There were so many people packed inside The Herald's Rest that Hawke couldn't even hear the bard. Not that he minded. She'd been trying out some new material about the Inquisitor and it wasn't quite there yet.
Wasn't quite in tune yet.
He pushed another silver piece across the table. "Keep 'em comin."
The barkeep probably didn't hear him, but he knew the drill by now. He sloshed more ale into Hawke's mug without so much as looking at him.
Hawke took a long drink. Perhaps this one would bring oblivion. Or at the very least the kind of blackout where he woke in a stranger's bed with no clothes on and a shoe missing.
He was on his fourth or fifth gulp, chin pointed at the ceiling, foam running down his face, when someone jostled him and the rest of the drink ended up down his front.
"Oh for the love of–"
He slammed the mug down. He'd need to find somewhere else to drink. Now Corypheus was dead, it was like people had nothing to do at Skyhold besides fill up the tavern. Perhaps the Inquisitor would allow him to open a competing establishment. Perhaps then he could lure Varric back…
The man who'd slid in next to him was awfully polite for one of the Herald's Rest's patrons. Hawke was opening his mouth to give an automatic reply when it registered who it was.
The Commander scratched the back of his neck self-consciously and gave a small nervous laugh. He wasn't wearing his armour. It was the first time Hawke could remember seeing him without it. Even when they'd travelled together, he'd never emerged from a tent or inn room without it. He looked much… smaller.
Hawke blinked slowly to make sure he wasn't hallucinating. Cullen was supposed to be in South Reach.
The blond man leaned across the bar and tried to flag down the barkeep. "Uh, excuse me, sorry?"
No, definitely Cullen.
Hawke stood and waved his mug. "Oy! Another one of these." When the barkeep took his mug, he yelled, "And one for my friend here."
Heh. Friend. Now if that wasn't a more unexpected development than the Commander's arrival.
Cullen didn't seem to notice the slip. He sank back onto his stool and thanked Hawke, eyes darting around the room. He said something that Hawke didn't catch above the din.
"What?" Hawke yelled.
"I said, if this isn't the Herald's Rest. I mean, I know it is. I have been here before. With the advi-" he fell silent as his drink was placed in front of him. He reached into his pocket and started feeling for coin.
Hawke sighed and flicked another few copper across the counter.
"I've got it."
"Oh, I, thank you."
They drank in blissful silence for a time. But then, of course, Cullen had to say, "I, uh, I heard about Anders. I'm sorry."
Hawke snorted. Great, exactly what he wanted to discuss.
"I really am. Sorry, I mean. Look, is there somewhere else we can talk perhaps?"
Somewhere else? He'd assumed the man was here to drink like everyone else. It hadn't occurred to him that he'd sought Hawke out intentionally.
"What do you want to talk about? Because if it's about Anders, you can shove it."
Maker, the name still cut into him to the quick, as if he'd left yesterday and not almost a month ago. Hawke took another glug of alcohol. Cullen fell silent.
When Hawke came up for air, Cullen had his hands wrapped around his drink and he was staring off into the distance as if his heart had just been shattered.
Well, it had, hadn't it?
Hawke rose and tilted his head towards the stairs. "Come on."
Cullen looked at him, mouth forming an "o" of surprise, eyebrows drawing together in puzzlement. Hawke jerked his chin again and the Commander seemed to catch his meaning, rising to follow.
Up on the top level of the tavern, the noise of the crowd sounded more like the gentle roar of the ocean. Cole didn't seem to be about, but even if he was and Hawke had forgotten him, they still had more privacy than at the bar. Hawke settled on the top step and patted the spot beside him.
Cullen looked doubtful. But, after merely a moment's hesitation, he sat too.
"So, Commander, here's the rules. Every time you say his name, I say hers. Alright? So it's up to you. We can talk, or we can sit here in silence."
Cullen chuckled and tipped his mug in Hawke's direction. "Agreed."
He took a long drink. Hawke waited.
Eventually, Cullen lowered his mug and stared into it. "I think it's my fault."
"Which are we talking about?" Anders or Solana?
"Probably both," Cullen said, without expression. "But I mean Anders." His eyes darted to Hawke as if wary that he'd follow through with his threat.
