fingertips brushed along the arc of his neck, nails oh-so lightly scraping down the apex of his spine. “Does it seem like I want you to keep your hands to yourself?” she murmured, eyes meeting his.
And that was all it took. He growled—actually growled, as if desire had made an animal out of him—and grabbed her about the waist, yanking her hard against him. He pushed in at the same moment, grinding their hips together; a fierce, primal pleasure bloomed in his chest at the way her eyes went wide at the hard rut. Jenny’s sinfully red mouth fell open and she sucked in an unsteady breath.
“Demon,” Cullen hissed, one big hand splaying across her (naked, void take her beautiful hide) back. He kept his grip firm, cleaving their bodies together. Already his blood was boiling, just from the sight of her—the hot press of her flesh against his. He wasn’t convinced he’d make it through the entire dance, and yet, “All right; I’ll pay your price.”
There had never been any question. He would do anything for her.
He waited for her nod before stepping into the dance, hands falling into place. He wasn’t much of a dancer—had never really had cause to learn more than a few basic steps—but they seemed to fall into a natural rhythm as the music swelled around them. Cullen’s eyes locked with Jenny’s, and with each step they took, the rest of the ballroom seemed to fall away. Nothing else mattered to him right now; Skyhold could come crashing down about his head and he’d still be caught in this dream of her making.
Mine, Cullen thought, moving her through the steps of the dance, keeping her body scandalously close to his—unwilling to let her go even for the elaborate turns and lifts they had executed so well what felt like a lifetime (was it really only two nights?) ago. Somehow I will convince you that you are meant to be mine.
“I thought of you all day, all night,” he said, voice pitched low. They were so close together, he didn’t need to raise his voice over the music; she would be able to feel his words reverberating where their chests were seamed together. “I couldn’t stop picturing the way you looked as you rose over me, straddling my waist. The way your head tipped back…” He reached up, fingers dragging across her skin to tip up her jaw, baring her throat to him again. “The delicate line of your throat.”
He slid a calloused fingertip down and across the wing of her collarbone. He wanted to follow the path he traced with his tongue. His teeth.
“I had to sit there, after you left. For what felt like hours.” It wasn’t the exact truth, but it was a kinder lie than the confusing swirl of emotion he’d actually experienced. And besides…there was no room for truth in fantasy, and Cullen was determined to woo her with every word, until she was panting and aching for him the way he was for her. “Every time I thought I’d gotten my body under control again, I would picture you—your bodice sagging, your perfect breasts tumbling free, your lips parted and eyes closed as I sank my fingers into your heat…”
Jenny stumbled against him, gasping. What he could see of her cheeks were flushed red as her dress. “Unfair,” she said.
Cullen gave a husky laugh, finally letting her leave the prison of his arms long enough to spin her. The ends of her skirt flared, baring a flash of tempting thigh from the high slit; those little metal chains that spanned her bare arms and back lifted, catching the light like magefire. When he pulled her roughly back into his arms, it felt like swallowing the sun. “Unfair?” he demanded, one hand swiping possessively down her flank. He cupped the curve of her ass, pulling their hips tight together as they stumbled through the next steps. “No. Unfair is teasing me. Unfair is climbing under my skin so all I think about all day is kissing you, touching you, tasting you. Unfair is—”
He let out a harsh breath, gaze tracing over the familiar-yet-not lines of her face, the dark sweep of her lashes. “Is making me want you the way I have never wanted anyone or anything in my life,” Cullen finished quietly.
He pulled them both to a stop, one arm about her waist, the other snarled deep within her waterfall of dark curls. Suddenly, it was imperative to him that she understood the sheer depth of his feelings. It was already past eleven on their final night together—if she intended to disappear like smoke at midnight, at least he would watch her go knowing he had tried his best. “You are a madness,” Cullen said. “And I don’t know whether to hate you for driving me to this or love you for…for being you. And I don’t even know who you are.” That was the worst of it. That was what he most feared.
Jenny flung her arms around his neck, beautiful eyes bright. “Please,” she said, voice just as earnest—as if she understood, returned, even a quarter of what he was feeling. “I want you too. I love—I care—I—” She swallowed, shaking her head. “Please. I beg you.”
And Cullen felt as if his heart were breaking all over again. “My lady,” he said, gently cupping the back of her skull. If she accepted nothing else from him, she needed to understand this. “You never need beg. Don’t you realize by now you can have anything you wish of me for the asking?”
She made a shaky noise, deep in her throat, and all at once he knew he had to kiss her. It was as inevitable as the sun rising, the dawn breaking, the darkness of their world finally, finally fading away. He pressed in, capturing her mouth at last, at last, swallowing what could have been his name on her lips and licking hungrily inside.
Mine, Cullen thought, tongue tangling with hers, fingers tightening in her hair. Mine, mine, you are mine…as I am yours.
And then, suddenly, the Grand Hall erupted into wild applause.
He jerked back, startled, and looked around—all at once aware of where he was again, of who was watching. It seemed all of Skyhold was gathered close, eyes locked on their embrace. Cheering, because they were Orlesians and of course they were.
Cullen let out a harsh breath, feeling the flush of mortification rising steadily as he caught three figures standing together just past the dais: Dorian, grinning like an idiot. Josephine, laughing into her hand. And, void take him, the Inquisitor by her side, white mask a cypher, head cocked as if she were whispering something to her ambassador.
Cullen looked away with a heartfelt groan, thankful at least Leliana wasn’t there to witness his shame. Though no, of course, Leliana would know anyway. She always did.
That was what made him laugh, in the end, applause and wolf whistles ringing around them, Jenny flushed and giggling in his arms. There was no way he was living this down; his fellow advisors, Dorian, would mock him until the end of time. Leliana (wherever she was hiding) and Josephine had to know it was him, had to see through his disguise…and had to be plotting all kinds of ways to make him squirm later.
“Oh Andraste’s tits,” Jenny whispered, words threading through her laughter. “We really are going to be the stars of some devastating sex poem.”
If Leliana had anything to say about it? Yes. “May the Maker shield us from such a fate. Can we…sound a strategic retreat?”
“Please.” Jenny pulled back, though it was harder than he would have imagined to let her go. Even with all the eyes of the court on them, he wanted to keep her pressed close. He did force himself to let her step away, however, and was rewarded with her hand slipping into his. Their fingers curled together.
And then she curtsied to the crowd, like the star of some scandalous stage drama; they roared with approval.
“Follow me,” Jenny said, tugging him toward the back of the hall. The laughing crowd parted around them, colorful silks and velvets rustling. The music was striking up again, wailing high and sweet as they tumbled through the press and out into the clean night air.
The soft hush of the evening settled over them, flakes lazily falling from the sky as the big hall doors swung shut in their wake. They descended the steps together, but Cullen tugged on Jenny’s hand before she could lead him across the drifting snow. “Wait,” he protested. Then, laughing, “Wait.”
He tugged her back toward him, eyes raking her body. The hunger hadn’t even begun to bank; he could feel it licking through him, deep and hot and undeniable. In the ballroom, she had been vibrant. Out here in the silver-dark night, she shone like fire on the mountain—like the sun itself. The golden chains jingled with every move and silky red fabric hugged every curve. If he pressed her down against the snow now, it would sizzle and burn against her skin. “You’re…barely dressed,” he forced himself to continue. “And while I truly appreciate the effect, you need to…” Cullen let go of her to start unbuttoning his coat.
Jenny caught his hand before he could undo more than the first two buttons. “I know where we can go,” she said quickly. “It’s close. It’s warm. It’s…private.” She looked down, then up again to meet his eyes, lashes flickering. Snowflakes caught like diamonds in her hair. “Do you trust me?”
She never needed to wonder. There was no question, no hesitation. “Yes,” Cullen said. “I do.” More than he ever trusted himself.
“Then follow me,” she murmured, rocking up onto the balls of her feet to brush their lips together. Before it could inevitably deepen, she pulled back, whirling away—and ran, laughing, into the night, bare thighs flashing in invitation as the thin material of her red dress swirled like a banner in her wake.
Cullen watched her go, stunned into place, so in love and lust he didn’t know what to do. It was too much. Everything he was feeling was far, far too much. This sort of thing had never come easily to him. But when she glanced over her shoulder, dark hair fanning across her cheek, smile wide in welcome…he felt his heart lurch in response, then begin to race.
And slowly, slowly, slowly…Cullen began to smile back.
Chapter 12: For Aureliana
He would have beaten her to wherever they were going if he only knew the way. Well, that, and he was so thoroughly, ridiculously distracted by the sight of Jenny darting through the falling snow—a piercing streak of daring red fire, dark hair streaming like smoke behind her—that he very nearly went tumbling across the slick cobbles a time or two.
It’s a good thing none of the men are here to see me, Cullen thought with a wry, bubbling sort of happiness. Or Dorian. Maker. He’d never let me live it down. He felt coltish and awkward in a way he simply hadn’t in years; as if he were still getting his bearings, building his strength, learning how the disparate pieces of himself all fit together. It was surprisingly nice. Comfortable. Like he was being reborn without any of the old baggage that haunted his dreams and…
And he probably should watch his feet and stop woolgathering unless he really did want to end up ass-deep in a snowdrift.
Cullen narrowly avoided slipping across a patch of ice, laying in a last burst of speed to catch up to Jenny even as she veered off toward an all-too-familiar building. She reached for the knob, glancing over her shoulder at him with a crooked smile that was nearly enough to distract him from the first kneejerk surprise.
This…wasn’t what he’d been expecting when she’d said she had somewhere they could go.
“Jenny,” he began, one hand falling to her waist. They kept the storage room locked up tight, especially now that Skyhold was crawling with guests. In fact, he’d given the order for new locks himself the very same day Josephine had declared her intention to invite half the empire into their home. Considering the importance of keeping the Inquisition’s armory out of the hands of potential enemies, not even his men had keys. Whatever she had in mind, this wasn’t the place for it. It couldn’t possibly be. “I don’t think this will work.”
“Trust me,” was all she said, turning the knob—then pushed the unlocked door open, laughing at Cullen’s gobsmacked expression.
“See?” she said. She turned as she stepped inside the storage room, silky red dress moving with the sway of her hips. “I told you I knew someplace we could go.”
It wasn’t possible. It simply wasn’t possible. He’d had Leliana’s best scouts try to pick the locks to the armory, the hidden caches in the undercroft, the War Room. None of them had managed despite hours of increasingly frustrated attempts. How, how had Jenny managed what the Nightingale’s army could not?
And how could he convince her they should leave immediately? Did he even want to convince her, now that they were here?
He hesitated in the doorway, watching as she moved farther into the room. A thought—a suspicion—kept toying at the corners of his mind, there and gone again. Evidence kept wanting to add up all wrong. Cullen wet his lips and took a step inside. His shadow loomed large across the stone floor. “Should we…be here?” he finally said at her lifted brow, for lack of something better.
She turned and moved toward the fire with a hard-to-read expression—soft, and a little sad. “I’d wondered that too,” she said as she crouched by the fireplace. There were logs stacked and waiting. A tinderbox. She struck the flint to tinder, coaxing a spark to take hold as he watched, wrestling with himself. Try to force the issue? Or just…take this as the gift it was and, for once in his sorry life, let himself relax? “But it’s all right—one of the Inquisition’s men said I could come here earlier in the day.”
Who? he almost demanded. Didn’t dare. What was his name? That wasn’t something Marcus would ask. Marcus would just be happy to be here, alone, with her. Marcus would allow himself something as simple as gratitude for a respite from the cold wind and prying court eyes.
Jenny turned a little, still crouched there by the fire, and looked up at him. Her full, red mouth was twisted in the saddest echo of a smile. “Sometimes I just like to get away from everyone. Sometimes I just need to…” She didn’t finish, lips opened around the words she couldn’t bring herself to say. Maker, he understood that so well.
And in that moment—in that understanding—he let go of his questions and suspicions and sense of duty and quietly let the door close behind him. “Sometimes you just need to escape,” he said. She made a soft noise and he added, heart pounding, “I can tell. Looking at you, I mean. There’s something about you that’s…”
“I can just tell,” he finished. His voice sounded thick and rough with emotion. What this woman did to him.
She rose, eyes locked on his. “Tonight I feel freer than I have in a long time,” she said. “I can’t say why, but I always feel that way with you. It’s why I’m here now.”
Yes, he thought, taking an instinctive step forward. He wanted to be touching her; why wasn’t he touching her? Every moment that slipped by without Jenny in his arms was intolerable. It didn’t matter why she made him feel this way; all that mattered, all he cared about, was that for the first time in years he was feeling anything at all, and it was all, all because of her. He felt just as free, and he didn’t know how he could go on without that lightness in his chest now that he knew it could be his. “Jenny,” he said, taking another step toward her, another. Another.
But something stopped him before he was more than halfway across the room. Something about the tip of her head, maybe. The shape of her eyes watching him from beneath that gleaming mask. “But it isn’t really Jenny, is it? Maker’s breath, I hate not knowing your name. Your face.” He took another step, frustration building at the way she practically flinched away at that. “I’ve been driving myself crazy these last few days worrying that this all may end and I wouldn’t be able to find you again. I have to tell you,” he said, stumbling over everything he wanted her to know. It kept getting choked up in his chest, the burning desperation to lay things bare between them warring with his own natural reticence. “You have to know—”
“Words,” Cullen spat, rubbing at the back of his neck. If he could have strangled them out of himself one at a time, he would have. Happily. Anything to grasp onto the exact right thing to say to make her understand how hollow his life had been, before. How full it was, now. How much he yearned. Like a fool in a fairy story, heart aching in his chest. “I had it all planned out in my head,” he said, “but of course, of course now that it’s time to talk, I can’t seem to get it out.”
“Marcus,” she began, gentle.
No. No, he couldn’t do it anymore. He couldn’t listen to her be content to call him by that fake name, to take the mask at face value and not try for more. He was so desperate to know all of her; he wanted her to know him in return. “That isn’t my name,” he said. He dragged his fingers through his hair. “It all seemed so easy at first. I’d wear a mask. I’d adopt a false name. I’d let down my guard and ‘live a little’.”
Dorian’s words. Dorian’s meddling hands pushing him out of his comfortable tower. He’d been reluctant to believe him at first, but now…now he knew Dorian had been right after all.
“But the funny thing about letting down one’s guard is that it leaves you vulnerable,” Cullen said, willing Jenny to understand. “And I’ve—I’ve never done well with being vulnerable.”
He felt vulnerable now. He felt exposed, even behind the damnable mask. He felt as if he were baring pieces of himself to her—and Maker take him, but if he was going to bare parts, he may as well bare it all. No holding back; no regrets. If she leaves tomorrow, I’ll at least know I gave her everything.
“I don’t want to hurt you,” Jenny said, “but what you’re asking—”
“I love you,” Cullen interrupted—and oh, oh. He hadn’t known he was going to say that, but the minute the words were out, he knew they were true. He did. He loved her. He loved her so much he wasn’t sure how to handle it—how to cope with the idea that she might not feel the same way.
She just stared at him, mouth agape, eyes wide, and he felt like he was burning from the inside out. Was this what it always felt like? Realizing you were in love? He was terrified and energized at once; trembling and iron-strong in his certainty. She could rebuff him, deny him, but nothing could take away the fact that he’d said the words. That he’d reached down into the core of himself and realized how he felt, for once before it was too late to do anything about it.
It was…what were they saying, earlier? Freeing. He felt free.
Also? Petrified. But he supposed that came with the territory.
She sucked in a breath and Cullen held his own, waiting for her response. Would she be angry? Glad? Would she return his feelings? Would she—no, no, he could drive himself mad trying to anticipate Jenny’s growing silence. Better to just stand still and wait, relaxing back into this new awareness of himself. He felt as if he had finally shone a light into the darkest corners of his head, chasing away the lingering shadows, and he would not sink back into himself now that the words had been said.
Finally, Jenny spoke. “You love me,” she breathed. Shocked? Maybe.
Probably. Maker, he’d known her three days. She must think him a madman. Cullen closed his eyes. “It sounds so stupid out loud,” he admitted. There was no point denying how crazy it all was. “I realize I barely know you, but it feels like I’ve been falling in love with you from the moment I first saw you. It has been…a very, very long time since I felt so free in my own emotions.”
He turned, pacing away. He needed to move in order to get the rest of the words out. If he stood there just staring at her, they would catch in his throat, behind his teeth. “I suppose there’s something to be said for being vulnerable after all. Or maybe it’s the end of the world.” But no, not even Haven had shaken him loose the way she had. “Or maybe,” Cullen admitted, more to himself than Jenny, “I’ve just…gotten better, healed, without ever really noticing.”
That was a first for him, too: admitting out loud that there was anything broken in him that needed healing.
He let out a frustrated breath, tangling his fingers in his hair. Jenny just watched him pace, silent and distant as the moon, and he the frenzied wolf baying helplessly up toward its wide white face. He used to laugh at lovesick fools in the poems; was that him, now? Would anyone reading his story—this moment penned to parchment—laugh at him? “I don’t know,” Cullen finally admitted, whirling back to face her. “All I know is I can’t get you out of my head, and I can’t stand the idea that tomorrow I might lose you forever.”
“Marcus,” she said, and Maker, Maker but he wished he’d never dreamt up that lie.
“Isn’t my name,” Cullen growled, suddenly determined to be as close as she would allow. He strode across the floor, boot heels striking stone, drinking in the way she instinctively started toward him in return. He took her hands in his, closing his rough palms over her delicate fingers and loving how small they felt in comparison. These hands—these trembling, feminine hands—could break him so easily if they chose. Their power was undeniable. Whether she wielded a sword like himself, or a pen like Josephine, or secrets like Leliana, she was powerful.
She had complete power over him, after all—and somehow, along the way, she had wielded it so deftly that he was at peace with a thought that just days ago would have brought terror.
I am yours, he thought, watching her, feeling his heart racing in his chest. You have marked me for life. There is no coming back from this.
“What I’m trying to say—badly—is that this is me,” Cullen murmured, gentler. He needed to make her understand the impact she’d had on him. “These last three nights, I’ve been more myself than I have been in years. You make me feel like myself again, my old, good self, and I want to— I can’t bear the idea of you disappearing again. Please.” He carefully turned her hands over, thumbs running lightly over the palms. He could feel them trembling against his own. “Tell me who you are and I will spend my life fighting to be good enough for you.”
It was at once the most and least eloquent he had ever been, but he had given it his all. Everything he was had been poured into that pretty little speech, and he meant, Maker, every word. If they were still not enough…he would have to learn to live with that. Somehow.
He watched in excruciating silence as her eyes closed, lashes a dark smudge against her cheeks just beneath the mask. Her lips parted, then thinned into a line as if she were swallowing back impulsive words. With each second that passed, his heart sank a little farther. Please, he thought, studying her face. Please, please, please.
Finally, she broke the silence. “Marcus,” she began.
He didn’t need to hear the hesitation in her voice to know the truth. “You’re going to say no,” he said. It took every bit of his willpower to keep his own voice perfectly even—to not betray the way his heart was slowly breaking. So, he thought, struggling to stay impassive. This is it. At least I tried. I won’t see the world end in green fire and not have given it everything I had.
Her hands tightened on his. “I need to think about it more. Coming to this ball—it was just supposed to be about finding someone I found attractive and losing myself in them for a time. Physically. I never expected to find you, and now that I have…” She paused, then gently pulled her hands away. “I’m confused. I’m still sorting everything out. But I’m not…saying no. Just not yet. Give me a few hours to figure it all out.”
Was it foolish to hope? Perhaps. He couldn’t seem to help the thrum of it building in his chest, however. “I can live with that,” Cullen murmured. And all at once, he needed to be touching her. Not just her hands, but…everywhere. He reached up slowly—giving her time to break away—and brushed his knuckles along the soft leather of her mask. Her eyes fluttered closed in response. “I have to, don’t I? Tell me your rules and I will do my utmost to follow them. I would do whatever you told me for just a…a taste of you.”
She shivered at the touch before suddenly pulling away. “All right,” Jenny said, voice low and throaty. “Follow me.”
He watched, confused, as she turned to go up the creaking steps toward the loft. Cullen couldn’t remember having ever been up there. He was pretty sure it was empty—or perhaps filled with storage. But he followed in her footsteps, willing to let her lead.
What, he almost began, when he spotted the bed. It was big and low to the ground, covered in a thick red coverlet that had been folded back as if waiting for them. There was a silver bucket of ice on another (low) table, wine chilling next to two glasses. An old rag rug was spread across the floor to ward away the chill. No candles lit the intimate space, but starlight shone through the skylight and the golden glow of the fire reached even up here, casting the place in shades of red and blue, like the beginning of a complicated spell.
It was beautiful. Too beautiful, almost.
“Was this meant for, ah, us?” Cullen asked, looking around. It seemed almost too nice for him. Sumptuous and cozy at the same time. Inviting and rich and comfortable in ways he wasn’t used to, even now.
Jenny simply bit her lip and nodded before admitting, “I wanted somewhere we could be alone. Last night was wonderful—I’ll cherish the memory forever—but it was a little, um…”
He was blushing. Void take him, he could feel the heat on his cheeks at the memory. “A little full of spectators?” Cullen said, fighting the urge to rub the back of his neck.
Jenny laughed. “Chock-full of them,” she said. “I thought tonight we could try it again without the crowd. If you were willing.”
If you were willing. Didn’t she realize by now he was so wholly hers that there was no going back? He looked at the bed—big, warm, inviting—and then back at her, feeling the low sparks of arousal begin to heat his blood. She wanted to try it again. She wanted at least that much of him. And this time there would be no revelers to interrupt. There would be no ticking clock, no bards, no prying eyes. There would just be the moonlight on their backs, the firelight cast up onto his face, the feel of her lush and hot and moving against him.
