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Maker, this place is huge.

Amelle was trying her hardest not to gawk, but had a feeling she was failing miserably.  She couldn’t help but feel out of place a little, a sensation made all the worse by the fact that bloody everyone knew she was a mage.  She was used to hiding it, used to passing as a non-mage whenever she could, but not a single person in this palace hadn’t seen or heard of her little… display in the square.  

And with that knowledge came the looks.

Some were genial enough, but Amelle knew cordiality could be faked.  Some watched her with undisguised wariness.  Others eyed her with barely-veiled contempt, and Amelle knew it wouldn’t take long for that contempt to make itself known through more than just looks.

“My lady?”

Amelle whirled, surprised to find Ser Kinnon watching her, his look one only of curious concern.  She, however, was deeply and thoroughly pleased to see him, and she was sure it showed.  One friendly face might not have been much, but under the current circumstances, it was exactly what she needed.

“Don’t pay them any mind, my lady,” he said, and Amelle didn’t have to look where he was indicating—she already knew a stately, well-bred pair of dark-haired women stood nearby, watching her with cool disgust, as if she were a particularly filthy bug crawling across the toe of a pristine satin slipper.

“Easy for you to say,” she muttered.  “No one’s looking at you like you’re a dung beetle.”

“It’s early yet,” the knight said, sounding entirely too cheerful.  “We could stop by and bother Tasia if that’s something you’d really like to see.”

She tilted her head, breathing a huff of helpless laughter.  “Tasia doesn’t look at you like you’re a dung beetle.”

“True, true.  She looks at me like I’m last year’s hemline.”

“Ouch,” Amelle said with a smile, already looking around, since where Kinnon was, Kiara was usually not far away.

“She sent me off,” he said, hanging his head.  “Traded me in.”  The look he sent Amelle was truly the most pathetic expression she’d ever seen on any face beside Cupcake’s.  “Told me she didn’t need me anymore, that—”

“What you mean to say,” Amelle cut in pertly, “is there’s some secretive little errand she doesn’t want any witnesses to see, and she told you to bugger off so you wouldn’t be incriminated?”

“Well, yes,” the knight replied with a shrug.  “But it sounds so much better if I’m bemoaning my state.  I mean, what’s a guard if he hasn’t got a lady to guard?”

Folding her arms with a chuckle, Amelle pressed her back against the cool wall.  “As it happens, I don’t need a guard—”

“Don’t you?” he riposted.  “I don’t see hide or hair of Braden.”

“And maybe this Hawke sister has her own secretive errands she doesn’t want witnesses for, hmm?”

“Gave him the slip, did you?”

Amelle’s guilty flush warmed her cheeks.  “Just a little one.  I don’t think he likes me much anyway.”

“Oh, that’s not true,” Kinnon protested.  “You just frighten the blazes out of him.”

“And that’s so much better.”

It took a moment for Kinnon to realize what Amelle had assumed, and then he let out a sudden laugh.  “Oh.  Oh, no, my lady.  It’s not the, ah…”  He gestured a little, wiggling his fingers at her.  “It’s not that at all.”

“It’s… not.”

“No.  See, the thing you’ve got to understand about Braden is that he’s…”  Kinnon wrinkled his nose, thinking.  “He’s a bit… proper,” he said, finally.  “And from what I heard, the first impression you made was, uh, kind of…”

“Kind of… what?”

“You intimidated him, my lady,” Kinnon said with a shrug.  “He thought for sure you were going to barge through the palace, banging on every available door, shouting fit to tear the Veil if he didn’t take you to your… er, Fenris’ chamber.”

Feeling vaguely guilty at having intimidated—really?—such a mountain of a knight, Amelle plucked at her fingers.  “It had been a very stressful day,” she said, somewhat lamely.  “And he was telling me to rest, and—”

“You’ll get no arguments from me, my lady.”

“Of course not.  You know my sister.”

“Indeed I do.  Which brings us back around again, doesn’t it?  So what secret errand required the younger Hawke sister to abandon her guard?”