"Oh, because you revealed his deep, dark, secret?" The words came out sounding more sarcastic than he'd meant. He could hardly close his eyes without seeing that room, with the vials of blood along the walls, without hearing Samson's agonised screams. It twisted his stomach. Yes, he'd been angry but… "I didn't throw him out if that's what you think. He chose to leave of his own accord."
"Yes, I… Solana mentioned."
"Ah, so you've seen her then?"
"Of course I have. She's my wife, is she not?"
"You tell me."
Cullen's gaze dropped to his drink and Hawke regretted his words. Touchy subject, clearly.
"Look, Cullen, you have enough to concern yourself with without taking the blame for my relationship falling apart. It's been on its last legs for… well, years, if I'm to be honest. Besides, if you had not taken me to that room I may well never have discovered his true reason for joining me here. He… he promised me that I was the… urgh, it doesn't matter."
"No. I… I don't mean the experiments. To be honest, I didn't even know you were unaware. There was something else..." He trailed off.
"Something else?" Hawke prompted.
"When we were trying to get to… I asked him… I insisted… that he…" Cullen drew a deep breath. "We needed to get through the eluvian. If we hadn't, I hate to think what would have happened. We didn't know the key. Cole said that Justice could open it. But he'd need complete control."
Hawke lowered his mug. His heart was starting to race. "I see."
"We had to get to Alise. I… I was not in my right mind. I begged him to give over that control. He did so against his better judgement."
Anger flared from deep in Hawke's belly. He clenched his jaw.
"It was the only option. But I accept responsibility."
Hawke stood abruptly. He needed to go, be anywhere but there. Get away before he did something he'd regret. Already, he could feel his control slipping. Alcohol and these kinds of admissions? Not a good combination.
But Cullen was at once on his feet too. "Wait, please, there's more."
"No." The word was hard and cold and sharp. "No, I don't want to hear more."
"Do you have any idea how hard he fought, how long he struggled, to prevent that very thing from happening? He's been losing control for years. Years, Cullen. I thought I lost him in Kinloch. When Justice took over, I thought he was through. But even then he was still fighting, still holding on, making sure that a part of him remained at all times. And you," he jabbed a finger at Cullen. "You ruined it." His voice cracked. "How could you do this? You saw what he did to that chantry! You know what he's capable of! And then you ran away and now, over a month later, come back with your tail between your legs and tell me? Who knows what he's done since?"
Cullen held out his hands. "Please, remain calm."
"Remain calm? He could be on the other side of Thedas by now! What more do I possibly need to hear? What more do you thi-"
"Phylacteries," Cullen said.
"What?" Hawke's voice was broken even to his own ears.
Cullen's hands curled into tight fists. "Ferelden's phylacteries were stored here, for a time. Very few knew about them. I believe he might have. And I believe he might have taken them."
The mug slipped from Hawke's fingers, clanging onto the ground and bouncing halfway down the stairs.
"Do you have any idea where he might have gone?" Cullen's voice seemed to come from a very far way away.
The phylacteries. Once they had spoken about them, cuddled up below the decks of one of the many ships they had sought passage on in their years of running together. They had fantasised about destroying them, setting all the mages free.
But that was another Anders, one who would never go near blood magic.
What would this Anders do? What would Justice do?
"Hawke?" Cullen pushed for an answer.
He shook his head. "None at all."
He reached into his pocket and withdrew the note, passing it to Cullen. It was ragged around the edges and crumpled from being folded and unfolded so many times. On it, in Anders's elegant hand, two words: I'm sorry.
Cullen pushed his food around his plate. Solana had set a table up in their room so that they could dine together rather than down in the great hall. She'd risen early and picked up some fresh rolls and eggs from the kitchens. She'd even brewed some tea. It was weak and bitter, but Cullen drank it dutifully. She was trying. Trying to make everything better. Trying to make up for what she'd done with token domesticity.
He looked up, suddenly aware that she'd been speaking and whatever she'd said required an answer.
"Sorry, what was that?"
He watched her features for signs of annoyance, but there were none. She'd arranged them into unflappable brightness. "I was just saying that perhaps we should ask for leave to extend our quarters. If we built on further across the ramparts, Alise could have her own room."
Alise was asleep in her bassinet on Solana's side of the bed. She'd woken several times during the past two nights, no longer with tiny grunts of discomfort, but with howling agony as if in pain. Eventually, Cullen had queried whether this was normal. It was, Solana had assured him. This was how babies were supposed to be.