Cullen’s mouth went dry.
Slowly, he took a step forward. He could see the answering heat catching in her eyes, making them shine. “There appears to be a bed this time,” he said, voice husky.
Jenny dragged in an unsteady breath at that, and he couldn’t help but let his gaze drop to the full weight of her breasts. That red dress was so… She was… It was just… Maker, but she drove him insane. He wanted his hands on her. He wanted to push that silky material back and free her breast—wanted to catch its peak between his teeth before sucking her into his mouth.
He wanted her so very, very badly.
She moved back toward the bed and he followed, stalking her. The floorboards reverberated under his heavy boot tread, echoing the race of his heart. The light was catching on her, making her gleam. She would taste like firelight on his tongue. “There’s more than a bed,” she murmured, voice breathy. He could make her sigh for him. He was aching to make her gasp.
“Oh?” he said. His gaze dropped, watching like a hawk as she toed off her golden slippers before inching back closer and closer toward that bed. How would she look splayed out in it? How would she look with her dark hair coiling about her naked flesh? “What else is there?”
Suddenly she lifted a hand and he stopped immediately, breath coming in harsh pants. He was hard, erection trapped against the unforgiving weight of his leathers, but even though he wanted her more than he knew what to do with, he also knew he would stop at any time. He would do anything, anything for her; all she had to do was ask.
Eyes never leaving his, Jenny slowly reached up and brushed her thumbs across the complicated-looking golden knots at her shoulders. It seemed she barely twisted her fingers before they were coming undone and the red dress fell down down down her gorgeously curvy body in a whisper of silk and jingle of delicate gold chains.
It pooled at her feet, leaving her completely, brazenly bare. Jenny lifted her chin, watching him, even as she closed her fist and flung the little gold pins aside, as if to say—now they are gone and there is nothing between us but air. It’s your move.
He watched the subtle sway of her full breasts with each breath she took; watched the way her nipples tightened to coral-pink tips. Her hips shifted, thighs rubbing together as if she couldn’t help but respond to the weight of his gaze, and one fluttering hand settled at her throat…before slowly, deliberately, sliding down her body in blatant invitation.
“Me,” Jenny said, and Cullen was lost for good.
Chapter 13: For Aureliana
He would never tire of looking at her.
She was beautiful in a way that got under his skin, that pulsed with each irregular beat of his heart. Body tantalizingly curvaceous, soft in a way that made him shake to have his hands on her. Maker, how she would feel against him—rosy-skinned and unbearably sweet and good. It wasn’t often life brought him something so unquestionably good.
Her hair fell around her in a dark capelet, wild curls a startling contrast to the peaches-and-cream of her skin. Her lips parted on a breath, eyes dark, breasts heavy and tipped with coral-pink nipples. They hardened as he watched, drawing tight, and Cullen made a strangled noise, wanting his mouth on her, wanting everything all at once. Wanting to lose himself in her. Jenny’s body was an exaggerated hourglass, flaring hips and soft stomach curving into thighs that shifted as his eyes dropped down the bare expanse of her; they would feel like silk against his calloused hands. The heat of her core would be the softest satin.
He was trembling just from the thought.
“Maker’s breath,” he breathed. He took a slow step forward, then another, taking in the perfect imperfection of her, loving each new secret he divined. “You are…I don’t have the words for what you are. I don’t know if the words have even been invented yet.”
She swallowed and lifted her chin at that, reaching for him. What could he do but reach back? Andraste take him, but he was caught by her spell already and he did not—could not—wish it any other way. “Then why don’t you show me instead?” Jenny said, drawing his rough hand to her mouth. She brushed her lips across his fingertips, heat sizzling through his body at the almost-shy caress. Cullen’s breath caught and his body tightened with the flush of pure need. He could practically hear his blood sizzling in response.
He held himself as still as he could, letting her keep control of the (agonizing) pace. Her eyes were locked on his as she kissed finger after finger, red lips sliding with the most maddening care over his skin. His mind kept trying to supply images of her sinking to her knees and mouthing him through the straining leathers; Cullen had to swallow back a ragged noise at the mere thought.
And then, then she locked her gaze with his and snaked out the very tip of her tongue, brushing hot and slick and wet across the pad of his finger—her white teeth flashed, dragging over the skin.
He jerked forward, body clenching tight as a fist, and growled. Cullen wanted to be patient, wanted to let her set the pace, but void take him he couldn’t wait another moment. He reached out, snagging her around the waist and yanking her against his straining body. Her skin was just as soft as he’d imagined, giving deliciously beneath his tight grip as she gasped and rocked up onto the balls of her feet, falling against the hard, clothed, desperate planes of him. Their faces were just a breath away and no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t seem to swallow back the low growl humming through his chest.
Jenny shivered in response.
“It’s dangerous to tease me,” he warned, fingers digging into the curve of her hips. He swore he could feel the heat of her cunt through layers of cloth, and Maker, but it was driving him mad.
She was fearless in the face of him. “You’re not going to hurt me,” Jenny said. She arched, rolling her hips against the straining jut of his cock, her breasts against the soft velvet nub of his coat. Each time her tight nipples dragged against cold silver buttons, she gave a small, breathless gasp.
“No,” Cullen managed, sinking a hand into her hair, his other arm tight around her hips. Trapping her against him. It took everything he had not to thrust back—not to shove her roughly down onto the soft bedding and lose himself in all that gorgeous, soft skin. He wanted to trace her body with his tongue; he wanted to mouth the heavy weight of her breasts and drag his teeth along the pucker of her nipples, wanted to swirl his tongue down down down the soft curve of her belly to the slick core of her. Wanted— “I’d never hurt you,” Cullen managed, voice muffled against her skin as he brushed his lips down the tempting arc of her neck. “But before tonight is through, I am going to make you beg.”
Jenny made a strangled noise that went straight to his cock, body sagging against him as if her legs could no longer hold her. “Maker,” she gasped, fingers digging into his shoulders as he dragged his teeth along the join of her perfect neck and shoulder, following the delicate arc of her collarbone down to swirl his tongue over the heaving tops of her breasts. “Marcus,” she breathed.
That had him looking up with a faint frown, snapping him back from the haze of pure want. “No names here,” he said. “Not until they’re real. I need this to be real.”
Cullen barely waited for her nod of agreement before he was cupping her jaw and licking deep into her mouth as if somehow sealing the pact between them. His tongue brushed hers in a slow, careful glide, twining as he sank deeper and deeper and deeper. She kissed back as if she wanted nothing else, her arms going around his neck, her entire frame melting in gentle submission. The kiss spanned what could have been years, decades, slick and hot and full of undeniable emotion. Unable to resist impossible temptation, Cullen reached down to cup the weight of her breast, loving how it filled his palm almost to overflowing. He brushed his thumb across a nipple, riding out the shuddering buck of her hips—grinning into the kiss when she whimpered at the rasp of his thumbnail.
“Feel good?” he murmured, circling her nipple again and again, teasing it into perfect hardness.
“I feel,” Jenny began, before swallowing and shaking her head—as if she couldn’t scrabble together the words to begin to explain exactly what she felt. Maker, but he could relate to that. “Tight inside,” she finally managed with a whine, rubbing up against his body with little needful hitches of her hips. “Oh.”
Cullen sucked in a breath and found her mouth again, kiss gone hard and a little wild. He was losing control of himself, unraveling even as he fought to keep in check. He stroked his tongue along her bottom lip before kissing down her jaw, her neck, tasting her as if he could memorize this moment: her restlessly shifting hips, the silk of her skin, the jab of her tight nipples as he palmed her breasts one after the other, the way she practically dissolved against him when at last he bowed his head to take her into his mouth.
“Ah!” Jenny gasped, grabbing tight handfuls of hair. He hummed approval, already sucking the peak of her as deep as he could manage—tongue swirling across the tight nipple over and over again. He was hyperaware of the faint stubble along his jaw rasping over her delicate skin, but Jenny just cried out and arched toward his mouth as if desperate for more. Her fingers were tight about his dyed-auburn curls and he muffled a moan against her skin as he dragged his teeth along her nipples, laved away the sting, sucked hard at her encouraging gasps and followed the undulations of her body with an eagerness he’d never felt before.
Maker’s breath, he’d never felt anything like this before. She was wholly new, and he was drowning in her.
And then his hand slid down, following the gorgeous flare of her hip to the folds of her cunt; his fingers trembled as he teased the slick slit.
“Oh!” Jenny gasped, jerking hard against him. Marcus made a low noise of agreement—sounding drunk on her, on the scalding heat against his fingers and the painful straining of his erection and, oh fuck, her breasts—and sank to his knees. He kissed along the soft give of her stomach, loving the generous, plush curves of her, teasing his tongue into the divot of her belly button before sliding down down down. His fingers left a glistening trail across shivering skin as he moved both hands to frame her hips, holding her steady for him.
Then he looked up—on his knees before her, a supplicant locked in prayer—and twisted his lips into a smile. “I’ve been thinking of this for days,” he admitted, spanning his hands across the flare of her hips to dip his thumbs oh-so gently into the folds of her body. Teasing her as she had been teasing him for. Fucking. Days. “I’ve been thinking of you, non-stop. What you’d feel like. What you’d sound like.”
Cullen drew a breath and finally, finally leaned in; his eyes never left hers as he dragged his tongue along the slick folds of her cunt, dipping just deep enough to make her body jerk in response. “What you’d taste like,” he murmured.
“It’s not going to take much to make me beg,” she said, voice shaky. “Andraste take me, I want you so badly.”
And that—that—was almost enough to undo him. He closed his eyes, shaken. Grateful. Utterly determined to make her feel so good she never, never wanted to be parted from him. Slowly, he hooked his thumbs into the folds of her body and spread her open for him, breathing in the scent of her. Soaking in her breathy moans and whimpers, the way she shifted needfully beneath his hands. Breath catching, heart pounding, cock aching, he leaned in and brushed the flat of his tongue deep inside her body, swirling across the tight nub of her clit.
Jenny cried out, stumbling over him and catching herself against his shoulders. He swirled his tongue in response, teasing across her throbbing flesh before spearing into her body. She tasted—Maker, but she tasted perfect, slick across his chin as he fucked her with his tongue. Jenny responded to every hot, liquid glide of his tongue, to every drag of his thumbs as he spread her wide, to every flick across her throbbing clit. He couldn’t help but moan when she rolled her hips helplessly toward him, letting her ride the strokes of his tongue as he took her deeper and deeper, wanting to hear her cry out, wanting to make her scream.
Yes. Yes, Maker, yes.
“I, please, please,” she breathed—begged. All at once, her legs gave out and he caught her with one arm around her waist, surging up to his feet and wrapping around her. He lifted her easily, swinging her into his arms, clumsy with raging desire but so determined to be gentle as he took three large steps toward the bed and carefully bore her down amongst the pillows.
She sprawled across the cool sheets, black curls sticking to her flushed body, back arching into an inviting bow as he leaned down to kiss her once, hard. He caught her lip between his teeth, biting and then sucking away the sting—but, fuck, he wanted to be tasting her again. He wanted her to come against his lips and tongue.
Jenny made a low noise when he slid down her body again, and the mattress dipped beneath his weight as he settled just enough to get his balance before snagging her soft thighs and hooking them over his shoulders. She rode up in a sinuous arch in response, breasts bouncing, mouth open on a gasping, “Please! Please!”
Cullen was losing his mind with want, pressing into her with a hungry moan. His thumbs teased along her slit as he closed his mouth over her clit, sucking in a driving rhythm that matched the jerks of his own hips. She was spread out beneath him, given over to him so utterly, body lush and hot and giving as he speared his tongue deeper and deeper, needing to feel her come, needing to know he’d given her that pleasure, needing, needing, needing.
She arched off the bed with a sudden shocked cry, locked in an elegant bow, thighs tightening against his shoulders. Cullen grabbed at Jenny’s hips and held on through the shocked waves of it, following the tremors with his tongue as he urged her higher. He swirled deep into her body, refusing to let up as she twisted and gasped and writhed so beautifully against him, body flushed with color and head tipped back in surrender.
And then, slowly, she began to relax—go boneless and sated against him. She sank against the tangled sheets, trembling all over. Maker’s breath, so sweet. He swirled his tongue against the throb of her clit one last time, riding out the convulsive shudder of her hips, before turning his face to kiss her inner thigh.
She gasped at the rasp of his stubble against sensitized skin. “Oooh,” Jenny said. He kissed her one final time before carefully catching her knees and lowering her legs, using the momentum to slide up her body and pull her into his arms. She went unresisting, twining around him with another delicate shiver. “That was,” she began, voice rough with orgasm. She cleared her throat. “Thank you.”
I love you so much. He kissed the crown of her head, her temples, the coolness of her golden mask. He wanted to kiss her everywhere.
And then she shifted her hips and deliberately rocked against the heavy ache of his cock. The press of her skin against his trapped erection sent a flash of pure, driving need through him. Maker, but he ached. For this, for her. “Demon,” Cullen murmured, voice thick and threaded with arousal and affection.
“I thought you planned on making me beg,” Jenny teased, reaching out to flick open the silver buttons lining his coat. “I barely even asked nicely.”
She was going to be the death of him. “The night is far from over,” he said with a growl, catching her around the waist and rolling her over, pinning her to the mattress and stealing her breath with a near-savage kiss. She moved against him with a noise that went straight to his cock, thighs parting in blatant, eager invitation. As if she wanted nothing more than to be devoured and devour him in return. Maker, the things she did to him. It would be a wonder if he left his bed alive.
But oh, oh, what a way to go.
They lay there for some time, bodies seamed together, kissing as if they had all the time in the world. His blood still boiled with need, but Cullen found that he could ignore the urgent pressure of his body if it meant feeling her tongue twining against his, feeling her fingers gliding into his hair, feeling her so soft and warm and inviting.
He could kiss her forever. He wanted to. Maker, did he want to.
“Maker’s breath,” he finally said, breaking the long, languidly hot kiss to suck in an unsteady breath. He shifted his weight, shuddering at the drag of his rock-hard cock against the inviting heat of her.
And Jenny…Jenny actually whimpered, thighs tightening around his hips. “Is this where I start to beg?” she asked.
Cullen levered himself up onto one arm, braced over her. Scanning her face with silent intensity. He needed to see her expression clearly, without the (undeniable) distraction of her breasts pressed against him and make sure… Well, make sure she actually did want this. It was so important to him that she was as wrapped in this moment as he was—and when she boldly met his gaze and dragged her teeth across her lower lip with a dangerously seductive look, Cullen groaned and leaned in to catch that lip between his own teeth.
This woman; Maker, this woman.
She arched in a sinuous bow against him, rubbing up against the soft nub of his coat before reaching between their bodies to start unfastening the line of silver buttons. Cullen stroked his tongue deep into her mouth, tasting her, claiming her, as she fought to take off his coat. “Off,” Jenny growled into his mouth, yanking hard.
Cullen caught her hand in his, caressing the line of knuckles before he reluctantly pulled back. He wanted nothing more than to keep touching her, but his clothing was getting in the way. And oh, how much better would it be to feel skin against skin? He straddled her thighs, admiring the way silver moonlight caught against the hills and valleys of her body. He’d never really considered whether he had a ‘type’ before: he admired women of all kinds, though mostly in an abstract sort of way. But this woman was breaking the mold for him, slowly but surely. He was increasingly certain he was digging a groove into himself with each glimpse of her tempting curves—the way her breasts tumbled heavy and soft, the curve of her hips, the gentle give of her stomach, the lush promise of her thighs. By the end of this night, she would have wormed her way beneath his skin as the feminine ideal.
Which would perhaps be awkward, considering the Inquisitor shared Jenny’s curvy hourglass shape.
Cullen shied away from that thought and refocused on the moment. “I may have revised my plan somewhat,” he said, toeing off his boots. “At least so far as begging is concerned.” They landed with a heavy thud one after the other.
Jenny just smiled, hands fluttering up to brush against her dark hair before sliding down down down the arch of her neck, across her collarbone, and then—sweet Maker—over those gorgeous breasts. She cupped them in her palms, lifting them together as if in offering before rubbing her thumbs across the tight peaks. Fuck. His hips actually stuttered forward in response. “What changed your mind, I wonder?” she murmured.
He reached down to run his knuckles along the curve of her breast, then down the slope of her belly to the soft, bare skin of her slick cunt. It was all he could do not to sink down her body again and lick his way inside—to rock his hips against the mattress with increasing urgency as he tongued her clit until she writhed. “I’m too bloody hungry for you,” he murmured, dipping calloused fingertips inside her molten heat…before reaching up to yank his coat open, needing all at once to feel her against him now now now.
“Oh!” Jenny gasped as silver buttons went flying, scattering madly across the floorboard. Her eyes were wide and blazing with heat. Fuck. Cullen let her go just long enough to shrug roughly out of the jacket, balling it up and flinging it aside blindly. He ripped at the vest Dorian had insisted on, cursing the delicate buttons when Jenny reached out to pull at the waist of his trousers. Her eyes met his, bright with hunger, as she unfastened him. He was hard enough it was starting to hurt, cock straining against the leather as she carefully worked it open; Cullen swallowed a growl and yanked his shirt over his head, tossing it aside just as Jenny spread the placket of his trousers wide.
The relief of it, the release of pressure, was intense—almost as intense as her eyes hungrily taking him in, from the slope of his shoulders down his chest to the blonde hair dipping deep into the opened leathers.
Cullen froze there to let her look her fill. It only seemed right, after the way he had devoured her. He bit the inside of his mouth when she reached up with tentative—almost shy—fingers to brush across the line of his abs. He thumb traced the raised silvery line of a scar, expression softening as she studied the many marks of a life hard-lived.
Then slowly—slowly, slowly—she began to sit up beneath him, drawing their bodies close. His breath caught as she rose, dark hair tumbling around them in a silken waterfall, and brushed her lips in the most delicate of kisses across a knot of scar tissue high on his shoulder.
The gesture felt… He had no words for how it felt. For how he felt. Just. Dizzyingly, madly in love. “What are you doing?” he asked, voice thick. He thought maybe he forgot to use the accent; he was pretty sure he didn’t care.
She drew in a soft breath and pressed her palms against him, so close the tips of her breasts brushed his chest. Her tongue darted out, teasing delicately across the old scar as if she could somehow heal it with the hot press of her lips.
They groaned together. Shivering. The moment was weighty and so unbelievably beautiful. He could hear his heart racing, could feel each hot puff of her breath, could see the crackle of flames catching her hair from down below and the cool silver of starlight her face from up above. Even the mask wasn’t as hateful as it had been, because it allowed him to have this. This one, perfect, caught-out-of-time moment.
And then, then she breathed against his skin and murmured, “I love you.”
And it was like falling in slow motion.
Cullen closed his eyes, heart squeezing like a fist. It hurt to breathe, but it was a good kind of hurt—the ache of a wound long since healed. He dragged in an unsteady breath, another, another, pulling back to meet her eyes. To cup her jaw with infinite care—this woman who shook his world apart at the foundations, who loved him. “You love me?” he breathed. “Are you… Are you certain?” He wasn’t sure he could live with a denial now, but he had to, he had to know.
Jenny didn’t say anything at first. Instead, she lifted her face toward his, and he instinctively bowed his head in return, until their foreheads pressed together. It was shockingly intimate—almost too much and yet still not enough—as Cullen breathed in the warm scent of her. The hot breaths that filled his lungs. Maker, he would lose himself in her if he could. “I’m certain,” she murmured, and he could taste the words puffing against his parted lips. “I promise.”
He wrapped his arms around her and so so so very gently bore her down onto the mattress again—settling between her welcoming thighs and letting her feel the full weight of him. She shivered, murmuring pleasure that sent sparks of heat swirling through his body, and opened like a flower to his kiss. Endlessly sweet, endlessly welcoming, and somehow, some way, in love with him.
Oh sweet Andraste, he wanted to make her feel so good.
Cullen twined their tongues together in a slow, liquid glide even as he levered himself up onto one hand. He fumbled at the waist of his trousers, pushing them down—kicking them aside blindly. Jenny sucked at his tongue and pressed up with a shuddery eagerness, legs wrapping around his finally-bare waist. When he shifted, his erection brushed across her stomach, and they both sucked in a sharp breath. The scalding heat of her cunt—so very slick, dripping wet against him—was driving him bloody mad.
He grunted low in his chest and dropped his other hand to bracket her face, coils of hair tickling his wrists as he shifted his weight and deliberately ground against her. The soft give of her body licked through him like wildfire, and it was all he could do not to sink into her now, to take her between one stuttering breath and the next.
“Say it again,” Cullen murmured against her lips, stroking the words into her mouth with a flick of his tongue. He rocked forward, dragging his aching cock along her core, teasing them both.
Jenny arched against him, hips moving in a sinuous roll. “I love you,” she said, as if it were the simplest thing in the world. “I love you so much; please. I need you. I’m—Please.” She rolled her hips again with a stuttery gasp and he had to pull back from the lush heat of her, arms trembling as they held his weight. All it would take was a hitch of his hips and he’d be inside her; the thought was driving him mad. “I—”
“Yes,” he said, meeting her eyes. Shaken by what he saw there. “Void take me, I want you.” More than that, he needed her, needed her more than he’d ever needed anything or anyone in his life. He reached between their straining bodies with trembling fingers, pressing apart her slick folds before slipping inside. She gasped, rucking up into the way he circled her clit with calloused fingertips, building her pleasure before hooking deep into her body…
Fuck. Void, fuck, Maker, shit—Jenny clenched around him and it was, he, he was—ah Maker’s breath, he needed her, needed to be inside her, needed—
Needed to be careful. Needed to control himself. Needed to breathe through this and wait and make sure. More than anything, he needed to be sure he wouldn’t hurt her. Cullen held himself as still as possible as he stroked deep inside her body, using his thumb to drag across her clit even as he fucked two fingers slowly slowly slowly into the hot clench of her body.