“If I told you, it wouldn’t be a secret.  And I don’t need a guard right now—I need a guide.  I’m… a bit lost.”

“As it happens, I can do that too,” he said, puffing up a little.  “Where does my lady need to go?”

She chewed on her bottom lip.  “That’s… part of the secret.”

“That’s unfortunate, as my mind reading’s a bit rusty and I can’t help you find where you need to go if you can’t tell me where you need to go.  So—”

“Sebastian’s office,” blurted Amelle.

That silenced Kinnon’s prattle, sure enough.  He blinked at her once, then twice.  

“I’ve got an appointment with him,” she added, hiding her fidgeting hands in the voluminous folds of her gown.

“The prince’s office,” he began, “where we played cards until the wee hours of—”

“Yes,” she replied, with a hint of impatience.  “I thought I could find it again, but… well.  We were all a bit impaired by the end of the night, and…”

“And now you’re lost.”

“Hopelessly.”

“Well,” Kinnon said, stepping back and, with a gesture that was nothing if not knightly, he invited her to walk down the corridor with him.  “I can still take you there.  Won’t do anybody a bit of good if you’re late for an appointment with the prince.”  He paused.  “That you do not want your sister to know about.”

“I need to have a few words with my future brother in-law,” she said. “That’s all.”

This seemed to satisfy Kinnon, as he led her down one hall and through another that looked completely identical to the first, before eventually coming to stop at a door that was, yes, very familiar, now she looked at it.

“And here we are, my lady,” Kinnon said with a flourish.

“So we are,” she murmured, pursing her lips.  Amelle knew what she had to say, knew it was important—important enough to have made an appointment through Corwin to speak with Sebastian and, Maker, she dearly hoped Kinnon kept his mouth shut about that.  With a resigned sigh, she lifted her hand to knock, then looked at the knight, who was already standing sentry by the door.  “You’re just… you’re going to wait, then?”

“It is part of the job description.”

“I told you I needed a guide, not a guard.

He sent her a wry look.  “Humor me, my lady.  Once you’re finished here, I’ll escort you to wherever your elf friend might be so he can glare at me.”

Amelle sighed, shaking her head at Kinnon as she knocked firmly upon the door.  “He doesn’t glare that much.”

“Oh. Right. And Tasia doesn’t know thirty-seven different words for the color blue.”

“Again with Tasia,” Amelle quipped, even as Sebastian called out from within and her stomach dropped somewhere to the vicinity of her ankles. “One might start to wonder, Ser Kinnon.”

He grimaced, his ears turning just the faintest shade of pink. “One might do nothing of the sort. And now you’re just stalling.”

She wrinkled her nose at him—mostly because he was right, damn him—and hesitated only a moment longer before gathering up her courage and pushing the door open.

Like everything else in the palace, Sebastian’s office was large, and looked far different without a card game going on, to say nothing of the drinking, the dancing, or the fiddle-playing.  Now, though, it struck her the single room was larger than Gamlen’s entire house, and it took her a moment to orient herself. To the left, where the table had been, was a sitting area before the hearth. The far wall boasted a vast tapestry map of Thedas, vividly colored and—even from a distance—painstakingly detailed. To the right was Sebastian’s desk. She wondered if it was always in such a state of disarray, or if he just had that much correspondence. He was leaning heavily on one elbow, head propped on one hand, peering at something on the desk in front of him, but he glanced up with the door opened and smiled at her.

“And here I thought Kiara kept the messiest desk in the Free Marches,” Amelle said, annoyed when she sounded even more nervous than she felt.

“Amelle, a pleasure.” Just as quickly, his welcoming smile faded. “Is Fenris well? Kiara? Is something the matter?”

She coughed nervously. “Amelle Hawke, harbinger of doom. Charming. No, they’re both fine.”

Relief swept over his features and he rose, clasping her hand. “Forgive me. I’m afraid my time is not my own. According to Corwin’s itinerary, I’ve an appointment shortly, and—”

Amelle grimaced, scuffing her slipper against the lush carpeting. It was white of all things. She wondered how many servants were employed with the express purpose of keeping the carpets white. “That’s… me, actually. The appointment.”