"That sounds like a good idea," he said.
His mind was still on Anders. He was considering whether to tell the Inquisitor. He'd written to Varric and sent the letter personally so as to not alert Leliana. Perhaps Varric knew where Anders was, or could find out, before there was need to cause widespread panic.
"I was hoping you'd speak to the Inquisitor," Solana said.
Cullen jerked. She didn't seem to notice, she was pouring herself a cup of tea. "The Inquisitor?"
Her eyes rose to meet his. "About the room?"
Was it possible that Solana was in on it? No, surely not. Although, how else could Anders have learned the location of the phylacteries? She had wanted to break them.
Solana's power has saved her life more times than I can count, but it's corrupted her as much as the taint did. Leliana's words echoed in his mind.
"Will you?" Solana asked.
He reached for a bread roll. "You should ask him yourself." Weren't they friends?
"I could I suppose, but I thought it would have more weight coming from you. You hold actual rank in the Inquisition, after all, and as one of his advisers…"
"You're the Hero of Ferelden, I'm certain they'd give you the entire guest suite if you asked."
She started at his use of her title, but he hadn't meant it sarcastically. Her eyes dropped down to her plate and with that, her facade dropped too. "Please don't call me that."
"I thought you'd grown accustomed to it?" She'd taken to using it herself.
"I… we both know it's not true." She rubbed her arms as if cold. "I'm no hero."
"Say what you will about what you've done, but I think we call can agree that if you are one thing it's a hero."
The words left his mouth without much thought but her gaze immediately locked with his. She was taking too much meaning from it.
"You cured our daughter of Tranquility and the Blight," he reminded her.
The intensity of her look was too much. He stood, picking up his surcoat. "I have duties to attend to. I should be home shortly after dark."
"All right, I'll have a meal ready. On the table."
"That's not necessary, Solana."
"I know it's not. I just… I'd like to."
He drew a deep breath and went around the table, leaning down to give her a kiss on the cheek. She tensed at his touch and when he drew away, her eyes were still closed as if she was trying to preserve the moment.
His stomach clenched. Maker, this was more difficult than he'd ever imagined it to be.
In his office, clarity awaited. He'd feel better soon.
The gaol was still cold in the mornings, even with the onset of spring. Celeste's breath puffed in front of her face as she entered the back cells.
"Good morning, Ser Samson."
He was sitting scrunched up, with his knees tight against his chest. She lowered herself to the floor before his cell.
"Mage," he said, from beneath his arms.
A chill rushed through her and instantly she felt like she was kneeling before a different Templar. She swallowed down her revulsion. "Please don't call me that."
He lifted his head just enough to peer at her. His eyes were less red than they'd been even a week before, but in the shadows beneath his brow it was impossible to tell their colour. Again, Celeste questioned her wisdom in coming here.
"How does Maleficar work for you?" The way he said the word, she could hear every minute he'd spent as a Templar.
She turned her attention to her basket. The rolls were still warm to the touch as she unfolded them from a handkerchief. "Celeste is my name."
"I've been trying to place you, Celeste. You weren't one of the Kirkwall ones, were you? I would have remembered you. Although, what with the lyrium, who knows." He chuckled darkly.
"A blood mage in the Inquisition ranks." He whistled through his teeth. "Does Cullen know?"
"Ha! Now that, that I find surprising. What did you do to buy his silence, sleep with him?"
Celeste reached through the bars and held the roll out to him.
Samson ignored it. "No, Rutherford's not the type. You have dirt on him, don't you?"
Samson fell silent, continuing to stare at her. A line formed between his eyebrows as she tried not to squirm under the intensity of his gaze.
"Why are you doing this?" His voice was suddenly soft and serious.
"I told you."
"You're feeding me bread because your friend fed you bread a year ago? Forgive my failure to follow that fine logic."
Celeste's arm was growing tired, so she pushed the handkerchief through and laid the bread roll on top of it on the floor between them. "I was there when the Inquisitor sentenced you. He said you're to serve the Inquisition."
"Yeah. Providing samples of blood and tissue for your arcanist and information for your interrogators. No one happened to mention bread rolls."
"You said there was nothing worthy left in you."
This was pointless. However she formed the words in her head they sounded stupid or impossibly naive. She had half a mind to get up and leave, forget this entire endeavour.