His breath caught when she leaned up and brushed their lips together, the very tip of her tongue sliding across the seam of his mouth. His breath was coming harsh and fast, like an ironwork bellows, and he wanted her so badly it was a constant ache. When she dragged her hands down his shoulders to his chest, he moaned against her parted lips; when she deliberately shifted her hips up against the curve of his palm, thighs spreading wide in clear welcome, he growled.
He needed, he needed, oh Maker how he needed. And yet…if he lost control of himself, if he hurt her with that all-consuming desire…
It had been so long, and he was not a gentle man. The fear of hurting her with his desire was a very real thing. It didn’t matter how strong he knew she was; he couldn’t bear the thought of snapping and letting the demons that had lived inside him since the day the Ferelden Circle fell drive him too hard, too fast, too—
The spiraling doubt stuttered to a sudden halt when Jenny pressed her hands to his shoulders and pushed him back. He sucked in a breath and moved away, questions already on his lips—was it too much, too hard, did I hurt you?—but she didn’t give him a chance to give them voice. Before he could say anything, she was rising over him, sliding a leg over his hips and bearing him down to the mattress, flipping their positions as easily as breathing.
One moment he was drowning in doubts he could never quite silence, and the next she was settling over his hips with a small, crooked smile—hair spilling around them in a dark curtain, breasts swinging forward, body arched in a sinuous bow.
“What,” he began, voice hoarse.
She caught the rest in a biting kiss, somehow both sweet and sharp at the same time. “I want you,” she said, reaching between their bodies. He made a strangled noise, grabbing for her hips when she wrapped clever fingers around his aching cock. It felt, Maker, so good. Too good—was it possible to feel this way? He bit his lip and hitched up into her grip even as she moved above him, slick and hot against the head of his cock. “I love you,” she said, meeting his eyes. It hit him like a swinging fist.
Then, just as world-changing, she took a breath and said, “I trust you.” And bit by bit, she sank down onto his body, joining them together at last, at last.
“Fuck,” Cullen hissed, grip on her hips going tight. He rocked up as if to thrust deep into her body before scrabbling for control of himself. No, no, he needed—he needed to let her be the one to take this step. He couldn’t say why or how he knew, but he did, he did, and she— She was—
She was gorgeous and perfect as she slowly slid down onto his cock, eyes dilated wide, lashes fluttering softly. She bit her bottom lip, breath coming in harsh pants as she slowly pressed down, taking all of him. It was so maddening and yet the most perfect thing Cullen had ever experienced. His heart was racing so fast he could have sworn it would beat right out of his chest.
Maker, how he needed her. How he loved her.
“You’re,” he rasped, staring up into her awed face, knowing what he’d only suspected before.
“Not anymore,” she said, fiercely, with a smile that blew through him like a hurricane. She fluttered her eyes closed and sank the rest of the way down, tense body slowly unraveling with the mingled pleasure-pain. “Oooh,” she breathed, letting her head fall back. Then, very carefully, Jenny tentatively rocked forward.
Cullen gave a strangled cry as every nerve in his body lit up in response. “Void take you,” he managed, trembling hands moving from their death grip on her thighs to cup her breasts. He circled his thumbs about the tight nipples, flexing his hips to rock up even as she rolled her body down—and together, they cried out. “You are a desire demon. You’re… Maker.”
Jenny just rocked forward again, again, falling into a slowly building rhythm. He was helpless to do anything but meet her measured thrusts, staring up at her as she rode his body with a sinuous roll of her hips. Starlight framed her dark hair, her perfect form, even as the light from below cast delicate shadows across her face. Cullen watched, meeting each thrust with building heat, hands mapping her body as he committed her to memory.
He would never feel this way about anyone else. He would never feel this good again. Not without her.
And then she buckled over him as the pleasure built, palms braced against his chest, hips falling into a more frantic rhythm. She sobbed in a breath when his cock slid out of her, then back in, rubbing along the desperate throb of her clit. Again, again, Cullen angling his hips to make it good—to make her come flying apart above him. He couldn’t take his eyes off her—didn’t want to ever look away—as he traced the growing flush spanning down her neck, her chest, her bouncing breasts, her body as it tightened more and more about the endless ache of his cock, needing, needing…
Yes, he thought, reaching blindly between their seeking bodies and dragging his fingers along where they met. He dipped inside, eyes locked with hers, and circled her clip once, twice, three times—sucking in a breath when her eyes flew wide and she came around him.
Jenny gave a shattered cry and Maker but it was too much, too good as her body clenched and fluttered around him. He growled and caught at her waist, rearing up and sending her sprawling beneath him, their bodies still connected as she writhed and came. Gorgeous, so gorgeous, perfect—Maker’s breath. He cupped the back of her skull, fingers of his other hand still rubbing quick and hard circles against her clit, driving her higher and higher even as he thrust deep into the tight tight tight clench of her.
He was so close. So close.
Cullen had her bent in two beneath him, curve of her spine pressed tight against the mattress, hips lifted as he rose on his knees and drove deep into her body. Jenny cried out, nearly screaming her respond, her heels digging into his skin even as her nails raked across the tangled sheets. The feel of her coming around him was, fuck, incredible, the aftershocks or her orgasm driving him into a frenzy. I love you, I love you, Maker save me but I love you.
He pressed in to capture her when his own orgasm hit, crying out against her lips with the force of it. It flashed through him like a lightning chain, sparks lighting him up from the inside as he came hard—hips slamming into hers again and again, come hot and slippery where their bodies met.
It was, it was, just, Maker, so good. Everything, everything he’d wanted; she was everything. Nails raking down his back now, marking him as her own. Branding him with the heat of her body and her smile and those sweet, knowing eyes.
I will never be the same without you, he thought, and dropped his forehead against the curve of her neck, breathing through the aftershocks.
Slowly, by degrees, their grip on each other loosened. Jenny sank back with a breathy noise and he lifted his head to look at her. He would never tire of how perfectly sated she seemed; it filled him with a ridiculous sort of pride. Cullen reached up to tuck back a strand of hair as he carefully withdrew, fighting to control the shiver that wracked his body. “You are…so incredibly beautiful,” he murmured. How was it he was allowed to have something so good in his life? After all he’d done, how was this even possible? “I never thought I… I didn’t hurt you, did I?”
“You couldn’t,” she said, voice rough and throaty. He began to protest, but Jenny rose up to press the softest of kisses to his mouth. “Trust me,” she said, “if you won’t trust yourself.”
Some days I cannot even trust my own grip on reality, he could have—didn’t—say. Instead, he pressed his face back into the hollow of her throat and nodded, twining about her as if he never meant to let go.
She coiled about him in return, palms sliding across his skin in a warm caress. He let his eyes slide shut, let his heartrate slow, let his body accept the welcome of her own. His lips brushed her skin and whispered promises he would die to keep.
And outside their world away from the world, the bell began to toll. Jenny turned her face toward the skylight, smiling up at the stars in perfect, beatific contentment. “Unmask!” she whispered, a thread of a laugh in the words. “Unmask! Unmask!”
Curled by her side, Cullen went very still.
Chapter 14: for Joana
The room was silent.
He barely dared breathe, heart racing in his chest, her words echoing like the peal of bells in his ears. Unmask, unmask. Maker’s breath, did she mean it? Did she— Cullen lifted his head to meet her eyes, transfixed by the play of firelight and shadow there. The distant whisper of falling snow. The way she shivered beneath him, soft and warm and endlessly, endlessly giving.
Please, he thought as she slid her hand down his spine. Oh, yes, please.
He sucked in a breath and let it out slowly. “Do you mean it?” Cullen asked at last.
And—miracle of miracles—after the briefest of hesitations, she nodded. He wasn’t sure he could believe it. “Yes,” Jenny breathed, as if sensing his reflexive doubt. She sat up and he drew back to give her room, watching with dazed wonder as dark waves of hair spilled across her lush body, both hiding and revealing her in turn. Her lips were parted and her skin flushed, but her eyes held his as she reached up for the ribbon that held her mask in place, tugging the knots slowly free.
Wait, Cullen almost said, wanting to unmask her himself. But he stayed silent, not trusting himself with this moment. He was rough-mannered, he never said the right things, and if he managed to ruin this…
No, he thought, waiting as Jenny carefully loosened the knots keeping her mask in place. No, I can’t risk it. This is too important.
She was too important. Maker, after three days, she was too important to lose; he wasn’t sure he would survive it. So he sat still, and he bided his time, and he waited in the hushed stillness of their little haven—
—until, without warning, the night was filled with screams.
Cullen scrambled off the bed between one instant and the next, instincts on high alert. He cursed as he grabbed for his leathers, already casting about for his sword—the sword he’d left behind, locked safely in his tower of all the void-taken places. He should have known, he should have known something would happen; he shouldn’t have let himself become so distracted by…
He looked over his shoulder at her shocked-still form even as he yanked on his clothes, stomach tightening into a fist. Fuck. Fuck, he had to get out there to see what was wrong, but he couldn’t just leave her.
“I have to,” Jenny gasped, only to go silent. Pale.
What could he do to defend her and Skyhold at once? What options did he have? “It’s close, whatever it is,” Cullen said mostly to himself as he shoved on his boots. Judging by the pitch and echo of the ululations, the fight was already spilling just past these walls. He could hear the clang of steel and his men calling orders as they responded to the threat. Battle swelling across the open courtyard. Fuck. There’d be no escorting Jenny to safety, then. But perhaps if he found a way to barricade the door…
As if sensing his thoughts, Jenny was up and grabbing for the silky puddle of her dress. She stepped into it and yanked it up her body, clumsily tying off the ends where gold clasps had kept it in place. It barely seemed decent now, revealing more than it hid—it wouldn’t have a prayer of protecting her from a Red Templar’s blade. A demon. Anything. Andraste’s grace, but she looked so fragile standing there, as if the next breeze could take her from him. “Within the walls, for certain,” she said, unaware of the mounting horror of his thoughts. The timbre of her voice had changed, losing its musical lilt, but he didn’t have time to focus on that now. “But not the keep itself.”
“Thank the Maker for small mercies. Wait,” Cullen added when Jenny brushed past him. He caught her arm, heart giving another hard lurch at how soft she felt, how delicate. Defenseless. “Where are you going?”
“To help,” she said, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. She looked up at him, fearless, while he was slowly drowning in fear for her.
Cullen slid his hand down, tangling their fingers together. Everything in him was screaming for him to find a sword, find his men, fight back this darkness that dared threaten his home. And yet everything in him was screaming for him to stay by Jenny’s side and defend her, protect her, keep her safe. There was precious little in his life he had managed to save over the years—he refused to let this woman be more blood on his hands. More nightmares haunting his dreams.
He could not, could not, lose her too.
“Jenny,” he began, only to be distracted by the sound of metal clanging just outside their window. There was a howl—a shriek—high and terrible and familiar. Demons. “Jenny, please,” Cullen said with growing desperation. “I need you to stay here where it’s safe. I’ll—”
She cut him off. “Look,” Jenny said, gripping his hand between her own. “We don’t have time to argue about this.”
Maker, truer words had never been spoken. It was his duty to be out there fighting. And yet he couldn’t bring himself to pull away—not until he knew she wouldn’t be lost to him. “I have to get out there. I have to— They need me, and I can’t just—” Fuck, the words, the words, whenever he needed them the words just wouldn’t come. He made a frustrated noise and pulled her close, tucking his face against the crown of her head. Praying she would understand that fear for her flowed like a madness through him. It was ripping him apart.
After a breath, a kiss, Cullen pulled back to meet her eyes, seeing nothing but stubborn determination there. “Stay here,” he begged. “I’ll barricade the door as best I can, and I— I’ll come for you once it’s over. I promise you that.” She started to shake her head. “Maker, I promise I will always come for you, but I just—I won’t be able to focus on what must be done unless I know you’re safe.”
“I’m not,” she began.
“Please.” He would drop his knees and beg if he had to. He’d lost so much, so much over the years; he couldn’t push away the choking fear that this was Kinloch all over again. This moment was the beginning of the end, with demons screaming in the night and steel clashing, people crying out, death tumbling in to claim everything he cared about. To claim her, this woman he loved more than his pride.
Oh yes, he would beg; he would do anything to keep her.
“Maker’s breath,” he said, “I’ve already lost so much. I can’t risk losing you.”
She made a noise that broke his heart, eyes closing, lashes wet with tears. He could feel her trembling against him, as if she were at war with herself as well—as if she wanted to be out there just as much as he did, and yet wanted also to give him this one thing that would grant him peace in the midst of battle.
Slowly Jenny reached up to clasp his wrists, looking up through a film of tears. “I’m sorry,” she said, each word a blow. “I want to give you what you need, but…they need me too.”
“I love you,” Cullen said, as if that changed anything at all. As if that could somehow save her from whatever fate was swinging like a fist toward them both.
A tear escaped, disappearing into the mask. Lost there. Lost. “I love you too. It’ll be all right. You won’t lose me,” Jenny promised, searching his face. “Not—”
She stopped, as if she couldn’t bring herself to say more.
Outside, the world was a storm of steel and blood and screams. A demon howled, its full-throated bellow echoing through the chilly night air. They needed him. She needed him. He needed—
It didn’t matter what he needed. He couldn’t stay here to argue, to defend. It was his duty to go out there and lead his men; that’s all there was to it.
Please be safe. Capitulating—with no choice but to capitulate—Cullen slid his fingers up into Jenny’s hair and pulled her close for a final, desperate kiss. He re-learned the shape of her mouth, committing it to memory. The taste of her, the feel of her, the sheer rightness of her in his arms…all of it, all of it he would take with him until the day he died. The world had shown it was more than cruel enough to give him a glimpse of happiness and then snatch it away, but at least he would have this memory.
I wish, he thought, losing himself for one selfish moment in the kiss. I wish, I wish, I wish.
Finally, Jenny turned her face away with a soft noise. He let her go, wishing down to his very bones that he could do just about anything else. Their breaths came in a harsh, syncopated rhythm, and he wanted to stay this way forever.
“I have to—” Cullen began.
“I must—” Jenny said at the same moment.
But before either could finish putting that last bit of distance between them, their words were subsumed by a sudden crash of splintering wood and a scream that skittered like sharp nails down his spine. Jenny pulled away, grabbing for him; in the same moment, he snagged her arm and pulled her safely behind him, reaching for his sword as he stared down the spindly-legged demon.
His sword that. Was. Not. There.
“Watch out!” Jenny cried as the demon crouched, then disappeared into a queasy green haze. Cullen whirled, grabbing her about the waist as the warning corona lit the ground beneath her. He swung her aside with desperate strength, but even then he wasn’t fast enough—it reappeared in a flash, long tail lashing out and sending them crashing to the floor.
Jenny, he thought, moving on instinct before he had chance to think, to breathe, to plan. He caught the back of her skull and dragged her against the protective shell of his body, curling around her in a shield just in time for the second lash of the demon’s tail. It raked across his back, tearing through the thin material of his shirt and scoring his flesh. He let out a surprised hiss of breath and tightened his grip on her at the first bone-deep rake of claws.
No. Cullen slapped a hand against the worn wood, palm slipping in his own blood as he struggled to brace himself, preparing to turn and fight. She was breathing hard and fast beneath him and the pain—fuck, it was a fire across his spine—but he would not, he could not, he—
There was a bright burst of agony, a scream of muscle and sinew, and then, then he was flying. He didn’t have time to twist himself around, didn’t have time to do anything but cry out as he slammed into the far wall, hard, crashing against splintering wood and tumbling boneless to the floor. The world was a brilliant white, chased by nothing but the darkest pitch, and Cullen swore he heard hissing laughter swirling around him.
Her voice was the only thing that cut through that sudden senseless dark. “Marcus!” Jenny screamed.
That isn’t my name, Cullen thought, inanely, thrown so far outside himself by pain that he was still picking up the pieces. And yet it was enough to have him struggling to rise; white-hot, raw, tearing, bleeding—fuck, fuck that was a lot of blood. Had the demon ripped him completely open? Didn’t matter, it didn’t matter, he needed to be up and fighting, he needed—
He would not let that thing take Jenny.
Cullen pushed himself up against the wall, hand pressed against the puncture in his gut as the world swung into focus again. Jenny on the ground, red dress spilling around her. The demon crouched in a triumphant scream, Cullen’s blood drip-drip-dripping from its claws. He staggered forward, but Jenny was already reaching for her mask, ripping it away even as she lifted her other hand, palm-out.
Green fire consumed the world.
Cullen staggered back once in surprise, arm lifting to shield his eyes. The demon screamed in mingled rage and pain, thrashing, tail lashing. Its sharp end sliced across Cullen’s forearm, but he barely felt the blow as he slowly lowered his arm, watching in building shock as Jenny—the Inquisitor—Elayne—poured rift energy from the Maker’s gift on her hand, dissolving the demon where it stood.
Oh, he thought—weightless, breathless, stunned and yet somehow already accepting the impossible. All this time, the woman who’d come alive in his arms, who’d brought him to life in return, had been Elayne. Elayne Trevelyan, with her sweet smiles and mild temper and spine of steel. Elayne Trevelyan, the Herald of Andraste, and the one woman he could never, ever touch.
Maker, he had been so blind.
The green fire faded. He stood still, staring at her, feeling as if the world had been knocked off-center beneath his feet. “Marcus,” she said, looking up at him. “Are you—”
Cullen took a step forward and staggered, legs giving out as the shock fled and sheer agony rushed back. He nearly collapsed against the floor, but Elayne, Elayne, was there, catching him against her side with a startled noise. She pressed her glowing hand against his chest, then jerked it away again, fingers soaked in his blood. “Andraste save us,” Elayne breathed. “Did it—”
“Punctured,” Cullen said, word coming out on a breathy hiss. He could feel it now—feel the way the air rattled in his lungs. He fumbled for her shoulder, struggling to keep to his feet, but the ground was swaying beneath him. Every time he blinked, Elayne was haloed in tracers of light and shadow. Brows drawn in fierce determination and fear, his own blood flecking her cheeks, Cullen thought she’d never looked more beautiful.
But then, there was a good chance he was dying. He let out a laugh that rattled in his chest. Irony. Fuck irony.
Elayne set her jaw as she wrapped an arm around his waist, hoisting him against her. “Let’s get you in bed,” she said, trying to lead the way. Cullen did his best to follow orders, eyes tracing over the curve of her cheek, the flutter of the pulse just visible at the soft give of her throat, but he stumbled, staggered, lost control of his own body and—
—down, down, crashing down, utterly useless. He tried to pull away from her as he fell, but she held on tight, following him into a graceless sprawl. The floorboards were soaked with his blood and he couldn’t feel his own back anymore. He couldn’t feel the deep holes puncturing his body, sliced through major organs and…and that was bad, that was very, very bad.
“Stop,” Elayne gasped, fingers sliding across his skull and coming away nearly black with blood. So much, too much, it was too much, and he— He was— He was drifting, he was losing himself; he needed to focus if he wanted to make it out of this alive. “Stop. You’ll hurt yourself more,” she said, grasping his face, holding him in place.
“Have to—” Cullen began, but his words were a rasp, nearly unintelligible. When he sucked in a breath, it came out on a wet cough; blood spattered his lips.
She kept one hand cupping his jaw, the other splayed across his chest—keeping him down. He wasn’t sure why he was so desperate to rise (steel on steel, men calling out orders, needing him, needing), but she was able to keep him pressed into his growing halo of blood without any trouble. Maker, was he already so weak? And was she—
He stilled again, blinking up at her. If he couldn’t go to his men, then at least he could spend these last minutes with her. Funny that he never realized until now just how much he wanted to look at her, touch her. Kiss her. Be hers. Her sworn man, her sword, her shield, her knight, her—
Cullen shook free his spiraling thoughts. He was drifting again. Losing himself in the dark.
“…hurt,” Elayne was saying, and for a moment, her voice kept weaving in and out of his awareness. Like echoes of echoes, and he had to fight to cling to ever word. All this time and he loved Elayne. How was that even possible? “Maker’s breath, you’re….and I don’t have a healing draught. I need—”
It’s all right, he wanted to say, but his tongue felt thick and heavy in his mouth. I prefer it this way. Better me than you.
“I’m so sorry,” she said, face crumpling. Tears were caught in the dark sweep of her lashes, and she sucked in a quavery breath as the entire building shook with an echoing roar. Elayne hunched over him protectively, dark hair spilling across his chest as she looked out into the darkness as if she could defend him from the world.
He understood. In this moment, in this painful burn of might-have-been, he understood. He would have done anything to defend her as well.
Tears were dripping down her chin when she looked back at him. Her voice wobbled. “I need to leave you,” she said, wiping at a tear. His fingers twitched with the desire to brush it away, but his arms felt too heavy to move. It took everything he had just to lift his hand to his stomach, where he was steadily bleeding out. “But just for a moment. I’ll be back as soon as I can, and I’ll bring help. You’ll be okay,” Elayne promised, face crumpling again. All this time, all this heartbreak, and he had never seen her cry until now; how was that possible? “I will make you be okay.”
She leaned in to press their foreheads together, squeezing her eyes shut. He could just feel her breath hot against his cheeks. “I love you, Marcus,” Elayne whispered.
If he died, it wouldn’t be with that name on her lips. He took a shaky breath. Another. His voice, when it came, was a rasp. “My name is not—Marcus,” Cullen managed.
She laugh-sobbed, pulling back as she scrubbed at her tears. Not understanding. “Yeah,” Elayne said. “I know.”