Astonishment replaced relief. After too long a pause he recollected himself and ushered her toward the hearth. She almost wished he’d taken her the opposite direction; having a desk between them might have bolstered her courage. Instead, she sank into the plushly upholstered chair and folded her hands neatly in her lap.

Sebastian offered her refreshment—which she politely refused—before taking the chair opposite her. He was wearing what she thought of as his prince-clothes: white and gold and very, very fine. He was not, however, wearing his stern-but-fair prince-face. Under the thin golden band of his crown, his blue eyes were plainly concerned. “I confess I myself at a loss, Amelle. If you wanted to speak with me you needn’t have made an appointment.”

“No.  No, I did,” she replied, keeping her hands folded carefully in her lap.  “I…” Suddenly, the very many times she’d rehearsed everything she wanted to say vanished in a sea of white carpet.  “I didn’t… want—” she stopped, chewing on her lip.  “I’d rather not be… interrupted.  This is—this is important.”

“Very well,” he said, but she could see the concern hadn’t abated in the least and she looked down at her hands again to find her knuckles were just about as white as the carpet.  When she didn’t speak after a few seconds, Sebastian leaned forward slightly in his chair.  “Amelle, whatever it is you have to say, say it and I will list—”

“You don’t have to worry about me,” she blurted.  Sebastian’s eyes clouded slightly with confusion.

“All right.  I… what is this all about?  Worry about you?  Why on the Maker’s green earth…” But he only trailed off, shaking his head in bemusement.  “I beg you, Amelle, speak your mind as I am accustomed to you doing.”

She closed her eyes and nodded quickly, inhaling deeply and then exhaling.  Right.  Let’s try this again.  This time without the open-mouth-insert-foot part.  “I understand, Sebastian,” she said more slowly, trying to will her racing heart to slow as well, “that… I understand I’m a, an inconvenience.” And when she finally said the word, she injected just enough weight into it to make her point delicately, without belaboring it.  “And I understand that… my being a mage is… is a complication.  And—and it’s… politically, it’s… well.  Complicated.

She paused, waiting for Sebastian to say something, but he was just watching her, which only served to make anxiety claw at her gut and her heart beat just that much faster.  Maker, she thought, it’s almost easier when Kiara interrupts me every other word.  

“I want you to know I’m not going to—to make trouble for you and Kiara.  I know she’s worried about it, especially now everyone knows, and there’s no… there’s no hiding it anymore.  I don’t want to make things harder for you—you or Kiara or Starkhaven—and I know… well.  The Divine is… I imagine she’s… a bit cranky.  With mages.  And I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I swear to you, Sebastian,” and as Amelle said the words, she was horrified to realize her eyes were beginning to burn with tears.  “I swear I… I won’t ever—ever do anything that will… embarrass or compromise you or Kiara or—or cast any doubt on you, or, or your loyalties…” 

For several, very long seconds after Amelle trailed off, there was no sound save that of the fire crackling behind the grate.

“So,” Sebastian finally said, and he was looking at her like she was speaking Arcanum, “allow me to see if I’ve got the right of it so far.”

Amelle nodded jerkily and recrossed her ankles as she tried to slow her pounding heart.

“You’ve made an appointment through my steward to speak with me privately because you want me to know you… don’t want us to worry about you.”

Her cheeks went suddenly hot and Amelle closed her eyes.  When tears spilled free, she brushed them away impatiently. “No.  I… I want you to know that I love my sister and I know how much she loves you, and… and when I go back to Kirkwall—” and, oh, how her throat caught on that “—I want to give you my word that you will never, ever have an ounce of trouble from me.”  She swallowed against the tightness in her throat and sat up a little straighter, inclining her head and meeting his gaze with what she desperately hoped was self-assurance.  “Starkhaven might even forget the princess has an apostate sister in the first place.”

