Cal crept down the stairs to the bakery as if he'd been assigned a task suitable for an assassin. He paused each time a stair creaked under his weight, as if the slightest transgression would draw a group of sell swords down on his head.
This is ridiculous. You're just going to pick up a cake. A cake you helped bake!
He'd chosen one of the rare times the place stood empty, and he slipped inside on silent feet. All the loaves, rolls, pies and Creators knew what else were baked and either safely stored away for the evening meal or scattered haphazardly across tavern tables for hungry soldiers and laborers to cram in their mouths. Never had he seen so much food or of so fine a quality -- available even to common folk! -- when he had occasion to observe Magister Regulus' feasts it had been only for the most elite. No mere laetan would ever be seen at such a table, unless the evening ended with a poisoned blade for some transgression or another. Magister Regulus liked to combine his pleasures, indulging in violence as easily and as readily as he ate berry scones, always with a coffee at his elbow. Two doses of sugar, two of cream, a drink Cal had occasion to prepare when slaves more suited had been at some other task. He'd always wondered at the taste, one he would never dare ask for. All those delicacies, just out of his reach...
Before he realized it he'd crammed a handful of sultanas in his mouth, the kind reserved for visiting dignitaries. The container clattered to the floor, spilling the rest. He looked around the bakery wildly, half expecting Magister Regulus to descend from above, floating by way of dirty magic, ready to make him pay.
Persimmions came next, cracked open with trembling fingers, sections on his tongue with the peel still attached. Then butter, the big, soft blocks ready for the baking done in the small hours. He dug furrows in it, licking what he took away. Andruil, it was no halla milk, but it tasted pure and grassy to his underused palette, like tasting a sunlit meadow. He clambered up on one of Jalsi's barrels and found a tray of rolls, the soft, sweet ones served at dinner in the Great Hall. Servants would carry dozens to the head table where Amjad would gorge himself on them in between mouthfuls of roast duck, when Amjad could be coaxed in to such an affair at all. The thought of that feast food made ravenous hunger claw at his belly, as if he hadn't already filled it with everything he could find. The choux pastry for eclairs --he'd seen such delights when Magister Regulus had been wooing one of his many women -- and in under a minute he'd torn through three of them. What was this? Ah, hidden away behind the neat rows of spice jars, a little packet of figs. Flesh and seeds exploded on his tongue, sweet but also dark, secret, a thing one might forage for and steal for one's self before taking the rest back to camp.
Maybe it was the little scones that finally did him in. One lemon, one with bergamot and what he thought might be tea. His stomach rolled and flipped, and before he knew what was happening he was sick in to the rubbish bin. He stayed there on his knees until he'd vomited up every last luxury, grateful at least that it hadn't made him shit himself too.
Worth it. So worth it. He thought, as he lay twitching on the cool stones.
When he finally picked himself up off the floor he washed his mouth out in the water basin, marveling at the plumbing that carried away the evidence of his transgressions. He washed his hands thoroughly, too; it wouldn't do to bring Cullen a cake clutched in filthy fingers. Satisfied that he wouldn't make anyone gag as he walked past he looked around for the dessert, praying it hadn't been forgotten and allowed to burn. When he found it he wrapped it gently in layers and layers of parchment paper, as if it would break apart like a fine china plate if he jostled it. The scent of oranges, mellowed by the oven, rose up even so. Creators, he would never take that aroma for granted.
Being ignored by the guards as he emerged from the basement rankled but at the same time, he recognized it as an advantage. With a parcel in hand he looked like just another knife ear errand boy. He entertained himself with fantasies of revenge until he came to Cullen's office. He paused; he found the tower intimidating, especially shrouded in twilight as it was, and didn't know how to approach getting access to it. The stars took his attention, as bright as the stars in the desert and yet...pure somehow. He turned his face up as if they could offer him the same light and warmth as the sun, but he craved softness instead of that punishing burn. And though he had experienced too much chill to truly crave it, at least here the breeze came with a frigid snap, snow and ice instead of endless unbroken cold that settled in to the bones.
"Hullo Calledan." Cal startled and ducked low as if to scurry away, but a moment later he recognized Riley coming his way. The man had a smile on his face, and for the first time Cal allowed himself to study Riley's features. Cullen's right hand man looked like a Fereldan farmer's son, broad, expressive features, a dusting of freckles across the bridge of his nose; that was exactly what he was. Ginger colored hair peaked out from under his helm, and his hazel eyes -- more green than brown -- had kindness in them. Suspicious as he was, he had to admit that Riley seemed utterly without guile, the same way the big, sad mage in the fancy coat did.
Gabriel, he reminded himself. A pang of jealousy made his lips curl up in a snarl, and Riley stepped back. Belatedly Cal realized the man must have taken the response as meant for him.
"No, I was thinking of something else," he managed, trying to firm up his tone in front of this shem. Friendly or no, he was still a human. Even the nicest humans could justify throwing Elvhen lives away under the right circumstances.
"Understood," Riley said, shrugging as if it had already ceased to bother him. "Wondering if the Commander is in?"
"Yeah," Cal said, stopping himself from toeing the stones. "Is he busy?"
"Well, he's always got something to do, but between me and you he could use a break."
Cal had already identified Cullen as someone who could easily drive himself in to the ground, if allowed. Cullen had a certain intensity about him despite his gentle manner, and though his strength and warmth were real as far as Cal could tell, a brittle quality could be detected. Maybe the clues lay in the scrolls spread across his desk, the candle stubs burnt down to nothing, fastened to the bookshelves and desk by night after night of dripping wax.