But she didn’t—she didn’t know—and he couldn’t bear the thought of this lie between them after everything. This final mask. Elayne glanced over her shoulder and began to rise, clearly prepared to go find help and save the day, the way she always, always did, but he couldn’t, she, she couldn’t—
He used the last of his strength to grasp her wrist, a spark of alarmingly subdued pain shooting through his chest. He could barely feel her warmth, his own limbs clumsy and nearly numb, but he was just strong enough to tug her back to him before she was gone like a Fade dream.
She shook her head. “I know,” she said, “but it’s going to be all right. I promise you, it’s going to be all right, and I am going to—”
Please. He closed his eyes, then opened them again slowly—so slowly, sluggish, as if he were trapped under water and losing his breath by painful degrees—as he lifted his hand. He wanted to touch her cheek, drag his thumb across her soft skin, but… But Maker’s breath he was weak. He had to content himself with catching one of those dark curls between his thumb and forefinger, rubbing it softly, wishing he could more clearly feel its texture. With the world crumbling outside there window, it was a foolish thing to want, but it seemed, at last, he truly was a fool.
“Elayne,” Cullen managed, forcing himself to focus. Wishing he could say so much more. “It’s—not safe.”
Elayne went still.
He could see the dawning realization crest her features—could see the moment she recognized his voice, the moment she pulled the pieces together. Her lips parted, eyes wide with shock, round, blood-spattered cheeks gone pale. “…Cullen?” Elayne murmured.
Maker it felt good to hear his name—his real name—in that voice. If worst came to worst and he died of these wounds after all, at least he’d lived long enough for that. He felt her fingers sliding into his hair, fumbling at the knots of his mask, and it was like falling all over again when Elayne carefully lifted it away.
“Oh,” she breathed.
He couldn’t tell if she was pleased or disappointed. He couldn’t tell anything. Forcing himself to open his eyes was a slough through quicksand, but Cullen managed, blinking up at her. The world had gone dark and hazy, but her face still shone like the moon. Or maybe she was the sun and he the moon, endlessly reflecting back at her, yearning, yearning—void, his thoughts were unspooling, scattering messily through every last bit of his control. Laying here, bleeding out, staring up at the Inquisitor he hadn’t even realized he loved, all he could do was lift that delicate dark curl and say,
“I—miss the gold.”
“Cullen,” Elayne breathed. She caught his face between her palms and leaned forward—filling his vision, sweet and real and everything to him now—to brush their mouths together. When she pulled back to meet his eyes, her lips were red with his blood. “I’m going to find us help,” she swore. “I’m going to do whatever it takes to save you, and then I’m going to save our home, and then we are going to sit down and figure this out. Do you understand? You are under orders to not die before I can save you.”
He wanted to laugh; he thought he managed, a little, shoulders giving a jerky shake. He could feel his lips parting around his response, but there didn’t seem to be enough air in his lungs for the words. There didn’t seem to be enough in in the room, in the whole world: he was lost and he was drifting and the moon was gone—Elayne was gone—the screams and the blood and even the lingering taste of her was gone. All that was left was the rattle in the back of his throat and the memory of that fierce, final order passed from the Inquisitor to her Commander: You are under orders to not die before I can save you, she said.
As you wish, Cullen thought, lost in endless dark.
And then he was gone.
Chapter 15: For Aureliana
There were cool fingers against his brow and the bitter taste of elfroot at the back of his throat.
Cullen swam slowly into consciousness, aware of her—of Elayne—hovering over him. Caring for him; waiting for him; needing him. By the Maker, she needed him, and he had to— He—
“Shh,” a low voice hushed as Cullen struggled awake with a gasp. Those soft, almost chilly fingertips brushed over his temples as if they could pull the maelstrom of panicked concern right out of him, but when he blinked open his eyes, it wasn’t Elayne leaning over him (hair a dark cloud, brows drawn together in familiar concern; lips that he had kissed pursed in question). It was Cole.
Cole. Gleaming silver-white in the dim.
“What,” Cullen croaked, turning his head. He was lying in a pool of blood. Just a few feet away, the demon’s ashes drifted across the scarred floorboards. Snow wended its way through a busted window (when in the blur of battle had that happened?) and, outside, the clash of steel was slowly dying. It seemed that whatever had happened, he had been unconscious for most of it. “Elayne,” he began, one hand braced over the still-tender puncture wound. He began to push himself up, palm skittering across the blood-slick planks, head spinning. Still, he powered through, determined. “That is—the Inquisitor. Where—”
Those cool fingertips caught his jaw, turning his face toward the boy’s. Spirit’s. Whatever. Cole’s huge eyes were locked on his, lips twisted into something very close to a smile. “You love her,” he breathed.
Cullen knocked his hands away. “Not now,” he growled. He had little patience for mummery on the best of days; today was not the best of days. “Where is she? Where— Status,” he said, struggling up to his knees, his feet. The whole world seemed to pitch and sway around him like a galleon caught in a summer squall, but Cullen set his jaw and weathered the dizziness. He needed to keep focused if he was going to be any use. There were men outside who needed his command.
(There was a woman, off being a shining hero somewhere in the darkness, who he would give his life to defend.)
“She doesn’t want your sword,” Cole said, still kneeling in the cooling halo of Cullen’s blood, uncanny eyes following every jerky move he made. “She has swords; she has staves; she has war. All her life she dreamed of escape, and if she has to trade chains for armor, she will, she will, but she doesn’t want to wear it with you. That isn’t the strength she needs.”
“Cole,” Cullen said through gritted teeth, even as his heart gave a pathetic lurch. He wished he had his sword now, so at the very least he had something other than the odd boy-slash-spirit to focus on. “Now isn’t the time.”
Cole bit his lower lip. “But,” he began.
Cullen cut him off with a sharp gesture. “Not. Now.” It was all too raw, still—the confession, the conflagration, the revelation. The world wasn’t spinning—he was spinning. He was reeling, lost and uncertain and struggling to find his bearings in the face of a monumental shift in his worldview.
He was in love with Jenny of Starkhaven; he was in love with the Inquisitor; he was in love with Elayne Trevelyan.
Maker’s breath, he didn’t know what to do with any of this.
“Help me,” he said, and added a, “please.” Whatever healing draught Cole had managed to scrounge for him, Cullen could already tell it wasn’t enough. His thoughts kept scattering every time he tried to focus. His legs felt like blocks of ice and the world passed in a blur of silver-bright tracers. If he had any sense in his fool head, he would collapse back in that bed (covers rumpled from the glide of their bodies, warm and beckoning with memory) and wait as his highly trained, highly capable men took care of the threat.
He would wait as Elayne saved the day yet again.
And yet… What if this was the one time she was not strong enough to face that threat alone? Maker’s breath, it would kill him knowing something had happened to her when he was so near—when he could have used himself as a last weak shield to save her, save her, he would never be able to save her. She would forever be cast into the heart of the storm, and he would be helpless. Miles away, planning troop movements, unaware that his heart was destined to break.
Cole rose, sliding under Cullen’s arm to catch him against his slight-yet-sturdy frame. Those eyes were locked on him, shining with painful empathy. “Oh,” he breathed, surprise coloring his words. “You didn’t know it was her because you didn’t want to love her.”
“That isn’t,” Cullen began, but he couldn’t lie to the boy. Oh, he could lie to himself all he wanted—years and years of it, decades lost behind willful self-delusion—but Cole had a way of seeing through every artifice. And besides, what was the point now? It was already too late. “It doesn’t matter.”
But Cole wasn’t finished picking through the pathetic debris of his life. “You’re afraid. You think she’s born to die; you think all heroes meet the same end. You think it doesn’t matter what you think, and she’s the Herald, but you’re just a man, and in the end greatness will steal her no matter how hard you fight.” Actual tears gathered on Cole’s lashes, and Cullen realized with a start that his own eyes were burning; his own heart was breaking. “You want her, but you didn’t want to want her, because her loss will shatter you.” Cole’s voice came on a gutted whisper: “She’s not dead yet.”
Maker’s breath, yet.
“Enough,” Cullen said again, voice so rough he barely recognized it. “Just…please…enough.”
He tried to draw in a deep breath, ignoring the starburst of pain in his side. There was work to be done. He could drown himself in self-doubt later. He could mourn this thing he’d never allowed himself to admit that he wanted.
“Cullen,” Cole whispered.
“I need to see the scope of the damage,” Cullen said, pulling his metaphorical armor around himself again. He’d allowed himself to be too vulnerable; that was why this hurt so much. “Help me. Please,” he added again.
Cole gave a faint nod, grip tightening around Cullen’s waist. He was blessedly silent as they hobbled down the steps and out into the waiting snowfall. The night was going quiet again, only the occasional distant clash of steel signaling that the battle hadn’t yet been won. But…soon. He could tell it was already all but over.
And then, drifting from within the great hall itself, came a rising cheer.
Elayne. Saving the day.
He let out a slow breath, some of the fear he’d never fully be able to dispel fading. At least she had made it through this time alive. The rest was a matter of perspective. “Report,” Cullen called to one of his men as he and Cole made their way slowly across the frozen grounds.
The young woman turned on her heel, visibly startled. There was ichor on her bared blade and a bleeding cut on her brow. “Commander!” she said—then seemed to collect herself. She straightened, shoulders going back. “Ser, from what we’ve been able to gather, someone opened a rift in the hall. Demons ported in and spread across the grounds. There’ve been a Vint or two in the mix, but…”
She hesitated before adding, “That’s all I know, Ser. I’ve been cutting the beasts down and haven’t had but two breaths to learn the scope of it myself.”
He gave a curt nod. “Understood. Round up my captains and tell them to report to my tower once the grounds are secured,” Cullen said. “I want every able body on the walls, at the gates, spanning through the castle. Tell Ser Avanel I want a full sweep.”
“Yes ser!” the guardswoman barked, saluting. Then, at his nod, she hurried off to see to his orders through as, up in the keep, the cheers kept growing louder and louder and louder.
There’d be no hope of catching Elayne alone now—she would be swept up in a swarm of grateful admirers until well past dawn. If he were a better man, he would not resent that.
“Cullen,” Cole said—and that was all Cullen needed to pull his head out of his ass and keep moving.
“The tower,” he said, arrowing his way toward the main steps. There was a small, cowardly part of him that wanted to go the long way ‘round and avoid the crush of bodies in the great hall, but a bigger, more vital part needed to see proof that she really was all right.
Snow crunched underfoot and Cole kept a firm arm around his waist as they limped up the stairs (where he’d kissed her; where they’d kissed) and through the thrown-wide doors. It seemed every bloody Orlesian in the place had crowded into the main ballroom, a riot of color, of light catching on jewels, of conflicting scents and sensation and susurrus voices and—
Panic, barely leashed. Cullen dug his fingers into his wounded side and breathed through the cascade of sensation.
Someone toward the front of the crowd gave a shout, all but lost in the confusion. Skirts rustled and courtiers whispered—each word an echoing hiss—as they shifted around him like the breaking tide. He supposed he’d never fully be free of the insidious connection between these stifling crowds and the grasping claws of demons that haunted his memories, but that didn’t mean he was willing to give in. He shrugged off the unease, forcing himself to push into the overcrowded hall with Cole at his side.
“Inquisitor,” someone nearby murmured, followed by, “Herald!” The words were spoken in a worshipful hush—then again, and again, louder and louder as the crowd took up the reverent chant.
Inquisitor. Herald of Andraste.
He could barely make her out, all the way across the room with a sea of pilgrims teeming between them...until, graceful as falling snow, the crowd sank low even as their voices rose high: the cliffs outside of Haven all over again.
Cullen frozen in place, caught between memory and reality, staring across the reverently bowing court in dismay. Elayne—no, fuck, the Inquisitor—was visible at last, cowl framing her perfect face, eyes sweeping across the endless wave of her admirers. Drifts of silver flakes fell about her, and Cullen swore he could hear the distant echo of song, could feel the swell of hope and despair locked in his chest.
Their eyes met, but he couldn’t read her expression at so great a distance. He couldn’t see past this new mask she wore as easily as any other.
He wondered if he ever would.
“The night is long and the path is dark,” Cole murmured. “Look to the sky, for one day soon, the dawn will come.”
Cullen sucked in a breath and turned his head, breaking away from the Inquisitor’s unreadable gaze. The sky outside the keep was still dark, though its edges had begun to soften—bruised and violet-deep. “Not yet,” he said, to the literal, the metaphorical. “Not for some time to come.”
He looked back to the Inquisitor, but the crowd was rising again with reverent cries—The Inquisitor! The Herald of Andraste!—and she was lost to him.
If she had ever truly been his to begin with.
“Let’s go,” Cullen said, feeling suddenly so very, very old. He leaned against the boy-slash-spirit, letting Cole take his weight as they skirted the edge of the hall toward the rotunda.
Neither spoke as they moved—fled—easily through the rotunda and out across the ramparts to Cullen’s tower. It was just the way he’d left it, locked against all intrusion, and Cullen let out a serrated breath as the door clicked shut behind him.
Safety. Quiet. Sanctuary. Alone. He was here alone. He wanted— He wanted to be alone.
“Cole,” Cullen said, word coming out choked. He didn’t know what he wanted to say. His head, his heart, was full of conflicting emotion. He was never more at war with himself than he was now. There was a whisper of noise, little more than a breath, and when Cullen looked up, Cole was gone. He truly was alone in his tower.
He tried very hard to be glad for it.
Cullen turned away from the door and limped slowly into his study. He kept extra supplies of elfroot tonic and salve, as well as bandages. It would be awkward binding his own wounds, but it was nothing he hadn’t done before. He had half an hour or less before is captains managed to finish seeing his orders through and mustered here for further instruction. Plenty of time to pull himself together.
Plenty of time.
He closed his eyes and slammed his fist against his desk once, twice. Random papers fluttered and scrolls rattled; his knuckles burned, but he just balled up his fist and hit the heavy oak again. Again. Again. It felt, fuck, good to get it out, like lancing a wound—all those riotous thoughts, all the swelling build of emotion, all the hope and loss and fear and…
“Stop,” he told himself, gritted out between his teeth. He could still hear them calling for her in the great hall. He could still picture her, distant and beautiful and far, far too good for someone like him. Far too— She was just so— He could never—
“I think,” Dorian suddenly said, and Cullen whirled to face him, hand reaching instinctively for the sword that wasn’t there, “I must agree with you on that; unless you want to break that fine desk into kindling.”
He pushed away from the (open; how had it missed its tell-tale creak?) doorway, tugging it shut behind him. Dorian was still dressed in his finery, but he’d abandoned the mask somewhere along the way. Gleaming gold kohl curled beneath the dark sweep of his lashes, bright even in the gathered dark. Matching gold shapes swirled across his palms. “Cullen,” Dorian said, gentler. “That was a joke, my friend—we don’t actually want to break the desk into kindling.”
He looked down to where he was gripping the edge far, far too tight. “What are you doing here?” Cullen demanded. His voice sounded as rough as he felt.
“It was the strangest thing,” Dorian said. He moved on near-silent feet across the flagstones, reaching out to gently herd Cullen back toward his desk chair. Cullen resisted for half a beat before capitulating, letting himself get swept up, swept along. Taken care of, as if he were a child.
(He refused to admit, even to himself, how very good it felt to have his friend here in this moment.)
“I was standing by the dais, listening to our new friends nigh-spontaneously script ballads to our glory et cetera et cetera when Cole caught my arm. He said you needed someone to save you from yourself.” Dorian caught Cullen’s chin and lifted it with a little jerk, lips pressing into a thoughtful frown. “He wasn’t wrong, I see. What happened?”
But Cullen was already shaking his head. He wasn’t ready for that. As much as he trusted Dorian, as close as they had become, he wasn’t sure he’d ever be ready to share the full story of what happened with Jenny of Starkhaven-turned-Elayne Trevelyan. “Don’t,” he said, jerking his chin away. The kindness in Dorian’s eyes was both welcome and his undoing. Maker’s breath, but it had been a long few hours.
“I hear confession is good for the soul,” Dorian countered. He pretended to frown then, one hand waving artfully. “At least, that’s what Mother Giselle likes to say after she’s cornered me for another round of scolding. Perhaps we shouldn’t take her word for it, though.”
Dorian’s expression softened. “All right,” he agreed then sighed, looking Cullen over. “My, but you do look like shit. Come, take off your shirt and let me take a look; one of us may as well get something out of this.”
That managed to steal a startled laugh from him—Dorian’s plan all along, no doubt—and Cullen carefully began pulling off his top. It stuck to him with drying blood and shredded skin, but the pain was strangely comforting. Like a baptism of sorts, as if he were scouring himself to the bone, ready to start anew.
If only it were that easy. He’d been remaking himself over and over for years now; Cullen knew better than most just how difficult redemptive rebirth could be.
Still. He let out a relieved breath as he tugged aside his blood-stained shirt and let it fall to the floor, revealing the half-healed gashes across his back, the huge bruise blooming along his ribs, the aches and pains and tattered proof of how close a call it really had been. If Dorian’s expression were anything to go by, it looked just as bad as it felt.
“Look your fill,” Cullen tried to joke, one hand gingerly bracing against his ribs. He could feel the shattered bone shifting beneath the fragile shell of his skin. “I’m sure it’s quite a view.”
“I’ve seen better; I am better,” Dorian said. “Especially right now. Venhedis, Cullen, did you throw yourself head-first into a demon?”
He winced, remembering the flare of green light, the desperate need to pull “Jenny” to safety. “Something like that,” he said. Then: “There’s elfroot and bandages in that cabinet over there.”
“A moment while I marvel at the sheer stupidity of whatever bit of dashing heroics earned you that,” Dorian said, but he waved off Cullen’s flat look and added, “Yes yes, fine. I suppose that is what I’m here for.” He took a single backwards step, worried gaze still sweeping over Cullen as if trying to catalogue the breadth of his injuries—and then he was turning and heading to the far cabinet. “The rift is closed, by the by,” Dorian added as he riffled through its drawers for supplies. “Pride demon defeated and day saved. Naturally, seeing as we are here after all.”
“Did she—” Cullen wet his lips, already regretting the question. He was still too raw, too open. Dorian of all people would be able to read the hidden eddies swirling beneath his words. And yet, he had to know. “Did the Inquisitor make it through without injury?”
Dorian turned, a bottle of elfroot in one hand, salve and bandages in the other. His expression was not so much pitying as…deeply empathetic, as if he had even a quarter of an idea what it was like to so desperately love someone so far beyond any sane man’s reach. “Yes,” he said simply, stepping close again. “She won the day with nary a scratch; our Elayne is quite the wonder.”
Our Elayne. As if any of them could lay claim on someone chosen by the Maker himself.
“Oh, Cullen,” Dorian sighed at whatever complex twist of thought he saw on Cullen’s face. He sounded, strangely, almost exactly like Cole in that moment.
“Don’t,” Cullen said. He wasn’t sure whether he was talking to Dorian or himself. Maybe both. Maybe neither. Maybe it didn’t matter. “Not now. I can’t deal with it right now. There’s work to do.”
Dorian set aside the salve, pressing the bottle of elfroot into Cullen’s hands. “There is always work to do,” he pointed out. “That isn’t going to stop, not for the two of you. You can’t tell me that after all of this, you are going to stay up here in your little tower and nurse your wounds as if—”
“Don’t,” Cullen repeated. He already knew he was being a coward; he didn’t need Dorian’s confirmation. Drifting from the grand hall, the courtyard, the very stones of Skyhold itself were exultant voices, cheers, grateful ululations. Elayne was somewhere amongst all that madness, the center around which their world revolved. Weeks ago, days ago, he had been perfectly content to remain in her orbit, as distant and cold as any of the other planets that circumnavigated her shining sun.
Now every bloody thing was different. Now he was different. How the void was he supposed to go back to pretending he wasn’t in love with her when everything inside of him was screaming with it? (Was screaming in denial of it.)
It would take a hell of a lot more than work to distract him from the sheer magnitude of that change. And yet, right now…work was all he had.
Cullen unstoppered the bottle with his thumb and took a long swig, draining the elfroot in one practiced go. It was bitter on his tongue, but that was good, that was right—that centered him the way lyrium used to center him. He couldn’t mourn forever; he had work to do.
Dorian sighed. “You’re both going to be utter idiots about this, aren’t you?” he asked, frowning down at Cullen as if he could read the riotous thoughts tumbling through his head.
That was as close to a confession of guilt as Cullen would likely get, but he didn’t let himself lash out at Dorian for setting him up. He didn’t let himself thank him, either. He was too off-balance still to know exactly how he felt—whether these three nights had been worth the fallout that may still come. It was better to keep himself on the tightest of leashes and wait to see what happened next. “Bandage,” Cullen said, shoulders straightening with his resolve.
Dorian sighed again as he handed over the loose-woven cloth. “Yes,” he said, mostly to himself. “Utter and complete idiots, the both of you.”
Chapter 16: For Kithkin
Leliana was the first to break the awkward silence. “For our first ball, we did not do so very badly.”
Josephine made a low, almost pained-sounding noise from where she stood sorting through an endless pile of messages; Cullen glowered down at the iron pieces decorating the war table and didn’t dignify that absurdity with a response. The night had been an unmitigated disaster, and he was going to be picking up the pieces of himself for years to come.
He swiped his thumb across the figurine, ignoring the weight of the spymaster’s eyes. Leliana had zeroed in on him the moment he entered the room, red brows lifting in a question he wasn’t prepared to answer. He tried to keep his back to her, his face averted as naturally as possible, but he could feel her reading, assessing, judging him. As if she knew exactly what he had done and was oh so fucking amused by it all.
And why shouldn’t she be? He who had always been so careful, so controlled, had shattered his own reservations in exchange for three perfect nights. He’d wooed, he’d danced, he’d fallen in love like a blind fool, never once realizing exactly who he held in his arms. Losing himself in the one women he could never hope to have. If that wasn’t the set-up for bad Orlesian poetry, he didn’t know what was.