Sebastian was still regarding her with his steady, thoughtful gaze, still just faintly tinged with confusion. The confusion concerned her; she’d been as clear as she knew how to be and— 

“When you go back to Kirkwall,” he said at last, disturbing her racing thoughts.

Amelle nodded. “The mountain passes won’t be getting any easier to cross, and I’d rather avoid a sea voyage if I can help it.”

Sebastian sat back in his chair, clapping his hands to the armrests as though he needed them to hold him upright. “Amelle, are you mad?”

“Am I—what?” She cursed her voice for cracking on the final word, but refused to look away again.

“Are. You. Mad?” Sebastian repeated, enunciating every word with painful clarity. “Wait, allow me to phrase it differently: have you met your sister?”

“I know,” Amelle said miserably. “She isn’t going to like it, but… but politically—”

“To the Void with politically, Amelle. It would be one thing if you truly desired a return to Kirkwall, but no one looking at your face is going to believe that.” Sebastian rose, moved to the sideboard, and poured two glasses of wine. Amelle meekly accepted the one he offered. “Least of all your sister. I have only just managed to convince her it is in her best interests—and mine—that she remain in Starkhaven. Are you trying to make my life difficult?”

He said the words lightly, almost jestingly, but Amelle held the wine glass close to her chest and said, “Sebastian, this isn’t… this is serious.”

“I am perfectly aware how serious this is. You are a mage—”

“An apostate mage,” she interrupted.

“Please, Amelle,” he said, with a kind of quiet authority that both impressed and bloody terrified her, “I did you the courtesy of listening when you asked it of me. I would ask the same of you now. You are a mage in a city that has, until recently, been less than fond of mages. I can see why this might make you uncomfortable, but tell me truthfully, do you wish to return to Kirkwall?”

It was not the first time she’d wondered the same thing herself. She still wasn’t entirely sure she knew the answer. She worried the stem of the wineglass between her fingers, twirling it this way and that, watching the liquid within form a dark whirlpool. Sebastian sipped calmly from his own glass, and if he was impatient, his expression gave no indication of it. “I… it was my home for seven years. My house is there,” she said. “And the clinic. I-I’m sorry, I know it’s your home, but I don’t know Starkhaven at all yet, well, except for… you know. It’s just… Kiara… I don’t know.”

“Your sister will be in Starkhaven,” Sebastian said gently. “You will always know where to find her. But Amelle, no one is asking you to leave. As long as I am Prince in Starkhaven, you will be welcome here. You and I both know your sister… your sister will not want to see you go, but I will support your decision if you make it for yourself, and not out of fear or… politics. Tell me what you would like, and I will do my best to see it done.”

Amelle looked down into the wineglass for a moment, then took a sip in an effort to collect her thoughts.  Tell me what you would like…

Oh, that was a list too long to count.

She could barely look at him—the concern for her hurt too much, and he was making this more blighted difficult than it had to be.  She breathed in and out again.

“I would like,” she began quietly, forcing herself to look up from the wineglass.  “No.  I would love for my sister to not have to worry about me like it’s her job.”  She held a hand up quickly, adding, “And I don’t mean that I don’t care for my sister’s concern or don’t appreciate it.  But protecting me has always been her responsibility—it’s always come first, and that isn’t fair to her.  And… and I wish I could absolve her of that.  But, as we’ve seen, people view me as a way to hurt her.  I don’t want to be used as a tool for my own sister’s destruction, Sebastian.  I love her.  But her whole life has been dedicated to keeping me safe, and… she deserves her own life.  With you.”

“And you believe returning to Kirkwall is the wisest course of action to achieve this?”  She had to hand it to him — his tone was even and politely curious.  She might have just expressed an opinion on the vintage in her glass.

