If three broken fingers were the cost of bringing Inquisition soldiers back hale and healthy, Cassandra counted it a low one. A Seeker went where she was needed, even when necessity consisted of sloshing up to her knees in bog water and smiting demons back into tatters of Fade essence.
She allowed herself a sigh of relief when the towers of Skyhold pried apart the grey of snow and sky. Her horse whinnied hopefully. It was new, a contrary creature to replace one maimed in a roadside ambush, and it cared woefully little for Cassandra's authority. At least they were united in the purpose of trudging uphill, towards the lure of a night under a roof.
Nightfall overtook them before they reached Skyhold. Even Varric, who'd kept their company entertained with one increasingly outlandish tale after another, had focused on moving forward. The Inquisitor sparked a flame atop her staff and propped it up on her stirrup like a chevalier's lance. The cold glazed the snow into a crust, thick enough for even the horses to step on.
The portcullis grinding down behind them was the most welcome sound Cassandra had heard all day. Lanterns still shone at the stables. She hauled her saddlebags and shield off the back of her horse, happy to let a groom take the weary animal. The others scattered to seek their beds, and Cassandra muttered good-nights in their general direction. They'd go over their endeavours tomorrow with clearer heads.
In the infirmary, a healer with a seemingly permanent pinch of worry between his brows inspected her hand. He declared the field splints serviceable and promised her a mage's attention first thing on the morrow. Mustering a thank-you, she made for her quarters above the forge. Even with the bone-gnawing chill outside, it would be warm there. She could bury herself under the furs and forget the world for a few hours.
As she peeled off her mail--not a trivial task with one good hand, but every squire was either asleep or too deep in their cups to manage a buckle at this hour--she began to appreciate that she was filthy. Mire water probably still squelched somewhere in her boots. She'd slept in said boots and her gambeson for the last two weeks.
That brought her, an iron lantern and clean clothes in tow, to the baths in the cellars when midnight neared. Whatever else the original builders of the keep had devised, they'd been disposed to a few worldly comforts. The ancient pipes of the baths still worked. Water was raised from a ground well to cisterns with ovens built underneath them. She let steaming water sluice into the stair-edged stone bath, stripped, threw three buckets of cold water over herself to wash off the worst grime, and then sank into the bath.
It was a rare moment when she was not occupied. As the Right Hand of the Divine she was seen as a martial actor with little use for subtlety. This held true, but did not lead to the simplistic conclusion: that she acted without forethought or planning. She might not tread the winding paths of diplomacy and subterfuge that Leliana or Josephine did. Even so her mind turned near constantly.
The silence, the twilight and the stinging heat combined to leave her thoughts adrift. The riding aches in her legs melted gradually, and the old injury that tended to pull her right shoulder back gave up some of its tightness. She did, of course, have a sheathed dagger next to her string-wrapped soap on the rim of the bath. Her bandaged hand was rested out of the water; wet and warm combined to sour a healing wound all too easily.
Light spilled across the drifting steam in the air before she realised she wasn't alone.
"Lady Seeker." Even into the second watch of the night, Josephine's voice was effortlessly courteous. That seemed no small feat to Cassandra, as she raked her dripping hair from her face.
"Lady Montilyet." She sounded curt in comparison.
"You're back safely. I'm happy to see you." Setting down a small basket of soaps and vials, Josephine unwound her hair. Her attire had eased a few notches from her full Antivan finery. All the same, she looked minutes from being ready to step into a diplomatic soirée. "May I join you? I'm told we should conserve the water now that it's winter."
"Ah," Cassandra said. "Certainly."
She fumbled for her paltry social graces while Josephine undressed, every piece of clothing neatly set aside on the wall-side bench, and scurried across the stone floor to dip into the other end of the bath.
"Oh, Andraste's mercy. How do the Fereldans live here? The seneschal says the snow may not melt until Cloudreach."
"It never melts on the peaks to the west." Cassandra ran a hand through her hair, leaving it in damp spikes. "It may have been an unusually cold winter. I truly haven't had the time to notice."
"Even Val Royeaux was never like this! Of course, the ambassadors would be invited to the Winter Palace in Halamshiral, so one could escape the more unpleasant season--and you have just returned from the Korcari Wilds." Josephine drew a little breath. Then she sank a little deeper into the water. "You must forgive me, my lady. My discomforts pale into insignificance."
"I took no offence. I am used to the road. You have your own familiar grounds." Cassandra grabbed her soap, dunked her head, and stood up. The bath was for soaking and warming, but others would use it before the night was through.
"Of course." Josephine's head curled forward.
Next to the oven was a spot where one could stand without getting chilled. Cassandra began to work a lather into the palm of her good hand, with less dexterity than usual, and the soap slid from her fingers and skidded merrily across the floor. Muttering in frustration, she went after it.
"May I help you?" Josephine had risen halfway, up to her hips in the water.
"I am--" Cassandra crouched, reaching for the fugitive soap, "--quite fine, thank you", and succeeded only in propelling the bar into the bath.