He cursed beneath his breath and crossed to the window, then back again, then back again, pacing like a caged animal. Even Josephine was in a foul temper, clucking beneath her breath as she rustled papers a little too forcefully. He could still sense them—feel them in their amusement and annoyance—and the building frustration and fury and longing and, and, and pure fucking agony was almost enough to send him jittering out of his skin.
Maker’s breath, it already felt nigh unbearable. How much worse would it be when Ela—when the Inquisitor joined them? How intolerable would that curious stare become, as Leliana and Josephine finished adding up the evidence (the way he and the Inquisitor could barely look at each other; the tension coiled like a dragon between them; the pathetic truth of his own yearning barely hidden behind route courtesies—a mask he’d never be able to take off again) and came to all the right conclusions? When they realized exactly how much of a fool the commander of the Inquisition had become?
Cullen stalked back to the war table and snatched up one of the iron pieces, needing to be doing something. But there was nothing to do but wait for El—for the Inquisitor. Maker damn it.
“In fact,” Leliana added, drawing out the words playfully; an indulgent cat toying with its prey, “you could almost say it went well, no?”
He dropped the iron piece with a clatter, turning to pace restlessly back toward the window. Andraste take them all, he couldn’t breathe. His familiar armor felt heavy about his throat, his shoulders, dragging him down, choking him, and—
And he was being ridiculous. He needed to get control of himself. This was no Kinloch. This was no Gallows. This wasn’t even the worst of what they faced now. He could, he would, stop throwing tantrums like a child and focus on his duty. The Inquisitor needed him to set the turmoil of his thoughts aside and keep bloody fucking control.
He just needed to focus. It was late; it was cold; his body felt as if he’d been hung on a rack and stretched for hours. His heart…
Well. It was better for everyone involved if he stopped over-examining the state of his heart and just did his bloody job.
Leliana made an amused noise at the long, fraught silence. “It seems someone’s in a bad mood,” she teased.
“I am in no more of a mood than can be expected!” Josephine suddenly exploded, glowering up from her stylus. She hadn’t bothered to change from her finery, sash catching the flickering candlelight. Her hair—piled into an elaborate coif—was half-ruined, tendrils falling loose to brush the collar of her velvet coat. She looked as close to run ragged as he had ever seen her, those careful fingers clutched tight around her quill. “I have spent the last span of hours settling our guests, seeing to their fears, reassuring them of their safety, countering their subtle threats. I have kept an entire keep worth of nobles from blind panic. I would like to see you remain composed in the face of such demands!”
Leliana blinked once, twice, her head cocking to the side. “Josie,” she said—gently, as if realizing just how dangerously wound up they all truly were, “I was not talking about you.”
“Who then—” Josephine frowned, then glanced at Cullen; he grit his teeth at the sudden revelation lightening her features. “Oh! Well.” She paused, then tipped her head, her own ruffled feathers settling with remarkable speed. “But he is always in a bad mood.”
Cullen whirled back on the table and the two women, ignoring the way they bit back their smiles. Usually he was willing enough to let them take their playful shots at him, but tonight was wearing him to the bone. “Are we going to spend what’s left of the evening mocking me, or are we going to accomplish something?” he demanded.
“I am more than able to multi-task,” Leliana said.
“Why,” Josephine asked, a brow arched. “Did you do something worth mocking?”
He was saved from answering by the sound of the heavy wooden doors shifting. At once, both women turned to face the war table, teasing smiles fading into serious expressions. Cullen swallowed back the first lurch of his racing heart, pacing to his usual spot as the doors pushed wide and she walked in. Golden-haired (not dark), bright-eyed (not a mask between them), and shining despite the dim.
Or maybe, void, because of it. She was the center around which they circled, the strongest force of gravity in his life, the— The fucking north star, if he wanted to give in to hopeless romantics again. Even exhausted, Elayne Trevelyan was the brightest presence in any room, and Maker’s breath but she was dazzling.
She dazzled him.
Cullen looked away, willing his heart not to break.
“Sorry I’m late,” the Inquisitor said. She nudged the door shut with her hip before moving to the table. “I ran into Dorian on my way.”
He jerked his head up at that. “Ah!” Cullen said, startled. Maker. Dorian. Damn his meddling hide, there was no telling what the man would do to try to right this disaster. And of course—of course—anything he did could only make things that much more awkward. I should have ordered him to stay out of it, Cullen thought, panicked. No. I should have hogtied the bastard and left him up in the draftiest tower I could find until things get back to bloody normal. I should have—
All three women were watching him with matching curiosity. Cullen cleared his throat. “And, ah, what did Dorian have to say?” he asked, voice only a little strained.
“Nothing I didn’t need to hear,” the Inquisitor said slowly. She caught his gaze and held it for what felt like an uncomfortably long time, but he couldn’t seem to look away. Not at first. Her eyes— Her eyes were Jenny’s eyes. How hadn’t he noticed that before? Blue, like the flowers his sisters used to braid into their hair on festival days. Warm. Beautiful.
Flushed, flatfooted, Cullen looked away.
“What do we have to report?” the Inquisitor continued, voice very slightly strained. He refused to let himself look at her again, knowing he’d just make a fool of himself. He needed…time. Distance. A moment to himself when he wasn’t aching with exhaustion, to wrestle his base emotions back under control.
Focus, Cullen scolded himself as Leliana began to give her report. Focus. Focus. He may as well have been trying to bottle the wind. His thoughts slipped through his fingers every time the Inquisitor shifted into his peripheral vision. Every time she cleared her throat or interrupted to ask a question. A coil of golden hair had somehow come loose, tumbling from the mass of curls piled at the back of her neck. It brushed the line of her throat when she tipped her head in thought. It caught the light, drew his eye, made his fingers twitch with the urge to reach over and—
“Ghuilene is conscious,” Leliana concluded. She cast Cullen a thoroughly amused look, brows quirking—as if she could sense his mind wandering where it shouldn’t. “I have been questioning him with my men. He is…resilient, but I do not think he will hold out on us long.”
The Inquisitor—no, she really was Elayne to him now, wasn’t she? No sense fighting a battle he couldn’t win—bit her lower lip. Maker have mercy. “You’re not, ah, being too rough, are you?”
Leliana tipped her head. “Do you mean, am I torturing him?” At Elayne’s sheepish jerk of her shoulders, Leliana snorted. “No. That is not necessary; he will give us what we need long before then. Once we have the scope of the plan, Ghuilene will find himself a guest of the Inquisition’s cells until you are ready to sit judgment.”
“Not the grand accommodations he was hoping for, I think,” Josephine added dryly.
“And yet better than anything Corypheus would have offered him,” Elayne said. She frowned down at the war table, brows faintly knit—as if she felt sorry for the man who had made a deal with their personal devil, opening rifts within the heart of Skyhold itself. If Cullen had his way, the traitor’s head would be forfeit; a life for all the lives he’d tried to take this long and bloody night.
He curled his fingers about the hilt of his sword, bracing for the moment Elayne finally lifted her gaze to meet his eyes. “Commander?” she said, voice pitched low.
Cullen took a breath and began his report, letting talk of troop movements and searches and guard rotations carry him through the awkwardness. Templar training kept his shoulders back and his gaze steady, even when he wanted to look away. (Even when he would have given anything for the chance.) “Solas was the only soul they found, bundled up in furs and dreaming in the shelter of a shallow cave. Left undisturbed,” he added. “Though one of my men remained behind as guard, just in case.”
“Thank you,” Elayne murmured, dropping her gaze. He would have given anything to know what she was thanking him for. For leaving a man as nanny to Solas? For the clipped, painless brevity of his report? For not being a fool and flinging herself at her feet to beg for a single chance to win her heart the way he was sure (he was sure) he had somehow managed to win Jenny’s?
He cleared his throat and looked away. Of course, he almost said, but it sounded far too perfunctory in his head. It is only my duty, perhaps—but no, that was far too cold. Anything, my lady; and Maker’s breath, what kind of a featherbrained idiot had he become to even consider something so daft?
Anxiously tumbling over all the things he could, should say, Cullen couldn’t seem to settle on any. So he kept his gaze averted and said nothing.
The silence stretched.
Josephine, Andraste praise her, delicately picked up the thread of conversation before things could grow too unbearably awkward. “I have been doing my best to keep our guests satisfied,” she said, tucking back a loose strand of hair with a sigh. “But I am afraid that there may very well soon be trouble. These men and women—they do not take well to being told what they can and cannot do.”
“They need a distraction,” Elayne said, sounding grateful. “Or maybe that’s not the word we want to use. They need a celebration.”
“Of the grand Battle of Skyhold,” Josephine said.
Leliana scoffed. “Never mind that it was not so grand nor so dearly won,” she pointed out.
Josephine shot the spymaster an exasperated look, lips pursed. “Be that as it may,” she said, “many of our guests have not come so close to a rift or a demon before. They were terrified, and now that the threat has passed, they are exultant. Giving them a celebration of the battle would not be a bad idea.”
A fourth night of the ball, Cullen thought, just as Elayne murmured, in a wistful voice: “A fourth night of the ball.”
Cullen looked up sharply, feeling sudden hope like a sword at his throat. Did she— Could she— Maker, was it possible that—
He watched as color rose to her rounded cheeks, staining them pink. “You suggested that before,” she said, gaze lowering, lashes a dark fan that obscured her gaze. “I feel…I feel we should do it.”
“It would be a wise move, Inquisitor,” Josephine said with a growing smile; Cullen was barely aware of her words. Her presence. The world seemed to be falling away piece by piece by piece like crumbling stone walls after a siege, and oh, oh Maker it hurt so much to have this much hope. “A triumph. Everything is already in place—I took the liberty of making sure we were ready and waiting should you make that decision. All that remains is to alert our guests.”
“And in the morning,” Leliana said, “to have their carriages ready to take them away from here with every assurance that the roads back to Val Royeaux are clear and safe for travel.”
There was a beat of silence; another; another. Cullen cleared his throat, realizing six seconds too late that they were expecting him to speak. “I…will have men stationed along the major highways as added assurance,” he said, fumbling for the first thing that came to mind.
Pathetic, really; shameful that he could be so easily scattered. But Elayne was toying with a small wrapped bundle he hadn’t even noticed she’d carried in with her, clever fingers tugging at the folds of cloth as she bit her lower lip. “Yes,” she said, voice beautifully throaty. “That sounds perfect. Thank you.”
Josephine gathered her papers and began to step away from the war table. “If that is all,” she said, clearly eager to get back to work.
“Actually,” Elayne said. Another, darker, blush spread across her cheeks. “There are a few other, small matters. Leliana, will you, ah, be willing to play the role of Inquisitor for one last evening?”
So that’s how, a small part of him whispered, even as the rest was erupting in instant conflagration. His cheeks were burning; it felt as if he’d swallowed the sun, its heat building and building inside his chest as, unbidden, images of their nights together flashed against his closed lids. Leliana disguised somehow as the Inquisitor while Elayne had been disguised as Jenny—while Elayne had been in his arms—while Elayne had slid a bare thigh over his hips and pressed close, all pale, yielding flesh and tumbling dark hair and breathless gasps.
He opened his eyes, fighting to will away the rush of memory, and stared daggers down at the war table with its neat line of metal pieces.
“I would be happy to,” Leliana said slowly, obviously surprised by the request. Or perhaps just by the openness of it? “Though I wasn’t aware the Commander knew of our agreement.”
He refused to believe that; not with the way she had been looking at him, as if she’d dipped her fingers into his skull and stolen all its secrets. (But then, a small part of him whispered, that’s how Leliana always looks when she wants us to think she knows more than she’s letting on.)
“Um,” Elayne said, clearing her throat, “thank you.”
“As luck would have it,” Josephine added, “I ordered two additional gowns, just in case.”
Two additional gowns; two additional possibilities; two additional nights with Jenny? But no. No, there was no Jenny, and he could hardly be certain that Elayne wanted to pick up where she had left off. Could he?
Maker’s breath, his heart was fit to pound right out of his chest.
“That was good of you,” Elayne said, as if she had no idea he was slowly dying of hope before her. “Thank you, Josephine.”
Leliana leaned against the table with an arched brow. “Does this mean we will be graced with another stunning display of Starkhaven’s native dance?”
Cullen nearly swallowed his tongue, biting back a heart-felt groan. No, no, there was no doubt about it: Leliana knew. But… But surely she wouldn’t be teasing them this way—taunting him—if she didn’t think there was a chance this could all end well. Leliana could be cold at times, but she was rarely cruel.
Please, he thought, staring down the row of iron pieces as if they somehow held the answer. Please. By the Maker, please.
He could see Elayne beginning to unwrap that strange bundle with visibly shaking hands—slowly, fumblingly, as if her nerves were one by one overwhelming her. “I hope so,” she said—and his heart all but stopped when she pushed the silky cloth away to reveal his mask. Shining silver in her hands, intimately familiar after all this time: an answer to his prayer, gleaming as Elayne leaned forward and deliberately set it in the center of the table. “If he can be found.”
He stared at the mask—resting over the heart of Ferelden—before slowly lifting his gaze. Meeting her beautiful, searching eyes.
“Oh no,” Josephine said, sounding all at once so very far away. “Have you lost him?”
No, Cullen thought, thunderstruck. No, that could never happen; I will be by this woman’s side until the day I die. The thought had a ring of promise to it, like a knightly prayer; a vow.
And then, even more simply, like the Ferelden farmboy he was at heart: If you will have me, I am yours.
Elayne was quiet for what felt like forever, studying him with an expression he didn’t dare try to read. Finally, she said, “I don’t know,” and his heart stuttered in his chest. “Maybe. But maybe he can be found again if he wants to be. I would very much like to dance with him again.”
He could hardly believe what he was hearing. He could hardly believe this was happening. This—This—
Maker’s breath, but good things simply didn’t happen to him. Not like this. Not so easily, as if his whole life had been leading him to this moment.
She looked up through her lashes, meeting his eyes. Color bloomed across her cheeks, and oh, but he wanted to brush his knuckles across the spreading stain—to feel the heat steadily rising. To…to make this fairy tale real, once and for all. “Ser Cullen,” she murmured. “Would you, ah, undertake this mission?”
Yes. Yes. A thousand times yes. He wanted to shout it—to shove the war table aside and drag her into his arms. He hated every bit of distance between them, the uncertainty in her eyes, the fact that she even had to ask. Of course, of course, how could she even wonder?
But Cullen was hyperaware of Leliana and Josephine watching them with rapt curiosity. The spymaster’s grin was a slow, insidious thing; he had no doubt she was reading every hidden word and thought in their exchange and taking great delight in it. And while he was hardly ashamed of how ridiculously in love he was, it was still all too new to be made a spectacle of.
So. How to say everything in his head and heart without fumbling over himself like a fool?
He cast around, feeling increasingly awkward as the seconds ticked by, rubbing at the back of his neck. “Ah, yes,” he said. “Of course. Right away.” He reached out, not even sure yet what he meant to do—
Then his desperately roving eye caught on the little iron figurines, and everything clicked into place.
Feeling like ten kinds of idiot and yet not caring a single whit, Cullen lifted one of the pieces. “Should I…?” he began, even as he leaned across the table to place the figure over Skyhold. Something about that gesture made it all feel so very official, as if he really were on a mission instead of just blindly casting about.
Leliana snorted in amusement.
“Right,” Elayne said with a slowly growing smile. It lit up her beautiful face, her eyes, shining and perfect and, and, and perfect and— “Good. Thank you. Um. Good luck finding him, though if you can’t, I’ll—It’s— Um.”
Yes, he thought, that light cast from her as if she were the sun and he the moon, shining back in reflexive joy. “Words?” he murmured, and in that moment he was utterly certain that all of this, somehow, would turn out okay. Happily bloody ever after.
“Words,” she said, and reached up to touch her fingertips to a flaming cheek. Her breath left her in a soft half-laugh.
Cullen began to grin. Maker, but I love you.
Leliana moved in his periphery, jolting him back to full awareness. “Not to interrupt,” she said, “but if we are to get everything ready in so short a time, we must begin now. Inquisitor, if you would,” she said, sliding around the table and dropping her hand to Elayne’s waist.
Josephine joined them. “Yes, we must hurry. Neither gown has been properly fitted, and there is so much to do. Is there dye enough for a fourth night? Leliana, is there any in storage that we could use? Or perhaps your scouts have access to more?”
They were sweeping Elayne out of the war room, chatting brightly. Cullen moved around the table as they retreated, reaching almost without meaning to for the silver mask. It felt instantly familiar in his grip, cool against his calloused fingertips. Its velvet strings dangled, brushing his wrist as they twisted in the slight draft, and he could almost feel the knot against the back of his head. He could almost feel the heavy velvet coat, hear the music, smell her perfume.
He looked up, catching Elayne’s backward glance just as the war room doors were closing behind her. The question was still there in her eyes, in the curve of her lips. In the way her breath caught as their gazes met, locked, held.
Cullen lifted the mask toward her, like some strange version of a courtly salute…
…and immediately felt like the biggest idiot in all of Thedas. “Maker’s breath,” he said wryly, rubbing at the back of his neck. Only her sudden, beaming grin kept him from a full retreat, those eyes dancing, welcoming, accepting. Always, always accepting him exactly the way he was. The door closed with a solid clang behind her, but he could still see the light on her face in his mind’s eye—the dimples flashing against her cheeks, as if his romantic fumblings were somehow endearing.
Maker. Did he need any more proof that she was the perfect woman for him?
One more night, Cullen thought, tucking the mask into the folds of his overcoat. One more chance to get it right. And, if he managed to look into her face and scramble together the words he needed, one more chance to let her know exactly how he felt.
And convince her that despite every obstacle that stood in their way, he would gladly be hers until the end of time.
Chapter 17: For Aureliana
“This thing is doing its bloody best to strangle me,” Cullen muttered, snagging a finger in the collar of his coat and tugging. The damned thing barely moved, determined, it seemed, to choke the breath from him. At least, it was easier to blame the coat than nerves. It felt like he’d been knocked onto his back, dazed and half-crushed by the weight of his armor.
Only he wasn’t wearing armor; he was wearing Orlesian velvet and butter-soft leather. And somehow that was ten times worse than even the heaviest Templar plate.
Dorian slapped his hand away with a tsk before reaching up to fix the damned thing. He was kitted out in overly decorative finery as well, tiny mirrors sewn along the lines of his robe winking slyly as they caught the light. It reminded Cullen of Elayne’s dress that first night of the ball; the way she shone. The way she dazzled.
It reminded him of just how much was riding on tonight.
And that pressure—that sense of near-panicked hope and fear—was just as crushing as heavy plate could ever be. “It is too tight,” he snapped, reaching up.
Dorian just slapped his hand away again. “It is exactly as snug as it needs to be. Now do stand still, Commander…unless you wanted to meet your lady looking like a stuffed turkey.”
Cullen grumbled but subsided, allowing Dorian to see to the finishing touches. Even he had to admit that Dorian had out-done himself this time. While he preferred the relative comfort and simplicity of the blue coat, the one Dorian had foisted on him tonight (“You shouldn’t allow your lady to have all the fun”) was striking. Blood red worsted wool and velvet followed the line of his shoulders, his chest, snug enough to make him self-conscious when he moved. Engraved golden buttons and trim and various fussy details made the whole thing much grander than he was used to, but a fall of tawny gold fur pauldrons rose in a familiar ruff across his shoulders.
Ridiculous that he should find that comforting.
Black leather encased his thighs in a thoroughly uncomfortable way, too suggestive by far. Sturdy black boots were, frankly, ruined by the addition of infernally complicated buckles. All in all, the whole affair was rich and heavily embellished and far more eye-catching than he would have liked.
It didn’t matter. He would have worn anything, said anything, if it meant having Elayne again.
“There,” Dorian said, stepping back. He spread his hands wide as if to admire his scowling masterpiece; a crooked smile curved his mouth. “You look positively…miserable. Handsome, mind you,” he added at Cullen’s choked noise, “but miserable. Tell me: are you by chance going to meet the woman of your dreams, or are you going into battle?”
Cullen fought the urge to tug at his collar again; to pull at the too-tight line of his coat; to shift in awkward, anxious, pent-up energy. “Battle would be easier,” he admitted. “I know what to do in the heart of a battlefield. Maker’s breath, I have no bloody clue what to do in… In…”
“In the heart of a woman?” Dorian murmured, too empathetic by far.
Cullen had to look away.
“Well,” Dorian said, stepping in close again, “thankfully for you, the woman in question is predisposed to finding everything you say and do ridiculously charming. Also thankfully for you…” He popped open that annoyingly tight first button and grinned at Cullen’s startled look. “You have a friend who is willing to admit when something is not working. You won’t be able to be yourself if you’re not comfortable,” Dorian added, working quickly, deftly, to unfasten the line of golden buttons he’d spent so long getting just right. “As marvelous as you look, I am thinking the Inquisitor prefers you able to breathe.”
“Elayne,” Cullen corrected, because he couldn’t think of her as the Inquisitor. Not here, not now. The Inquisitor was a beacon of hope for all of Thedas. A holy symbol, for Andraste’s sake. Elayne, however…
He could imagine holding Elayne. Kissing her. Sliding his calloused hands down the flare of her hips as he sank deeper into her warmth.
Dorian just hummed in agreement. “Our Elayne,” he said as Cullen’s coat fell open around him. He popped open the first two buttons of the ridiculously expensive white lawn shirt, giving Cullen room for breath for the first time in what felt like forever.
“Hmm.” Dorian considered him for a moment, head tipped to one side—then suddenly grinned and reached up to drag his fingers through carefully tamed blond curls, sending them into instant disarray. Cullen snarled in protest, ducking away, but the damage was already done. “To complete the image,” Dorian explained, dark eyes bright with laughter. “If you are going to look as relaxed as if you had rolled out of bed, you may as well commit to the part.”