He must have sensed her mood, because he reached forward and took the roll. He stared at it as if he had never seen its like. "There isn't, you know? A second chance is not enough to undo what I did. Second, third, fiftieth. I could become a fucking chanter and still never make up a fraction of…"
"Andraste's holy tears, will you stop wallowing?"
His eyes snapped up to hers. Brown.
She fumbled for the next words. "Moaning about it won't change anything. You made a decision to do what you did, yes. But you also decided to take the lyrium I gave you, even though you knew it would extend your suffering, even though you knew what Fiona would do to you, and you feared the Inquisitor's vengeance. You chose to live. You chose to try-"
He snorted. "That was the cravings. They'll make you do anything."
"No it wasn't."
"I say it was."
"I don't believe you."
Samson's mouth twisted upwards in an almost-smile, showing his uneven teeth. "Well believe me, Mage."
Maker. She closed her eyes. "Don't." But she'd given him a weapon against her now. Stupid. She spoke before he could use it again. "I've seen you, Samson, in the late hours of the night, in the earliest hours of the morn. I've seen you twisting and thrashing against your guilt. I know your burden. Maybe not… not all of it. But I have been where you are now, wrapped up in regret, poisoned from the inside by past deeds, paralysed by my own self-hate. I know you, Raleigh Samson. I… I know you see me as some foolish girl who… dabbled in darkness or, or was misled a long time ago. And perhaps I am foolish. Perhaps I shouldn't be here trying to reach you. Perhaps there is no saving you from your past and from your own self-pity. But I… I've seen goodness in you. And I don't have it in me to leave you to rot. Solana didn't leave me. I won't leave you. I… just eat the bread."
When she opened her eyes again, he was still staring at her, but there was something different about the look. His eyes were wide and he said nothing. Quietly, he bit into the roll.
Cullen paused outside Trevelyan's door, running through exactly how he'd break the news about the phylacteries. The lyrium had been just the boost he'd needed to bring his mind to clarity. He had taken the men through their morning drills, inspected the barracks and caught up on many of the reports on what had transpired in the time he'd been away.
Skyhold was an almost entirely different place now. More mages, fewer soldiers, and the Grey Wardens had almost completely trickled away to do whatever they did when not at war. Many of the Inquisitor's companions had also left and, walking through the quiet halls, Cullen found he recognised few faces.
He drew a deep breath. The lyrium had also helped him make up his mind about this. He had to tell Trevelyan. It was the right thing to do, even if it did make him look incompetent. Even if it did cast doubt on Solana.
What was the alternative? Wait weeks to hear back from Varric and hope the dwarf's letter said, "Hi Curly, don't worry, I know exactly where Anders is. I have the phylacteries. I'm sending them back to you. Please find them attached?"
That wouldn't happen, and the longer Cullen kept his own failure silent, the further away Anders would get.
He squared his shoulders, took another long, deep breath, and held his fist above the door ready to knock.
"Don't be like this!" Trevelyan's voice from within, followed by the sound of footsteps coming down the stairs.
"Max, I have a duty." Cassandra said.
Cullen paused. He had no desire to eavesdrop.
"To the Void with your duty! You have given them enough." A second set of footsteps echoed down towards the door.
"You only say that because you want me to remain here." It sounded like she was standing right beside the door. Would she hear Cullen if he left?
"That's not true. What about the Seekers?" Now the Inquisitor was also by the door. Cullen didn't know what to do.
"What about them?" Cassandra shot back at Trevelyan.
"You were going to rebuild them."
"And now I will be in a unique position to do so."
"Don't." Trevelyan's voice was soft, but he was standing close enough that Cullen could still hear every word. "Please."
There was a long pause and Cullen dared not even breathe. Should he stay? Should he leave?
He was still trying to decide, when Cassandra spoke again. "You know how I feel about you, but please don't make me choose."
"I would never ask that of you," his voice was still low. "Besides, I know that I would lose. I've known it from the start, Cassandra. You came into my arms with the caveat that what we had was temporary, an escape from your grief. I'm not Regalyan. I could never replace him."
"Why would you say such a thing?"
"Because it's true and I accept it. I'm not asking you to decline to keep you here. I'm asking you because I care about you. Dammit, I love you. And being Divine will not make you happy. You need to be somewhere where you can brandish a sword. Even if it's not at my side. If you wish to leave the Inquisition, then by all means leave. Go and rebuild your Seekers. But don't leave because Orlais wishes for you to be their latest pawn. Please."