Amelle sipped again at her wine.  “I think maybe returning to Kirkwall is a starting point.  And—and Cullen… Sebastian, I don’t know what’s going to happen to him, either.  He… he lied.  For me.  And he could be stripped from the Order for that.  I’m—I am tired of watching the people I care about get hurt because they tried to help me, or simply because they know me.”  She ticked off on her fingers, saying, “Jessamine wanted to hurt you and Kiara; Grace and Thrask wanted bloody leverage; Cullen left his post and lied to the Revered Mother to keep me safe; Fenris nearly bloody well died to save my life.  Honestly,” she said with a broken laugh and a poor attempt at levity, “it’s enough to make me want to run off to sodding Rivain and raise sheep.”  She raked a hand through her hair.  “I heard what Jessamine called me, Sebastian — your shame.  The shame of the prince of Starkhaven.  I… I don’t want to be anyone’s shame. I just want to be Amelle Hawke, healer, part-time shepherdess.”

Sebastian gave her a look.  It was one she knew well—Kiara frequently gave her the same one.

“What?” she asked, a shade defensively.  “It’s the only job I know of where I can carry a staff and not have to worry about people burning me for it.”

“Unless you are prepared to make such a voyage entirely alone, I doubt you’ll find very much satisfaction regarding your problem.”

“I won’t be alone; I’ll have the sheep.”

A huff of laughter escaped as he closed his eyes and shook his head.  “I would worry if I thought you were in earnest about the sheep, Amelle.  But I… I believe I understand at least part of what troubles you.”  

“I don’t want to make waves in anyone else’s life.  That hideous Caddell woman has been telling anyone with ears what a shame there’s magic in the Amell line, what a horrible burden that must be, what a taint to any noble house.”  She glowered.  “Kiara doesn’t deserve that.”

Sebastian narrowed his eyes.  “Dare I ask how you heard any of that?”

Amelle gestured at her head.  “I have ears.  Also, her voice carries in that way only the strident and self-righteous can ever really manage.”

“And yet she remains alive to speak her vitriol,” Sebastian said wryly. “I admire your restraint.”

“I told you,” she replied, “I’m not going to cause any trouble. See how well I’m doing?”

Sebastian gave a long-suffering sigh. “In this case the line between causing trouble and doing me a great service is a thin one. Though I suppose it isn’t the done thing to immolate one’s annoyances?” He raised the last sentence into a vague question and then quirked a smile her way. “No? Pity. No matter. Aileene Caddell’s words are those of a woman whose hopes were disappointed, nothing more. She thought, wrongly I might add, Kiara might be put aside after the… debacle with Jessamine.”

“Even Kiara thought she might be put aside, Sebastian.”

She saw a muscle jump in his cheek as he clenched his jaw. A flash of the pain she remembered from the first days after the… debacle darkened his eyes, but when he spoke, none of that agony remained. “Your sister is many things, but omniscient is not one of them.”

Amelle couldn’t help the smile that tugged at her lips. “Oh, you two are going to have some of the most spectacular arguments. It almost makes me wish I was—”

“Mmm?” He smiled at her over the rim of his wineglass, gaze entirely, entirely too perceptive. “Almost makes you wish you were going to be around to witness it?”

“That’s not fair.”

“To say nothing of the children,” he added mildly. “I do have to consider the necessity for an heir sooner rather than later, and it will be such a pity Aunt Amelle will be so far away.”

She glowered, even as she felt a pang of dismay, imagining tiny, fat, red-haired, blue-eyed babies.

Sebastian continued on, blithely ignoring her murderous expression. “But I must say, I feel sorriest of all for the kitten.”

“The… kitten?”

“Poor Spero, aye,” Sebastian lifted his shoulders as if to say what can you do? “The kitten is a citizen of Starkhaven, after all. I’m not sure I can permit an apostate mage to abscond with one of my valued subjects.”

“Spero’s a kitten.”

“How many mice might survive to nibble at my winter stores if she isn’t here to defend them? I’m a prince, Amelle. I have to consider the broader picture.”

“You’re a manipulative bastard, is what you are.”

Sebastian threw her a wink. “You forget, Amelle. I was a youngest sibling, too.”

“Hmph.”  Amelle continued to fidget with the wineglass, weighing her thoughts.  She was very nearly angry with Sebastian for making light of this, when she’d made the decision to come speak with him seriously, and after a great deal of thought, and here he was, using imaginary nieces and nephews she’d never get the chance to spoil—Maker, what if one of them turns out a mage?—and threatening to take her cat away, which was even less fair, as fond as Fenris was growing of Spero, for all he tried to pretend otherwise.