Cullen fought the urge to drag his fingers through his hair to smooth the no-doubt-rakish mess. “Thank you for your help, Dorian,” he said…and found, suddenly, that he meant it. For all that he knew he should be angry about the way Dorian had tricked him and Elayne into each others’s arms, the fact remained that… Well…
He wasn’t entirely sure he ever would have scraped together the courage if Dorian hadn’t intervened. He wasn’t even sure he would have let himself realize how he truly felt about Elayne without the ruse. As Marcus and Jenny, they had been able to lower their defenses in a way they never could have as Cullen and Elayne. He’d been given the chance to see her—really see her—for the first time since their eyes met over the rubble of the Temple of Sacred Ashes, and as much as he knew he should resent the way their friends meddled in their lives, Cullen couldn’t be anything but grateful for the chance he had been given.
Elayne would be waiting for him tonight; Elayne wanted him to find her.
“Now, then,” Dorian said softly, startling Cullen back into the moment. He’d pulled away to get a look at him, and there was no mistaking the gentle warmth in his eyes—as if watching Cullen stumble into his fairy tale was enough to ensure Dorian’s own happy ending. “That is a man comfortable enough in his own skin to win the hand of the fair lady…perhaps in another startling display of Starkhaven’s native dance?”
Cullen groaned. “I hate you,” he said, not meaning a word, as he grabbed his mask and pulled it on. The familiar metal felt warm against his cheeks, welcome.
“Lies.” Dorian paused, still studying him. “You look…” he started.
Cullen groaned again. “If you’re about to redo everything all over again,” he began in his best terrify the troops voice.
Dorian just waved off the implied threat. “No, that’s not it. I was going to say you look happy.” Cullen straightened, startled. “Lighter than I think I have ever seen you. It’s a good look on you.”
“I feel—” Cullen began, thrown off-kilter but such bald-faced truth. “I feel happy.” He certainty felt changed, as if these past three nights had been a fire to temper his restless spirit. That moment in the war room had changed everything. He had hope now. It had been a very long time since he’d had that.
Dorian smiled, soft. “I am glad,” he said—before sharply straightening, snapping back into his lightly mocking tone as if slipping his own mask into place. “Come now, Commander,” he said. Dorian opened the door for him, gesturing Cullen forward with a flourish. “Your lady awaits.”
“I…yes,” Cullen said, looking out across all of Skyhold, lit with a thousand brilliant flames—a dizzying kaleidoscope of sound and color and gaiety. “She is.” He hesitated for just a moment, taking a breath, letting himself accept how irrevocably changed his life had been. Then, squaring his shoulders, Cullen stepped out onto the parapets and strode toward the far door that would take him into the heart of the lion’s den.
He didn’t look back.
The overwhelming roar of the crowd greeted him as he stepped into Solas’s rotunda. The ball had been a terrible crush before, but in the wake of the great “battle”, the court seemed nearly manic. Women whirled by in a cascade of colorful silks; light glinted off of masks and jewels; wandering hands brushed along his shoulders (his backside) as he passed, and Cullen could have sworn he heard more than a few murmured come-ons. He ignored it all as best he could, focusing as he would in the heat of battle, not letting his gaze settle for more than a moment on any one guest.
She was here…somewhere. Somewhere lost in this crush of humanity, Elayne was waiting for him; Elayne wanted him to find her. That kept him pushing forward even when the crowd threatened to overwhelm him. To drown him in their wake, like grasping hands rising from the murky sea.
Elayne. He pushed through a score of guests standing at the corners of the room and stepped out onto the dance floor. Couples whirled gaily past, laughter rising up up up to the peaked ceilings. He ignored them—ignored the chorus of curious whispers that rose in his wake—and kept scanning for her, looking for a familiar shape amongst the endless assault of color.
Cullen was aware of Josephine and Leliana-as-the-Inquisitor watching him from the dais. He was aware of Dorian keeping an eye on him from the entrance to the rotunda. He was aware of friends all around him. He wasn’t alone despite the slowly sinking feeling that maybe he was beyond his depth, and that was what kept him from stepping back against the increasing crush. That was what gave him the fortitude to keep pushing through the swirling silks, the trilling laughs, the blinding lights and colors and sensations threatening to drag him under as he searched, he searched, and she wasn’t there.
She wasn’t there.
Or, Maker, he hadn’t even considered— Was she coming as Jenny? As Elayne? Was she clad in black, like the first night? Blue, like the second? Red? How could he even be confident that he would know her if he spotted her, the way she shifted from night to night, moment to moment—a chameleon in every sense of the word. The perfect woman, the perfect mage, the perfect symbol, the perfect…
And then, of course, he spotted her. And then, of course, he knew her instantly.
She stood some distance away, dressed in starlight. The dress glowed silver-white against the maddening whirl of color, making her a note of quiet in the endless cacophony. Her hair tumbled loose around her shoulders, gleaming gold and wild, and her lips parted as she scanned the crowd, searching.
Searching for him?
Cullen stood frozen in place, heart racing in his chest—watching as Elayne scanned unfamiliar masked faces with a slight frown between her brows. The dizzying, overwhelming noise of the party seemed to fade to a distant murmur, as if her mere presence was enough to protect him from the chaos. A shield; his shield. By the Maker, he would give anything to be hers in return.
He took a step forward, watching as her eyes darted from face to face, not seeing him. That light frown deepened into a dismay, and Cullen instinctively pushed closer, moving toward her, wanting like nothing else to reassure her. I’m here, he thought, shoulder-checking an Orlesian lord who drifted into his path—ignoring the sputtered protest as the fool spun to glare at him. I wouldn’t leave you to face this alone.
But he was still too far away to call out and be heard. Cullen set his jaw and shoved his way forward, moving through the elegantly weaving couples. He kept his eyes locked on her face and saw the moment disappointment morphed into panic. She whirled, silver train cascading behind her, and began to flee—back, back toward the dais, the door up to her quarters, the last chance he had for salvaging this night.
No, no, I’m here.
“Elayne,” he cried, and stumbled forward, trusting his feet to carry him. He was blind to anything else around him, vision tunneled down, blood pulsing in ears, thoughts a discordant scatter of hope and fear and love and longing and Elayne, Elayne. He had lost so much in his lifetime; he had sacrificed even more. He couldn’t, wouldn’t, lose this chance, this…
She reached to catch the long fall of her skirts as she fled, but he was reaching out at the same moment, big fingers curling about her wrist in the gentlest of cages, urging her with everything he was to stay.
At the first touch, Elayne stilled.
Stood frozen in place. Her pulse was thrumming, beating like mad, and he swiped his thumb across her wrist before slowly, carefully, tightening his grip and tugging her back to him.
She lifted her face as she turned, moving as if under a spell—as if the both of them had been bewitched—lips parting on a breath. “I,” she said, then stopped, tongue darting out to wet her lower lip.
He stepped closer—as close as he dared—eyes locked on her mouth before slowly dragging up to meet her gorgeous eyes. “Please tell me I didn’t read this wrong,” he said. Begged. Maker, he would drop to his knees and plead if she asked him to. He’d never felt this way about anyone before. “I’ve been driving myself mad with doubt ever since… Well. Ever since I first laid eyes on you, if I’m to be honest.”
Cullen watched the way her eyes widened, her breath quickened. He soothed his thumb across the rapid thrum of her pulse again and again, as if he could somehow read the truth there.
She didn’t say a word.
“I’d always meant to tell you,” he confessed, driven by her silence. “I wanted to for a very long time, but it never was…” Cullen swallowed convulsively. “But then, earlier today, at the War Table, you— You seemed like you might want this too. That you might…”
She was silent, frozen still, watching him with unreadable eyes. Maker’s breath, maybe he had read this all wrong. Maybe this—he—wasn’t what she wanted, and he was standing here like an utter fool, baring his heart only to be turned away.
He couldn’t bear it; he had to bear it. He wouldn’t admit away until she told him in no uncertain terms there was no hope. He needed this more than he needed his pride. “Put me out of my misery, I beg you,” Cullen said, earnest, raw, letting her see everything in the hoarse scratch of his throat and the open honesty in his eyes. “Tell me I haven’t misread your intent.”
Elayne parted her lips as if to speak, but no words came. Instead, she gave a small shake of her head and gently turned her grip in his, squeezing his fingers.
And that—that—was almost enough to send him to his knees. Relief, hope, dizzying joy washed over him in a tidal wave, stealing the very breath from his lungs. He relaxed fully for what felt like the first time in hours, tension bleeding from him as he drank in her beautiful, beautiful face, hidden by the soft curve of her mask. Maker. He could hardly believe he was allowed to look now; he could hardly believe he wasn’t in this alone. That she…
“How long?” Elayne asked, voice throaty.
Cullen gave a startled laugh. “You wouldn’t believe me,” he said. But he found he wanted to tell her—to confess everything. Andraste take him, but it had been so long. “The breach was in the sky and we were fighting for our lives—and suddenly the air went very cold. I could hear the ice crystals forming, oddly musical, slowing the demon, and I knew help had come.” He dragged his thumb across her pulse again, loving the way she shivered in response. “But then I looked up and I saw you dressed in ragged green leathers, face smudged with blood and soot, worry and ferocity in every line of your body and I…I couldn’t look away. Even as I spoke to Cassandra, after, I couldn’t take my eyes off you. I thought maybe I’d gone mad.”
“Cullen,” Elayne breathed, tightening her grip. She wet her lips again, and he tried—he truly tried—not to stare like a half-starved mabari, but Maker that simple sight was nearly enough to unman him. “I…couldn’t look away from you either. I haven’t ever since.”
Oh. Relief felt like a healing spell, stealing every ache, every pain, every worry. He let out a shaken breath and dipped his head closer to hers, one hand reaching up to catch a coil of golden hair. He rubbed it between his fingers, barely believing he was allowed to touch her like this. “I’m glad,” he said, husky. “It’s hard for me to believe it, but I am so void-taken glad.” And then, because he couldn’t help himself: “Maker’s breath, but you are beautiful. And I can hardly believe that—That I—”
As usual, words failed him when he most needed them. He growled low in his chest, looking away, frustrated. “And here the words were coming so easily for a moment there.”
She didn’t respond. Cullen glanced up through his lashes, feeling strangely shy—of all things—under her gaze. It was incredible how being with this woman could strip the years away from him. He felt like a boy again—green, untried, hopeful. Most of all, hopeful.
What are you thinking? he wondered, watching as her lashes flickered. Her expression was strangely far away, as if his words had catapulted her into memory. Into some place he could not follow. The Inquisitor. Maker, was he truly mad for loving her so much? She had the entire world resting on her shoulders; if he were a better man, a less selfish man, he wouldn’t ask her to take the burden of his love as well. He would harden his heart and see to his duty and do his best to help her without asking for more of her attention, her light.
And yet he couldn’t help asking, “What are you thinking?”, needing to know. He brushed his knuckles down the soft curve of her mask, her cheek, wanting an answer more than he’d ever wanted anything in his miserable life.
“I’m thinking,” she said softly, “that I’m the biggest fool in Thedas for not realizing I’ve loved you all along.”
He instinctively drew back at that, overwhelmed, and she gave a low laugh as she followed, pressing close and twining her arms around his neck. Her smile was so bright, so beautiful, it made his chest ache. Maker how he loved this woman. “Is that a surprise to you?” she asked, tipping her face up.
Cullen dropped his hands to her waist and drew her even closer, pulling her deep into his arms. The brush of her body against his was electric, silvery-white skirt swaying forward, enveloping his legs as he reeled her in until they were pressed flush. A spark ignited in his lower belly, warm and hungry. “Yes,” he said, dragging his palm slowly up and down her spine. “It’s always a surprise when something good happens in my life. But I’m not going to let that stop me.”
“Good,” she said, lifting her face as if for a kiss. “Cullen…”
His name had never sounded so sweet. “Elayne,” he responded, loving the way she shivered in response.
“I like hearing my name on your lips,” Elayne admitted, throaty.
And, daring much: “Is that all you want on my lips?” Cullen teased. Elayne gave a breathless laugh, and he flushed even as he grinned, feeling like a young man again. Like all the cares in the world meant nothing because this woman was in his arms. “Sorry,” he said. “Having Dorian for a friend has its consequences, I fear. I’ve learned to have something of a wicked tongue.”
She batted her lashes up at him. “Oh, I remember your wicked tongue all right,” Elayne teased back, and that’s all it took for that spark of hunger to ignite into a conflagration. Maker’s breath, but he wanted her. He wanted to slid up her voluminous skirts and fall to his knees and worship every inch he could reach. He wanted to…
“Dorian’s my friend, too,” Elayne was saying, blissfully unaware of the unspooling of his thoughts. “Looks like he and Sera have absolutely ruined us for polite company.”
“Shameful,” he managed, dragging his hands down the curve of her waist, loving the feel of her. The heat, coming through layers of fine silk. “Just shameful.”
He was being shameless, at the very least. Thumbs dragging over the curve of her belly, palms restlessly moving to the flare of her hips, body responding to her proximity. Maker, he was getting hard just looking at her. And she…
She arched liked a cat, lips parting on quickened breaths, and oh, oh, she felt it too. This palpable heat simmering between them; this need like quicksand under their feet. He slid his arms around her waist and hoisted her against him, not caring that she’d easily be able to feel the evidence of his desire. He just…needed her close, needed to feel her sinking against him, needed to merge their bodies as if somehow they could be transmutated into one. Maker’s breath, Elayne.
She tightened her arms around his neck, fingers digging into the gold fur of his pauldrons, then up into his hair. “Do you still love me?” she whispered, mouth barely a breath away.
He rested their foreheads together, breathing in her scent. “More than reason.”
The noise Elayne made speared through him, his heart spasming in response. I love you, I love you, he thought—but the words were stolen by the sudden, soft brush of her mouth against his. Her fingers tightened in his hair, and oh, oh, he had been wanting this for what felt like so long. Soft, warm, sinking into the kiss, her lips parting under his—his under hers—and the first hot brush of her tongue…
His grip tightened as he licked hungrily into her mouth, swallowing each soft cry as she rocked up onto her toes to get closer. The drag of their bodies was incendiary, almost too much, and her fingers digging in his hair was the perfect counterpoint of not-quite-pain. He sank deeper into her, twining their tongues together, slicking deep, deep, deeper; the drag of her breasts against his heaving chest were driving him mad. The sounds she made, caught in her throat, muffled against his desperate mouth, were enough to make his body ache. He shifted his hips restlessly, hard cock straining the black leathers, and caught her lower lip between his teeth. Cullen pulled back just enough to score her lip, then brushed his tongue across the soft red swell, soothing. Sucking away the sting.
Elayne pushed up against him in response, nearly knocking him a step back; Cullen dug his fingers into her plush hips and held steady, moaning into the kiss. He caught her tongue and sucked hard at the root before gentling, flicking his own tongue against hers over and over. It took everything he had not to rut up against her like a mindless beast, desire deepening with each moment that passed. Fuck but he wanted to rip the silver gossamer of her gown away; he wanted to catch the peak of her breast between his teeth, to suck at the tightening nipple as he slid a hand down the gasping heave of her belly; he wanted to press his fingers inside of her and feel the hottighthot clench of her body around him; he wanted…
Cullen broke the kiss on a heaving gasp, one hand lifting to tangle in a waterfall of golden curls. He tugged her head back, baring the line of her throat—and something inside him flared to life when she gasped and melted into instant submission, offering herself up to him like she wasn’t a gift far beyond his merit. I love you, he thought, mouthing his way down her pale throat. He trailed his tongue down down down to the curve of her shoulder, loving the way she gasped and trembled beneath him. Maker, was she wet, just from this? He was dying to know.
“Please,” Elayne said, rocking up, rubbing against his body in tiny, desperate undulations. She dug her nails into his shoulders and barely swallowed a cry when her hips—her cunt—dragged against the painful strain of his cock. “Please, Cullen, I need… I…”
It took everything he had not to bear her down on the gleaming onyx floor, room full of blasted Orlesians or no. “How do you do this to me?” he demanded, mouthing at her soft skin. He raked his teeth down the bared line of her shoulder and rode out her tremulous shudders. “Just the sight of you is enough to…”
To lose himself utterly, and never mind the consequences. To forget who they were, which was a blessing and a curse all in one.
Taking in a shuddery breath, Cullen slowly forced himself to pull back. It took all his willpower—especially when she clung to him with that noise, soft and panting and so hot it nearly immolated him from the inside out. “Forget sense,” he finished, voice strangled. “Maker. We’re still in the middle of a crowd, aren’t we?”
Elayne blinked up at him, dazed—then suddenly laughed. She turned her face, pressing it against his chest as her shoulders shook. “At least,” she said, muffled, amused, “no one is applauding.”
He had to grin at that. “Give them time,” he said with a teasing growl, “the great pervy louts.”
She gave a peal of laughter, so bright and unrestrained that he could have given his soul just to hear it again. Those bright eyes lifted to his, and he couldn’t believe he hadn’t known her in an instant. Those softly rounded cheeks, that flare of fierce intelligence, the way her full mouth softened into the sweetest smiles…
This woman would forever own a part of him. He’d never felt happier than he did right now, realizing that indisputable fact.
Slowly, their laughter quieted; the air went still and serious between them again. Elayne slid her hands up his chest as if seeking out the unsteady race of his heart. Her lips parted, but she didn’t say a word, gaze raking over him restlessly as if she couldn’t possibly look her fill.
Andraste take him, but he understood that feeling.
“Maker, look at you,” Cullen said, gently tucking back a curl. “And here I thought you couldn’t possibly get more beautiful.” He leaned closer, drinking her in. “Happiness is a good look on you.”
“Get used to it,” she breathed, tilting her face so she could brush a kiss across his palm. “If things go as I hope, you’re going to be seeing a lot more of it.”
“And what are your hopes?”
She brushed her fingers against the tawny fur of his pauldrons, clasping her other hand in his. He waited, curious—then took a step back when she gave a little push, his free hand dropping to her waist. They fell into the dance as easily as breathing, moving in tandem as if they had been doing this for years. (As if they should have been doing this all along.)
Figures swirled around them in a colorful blur, but Cullen barely spared them a second glance. His eyes were fixed on her upturned face, locked in her gaze. He wanted nothing more than to reach out and tug her mask free and finally see her, see Elayne. Brush his lips across the soft curve of her cheeks and never have to rely on masks again.
“I hope,” Elayne said, flushed as if sensing his thoughts, “that after this last dance, we go somewhere we can talk. That we will work through all the obstacles and objections we might anticipate. That we will figure out a way to keep this—to keep us. No matter what.”
“We can’t go back,” he agreed, spinning her out in a dazzling burst of light. Maker, but she was perfect. “I,” he corrected himself. “I can’t go back.”
She spun back into his arms, falling into them as if she belonged there. “Neither can I,” Elayne said. “I don’t want to.” Then, quieter: “Cullen. I… I…”
Her words faded; failed her, the way they so often failed him. Only this time, he knew exactly what he wanted to say. Cullen pulled her against him for the last swell of music, holding her close as he dipped his head and murmured, “You’re the first good thing that’s happened to me in a very long time. I couldn’t bear it if I lost you.”
The song ended with a roar of applause, but all Cullen heard was Elayne’s soft gasp. She looked up at him, eyes bright with emotion—with tears?—and nodded as if she understood exactly how he felt. For the first time in a long time, he had no doubt that that was true. If anyone could understand, it would be Elayne Trevelyan.
She pulled back just a little in the brief silence following the song, hand tucked into his elbow. “Take me somewhere private?” she asked. “As beautiful as this has been, I think I’ve had my fill of balls.”
“Thank the Maker,” Cullen said, fervent enough to make her laugh again. He grinned back, pleased; he would never tire of that sound. One hand closing over hers, he led Elayne off the dancefloor. The next song was starting, and he was half-tempted to scan the crowd for Dorian’s no-doubt smugly self-satisfied smirk…but his eyes stayed on her instead as they passed through the rotunda, through the last door, and out into the waiting moonlight.
The doors closed behind them. The night went still. Silent. Expectant. Perfect, he thought, eyes on her. Stars shone from above, and from below, caught in the glittering folds of her skirt. Elayne seemed to glow with inner light, as brilliant as the moon above. Beautiful.
He couldn’t say which he meant; he couldn’t see how it mattered.
Snow fell around them in quiet hush. It caught on her hair and dress in a fresh layer of jewels, and Maker’s breath, how had he gotten so lucky? He took her hand in his, marveling at the way they fit together, and tugged her gently closer—the moon their only witness. He thought he’d very much like to kiss her.
Elayne wet her lips. “Hi,” she said, breaking the silence. Then she ducked her head. “I’m sorry. I’m not sure what to say to you.”
“I’ve been wracking my brain for the last full minute,” he teased, squeezing her fingers before lifting them to his mouth.
They were bracketed on all sides by a dazzling starfield. Skyhold stood sentinel, and a wind whispered down from the Frostbacks, buffeting her skirts, her loose blonde curls. Elayne wet her lips again and stepped forward until they were little more than a breath away. Her face tilted up even as his tipped down in silent agreement.
And then—slowly, slowly, almost reverently—Elayne reached for his silver mask, thumbs brushing along the bottom curve before pushing it up. He let out a quiet noise, eyes closing as the mask was finally pulled away; he didn’t open them again until he felt the first gust of air against his bare cheeks.
Elayne was looking up at him in awed silence, lips parted, eyes so blue they were like a Fade dream. No one had ever looked at him like this.
“May I?” he murmured, reaching for her mask. She closed her eyes, waiting, as he carefully untied the laces holding it in place. He swore his heart nearly stopped beating when he caught the edge of that delicate silver-tooled metal between his hands and slowly—slowly—slowly lifted it away. Snowflakes brushed her bare cheeks. Caught against the dark fan of her lashes. Brushed her parted lips.