Josephine plucked it out by the string and gave Cassandra the most even of looks. There was scarcely a dint in her sculpted eyebrow. "Please. If I were a travelling companion, surely I could extend a hand when yours has been injured in our cause?"
Momentarily Cassandra was caught up in a catalogue of her comrades-in-arms attempting to make this offer to her. She sloughed off the reverie before it could grow too outrageous. "Very well," she said. "It's warmest by the oven." She scooped up cold water from another cistern.
"You'd rather wash with that?" Josephine raised a brow.
"It's not important. I already bathed."
"If I may be so bold, Lady Seeker, sometimes you might use a little indulgence." With an air of decision Josephine took her half-filled bucket and let hot water spout into it. "Please sit."
Bereft of other options, Cassandra sat on one of the wooden stools left in the baths, to be used as an aid in washing or reaching. The floor was clammy under her soles, but the oven and its stones radiated a glancing glow of heat. Josephine hummed under her breath as she spread the soap in her hands. They came up to Cassandra's head fragrant of something that had not been in her plain soap, heavy and sweet and floral.
It was, paradoxically, a familiar smell. The dense stench of peat and the stink of waterlogged corpses, the bite of brimstone from rage demons clad in molten rock followed it at once. She remembered that fragrance, and the Inquisitor holding a wide-bloomed flower by its stem, hand dripping from the pond where she'd picked it.
"Yes," Josephine said. "A little richer than what I prefer, but one makes do."
"If scented soaps in the Fereldan backlands in the dead of winter are you 'making do', I fear what you could accomplish with effort."
"You see it daily, my lady. But an Antivan always has her ways." As she spoke, Josephine put her soft scribe's fingers in Cassandra's hair and rubbed the soap into her scalp. Bowing her head, Cassandra let her and quite forgot to continue the conversation. Such a simple comfort, a small favour, but it worked a deep sigh free from her chest.
"Water," Josephine warned, then rinsed off the lather. "There, that's done."
Cassandra wiped the water from her eyes. "Thank you. Can I..." Despite her earlier mental dismissal of her present fellows, sharing a bath with other women was not a strange idea. The strict, semi-military life among the Seekers had instilled that in her. Still, she wasn't so certain where Josephine's Antivan upbringing drew the lines.
"Oh no, I'm fine." Josephine dropped her head so that her wet hair hung like a curtain of thick ink. "Though, perhaps, if you'd be so kind as to wash my back?"
This particular line seemed to parallel Cassandra's own. "That I can do."
The torch by the door was low by the time they were finished and drying themselves with the coarse linen cloths provided for bathers. The tallow candle in Cassandra's lantern burned with a tall, spitting flame that marked the final dregs of the wick. Josephine pinned the wrung coil of her hair on top of her head.
"Now all I need to do is sneak into my room without running into any visiting dignitaries, representatives or academic hopefuls. If Lady Bourdon complains about the stairs to her rooms one more time, I'll..."
"Tell her that she may sleep in the lower bailey with the hounds and stable boys if the stairs aren't to her liking?"
Cassandra was gratified for her quip when Josephine couched a clearly traitorous giggle into her palm. "No. I might entertain such a daydream while I find another unlucky servant to climb those stairs for her. As if she couldn't descend for supper on her own."
With some effort, Cassandra shrugged her way into a clean shirt. "I take it there is a point to meeting her demands."
"She might finally provide us with a way to meet with Her Imperial Majesty." Josephine sighed. "I don't wish to think about it now. We're long into the second watch."
Having managed her breeches and tunic, Cassandra left the buckled vest aside as too much trouble and toed her way into her boots. "I agree. It was... a long journey this time."
"Will Serah Tethras regale us with the more exciting parts tomorrow?"
"Does the sun rise in the east?" Cassandra huffed, not unkindly. Josephine sounded genuinely delighted by the prospect of stories. "I will tell you now that while I did stumble into a morass while chasing a walking corpse, it did not take Iron Bull and the Inquisitor to pull me back up."
"I'll take your word." However late the hour, Josephine's laughter had a low, lovely sound. She tucked her dress straight. "Ah. Your lantern's gone out."
"I'll find my way."
"There's ice all over the upper bailey." Josephine shook her head. "I should walk with you. I'm going to the keep in any case."
The night was deep and vaulted with stars, as brilliant as they might only get in winter. Cassandra had thought longingly of her bed more than once today, but the air tasted pure rather than parching cold, and she felt more awake again. They edged their way across the bailey and past the training targets. Josephine held her lantern high, her other hand laid on Cassandra's forearm.
The forge gleamed with the remains of the day's fires. Cassandra had carved herself a living space in the timber loft above when Skyhold had still been a disused, weather-stained mess, and remained there even when quarters opened in the central keep. She was close to the training yard here and could keep an eye on the goings-on in the bailey.