But Cullen… she had less than no idea what punishment awaited him now, and she could not in good conscience send him off to meet it alone.  He’d already done so much for her—more than she could ever repay, she knew—and she knew he’d do it all again for her in a heartbeat.  No, she could not leave him to face his consequences alone.

“I pray you, Amelle, speak.  I am unaccustomed to this much silence from a Hawke.”

“Kiara has no concept of inside voice,” she murmured distractedly. “Never has.”  Before Sebastian could comment, Amelle sipped again from her wineglass and leaned forward, clasping the delicate piece of crystal in both hands.

“You honestly don’t care that harboring an apostate mage in this day, in this climate, may be more trouble than it’s worth?”

“Before I answer that, tell me this: did you think at any point trying to heal the stubborn man you see before you, whose wound was not only infected, but his spirit as well, was more trouble than it was worth?”

The answer came honestly and instantly, “Never.”

“Even when you had to travel into the Fade itself to talk sense into him?  Even when you had to help defeat a demon to get him out again?”

She sighed.  “There are so many more problems for everyone if I stay, Sebastian.”  She sounded as if she were pleading with him and she hated it.  “You—I’m not worth that kind of risk.”

Surprise registered first on his features, ebbing slowly into something stern, and for a moment Amelle pitied those imaginary nieces and nephews.

“I can think,” he replied evenly, but still leveling a look at her so stern, so uncompromising, it took every ounce of effort for Amelle not to squirm in her seat, “of several people who would disagree heartily with that assessment.  One of them recently survived a bout of poison—against all odds, I might add.  Perhaps you know him…”

Amelle grimaced, but hid it behind her wineglass as she tilted her head back and drained it.  Sebastian played dirty—of that she had no doubt.  

It all would’ve been harder to take if he wasn’t right.  That was the worst of it.

“Amelle, I…” Sebastian’s eyes clouded slightly and he rose, returning to the sideboard and refilling her glass as well as his own.  “I do not wish to bring up unpleasant memories, but I cannot help but wonder if you are not—at least in part—acting upon words said too long ago—and in anger.  An opinion—a very impaired opinion—expressed that you are a job and a responsibility: a burden.”

“N-no,” she said quickly, shaking her head.

…But I know… those things I said, they didn’t come from nothing. I was hurt and I was angry and I was afraid, and for a little while I let those things mean too much.

“Amelle…”  Sebastian handed her the glass and her shoulders sank a little as she accepted it.

“That was the nicest thing about having the clinic, you know,” she murmured into her glass.  “You aren’t anyone else’s responsibility but your own.  You help alleviate other people’s worries and illnesses — their burdens.”

“And if the templars come looking?  What then?”

“Templars can come looking for me anywhere,” she answered tiredly.  “Even here.”

“And not all of them will be as susceptible to your charms as—”

That was enough to make Amelle sit upright, the wine sloshing dangerously close to the rim of the glass.  “Maker!” she blurted.  “What has Kiara been telling you?

Sebastian smiled, revealing the jest, but there was nothing remotely unkind about it.  Indeed, the fact he was teasing her, the fact he felt he could tease her, made a sudden rush of affection swell in her chest.  She not only had nieces and nephews to look forward to, but even a brother again.  Her long-shattered family was slowly starting to piece itself back together. It wouldn’t ever be the same, but it would be something, and she was starting to believe she would come to love that something just as much.

“She didn’thave to tell me anything.  I saw Cullen lie.  I knew it was a lie, because he’d already told me he’d abandoned his post to help you.”  He peered down at the liquid in his glass, then up at her again, and his expression was suddenly inscrutable.  “However, I fear I have caught you in a small bit of hypocrisy.”

“…Where?”

“You insist you want not to be a burden or responsibility to others, but you yourself are doing that very thing you claim not to want.”  At her evident confusion, Sebastian plunged on, “At least part of your decision to return to Kirkwall has to do with what reprimands you fear Cullen will face.  Am I wrong?”