Something to prove.
Riley knocked and hailed Cullen. The affirmative came back and Riley shouldered the door open, grunting as it stuck in the frame. "You've got a visitor, Commander."
"Is it Lord and Lady Dubois again? You may tell them I've had quite enough of their whittling on," Cullen said, voice tense with annoyance. Cal stepped around Riley, feeling silly then. He didn't even know Cullen, not really. But before he could start fretting about being turned away, Cullen brightened and rose from his desk.
"Oh, Cal. I'm relieved to see you. I can't take any more Orlesians today." He said while rubbing at a crick in his neck, a small sigh of discomfort escaping as he did so.
Orlesian nobles were thick on the ground at Skyhold. Their riches and snobby manner made Cal sick to his stomach, and even despite all that blessed fortune they still found something to complain about and still played their stupid Game. They took pleasure in flaunting it, prancing around like they owned the place. For a moment the rage swelled in his belly. Even here, with an elf leading the best hope for a future, those squawking vultures pushed and shoved to be the first to claim they were the true power behind the throne.
He edged in to the office and Riley took his leave after a crisp salute.
"I, um." Cal said, kicking himself at his own cleverness. "I brought you a cake."
"Truly? The one we made? I was worried it had been left to burn." He came around the desk, a little smile on his mouth and a light in his eyes. "Come on, let's go and sit in the garden while we eat far too much of it."
Cal's heart leapt and he nodded, mute. He had been a slave until what, a couple of weeks ago? And now he found himself free in every way, even free to go and waste idle time in a garden so lovely Sylaise herself would weep over it, if the aroma was anything to go by. Free to eat cake and maybe make a friend.
He didn't speak as they made their way through the courtyard, having to remind himself not to squash the cake in nervous fingers. The path to the garden was confusing and long, requiring them to go through unused parts of Skyhold piled high with rubble. He wove through it without hesitation; his Elvhen instincts had never fully faded. Cullen held doors for him, a kindness that he'd only seen afforded to those with the highest status. So shocked was he that he stumbled in to the garden, tripping over his own feet.
So much for Elvhen grace.
He stepped on to the grass, as plush as the carpet in a well paid courtesan's chamber. For a moment, he couldn't move, he could only take in the entirety of the garden laid out before him. The ornamental flowers didn't catch his eye the way the herbs did, pots of...Creators, he couldn't remember their proper name.
For a moment, he thought he might start crying, ugly racking sobs. Instead he drifted away from Cullen as if in a dream, towards the...the...
Gahlidahlis, growing wild from soil so rich he'd only seen it's like deep in Brecillian forest. The shems spoke of Brecillian as if it were filled with horrors, the galidahlis supposedly giving off an aura of magic and darkness. He sank to his knees to smell them. They had power to them, but the kind only the Elvhen could understand. The Chantry made people meek and afraid. The Elvhen had stayed free, walking the lonely road.
Aeron ran ahead of him, laughing so hard that she might have fallen on the uneven path if she weren't so nimble, amused by his efforts to outpace her. He raced after, as if she were a hart he could catch with a single well placed arrow, their voices heard only by the living forest. She stopped at the edge of a clearing, and Cal realized as he came to stand beside her that they'd gone deeper in to the trees than ever before. He lifted his head as if he could scent the air the way a beast could. A beast...were they near that cursed place, the ruins? Aeron raised her hand to silence him, then turned around, smiling. She lowered her hand and took his, leading him in to the clearing. Galidahlis flowers filled it, growing thick and lush around them. Their scent cleared his lungs, and dusted the cobwebs from his mind. He dared to kiss her, and this time she didn't push him away.
Before he knew it he'd doubled over like someone had landed a punch to his gut, sobbing his eyes out like he'd been worried about doing just minutes before. The herbalist closest to him jumped back, startled, but he only noticed because of his survival instincts; the rest of him had given over to the sorrow. Not just that; the knowledge that he wasn't a slave anymore brought a joy like he'd never felt, and yet he felt bereft, having to come back in to a world so changed and unfamiliar.
He recognized Cullen's arm around his shoulders and while normally he would have cursed and spit at any shem trying to touch him, he couldn't find the strength or, even, the desire. He turned in to the embrace, weeping against the thick, well-carded wool of Cullen's coat. Even through it, Cal could feel a feverish warmth. While Cullen's hold had strength to it, when Cal slipped his hand past the closures on that lovingly crafted coat he swore he could feel how swollen Cullen's joints were, his fingers jerking awkwardly over the curve of Cullen's shoulder and collarbone. He froze; it had been an accident, and he felt sure Cullen would pull away at something so forward, unintentionally or not. Instead Cullen practically bore him in those strong arms back to the shade, to a table set with a chessboard. Settled in the stuffed velvet chair, Cal sagged against the cushions.
"Will you be all right there?" Cullen asked, and even though he could barely think he didn't miss the slight limp that hampered Cullen's steps.
"I'm okay," he managed, grateful he hadn't started blubbering again. Like magic the cake appeared before them on the table; it was only his keen eye that spotted the servant responsible.
"Here," Cullen said, cutting a slice with his belt knife. "I think you'll feel better after some of this."
His heartache mellowed, the garden suffusing him with its warm, simple aura. The taste of what Cullen had given him burst over his tongue, creamy butter and plump, ripe oranges.