He’s met her before.
He can’t quite place where, or when, or how, but Cullen knows he’s crossed paths with the so-called Herald of Andraste, years ago. There’s something about her - he can’t quite place what - that nags at the back of his mind, a strange familiarity, like a dream he forgot in the morning.
Well, more like a nightmare.
“Four pair, stacked,” the Inquisitor says now, breaking him from the reverie. Her mouth is full of half-chewed biscuit and she slogs down another gulp of beer. The smugness in her voice sends prickles of irritation across Cullen’s skin, the infuriating woman couldn’t even win a card game with poise.
He remembers her from somewhere, from a different part of his life when he was a fresh recruit in the Order. But it’s part of a lyrium haze, memories he isn’t sure of anymore.
He stares down at his own hand. No matches.
“Varric, if you have the Angel of Death, so help me,” says Josephine, playful irritation in her lilting accent.
Varric offers a shrug but says nothing, sipping his own ale. Josephine fingers her cards carefully, pouting her lips and scrunching her face. As she hesitates and hovers between two cards, the Inquisitor slaps the table with her hand.
“Today , Josie!” the gruff woman says, a toothy smile aimed at the much more delicate ambassador.
“Oh hush, you can wait,” Josie fires back, her grin just as wide. The two friends play rivals easily, their banter almost as real as Dorian’s and Bull’s. Josie discards a card from her hand, then gently pulls the top card from the face down deck. “Now you can go, Alhari.”
“Fiiiinally,” the Inquisitor - Alhari Trevelyan, an Annoyance-Most-High - says with fake relief. She swiftly removes three of her cards for the top three in the deck, decisively and with no hesitation. Cullen sniffs unconsciously - she does almost everything in this way, without much thought or sense of consequence. She nudges Cullen sitting nearby, shoving his elbow so hard it sends his tankard wobbling.
“Maker!” he yelps, surprised. The tankard shifts a few more times from side to side before settling once more. “Watch it, Inquisitor,” he growls through clenched teeth, rubbing his arm with his free hand.
She holds up her hands in a defenseless motion. “Excuse me, Pretty Boy, I thought you were playing the game,” she taunts lightly. She shrugs, as if to say - guess not.
He narrows his eyes at her, but then removes two cards from his hand and replaces it with two more from the deck. A pair of Daggers. Perhaps he can mozy his way to a victory this time -
And then Varric puts down the Angel of Death, followed by three Knights and an Angel.
“You cheater!” Josephine says with a laugh, throwing her cards down. Two Daggers and two Songs.
Cullen sighs, putting down his own hand: two Daggers, a Snake, and a Song.
The bark of a laugh comes from the Inquisitor then as she slides her cards onto the table.
Three Angels. One Knight.
“Pretty Boy, if you could see your face right now,” laughs Alhari. She mimics his open-mouthed stare, but hers is complete with crossed-eyes. She moves her face back into place with a snort. Collecting the small pile of gold in the center of the table, she chuckles again.
Varric smiles. “How about another round?”
. . .
He’s so sure he knows her.
Then again, she’s a warrior, tall and powerful born from the Trevelyan clan, nearly four years older than he, and hailing from the north and running with a mercenary group until she fell out of the sky. Their paths couldn’t have crossed.
Solas had told him of false memories, of how the mind recreates the past to protect against trauma.
If that’s the case - he hopes he’s never met her before this.
He’s staring at her now, across the War Table, watching as she finishes eating another biscuit taken from the kitchens. She swallows hard, but her mouth is still very much full of half-chewed, flaky bread.
Oh, and she’s an absolute brute - he hadn’t spent much time with brutish women, past or present. There was no way he knew her.
“The Exalted Plains are next, then,” she says, muffled and matter-of-factly, stabbing the map with a letter-opener. It’s the fifth one she’s stolen in Skyhold to pierce the damn table with. Three of which were taken from Cullen’s own personal office.
The woman was a monster.
Cullen shakes his head, blond hair tussling with the motion. The Exalted Plains should not be next. The Fallow Mire should be next.