He let the mask drop from nerveless fingers. “Maker’s breath,” Cullen said, pulse lurching in response, “but you are beautiful. I…want you so much.”
She opened her eyes at that, cheeks heating, body swaying forward as if to say in silent answer: then take me.
So he dug his fingers into her hair and pulled her close—pulled her mouth to his hungry, searching kiss—pulled her body flush against his, soft to hard, giving to demanding—and did just that.
Chapter 18: For Aureliana
Cullen moaned at the soft press of Elayne’s body. The way she cleaved to him was maddening, perfect, heating his blood to a boiling point as he tipped her face and licked deep into her mouth. His hands were already moving restlessly over lush curves, tracing the span of her hips before stroking along the delicate line of her spine. He wanted to—
Maker, but he wanted to memorize her. He wanted to learn every part of her, so that he would always have her with him, should the worst come to pass.
No, Cullen thought, banishing the idea with a low growl. He caught her about the waist, dragging her close, closer, pinning her tight against him as he tried to devour every last breath, denying the traitorous fears that even now refused to let him completely be. Now is not the time for that.
If his shield and his sword had anything to say about it, they would have a very long time to exorcise those last remaining demons.
A sharp wind blew, dragging the glistening-starlight ends of her train about their bodies as they kissed. The chill of it—of the softly falling snow, shushing beautifully around them—was no match for the heat flaring every time her hips pressed closer. Cullen lost a broken noise in the depths of her, tongue stroking deep deep deep even as he gripped the curve of her hips, desperate to thrust. Fuck, but he’d fall upon her like an animal if he dared; everything inside him was snarling with the desire to push her down amongst the cold stone and lick deep into her core.
To taste. To fuck. To claim.
Stop it, he told himself, struggling for control. It slipped through his fingers just as quickly as he could grasp for it, lost in the way she arched like a cat against him—the way her hips rolled against the hard strain of his cock, just, fuck, sending a firestorm through him. He grabbed her around the waist and yanked her up against him, pulling her from her feet, needing all of her; needing to be lost in her. The noise she made rocked through him, and ah, Maker’s breath, within moments she was winding her arms around his neck and wrapping her legs around his waist, responding with matching fire, as if she was half as desperate for his touch as he was for her.
Elayne, he thought, maddened, gripping the curve of her ass as he sucked hard on her tongue. She writhed up against him, each twist of her hips dragging those full breasts across the heavy rasp of his coat—the scalding heat of her against the painful strain of his cock—and he very nearly took her there. Right there, on the battlements, within plain view of Skyhold and his tower and—
He groaned, tongue twining against hers, slick enough to make him shudder. His tower. They were so close; so close, and yet it may as well have been a hundred leagues. He couldn’t imagine letting go long enough to lead her there—not when he had the taste of her so deep inside.
Cullen scraped his teeth along her tongue, messy and hot and verging on desperate, even as he tightened his grip and took a staggering step back. Another. Another. He reached down, blindly fumbling behind him for the doorknob as he carried them closer and closer to his tower, too drunk on kisses to look away. Elayne made a low noise of displeasure, sliding one hand down his searching arm as if to demand he touch her again, and oh, fuck, but the temptation was almost more than he could bear. She was alive in his arms, arching and keening and so wet he could smell the sweet heat of her rising around him, causing him to stumble and curse into the kiss—and finally find the fucking door.
He broke the kiss on a heaving gasp, barely giving himself time to meet Elayne’s dazed gaze before he was kissing his way down her neck. She gripped his shoulder hard and arched back into a helpless bow, heels digging into the small of his back. The glittering white cloth strained across her breasts, heaving with each breath, and he’d defy anyone to resist the temptation to taste. He kissed his way down, stubble scoring across the pale mounds, tongue flickering out to dip into the tantalizing curve of her cleavage. He could barely feel his fingers as he fumbled for his key—then blindly worked to unlock the door—mouthing her breasts with a single-minded devotion.
“I want to feel you inside me,” Elayne purred, and Cullen cursed, very nearly dropping the key. She just laughed, throaty and raw, pressing her cheek against the crown of his head.
His grip on the lush curve of her ass tightened. “Maker’s breath, woman,” he faux-chided, finally giving in and turning his head to see—there! Cullen shoved the key into the lock with a satisfied grunt, twisting harder than necessary. “Thank Andraste,” he muttered, shoving open the door. “I wasn’t sure I could let you go long enough to get the damn thing open.”
“Don’t,” she said, carding her fingers through his hair. Her nails raked along his scalp as he carried her into his office, and she laughed throatily at the way he slammed the door shut, then pointedly locked it. He was tempted to throw away the key—tempted to keep her here forever—but he reined in the impulse, instead tossing it blindly toward his desk.
The office was dark; too dark. He could make out the familiar shapes in the dim, but he wasn’t interested in the familiar tonight. Cullen wanted to be able to see her. He wanted all of her exposed to him—and him to her—no masks, no lies, no hesitation. Just the two of them naked beneath the Maker’s gaze. There were candles aplenty here, but…no. This office was home to the Commander and the Inquisitor. Tonight, they were far more than that.
Setting his jaw, he tightened his grip and strode toward the ladder.
“Hold on,” he said against the shell of her ear, giving into unimaginable temptation and lightly biting the lobe. She made a softly gasping noise that shuddered through him with the force of one of her spells—but Cullen simply focused past the surge of desire and braced her carefully against him, grabbing a rung.
Beginning to climb.
Elayne gave a startled yelp, grip on him tightening. Cullen grinned in reflexive response, feeling the last of his worries casting aside and falling to the ground below. He felt lighter, younger, freer than he had in years, as if he really had managed to shed the mantle of the Commander. He paused just long enough to press a kiss to her shoulder, careful not to jostle her as he made his way up to his lofted bedroom.
She slid the fingers of one hand through his hair in a lingering caress. “I’ve never been up here before,” she admitted as they finally crested the top. She glanced around, craning over her shoulder to see—then gave a bright, gorgeous laugh when he gripped her waist and lifted her to perch on the very edge of the ladder, balanced carefully at the lip of the opening. Her fingers tightened in his hair once, but Elayne’s grip relaxed when her weight settled back against solid floorboards.
He could actually see the moment she decided to trust him—trust this. The smile was bright in her eyes as she deliberately leaned back on her palms, letting him get an eyeful of the softly curving hills and valleys of her body. That shimmering silver skirt was hitched high about her plump thighs, which bracketed his body—knees brushing his shoulders as he shifted minutely closer, drawn by her heat and soft scent.
Elayne arched a wicked brow.
Cullen couldn’t help but grin back. “I know,” he said. He stayed planted where he was, feet braced on a lower rung of the ladder, caught between her thighs. He couldn’t think of a better place to be—or a better excuse to take his time and look his fill.
Maker’s breath, but he might never be able to look his fill. She was glorious—absolutely stunning, in a way he’d always been aware of in the back of his mind, but which he’d never let himself give much in the way of thought. It would have been too distracting for too long, looking up over those constant War Room discussions seeing her there, wanting her. Dying to slide his hands up the pale silk of her trembling thighs to the heat of her core. So. Bloody. Close.
Fuck, but he was hard. She must have seen some measure of desire in his eyes, too, if the color that swept her cheeks was any indication. It rose in delicate sworls, pink as dawn against the brilliant snowfall of her dress—and, Maker, what was it about this woman that filled his head with poetry?
I love you, he thought, silently drinking her in, taking his fill. I love you, I love you, I love you.
The blush expanded, deepened, but Elayne didn’t look away. Instead, she studied him back, lashes flickering, body a sensual arch. Biting her bottom lip, she subtly spread her thighs wider; the hem of her dress, already rucked up around her knees, slid higher up her thighs with a whisper.
The smile that crossed her lips was lost somewhere between wicked and shy. Cullen watched, ensnared—gladly—as Elayne reached down and caught the hem of her dress. She began to slide it up—up—up, in a tortuously slow tease, revealing inch by inch of pale skin as she went. Cullen dropped his hands to either side of her hips, watching with growing hunger as that glittering fabric crept up the soft roundness of her thighs, slowly. Slowly. So bloody slowly.
His breath was coming fast. He was nearly panting, just from this. Maker, his cock ached, and he wanted her more than he’d ever wanted anything, but he forced himself to remain perfectly still, watching, wanting, as bit by bit by bit, Elayne revealed herself to him.
She sparkled like living light, tiny jewels catching the starlight that seeped through the hole in his ceiling; bewitching. He was bewitched.
“Maker take you,” Cullen finally managed. He’d never sounded so rough, his voice rasping deep in his chest. Unable to resist any longer, he dropped his rough hands to all that soft, pale skin, thumbs brushing over the silk of her before sliding up, up, to stop at the hem of her skirt, now just barely covering the join of her thighs. It was indecent, teasing, perfect. Maker, she was perfect. He wanted nothing more than to push that bit of jeweled cloth up its last few inches and press his cheek against the curve of her belly; to slide his thumbs into the scalding heat of her core and lick his way inside. “I can,” he began, hips shifting restlessly, needfully. She was trembling in response. “I can smell how much you want me.”
Elayne made a low noise, hips reflexively rising. She tumbled back as if melting, barely catching herself on her palms, head tipped back so golden curls brushed the worn floorboards—arched in a sinuous line, breasts thrust forward and fuck, so tempting.
He turned his face to brush a hot kiss against one perfect thigh even as he pressed his advantage, leaning in and urging her legs to hook over his shoulders, spreading her wide and wanton and perfect, perfect. That waterfall of fabric tumbled back at the shift of her hips, baring her to him. Baring her. The shock of that was like a blow; he was instantly dizzy with it, because, because… She wore no smallclothes—had been naked and ready for him all this time—and Maker’s breath but that filled his thoughts with blinding red heat—cunt bare and sweet and—
And he would have her now.
She gave a cry and sank back, melting beneath him at his wordless growl. Golden curls snaked about her in a shining halo, and her skirts pooled across her stomach, leaving her exposed. Cullen snatched her up, cupped her ass in his hands, lifting her effortlessly and letting her rest her weight between her shoulderblades and his own not-inconsequential strength as he spread her wide for him—too hungry to wait any longer. All this time, all this time—fuck. I want you, he thought, leaning in—forcing himself to make it slow enough to be a tease of its own, watching as her breath kicked up, breasts heaving, gorgeous. If she wanted to torture him, then two could play the same game (even if it was all he could do not to sink into the welcoming heat of her at once). I want you so bloody much.
So bloody much that it was like a fire in his blood, a madness he didn’t want to shake. He dug his calloused fingertips into her softly giving skin, loving that contrast between them—wanting more—wanting everything. But he kept himself under strict control as he pressed in closer and closer, doling out each second like the torture it was before slowly, almost delicately, trailing the very tip of his tongue along the trembling flesh of her inner thigh.
“O-ooh,” Elayne breathed. He pressed a sucking kiss against the soft skin, tongue swirling at each broken little moan. His grip tightened as he deliberately brushed his cheek across her thighs, the rasp of stubble almost impossibly loud in the near-silent tower. She sucked in a breath and let it out on a moan, hips twisting, twitching, moving against his iron grip as he pressed the advantage.
So was so wet, he could almost taste her on the air; he had to taste her for real. Breath caught in his chest, Cullen leaned in and brushed his tongue across her soft folds, parting them. She bucked at the first slick of his tongue, writhing and calling out: “Cullen!” The sound of his name on her lips nearly had him rumbling in pleasure. Fuck, but he wanted to hear her call for him again and again. “Oh, oh, oh Maker.”
“All this time,” he growled, tightening his grip and lifting her higher, spreading her wide for him. His lips brushed her bared cunt with each word, and he slid his tongue across the soft folds once, twice, teasing with each hot breath. “All through our dance, you were naked beneath your skirts.” The thought was maddening. “Maker take you, I ought to—”
There were no words—only action. And no bloody patience left inside him to draw the torture out any longer. Cullen pressed close with a low noise and dragged his tongue through the hotwetslick folds of her cunt. He rode out the sharp buck of her hips, keeping her steady as he speared his tongue deep inside her body, then stroked up to swirl across the ache of her clit. He could feel it against his tongue, pulsing faintly as if echoing her cries; she writhed hard as he teased at the little hood with the very tip of his tongue before laving down her soft folds again, again.
The salt-sweet taste of her was addictive as any lyrium.
Cullen closed his eyes against that thought—that truth—and swirled about her clit again, teasing broken cries from her throat. He was dimly aware of Elayne dragging her fingers through her own hair, then down her throat and across the straining bodice to cup her perfect breasts. He wished he could watch that too—wished he could be everywhere, do everything, taste, touch, lick, fuck. He gave a huff of breath and dragged his tongue through her slick slit to flick against the wings of her labia, learning every part of her. “Cullen,” she gasped, grip tightening on the peaks of her breasts, “please.”
“Driving me insane,” he murmured against her skin. He carefully shifted her weight, making sure her legs were hooked securely over his shoulders before sliding sword-calloused hands along the backs of her thighs. Elayne shivered at the subtle shift of weight—of balance—but adapted beautifully, watching him from beneath lowered lashes.
Cullen met her gaze, held it, feeling the tension humming high and tight between them as he teased his fingertips along the slippery folds of her cunt…then slowly, inexorably, pressed inside.
She gasped at the intrusion, eyes flaring wide, body clamping down tight. “Please!” she cried, clenching around his single finger—so hot, so wet, so, so, fuck, just, fuck. He pushed a second finger inside, aching, cock a constant painful strain against the far-too-tight trousers…but oh, Maker, it didn’t matter. He could wait forever if he had to (in an agony of desire, fixated on her) just to watch her come apart beneath him.
Driven, desperate, Cullen crooked his fingers inside her, pressing close to swipe his tongue across the exposed skin—the stretch of her body around him. She was nearly screaming, each sucking breath wonderfully loud. He thrust his tongue alongside his fingers, wanting to drive her higher and higher, needing to hear her fall apart. Growling low, Cullen thrust his fingers inside the greedy clench of her body, swirling his tongue around her clit again. Again. Again.
The air was cold, and he swore he could hear the musical crack of ice crystals forming around them, but he was too focused on her pleasure to notice—wrapping his lips around the ache of her clit, sucking hard, thrusting his fingers into her body over and over and over as he pushed her toward her climax, needing her to fall apart.
“Maker, I want you,” Cullen groaned against her bare flesh, tongue chasing the words over her skin. He was drunk off her scent, her taste; the dark stubble of his chin was soaked with her. “Wanted you for so long, from the beginning, so beautiful, so—” He pressed a third finger inside her, stretching her sweet cunt wide, riding out her keening moan. It would be so easy to slide up her writhing body and sink into her—to drown himself into her willingly, gladly, subsumed by her pleasure and desire and the love bursting inside his chest as he drove her close close close. “I love you,” Cullen gasped against her skin, head bowed as if in prayer over the perfect altar of her body. “I will always love you.”
Then, because both of them needed it desperately, because they had been racing toward this point for what felt like forever: “Come for me, sweetheart.”
Elayne arched beneath him, bowed and shuddering and coming with his name on her lips. He could feel the tremors against his lips, his tongue—could feel the tight tight tight clench of her body as she bucked and shifted and panted so beautifully. It felt like being hit with a maul, watching her…knowing he’d given her this. Knowing he’d painted her skin with whorls of pink as color bloomed across her cheeks to the tops of her breasts; knowing he’d left her relaxing back boneless and shivering and sated.
By the Maker, if he hadn’t loved her before, this would be it for him. He could hardly catch his breath.
“Cullen,” she finally managed as she sank back into the aftershocks. The ice that had swept only half-noticed across the floorboards began to dissipate in a halo of shimmering crystals, glittering like an endless stretch of stars—Elayne, as always, at its center.
He softly kissed her trembling thighs. “Beautiful,” he murmured, riding out the hitch of her hips as he slowly, slowly withdrew from the hot clench of her body. He pressed his free hand against the slope of her belly, thumb tracing her bellybutton as he deliberately met her dazed gaze—and sucked her juices from his fingers.
She visibly shuddered. “Oh, you wicked man,” she laughed.
He grinned back, loving the sound—wanting to taste it. Forcing his muscles to unlock, Cullen began to climb the ladder the rest of the way into his loft, crawling over her supine body until he could gather her up against him. She felt so small, so soft against the wall of his chest; it was amazing to think that this woman was meant to be the shield to all of Thedas. The shining Herald of Andraste.
But not here. Not now. Now she was wonderfully human, sighing happily as he scooped her up and rose to his full height. She pressed her cheek to his chest as if to listen to his racing heart, the long sweep of her glittering train casting prisms of light across his simple room.
“I want you,” she murmured as he carried her toward the waiting bed. One hand lifted to cup his jaw, fingertips brushing along stubble. “I’m always going to want you, Cullen.”
“Promise me,” he said impulsively, laying her across the bed. He leaned in to kiss her, tongues twining languidly, slowly, sending sparks fanning through his body. He was still achingly hard, but the urgency was fading to something closer to a simmer—there was time. Somehow, despite everything, there was nothing but time.
Finally, he pulled back, though it took everything he had. He gazed down at her—shining and beautiful—before slowly, carefully, methodically beginning to peel away the expensive gown. Baring her to his sight. “Promise me.”
He let the dress fall to the floor in a whisper of silk and moved to kneel on the mattress, towering over her. The way she looked at him—wide-eyed—was, well, more than gratifying. Even more so the soft noise she made as he moved over her, heavy body braced over hers. He tensed a moment as their hips settled together, afraid his weight would be too much, but Elayne simply reached up to cup his face, drawing her down against her lush heat. He was still fully dressed against her; it was the only thing keeping him in check. “Promise me you’ll stay with me, Elayne,” he said, hating that he needed the reassurance but needing it nonetheless.
This all seemed too perfect; a fairy story that could fade at the first touch of dawn.
He thumbs brushed his cheeks. “I promise,” she whispered, eyes meeting his—then brought his mouth down to hers to seal the vow with a kiss. Long and slow and hot and wet, tongues brushing together—twining—tangling. He made a low noise and she swallowed it greedily, sucking on his tongue, then scraping it gently with her teeth.
Cullen tried to hold back—tried to make the moment last—but as kiss melted into kiss, he couldn’t seem to keep his hips still. He was responding to her, aching for her, and Maker, there was nothing he wanted more than to lose himself in her for hours.
“Cullen,” Elayne murmured, digging her fingers into his hair and tugging. She arched up against him in welcome, and it was so easy to settle between the valley of her thighs; so natural to rock back when she thrust against him, their bodies straining for a natural rhythm.
Fuck. He grabbed her hips with a muffled groan, holding her still as he rolled his hips forward—straining erection dragging against the dripping wet folds of her cunt. Again, again, each drag an impossible tease as she gasped and mewled against the hungry demand of his mouth. He could devour her like this, could lose himself in her forever, could lay her out and stake his claim on every inch of her. He wanted— He wanted—
Elayne jerked hard at his coat, sending a button skittering across the floor. That was enough to bring him blinking back to himself, haze of lust pushed back for just a moment as he chuckled against her mouth. He tensed his muscles, pushing himself up until he was hovering over her body, safely away from the endless temptation of her welcoming heat. A grin toyed at the corners of his mouth; he couldn’t remember ever feeling so wanted, so…necessary to another person. Not his strength, not his sword, not his campaign knowledge, but him.
She began to smile back, slow and wide and a little wicked…then laughed, a flush creeping over her cheeks. “Hi,” she said, wonderfully nonsensical.
He turned his face to kiss her palm as she reached to cup his cheeks again. “Correct me if I’m wrong,” he teased, biting gently at the meat of her palm, “but I’m fairly certain we’ve covered that base already.”
Elayne laughed and backhanded his shoulder, but when he pressed down again—deliberately ground their hips together, letting her feel just how hard he was—that laugh drifted into a moan. He watched as her eyes flickered closed, lashes resting in a dark fan against her cheeks. Blonde curls snaked around her in a golden halo, and her lips parted on a breath.
Cullen reached down to brush a strand of hair from her face, carefully tucking it behind her ear. She shivered at the caress and let her eyes meet his again, something wonderfully soft and complex and baffling in her all too serious gaze.
“What?” he murmured, dipping his head closer.
She bit her bottom lip. “I didn’t know it could be like this,” Elayne said. “Joyful, I suppose. Growing up in the Circle, I thought… I…” She wet her lips, looking away, then back at him—meeting his eyes, expression open and earnest. Giving. She was just so damned giving. “Every time I tried to imagine what…being with someone would be like…I didn’t realize it could feel like this. So light inside. More than bodies or desire or… Just. More.” Her lips quirked. “I’m glad I found out with you.” But the smile quickly faded. “That sounds stupid.”
“No,” he said—though it was a wonder he could talk at all. Maker, it was as if she had peered into his own thoughts, memories, and spoken them aloud. “No, it doesn’t sound stupid at all.”
“I feel like I’ve been waiting for you,” she whispered. “All my life. If you want me, I’ll be yours until I die.”
It hurt. It hurt to breathe. It was all so much—too much—exactly what he’d never realized he needed. This woman was everything he never realized he needed, come stumbling into his life at its very darkest…bringing with her such impossible light. He’d been through so much, and yet now, at last, he knew that whatever came next, he wouldn’t face it alone.
Neither of them would.
“Maker,” he breathed. His heart ached. “Elayne, I…yes.”
She pressed up, rising within the circle of his arms as if she couldn’t bear another moment apart. Her soft body cleaved to his as her arms wound around his neck, and he could taste the sweetness of her breath as she pressed their foreheads together. It was an intimate pose—a trusting one, her body bared to him, her heart vulnerable. So much trust; it humbled him. It shook him to his core.