Cullen's neck heated. Cassandra, the next Divine? She hadn't said anything to him when she'd debriefed him the day before. There had been a stiffness about her, but he'd put it down to a reaction to his presence. When he'd run from the Wilds, she'd accused him of abandoning his men. It was expected that she have even stronger feelings about the way he'd fled Skyhold. But perhaps he hadn't been the reason after all.
Cassandra spoke again, "I need to do this. It's me or that ambitious viper."
Cullen had been under the impression that Leliana was also up for Divine, but he couldn't imagine Cassandra speaking of her in such a way. She must have meant the mage, Madame de Fer, the Lady of Iron. His reports said that she'd been campaigning hard for the return of the Circles. From what he understood, she was the main reason Fiona had returned to Val Royeaux. If de Fer came to power, it would mean… he shut his eyes before he spiraled too far into what ifs. Solana may not have been a Grey Warden anymore, but she was still the Hero of Ferelden. They wouldn't throw her back into a Circle, would they?
"It's not fair," Trevelyan said on the other side of the door, sounding for the first time in Cullen's memory like the petulant lord he'd expected when they'd first met.
"Since when has life been fair, to either of us?"
"It led me to you."
Cassandra tsked. There was a pause before she said, "Max, this is what the Maker wills."
"But you don't want it."
"I keep telling you, what I want is not important."
"It is to me. Tell me you want this, and I will-"
"I want this."
"Really?" He sighed. "Very well."
Cullen heard Max's boots on the stairs again and only had an instant to prepare himself before the door opened. Cassandra jumped when she saw him there, still frozen as if about to knock.
He cleared his throat. "Good morning, I eh… I just got here."
"Is that Cullen?" Trevelyan's voice came from inside.
"Yes," Cassandra said. Her eyes narrowed and Cullen's stomach jerked. He didn't want her to guess how much he'd heard.
"I… if this is a bad time?"
"No, it's not a bad time," Cassandra said. "I was leaving."
At the top of the stairs, Cullen found Trevelyan pouring himself a drink. His hair was ruffled as if he'd recently risen, although the bed was made and he was dressed for the day ahead.
"Cullen, welcome back. I'm sorry I haven't come to see you yet. Paperwork, you know how it is." He glanced up and forced a smile. "How is the family?"
"They are… well."
Silence fell as Trevelyan downed the contents of his glass.
"I… uh. I wished to thank you for granting me leave at such short notice."
Trevelyan waved away the statement. "Please. I'm only glad you returned. Things weren't the same without you here."
"Cassandra is a capable…" Cullen trailed off, realising his error in mentioning her.
Trevelyan offered another smile that didn't quite reach his eyes. "She is, isn't she? Capable." He forced a laugh. "But I'm sure you didn't come here to speak about Cassandra's merits, varied as they may be. What can I do for you?"
Cullen's mouth moved but no sound came out. He couldn't speak of the phylacteries now, not when he'd just witnessed what he had. "It… it's not important."
"Come now, you're here. I have a few minutes. Out with it."
His stomach formed an anxious knot. Just say it. The sooner you say it, the sooner the resources of the Inquisition can be put to use on this. The sooner blame can be laid, the sooner respect can be lost, the sooner the broken-hearted Trevelyan can be squashed under an additional burden.
"It's, uh, Solana wished to know if we might extend our quarters."
Cullen's heart pounded traitorously, each beat a reminder of his cowardice and pride. Each thud urging him to give an addendum, but he remained silent.
"Extend your quarters?" Trevelyan frowned at the unexpected question. "Oh, you mean along the battlements? Well that's a fine idea. I don't see why not. Your little one will need more space as she grows older. Speak to Berinole, I know he was doodling up some plans for general expansions, but I'm afraid I have not been able to look into them yet."
"Thank you, I shall."
"And feel free to requisition whatever you need. You're one of my most trusted advisers, I would see you comfortable."
"That's very kind."
How much of the offer was kindness, and how much was Trevelyan trying to ensure Cullen didn't leave again? Regardless, the news would certainly please Solana.
"Was that all?"
Guilt pulled at Cullen's gut. Say it.
"Yes, Inquisitor. Thank you."
Perhaps Varric would have some good news after all.
Or else Maker help them all.