Once on top of the stairs, she borrowed Josephine's lantern to light a few of the old candles on the table. That done, she had light enough to settle by. The trestle table and and the chairs, their backs worn smooth by generations of hands and the occasional application of carpenter's sand. Her bed in the corner beside the chimney jamb, the woollen canopy drawn shut to warm its space.
Home. Such as it was.
"I'll be going then." Josephine smiled a little, as she was wont to, and took up her lantern.
Cassandra started back to the present. "Ah--I was going to--" The walk in the open air had cleared her thoughts, but they went spinning like wind-tossed banners.
She could almost hear Varric's tart tones, "This is why you have no friends, Seeker. No sense of social subtlety." She declared to her subconscious that it could pick someone else to narrate her bouts of self-awareness and grabbed a trailing idea by its end.
"Mull some wine," she said. "We met a merchant in Redcliffe who had a shipment of Nevarran spices. A frivolous use of our travel funds, but..."
"Some things are worth the expense." The lantern clinked against the table as Josephine set it down. "Is this an invitation, Lady Seeker?"
"Yes. It seems to be." Cassandra lifted one of the chairs towards the hearth that opened in the chimney wall. "If you wish."
Gathering her skirts, Josephine took the offered seat. Some rummaging brought up a pot of honey and a Tantervale red of passable vintage in Cassandra's small stores. They spoke of this and that while she bundled her spices in cheesecloth and mixed everything in an iron pot.
The everyday happenings and small absurdities of Skyhold woven into Josephine's words fed the warm, peaceful feeling that had sneaked over her. Far be it from her to shirk her duty when the Inquisitor required her. There was something to be said for returning from that duty.
"Almonds," Josephine said at once after her first sip of the heated wine. Cassandra had poured it into earthenware goblets; Josephine took hers as if it were an Orlesian spun-glass flute. "Dried cherry, and cinnamon. There's something else..."
Cassandra waited, shifting a little in her chair.
"Cardamom? No, too sweet for that. Something that lingers in the mouth."
After another moment, she took pity on Josephine. "An old family secret."
"For the entire Pentaghast clan?"
"No. Only my uncle's wife. I have... few fond memories of her, but she always mixed these spices for the Satinalia wine."
"You have my word as a Montilyet that your secret will be safe."
"Dragonthorn seeds," Cassandra said, glad to be distracted. She did not have much time to dwell on times past. The late hour and the sphere of firelight made her thoughts reach out and sweep across the dustier corners of her mind. "Yes, they are poison until roasted. I don't know that anyone cooks with them outside of Nevarra."
"Marvellous." Josephine laid her goblet on the narrow rim of the mantel. "But I did promise to keep your secret."
"You did." Leaning forward, Cassandra watched the fluttering embers of the fire. "A secret for a secret? Then you can... woo your dignitaries with my aunt's mulled wine. If that is what you were planning."
"Why, my dear lady, I never." The firelight softened Josephine's smile into a mere intimation of amusement, but it echoed in her timbre. "Very well. A secret. My favourite character in any story is Captain Belladonna."
Cassandra stared. "That smuggler of ill repute?"
"She is a swashbuckler," Josephine insisted, her eyes glimmering. "I was in Orlais when the serial was first published. My friends and I would argue over the plot twists for hours."
Afloat on the ease of the moment, she'd forgotten that Cassandra Pentaghast did not in fact know the first thing about Hard in Hightown--and knew even less about the highly suspect sequel.
And then Josephine had stepped right over the awkward pause that should have been there. "I was delighted to meet Serah Tethras in person. Even if he doesn't know the first thing about describing ships."
"He doesn't?" Cassandra managed. "Well, his bar brawls are very authentic."
"I suppose if he were inclined to research, there would be ample opportunity in Skyhold." Josephine hid a yawn behind steepled fingers. "Pardon me."
"It's very late." Slowly Cassandra could feel the wine making her drowsy, weighing her own eyelids. It would be best to let this wave of sleep actually catch her.
Josephine set a hand on Cassandra's own where it rested on her knee. A quiet, steady, eloquent gesture, as so many other things about Josephine were. "Thank you. I hadn't thought my night would take such a turn, but it was a pleasant surprise."
In place of words, taken aback by the candid warmth that rose in her, Cassandra gave her hand a short, close clasp. "Shall I walk you?"
"I'd be delighted, but I might end up inviting you for tea, and neither of us would get any sleep." Josephine rose and gathered her cloak from the back of the chair.
"Then let us not ruin a good conclusion."
Cassandra did walk her as far as the door, where she lingered until Josephine's lantern had climbed the steep stairs to the keep. Blowing on her chilled fingers, she at last shut and bolted the door. The fire had given up its high dancing heat to the stone of the chimney, and it brushed her skin as she undressed enough to burrow under the furs and blankets. Her sword was leaned in the crook of bedpost and sideboard. She touched the hilt as her habitual last reassurance to make sure that the blade was loose in the scabbard. The small nightly shiftings of the building surrounded her, soft, homely sounds.
Then, blowing out her candle, Cassandra curled into the bed and let sleep descend on her at last.