Cullen let out a sudden harsh breath and Elayne dug her fingers into his shoulders, one bare thigh brushing tempting close as she hooked it around his hips, dragging their bodies together. Splaying wide and open and welcome beneath him, offering herself; giving bloody everything.
This woman. This brave, beautiful, kind, compassionate woman would be the death of him. But Maker, he welcomed that end if it only meant spending it locked within her arms. If there was any healing the scars in his thoughts, his heart, his memory, she would be the one to show him.
“Cullen,” she said, seeming to sense the quieting of all those demons he’d carried around within him for years.
“I love you,” Cullen said—his own sort of vow. And then his mouth was on hers and the whole world faded into nothing.
He was drowning in their screams.
Cullen knelt on the stone floor, hands clenched into impotent fits, eyes squeezed shut. The howls rose from seemingly all around, nowhere and everywhere at once, echoing up the walls of the old tower. Or were they being amplified in his head by some dark magic? He didn’t know. He didn’t know, and that was somehow worse than everything else, worse than—
A sharp cry, cut short. Another friend gone.
He wouldn’t put it past the demons to be filling his head with so much death. Hoping to drive him mad—or maybe just to break his spirit, piece by piece, until he was weak enough to be claimed. To, to have his mind taken and his body changed and everything, everything slipping through his fingers.
Fuck. He could hear the wet gasps as clearly as if bodies were curled all around him. He could feel rasping breaths against his skin and blood on his hands as he just sat here, trapped. He wanted nothing more than to cover his ears—to drown out those horrible sounds—but it didn’t seem right. His colleagues, his friends, were dying all through the Circle tower; what sort of man would he be if he could bring himself to ignore their final cries?
Maker. He didn’t want to die a coward. He didn’t want to slip away at the very moment he finally lost sight of himself. He had to remain strong—to fight the demons unleashed throughout Kinloch. To dig in and resist with everything he had left and try to… Try to remember that… Try to remember…
This isn’t real, Cullen told himself with growing desperation, but it was all too solid, too tangible to deny. Too substantial, as if the very air was closing in. The walls of his magical cage hummed with barely-audible power. It thrummed through his body, making him close tighter and tighter about himself; making him curl up against the powerless screams rising rising rising up inside his chest; making him—
A soft hand touched his shoulder and Cullen flinched away with a cry, expecting to look up to see Desire, face split in a chilling grin, taunting him. Instead, there was…a girl? Brighter than the whole blood-drenched world around her, seeming to shine with inner light. Blonde hair falling about a heart-shaped face in messy curls, brows knit together, lips parting as she said something, something important.
She was calling his name.
Cullen felt the tension bleed out of him by degrees as the walls of Kinloch tower reoriented themselves in his confusion. There. There was his armor and sword on its stand in the corner. Overstuffed bookshelves along the walls and his clothes neatly hanging in an open armoire. Snow drifting ever so gently from the hole in his ceiling and a warm pile of furs huddled around his sweating body.
And…her. Sitting up on her knees, one hand outstretched, naked and beautiful and practically glowing with gentle concern: Elayne.
He wasn’t in Kinloch after all; he was here, in Skyhold, with Elayne. Oh Maker, he felt ten kinds of fool. What must she think of him?
“I,” Cullen began, voice unexpectedly hoarse. Had he been shouting in his sleep again? The thought made him want to yank the furs up over his head like a child. “I apologize.”
“Are you all right?” Elayne asked. Slowly—carefully, as if giving him time to push her away—she slid her hand across his shoulder, up his neck, into his hair. Threading her fingers through the messy gold, nails rasping oh-so-gently along his scalp.
He couldn’t help but close his eyes in response, soaking in that comfort as if he had any right to it. “A nightmare,” he said, brushing it aside the way he always did. “It was nothing.”
She bit her bottom lip, considering that—considering him. It was appallingly difficult to meet her eyes. “You know,” Elayne said, still stroking her fingers through his hair, “I don’t believe I ever told you, but I…” She stopped.
Cullen made a noise of response—of query—still keeping his eyes carefully averted. He wasn’t sure he could bear to see pity on her face. Not after what they’d shared these past few nights.
“I have nightmares too.”
That…that shouldn’t have surprised him, considering what she’d been through, and yet Cullen looked up with a start, meeting her gaze. Elayne’s expression was heart-breakingly open, raw, inviting him to read whatever he wanted in her eyes. Cullen reached up and impulsively cupped her face, thumbs stroking across the delicate curve of her cheeks as he studied the sleepless nights and demon-haunted dreams writ clear in lavender shadows beneath her lashes.
Maker, yes; of course. Of course she understood. Of course she wouldn’t think any less of him for all that his nights were filled with the screams of dead men.
A whole world rested on her shoulders. A power-mad darkspawn magister clawed for her blood. He felt like an idiot for having even a moment of doubt.
“I am so very sorry,” Cullen said—not apologizing for his own dreams this time, but for not realizing how intimately she would understand. She seemed to know him down to his core already—blood and bones and soul and frantically beating heart. They already shared, Maker’s breath, so much.
Elayne smiled, lightly hooking her hands about his wrists. She was kneeling in front of him, beautifully unashamed, dressed only in moonlight. A soft drift of snow fell into her wild mass of hair, dusting her shoulders and pale breasts. “Sometimes it feels like we’re never through fighting, doesn’t it?” she asked. “Even when we’re here—when we’re home, safe—the battles follow us into the Fade.”
“It’s not battles that haunt me,” Cullen admitted. He sighed, dropping his hands to lightly grip her waist. “I’ve been training in swordwork since I was a boy; war is a bloody, terrible business, but I’ve learned not to let it stay with me. It’s the—” He swallowed, wet his lips. Drew in an uneven breath. “I was helpless in that tower. I was alone, and I was afraid, and there was nothing I could do. When I dream, sometimes, I go back there and relive it, and it’s…”
She leaned in, pressing their foreheads together. That soft waterfall of hair swayed forward with the motion, surrounding them—a curtain against the world, until it was just them. Just him and the woman he loved so much it ached.
“Elayne,” Cullen began, knocked breathless.
Elayne slid her arms around his neck. “I can’t fight back all your nightmares, Cullen,” she murmured, breath warm against his cheeks, “but it turns out I’m pretty good with a blade and a spell. If any demons try to come for you again, they’ll have to go through me first.” She brushed her mouth over his, stealing his breath in every way. “You’re not alone anymore.”
He wrapped his arms around her waist and crushed her to him, kissing back a little too hard—too desperate. His heart raced like a mad thing in his chest and he felt strangely lightheaded with the rush of emotion.
This woman—this brave, intelligent, incredibly fierce woman—was everything he could have wanted. She was everything he never realized he needed, making him stronger with her strength; making him tremble with the curve of her mouth against his.
Cullen drew his hand down her hip, across the soft skin of her flank, opening beneath the hot brush of her tongue. She tasted, Maker, so good—right—and something about those soft hands mapping his shoulders, his back, made him want to tumble her down into the mattress and worship her all over again. Made him want to—
“Cullen,” she breathed against his lips, swallowing the noise he made in return. Elayne tipped forward, trusting his strength to keep her from falling, and dragged her short nails down the column of his neck. His whole world narrowed down into the soft rasp of that touch, into the way her breath caught, into the near-silent whisk whisk of snow drifting around them. It was like being frozen in a bubble of time—a snow globe, each second stretched to infinite length as he gripped her thighs and pulled her into his lap, arching up against the growing heat of her.
He loved the way her nails bit into his skin. He loved the noise she made at the first brush of his stirring erection. He loved how she arched, breaking the kiss to let her head fall back, each rapid breath making her breasts surge against his chest.
He loved her.
Always, forever, more than anything he had ever known, he loved her.
And he thought he might go mad if he wasn’t able to taste her again.
“Elayne,” Cullen said, rising up. He reached back to cup her ass, gently urging each rolling swell of her hips even as he kissed—licked—his way up up up warm skin. His cheek brushed the bobbing curve of a breast, and Elayne gasped at the rasp of stubble, hips giving a tell-tale jerk.
He chucked, carefully turning his cheek, letting the gold-dark hair drag across a tightening nipple. “You like that,” he murmured—not a question. The way she bit her lip and moaned was answer enough. The first slippery heat brushed against his cock as she ground herself closer, and Maker, but it’d be so easy to push his way inside her again. To reach between their straining bodies and hook sword-calloused fingers into the clench of her body; to lift his hips as she twisted hers and guide himself deep, deep inside. She was so wet already. It’d take so little.
“I love,” he said, tongue flicking out, wetting the bead of her nipple, “how responsive you are.” Cullen lifted his weight just enough that his erection dragged across the slippery heat of her cunt, making her jerk and curse and moan again—gorgeous and flushing with renewed heat, red swirling across fair skin like colored smoke. “It takes so little to set you alight.”
Elayne gave a panting breath, body arched in obvious welcome. He reached up to cup her heavy breast, lifting it to his mouth…and barely, barely brushed his lips across the tightened skin. “I hate,” she said, grabbing a handful of his hair, “the way you tease.”
Cullen grinned against her skin, no longer cursing the haunted dreams that had dragged him awake. Always before, he woke alone and disoriented, half lost years ago and miles away. Now…he was with her. Even a nightmare couldn’t chain him if it merely drove him into her arms. “Liar,” he said—but he took pity on her, sucking the peak of her breast into his mouth with a hungry noise. He rose up just enough to keep balance, Elayne still perched over his lap, and slid his now-free hand between them. Cullen’s knuckles dragged across her plush stomach, dipping one after the other into the divot of her belly button.
Elayne twined her fingers in his hair (both hands now, her hips moving in an increasingly frustrated grind) and pulled just shy of too hard. “Tease,” she said again—but there was laughter shivering beneath the word, and he couldn’t help but return it in kind.
Maker, but he was nearly giddy. It was so unlike him that he felt like a new person, years younger and less scarred: that child he’d barely gotten a chance to be before Kinloch came crashing down around him. It was amazing that loving this woman could make him feel this way. What would his life have been like if he had only met her years before?
No, he thought, tonguing the peak of her breast, hand slipping between their restless bodies to press two fingers into the welcome clench of her cunt, I can’t regret the path that brought us here. Even if he could use Alexius’s magic to send them both hurtling back, this moment, this joining—this giddy, laughing union atop his broken tower—could never have happened without all the good and the bad that had shaped them.
He knew people weren’t made for each other, that there was no such thing as a soulmate, but he felt as if they’d perhaps been forged together. Twin steel heated in the same fire, shaped by a familiar hand.
And thank the Maker for that.
“I want you,” Cullen said, kissing up the curve of her breast to tease his tongue along the wing of her clavicle. “I want to bend you across every surface in this castle like we’re in one of Varric’s filthy romances.”
Elayne laughed, breathless and flushed a bright pink. She leaned forward, curling out of her sensuous arch, eyes heavy-lidded and heating at each brush of his knuckle against her clit. She shivered, riding out the thrust of his fingers with her lower lip between her teeth, snow dusting all around them. “Where—oh—where would you begin?” Elayne said, instinctually riding each thrust.
Fuck, he was hard. Who was he teasing here, anyway? All it would take was a shift of his hips and he could be inside her again—riding out the tight tight tight clench of her body as he lost his cries against flushed skin. “I,” he said, barely able to focus. They’d come together just a few short hours ago, and it already felt as if he’d been starved for her touch. “I’d start downstairs,” he said, leaning in to nip along her jaw.
She dragged her nails down the back of his neck, rising up onto her knees. “The ladder again?” Elayne purred as Cullen stretched her body wide, thumb teasing along her dripping slit. Maker’s breath. “I’ll never be able to look at it without blushing.”
“Me neither,” he admitted huskily. He looked up at her, feeling the frank adoration—the near-idolatry—on his face, but not caring. He knew, he knew, she was just a woman, but she was more than that to him now, too. She was…
She was just…
She was just bloody everything. She was his everything.
Cullen wrapped a strong arm around Elayne’s waist, lifting his hips even as he tugged her back down against him. He guided the head of his cock against the soft give of scalding-hot flesh, and the two of them hissed a breath in concert as he slowly—slowly—slowly began to push inside of her. “B-but,” he said, words catching in his throat at the ohfuckyes perfect clench of her around him. Andraste save him, but there was no way it could always feel this good. “May as well ruin the—Maker—ruin the rest of the office. Up against the bookcase, maybe. The desk.”
Elayne moaned, eyes closing as her head fell forward, long sweep of golden hair brushing his naked chest. Her hips rolled once, twice, as she slowly sank down onto his cock—perfect. So very bloody perfect. “You do important work on th-that desk,” Elayne said, sliding her hands down to grip his shoulders. Cullen looked up, fixated on her, adoring her, as she lifted her weight carefully onto her knees and then slid back down again.
They groaned together, pulled into a feverish kiss.
“You’re important work,” he murmured into her mouth, not really caring how nonsensical the words were until they were out there between them. He paused, her lower lip between his teeth, her body snug as a vise around him. “Ignore that.”
She laugh-moaned, rolling her hips in a sensual grind, stealing the low noise startled out of him with a flick of her tongue. “No, please,” she said, beginning to ride the rigid length of his cock in rhythmic undulations—starting slow, so slow, maddeningly slow. If he wasn’t careful, he could come before this all began; she was wildfire in his veins. “Tell me all about how I—oh—how I’m just like all those e-endless reports you love so much.”
He pressed his face into the curve of her neck and chuckled, sucking soft bruises into the bared skin.
“Tell me,” Elayne continued, riding the urgent ruts of his hips, “how you’d love to dot my I’s and cross my T’s. How you’d file me in triplicate for—Maker, Cullen—for our official records as…”
Cullen surged up, catching Elayne about the waist and toppling her back with a shrieking laugh against the pile of furs. He caught one of her thighs, dragging it around his hips as he rose up (hot slick fuck fuck) and thrust back inside her welcoming body. The sound of their flesh meeting, of the bedframe shuddering, was filthy and beautiful in equal parts. He turned his face, deliberately rubbing his stubbled cheek against the arch of her neck, and grinned breathlessly at her helpless giggles.
He could die happy listening to that sound. Experiencing the way their bodies came together, building heat a stubborn spark in his belly as he thrust deep inside her—deeper, deeper still—finding his way to a rhythm that had her breathless laughter morphing into gasps.
“I love you,” he said against Elayne’s skin, the mood shifting as he caught his palms on either side of her head and snapped his hips in a shameless rut. He could feel himself getting close, tension coiling up at the base of his spine. He watched the way color bloomed across her cheeks, the tops of her breasts, radiating out like sunset—and Maker, but he’d never seen a more beautiful sight. Snow fell in a silent shush around them, melting against the hot flush of their skin, catching in her hair like diamonds as he leaned down for a desperate, lingering kiss.
He shifted his weight, resting it on one hand as he pushed the other between their bodies, to the point where they came together. Fuck, it was all kinds of beautifully filthy feeling her hot skin stretched around his cock, feeling the way he slid into her with steady pulses. She twisted and shook and bit at his mouth as he teased that point of contact over and over before rubbing his thumb along her clit. Urging her closer, wanting to feel her let go, needing to give her pleasure more than he needed to take it himself.
If he could spend the rest of his life bringing her joy, then, Maker’s breath, he’d consider those years well-spent. Elayne had somehow changed something vital inside of him. He’d take the taste of her with him to the grave. He never thought he’d be allowed to have this kind of perfect peace. This…homecoming. This…
Elayne gasped into his mouth, hips lifting as her nails dug into his shoulders—coming apart with delicious jerks and shudders. Her body clenched around his and Cullen groaned, picking up his pace, hand caught between them as he teased her through the aftershocks. She dragged her nails down, the faint pinprick of pain good, so good, fuck, so good, and Cullen turned his face against her neck, breathing her in as he braced his weight on his knees and slammed his hips into the impossible clench of her.
He needed—He needed—He—
Elayne grabbed a handful of his hair and pulled him back for a dizzying kiss—and somehow that was enough to send his world whiting out. Cullen choked off a cry as he came, tension tightening into a fist low in his belly before expanding out, out, shaking his entire frame. Shaking him down to the core as he spilled his seed deep within her.
He had a single crazy thought about how reckless they were being, but he shoved it aside for now, hips stuttering against hers, tongue twining deep. There’d be time for level heads and reason later, when they were left to figure out how to make this inevitable thing between them—this romance born out of war—work. Later, he’d worry about what it meant to be in love with the Inquisitor; the Herald. Later, he’d agonize over how he was going to somehow keep her alive through the conflagration that was ahead—and how he meant to survive the long weeks of worry as she faced the monsters of this world and he remained behind.
Later. Later. For now, there was just this: their bodies slowly melting together as he relaxed boneless and sated above her. The way she kissed him as if she could never get enough. The night sky and the cold wind and the snowfall gathering in a light dust across forgotten furs.
He rose up onto his elbows to look down into her face, so in love he didn’t know what to do. Her lips were parted, slick from his kisses; her lashes fluttered as she looked up at him with a warm, open smile. He’d never felt so perfectly content.
“Marry me,” Cullen breathed, studying Elayne with rapt focus.
It wasn’t until she jerked beneath the weight of his body, staring at him, that he realized what he’d said. “I mean!” he quickly backtracked, horrified. He sat up, sat back, withdrawing from her with an immediate cringing embarrassment. That, that, wasn’t at all what he’d meant to say.
No, void, don’t be a bloody fool, he told himself, flushing darkly as Elayne sat up to look at him—putting just enough distance between their bodies that he felt the loss of heat. She shivered, watching him with baffled questions in her eyes, and he groaned as he reached down to snag the heavy furs, wrapping them around her shoulders. “That was not what I meant to say,” he reassured her. “I do realize that a proposal now would be just…ridiculous. I have some sense. I do. Even when I don’t exactly show it.”
It sounded as if he were begging for her to believe him—babbling like a moon-struck fool—so Cullen just shut his mouth and tipped his head back, staring mortified up at the broken ceiling.
All these years, all these triumphs and trials, and a beautiful woman could still manage to turn him into a blushing, bumbling idiot. There was no justice in this world.
Elayne reached up to brush back his hair, palm sliding against the soft rasp of his stubble. “Perhaps now is a little early for something like that,” she agreed with that warm, accepting humor he loved—and the subtle way she stressed the word now had his pulse racing for an entirely different reason.
He dared to meet her eyes and saw only acceptance there. Willing himself to unwind—to sink back into the boneless joy of a few moments ago—Cullen slid his arms around her waist, pulling her with him as he slowly fell back against the pillows, the both of them covered in warm fur. Elayne curled against his side, one thigh hooked over his hips, golden head resting on his shoulder. She pressed soft kisses against his skin.
“Perhaps,” Cullen said, lightheaded with hope, reaching up to catch a coil of her hair and curling it between his fingers, “…not yet.”
“Not yet,” she echoed, and turned her face to kiss his inner wrist. He was man enough to admit that his whole body quaked at the touch. “But maybe…”
She left the words hanging there, filled with so much hope. He smiled in the darkness, heart winging in his chest, body still throwing sparks. It was so hard to believe that all this was truly happening—that he was allowed to have this.
“And to think,” Cullen murmured, turning his face to press a kiss against her mass of curling hair. “All we had to do was survive one of Josephine’s grand balls.”
Elayne stifled a laugh against his shoulder, one arm slipping around his waist. “Shh, let’s not let on how much we enjoyed it,” she said. “It’ll only encourage her to try again.”
She looked up, grinning wide, eyes dancing, and opened her mouth to say something in return…only to tilt her head and go still. Listening. “Do you hear that?”
“No,” Cullen said, but he sat up and listened as well, one arm still protectively around her. The tower creaked and groaned as it always did, ancient stone settling. The wind whistled overhead. The party was mostly wound down, but a handful of drunken revelers were still out and about, voices raised in off-key song. “What am I listening for?” he asked.
Elayne scrambled from the bed, grabbing blindly for his fur-lined red coat, which he’d left slung over the back of a chair. She slid it on, the ruff heavy about her shoulders, flashes of naked breast and side visible in the wide armholes—absolutely captivating.
Cullen slid out of bed to follow her to the window, hungrily taking in the vision she made dressed in his oversized clothing. He stepped behind her when she stopped at the arrowslit window overlooking the parapets below, hands sliding down the familiar cloth to cup the flare of her hips. He was so distracted by the vision she presented that he almost missed the figures lurching far below their window…and the song they were singing at the top of their drunken lungs.
“Her skin flashing, pale and inviting, in the slits of her skirts,
in the space between gold and red,
as she makes her way into the crowd -
into her crowd, for even as she moves forward they move back,
afraid to be burned by pure temptation.
Her lips, blood-red, plump and inviting like the summer’s first pommes,
twisted in a wicked grin;
she knows what power she wields, the temptress,
and she moves forward into the crowd
the lioness in search of likely prey.
As if commanded too, he appears
and the unstoppable woman is stopped.
Her eyes are upon him in an instant;
though he spans a mountain’s breadth
and her, the delicate flame,
she has her prey.
His coat the color of the night sky,
inky blue on a starless night;
his mask shines silver instead…”
“Wait,” Cullen said, head jerking up, utterly horrified. “Is that about us?”
Elayne just laughed and snuggled back against the warmth of his chest. “Orlesian sex poetry, Cullen,” she said, as if that sort of thing made any kind of rational sense. “We’ve officially inspired Orlesian sex poetry.” Outside, the drunken louts were singing their hearts out. Inside, Elayne was warm and pliant and fierce and perfect in the cradle of his arms.
She sighed as he tightened his grip on her, looking out across the peaks and valley of Skyhold. In the distance, the sky was fading a bruised violet as the sun rose on the final day of the Inquisition’s grand ball. “You know,” Elayne said, voice quiet, amusement wending through each word, “Sera is going to be so bloody proud.”