“No,” she said reluctantly, “you aren’t wrong.”

“For all you insist it is your fault he abandoned his post, as I understand it you never asked any such thing of him.  It was an act done freely and willingly, done with eyes open and being entirely aware of the risks and consequences.”  Sebastian smiled a little, sadly.  “One does not become Knight-Commander—even acting—without possessing intimate knowledge of actions, consequences, and the chain of command.  He knew what he was doing.”

“That doesn’t mean I can just leave him to twist in the wind.  He’s my friend.

“Aye, I understand that.  And neither does it mean you should.” Sebastian tilted his head back, gazing thoughtfully at the ceiling as though seeking answers there. After a moment he continued, “Cullen has more friends than he knows. As do you, Amelle. May I ask something of you?”

“…Of course.”

“I do understand the seriousness of your concerns, please don’t doubt that, but… I would ask you put any plans to travel back to Kirkwall on hold, at least for a short time. I am not quite at liberty to speak of it yet, but I believe Starkhaven’s climate toward mages may not be quite so dire as you fear. Or as recent experience would have you believe.” She raised a curious eyebrow, but he only shook his head and gestured wearily toward his desk, with its piles of papers and complete lack of organization. “Half of that mess is to do with the coronation and the wedding. Both of which will be sooner rather than later. I do not think I exaggerate when I say Kiara would walk to Kirkwall through a blizzard and drag you back by the ear to ensure you are present for the latter. Stay until then.”

“But Cullen…”

Sebastian nodded. “I daresay I am more familiar with the inner workings of the Chantry than you are, Amelle.” A shadow of something like regret crossed his features, but was gone again almost before she named it. “I have some idea how Cullen feels at the moment.”

“I… I suppose you do.”

He smiled. “Done with eyes open and being entirely aware of risks and consequences. For what it’s worth, I hope Cullen will stay in Starkhaven for the upcoming events as well.”

Amelle finished the last of her wine and rose, setting the empty glass back on the sideboard.

“Amelle,” Sebastian added, “given that I’ve told you you’re welcome here, and that the risk of having a mage—an apostate mage—at court is one I’m willing to take, I do think you ought to speak with your sister. I will not betray the confidences spoken in this room, but if you do plan to leave…”

“She’ll lose it entirely if it gets sprung on her at the last minute.”

“If you must break her heart, give her time to prepare.”

Amelle gasped. “Sebastian, that is not fair!”

This time, when she looked at him, no lightness colored his expression, and no laughter shone in his eyes. This was no jest about kittens. He looked terribly, terribly sad. “It’s the truth, though. For all your talk of not wanting to be a burden or to be your sister’s responsibility… surely you must see that taking yourself away from her won’t change the way she feels. You are her family. Staying or going won’t alter that. So if you must leave, please, be certain you are going for your own reasons, the right reasons. Anything less…”

“I understand,” she whispered.

“I know you do,” he replied. Then, with a hint of mirth, he added, “I don’t suppose you have your sister’s flair for interior design? People have been bothering me for decisions about a guest room and I can’t think of anything appropriately outrageous enough. Thoughts?”

Amelle tapped her chin thoughtfully, resting against the back of the armchair she’d vacated.  “Outrageous, huh?  Hmm…”  After a few moments of thought, she tilted her head at him, winked and grinned.  “Well, if you’re so very fond of your noble subject Spero, perhaps you might decorate a guest room in her honor.  I think kitten-print curtains are very much the done thing these days, don’t you?  Embroidered mice on the coverlet?”

A smile, entirely relaxed and beyond amused, changed Sebastian’s face more than Amelle could say.  Any anxiety she’d felt upon entering this room was gone, the last lingering vestiges of it burned away by Sebastian’s deep laughter.

“Maker help me, Amelle Hawke, there are days I’m relieved to have you on my side.”

She smiled, and though not all her decisions were made, she felt something tight loosen in her chest, and a weight lift from her shoulders.