But what does she know? A half-educated barbarian that was spat out of a glowing tear in the Fade, who was truly only there by chance. He wasn’t even sure if she knew how to read, so how could she even possibly understand the delicate nuances of war strategy? Herald of Andraste, indeed.
The sudden cracking of her knuckles pulls Cullen from his frustrated thoughts and he recoils in his own seat. The pops echo in the stuffy room, another irritating habit of hers that makes him cringe. She pops her neck - her back - her hips - her shoulders -
Maker, give him strength.
She finally finishes, stretching her arms overhead. “Leliana, can we get a report on the Fallow Mire?” she asks the Spymaster, who also had been grimacing at the cracking joints.
Fallow Mire, finally, Cullen thinks with a silent click of the tongue. “Took long enough.”
It takes him a long, long moment to realize he had said the last part of his thought aloud. The rest of his fellow advisors are staring at him - Cassandra practically setting him ablaze with her glare. Cullen’s cheeks flush a bright pink and he’s met with Alhari’s gaze - an intense moment made even more intense with her pale, light eyes. They were so light he could probably see straight through into her mind.
“Something to add, Commander?” she says with an eyebrow raised. It’s a threat, a warning, a challenge - but Cullen Rutherford, by the Maker, will not be intimidated by this uncivilized woman.
“Well - “ he starts.
“Rhetorical,” she interrupts, moving a piece on the war table map. The wooden finger she slides to the Fallow Mire is representative of his personal troop of soldiers. “Thank you so much for voicing your opinion on the Fallow Mire, Commander Pretty Boy. Since you deem this such an important area of investigation, you wouldn’t mind spearheading the Inquisition forces there, would you?”
He stood defiantly, tired of her condescending tone and that insufferable nickname. She straightened to her full height, right as his eye level, and waited. The rest of the war council held its breath.
As a Templar, Cullen had taken an oath to uphold the Chantry’s principles and denounce those who would see those guidelines crumble. He had promised himself to the Maker and the Holy Virtues. He had promised not to incite violence nor celebrate it.
But he was close to full-on brawling with this woman.
He takes a breath.
“Of course, Inquisitor,” he says with as much grace as he can muster. “Would love to.”
The last part is said through clenched teeth.
Alhari’s pale eyes glint in glory. “Excellent,” she responds, sweeping up a few other pieces on the map and settling them elsewhere. “Leliana, we’ll have your spies move to the Free Marches, instead.”
As she straightens from the table, Alhari calls an end to the meeting and walks purposely out of the room, her cloak billowing behind her, as if waving goodbye to Cullen. Or flipping him off.
“I can’t be the only one she annoys, can I?” he asks the rest of the advisors as the door shuts behind the Inquisitor. But Josephine and Leliana share a glance before Josephine smiles to him. Cassandra’s arms are crossed, but he can see the smirk on her usually stoic face, too. “What - what are you all smiling at?”
“Nothing,” chirps Leliana, her quiet voice marred by a grin.
“We’ve just noticed your. . . lingering stares, Commander,” Josephine jumps in.
The blush can’t get across his neck faster as he feels his entire face burn in humiliation. “E-excuse me?” he sputters. The audacity! The ridiculousness of the implication! The nerve!
He attempts to rein in his indignation as he states, “I have no warm feelings towards that woman, whatsoever.”
Now it’s Cassandra who barks an uncontrollable laugh. “Commander,” she starts, the cold, accented voice slicing through the air with authority. “Your infatuation is very obvious. But as long as it does not interfere with the Inquisition, we see no problem with your crush.”
“My crush?! ” Cullen nearly shouts, restraining himself at the last moment. The three women are amused, he can see it in their faces - Leliana hides a smile behind a small hand, while Josephine and Cassandra are staring at him with almost smug, polite grins.
He throws his hands into the air. “You are all out of your respective minds.”
Stomping to the door with his heavy boots clattering against the wooden floors, he hopes he scuffs up at least a few floorboards in the Inquisitor's precious damn war room.
“Of course we are, Commander,” Josephine’s lilting voice calls after him.